Five actors from across the pond visit the Cloak Theatre

Jessica Vogt

The Actors from the London Stage graced the stage of the Cloak Theatre this week in performances of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” An audience of Freshman Studies classes, upperclassmen, faculty and general public watched Tuesday evening as the cast of AFTLS gave a sparse but intimate performance of the Shakespearian tragedy.
Throughout the play, the various characters are played by the four actors and one actress, who minimally alter their basic costume or props to indicate what character they are at the moment.
It is interesting to see two different characters in the tragedy portrayed by the same actor; for instance, Anna Northam plays both Gertrude and Ophelia, which occasionally requires some imaginative thinking when they are in the same scene. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern–the comic relief of “Hamlet”–are also played by the same actor, Robert Mountford.
“There were so many options for how I could play them,” said Mountford in the talk back after Tuesday’s performance, including as one character with a split personality or as puppets. “But I finally decided that anything but playing two separate people would be a bit of a gag fest for me,” he added, chuckling. “And the audience wouldn’t get much out of it.”
The challenges of working with such a small cast extend much beyond using the same actor to portray two very different characters. The AFTLS work with few props, no set and no director.
“We work as sort of a benign democracy, or meritocracy, I guess you could call it,” said Richard Stacey, who plays Hamlet, Fortinbras and Barnardo. Each actor initially does his own interpretation of his characters and then the other cast members add their own feelings and thoughts along the way.
“It’s very forensic,” added Terence Wilton, who plays Claudius, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, a grave-digger and several other small characters. “We just sort of dust around all these old words and inevitably something comes up.”
Indeed, with only four and half weeks of rehearsal and constant change of theatrical venue, they are constantly tweaking and reworking their production. Before the Tuesday evening performance the actors spent the afternoon working in the black box space provided by the Cloak Theater, focusing on how to play to the intimacy of the space.
“This space is wonderful compared to all your big theaters that seat some 14,000 people, because you can play with the subtleties a bit more,” commented Northam.
Whispering between scenes and intense facial expression combine with an audience on three sides to make a unique theatre experience for both actors and audience. The last time the AFTLS came to Lawrence was in 2004, when time they performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with also only five actors.
The AFTLS is one of the oldest touring Shakespeare companies. Conceived 30 years ago by Professor Homer Swander of the University of California-Santa Barbara, the company draws actors from such prestigious companies as the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. They began as such a uniquely small company for purely logistical reasons.” Five actors were what they could get into a car with luggage,” said Wilton.
This small cast is also congruent with the small traveling companies of Shakespeare’s day. The minimal props and costumes are true to much of Shakespeare’s vision of a theater practice focused on the text and words.
Much of the acting on stage is not about a specific interpretation, but rather just “seeing how it all turns out,” as Geoffrey Beevers, who plays Polonius, puts it.
“I just do something and let people decide for themselves what it all means,” said Stacey.
“It’s a cycle,” adds Wilton, where actors and audience members are equally a part of the production. “You take from it what you want.