As you may or may not have guessed by now, I have a wide array of sundry random talents. Usually, these are things I have learned for one of several reasons: a) I had to know it for a job at some point (I’ve had a lot of these); b) I was interested in learning it; c) it was involved in a training program/class that I attended; or d) it seemed like a good idea at the time.
My interest in swords, weapons and combat falls into column b and, I can’t be happier to say, is slowly leaking into column a. As I announced earlier this month, I have been given the responsibility of acting as fight director for our production of Magic Time at the theatre.
Magic Time is a play about a summer stock company doing Hamlet. The infamous Hamlet duel is enacted three times during the production. This is exciting to me for several reasons, not the least of which being the duel from Hamlet is one of the most interesting and challenging pieces a fight director can have land on her plate.
Everyone knows that there is a duel in Hamlet. People come to see Hamlet expecting a brilliant display of swordsmanship at the end of the show, resulting in the deaths of the (remaining) main characters. The characters involved in the Hamlet duel are both experienced, trained swordsmen. The duel has got to look good or it betrays audience expectation and the spirit of the production.
Neither of the actors involved in my duel have any background in swordplay, martial arts, or dance. This should be fun.
Luckily, we have some time. The production doesn’t go up until the end of October so, with some diligence, I think I’ll be able to put something together that doesn’t look half bad. That is, of course, if said actors come to me with the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. Inexperience I can handle, lack of hand/eye co-ordination may be a killer (in this instance, quite literally…)
In addition to the physical demands of the Hamlet duel, there are also some textual complications. Here is the text which is spoken during the infamous fight:
Come on sir.
Come on sir. [ They play.]
A hit, a very palpable hit.
Come: Another hit; what say you?
A touch, a touch, I do confesse.
Our Sonne shall win.
Come for the third.
Laertes, you but dally,
I pray you passe with your best violence,
I am affear'd you make a wanton of me.
Say you so? Come on. [ Play.]
Nothing neither way.
Haue at you now.
[In scuffling they change Rapiers.]
Part them, they are incens'd.
Since the pearls and Gertrude’s death are a complication unto themselves (and don’t actually matter for my staging since they’re cut from Magic Time), I have omitted them from this passage. What I am always left wondering is several things:
Laertes is a trained French fencer. He attend academy there. His form should be top-notch. Osrick admits to Hamlet before the duel that Laertes will likely best him. However, we know from this passage that Hamlet is really kicking the snot out of Laertes. Laertes shouldn’t look like a bad fencer, Hamlet just has to be a better fencer. Like trying to have a good singer sing off-key, this is much more challenging than it would seem.
In addition, there are several embedded stage directions in the fight. Hamlet hit Laertes. It is a hit so striking that Osrick famously pronounces it as “a very palpable hit”. However, it is a hit that Laertes at first protests. Is this because Laertes is cheating, or because the hit was subtle enough for him to have missed it despite its pronouncement to the assembly? The second hit Laertes admits to. After a little smack-talk from Hamlet, the scuffle begins again and Osrick pronounces “nothing neither way”. This asserts that, despite aforementioned scuffle containing a close call, neither fencer has actually connected. Then, of course, occurs the famous swap-n-swipe. Hamlet takes possession of Laertes’ poisoned rapier, but not before Laertes manages to wound Hamlet. Hamlet then wounds Laertes. This series of events we are brought into assurance of not only because both Hamlet and Laertes die, but also because of Horatio’s pronouncement several lines later “they bleed on both sides”. Finally, the duelers become frantic enough that the King himself orders they are parted due to being “incens’d”.
Whew. That’s a lot going on in a fight.
Keep in mind as well that most fight directors get a mere few hours with their actors to choreograph this duel. I’m in the fortunate position to have a little more time than that, but I also have a little less experience than some of the real pros out there.
Shakespeare’s actors would have had a very different attitude about onstage violence. The average rehearsal period for a show in Shakespeare’s time was four days. As your mind boggles about that, remember that Shakespeare’s actors were also accomplished fencers. Fencing and dancing, two of the so-called “noble arts”, were high priorities for actors to learn and be proficient at. They are elements frequently used in period shows, and elements that had greater meaning in the late fifteen hundreds than they do today. Rather than being mere leisure activities, they were ways of life. The average man walking down the street likely had a weapon on him and was also likely called upon to use that weapon several times in his life. Remember that dueling (despite being illegal) was non an uncommon way to resolve disputes amongst the middle and noble classes. Indeed, Christopher Marlowe died in a duel. So four day to slap together a sword fight was really no big sweat for an Elizabethan actor.
Despite cultural differences, this does put things in perspective. If they did it in four days, I should be able to whip these guys into shape in six weeks.
First fight call is tomorrow morning. I’ll let you know how it goes.