Actor/director Richard Spaul as Hamlet, standing in the Leper Chapel, Cambridge with a chair raised above his head.

“‘Mad’ Hamlet runs verbal riot and starts killing people. Mad Ophelia, horrifically exploited by the political elite, including her father, and very possibly a victim of rape, sings some pretty songs, hands out flowers and decorously drowns herself. It’s intolerable, but what might a performance artist do about it when exploring the material?”

Richard Spaul, in situ: theatre

What does one do with the intolerable? When I attended Richard Spaul’s excellent one-man performance of Hamlet in Cambridge in March, I was witness to his answer to the above conundrum. In the intimate setting of the medieval Leper Chapel, Richard performed Hamlet in the round, encircled within a few feet by an audience of just 24 people.

The setting felt particularly apt, given the chapel’s history of being part of Cambridge’s 12th Century leper hospital. I imagine many of its patients succumbed to madness from time to time within the containment of its walls.

As an audience member, I felt contained and exposed. For the nearly two-hour performance, without interval, the ‘house lights’ were on and there was nowhere to hide. You could run, but at the cost of interrupting the performance. This meant you had to sit with the intolerable. I think that was what Richard chose to do about it as a performance artist. He ensured we felt the madness in the material.

For me, Hamlet, Shakespeare’s story in which a Danish prince feigns madness, after seeing his murdered father’s ghost, to expose his uncle as his killer, has many themes: betrayal, family, incest, tragedy, and death, among them, but in Richard’s performance, it was the madness that stood out.

Actor/director Richard Spaul as Hamlet
Richard Spaul as the ghost of Hamlet’s father

Richard, influenced by the West African religion Vodun’s belief in destructive ghost-possession, creatively gave shape to the themes by embodying the chaos. He ensured each character was identified through changes in voice, body posture, and stage position, from Polonius’ stooped demeaner and steepled hands to the grave digger’s upright, wooden posture and maniacal grin. He also gave Ophelia a welcome voice in which the despair and loneliness in her madness could be shared. But, it was the ghost that Richard called upon throughout the performance to introduce characters or symbolise a death using a long, deep, guttural utterance, that evoked discomfort which was the hardest to bear.

I have seen Hamlet many times, but this performance was the most emotive interpretation of the play I have experienced, because I felt I was living it.

In my view, it is a must-see for any therapist or anyone training or wanting to train. Being an audience member for this production was to test many of one’s skills as a therapist: listening with attention, using a high level of concentration, tolerating discomfort, and sitting with ‘madness’.