We round off our summer productions with Shakespeare’s Hamlet – but as never before. In Richard Spaul’s hands, the classic play becomes a one-man performance, as he singlehandedly takes us, through the political machinations and emotional turbulence of the Danish court, to the play’s tragic conclusion.

Here, Richard explains how he has developed this new interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.

in situ: and Shakespeare

in situ: has a long relationship with the works of Shakespeare, and you have a long relationship with this play. Tell us more about what draws you back to it.

In 1984, the original company I founded – Cambridge Experimental Theatre – did an extremely radical production of Hamlet, very influenced by Kabuki and other non-Western forms, which we toured in Britain and Europe.

I was then involved with Theatre-in-Education and we worked on the play with all ages from 5 to 18, as part of a fabulous national project called Shakespeare in Schools. This work resulted in the publication Cambridge School Shakespeare, which included many of the creative activities we developed.

Then, in 2016, in situ: created a full-cast production of Hamlet which explored ideas about self and identity in many different ways – and which was much influenced by Butoh, the Japanese modern dance form.

So I’ve lived with the play for nearly 35 years.

In this current production, I’m fascinated by the challenge of performing Hamlet as a solo piece. The title character is often considered one of the supreme theatrical challenges; I fancied the idea of not just doing the character, but performing the whole damn thing on my own.

It’s a bit like climbing Everest – I want to do it because it’s there.  It’s far and away the biggest acting challenge I have ever set myself, but I hope to create something powerful and interesting.

The play is infamous for its length, and the length of the part of Hamlet himself. Yet you’ve chosen to deliver it as a one-man performance! Is there ‘method in your madness’?

I’ve cut the original text by about two-thirds, so it runs at about 90 minutes – which is long enough for a solo. But despite the cuts, I think the audience will feel they are experiencing the whole thing without any obvious gaps. I should add that most productions of Hamlet – even those with more than one actor – cut the text heavily.

What can the concerns of historical Denmark teach us in 21st century Britain?

Shakespeare is often co-opted into making the past seem safe and attractive, all jolly old kings and queens. But the past wasn’t pretty. It was horrific, and Hamlet brings us face-to-face with that.

One of the main themes of the play is how violent, autocratic and dreadful the power systems of the time were. And Hamlet himself, though much loved and admired by actors and audiences, is not the sweet prince of Horatio’s eulogy, but a violent individual who destroys the lives of several people who have done him no harm.

So the short answer to the question of what historical Denmark teaches is that it reminds us of the value of democracy  and human rights  – which are non-existent in many parts of the world today and under threat in others.

The One-Man Show

You’ll clearly be playing several characters here, How are you doing that?

I’m certainly not wearing a lot of different hats and doing different voices! I don’t think that would work or be interesting – people would just think that there weren’t enough actors.

Rather, I’m considering the performance as a ‘dialogue with the dead’, to quote that wonderful anthropologist Piers Vitebsky. The starting point is Hamlet’s early dialogue with his dead father; from then on I’m expanding that idea. I’m exploring the thought that there are many dead people in the play – almost all the characters suffer violent deaths – and these voices of the dead are clamouring to be heard, clamouring to re-enact the tragic process.

In that sense I’m thinking of my role as being less of a traditional actor and more of a channel or a medium. I like the idea that these characters and their voices go through me and are constantly changing. At the same time, the piece needs to work as a solo performance – it’s this I’m wrestling with at the moment.

There’s surely a risk that the simple setting of the Leper Chapel, without traditional proscenium arch staging and a full cast of actors, may fail to keep the audience’s attention on the play. Do you feel there’s a danger of that?

No danger at all. The medieval Leper Chapel is wonderfully atmospheric compared to a traditional theatre. Plus, the performance is in the round with only two rows of seats and an acting area of about three square feet. There are no objects, changes of clothes or anything except the intense human presence of Hamlet and the other ghosts that haunt the text.

As to the number of actors, having several is not in the abstract better than just having one – success always depends on how good the performers are individually and collectively.

Concentration? I’ll be performing within inches of everyone in the audience –  so they will get something very full-on. I think they might find themselves concentrating quite hard!

Do you feel that this production of Hamlet will be very different from those that the audience may have seen before?

What I hope will be unique for the audience is experiencing all the characters, the actions, the voices and the emotions channelled through one performer at point blank range. It’s all really happening right in front of your eyes,

I do believe that there has never been a Hamlet quite like this one.

Richard Spaul as the ghost of Hamlet’s father.