Preview: ETG 2016: Hamlet

Gemma Sheehan 16 January 2017

Ahead of their tour of Hamlet coming to the ADC on Tuesday, I sat down with Director Emma Blacklay-Piech and Business Manager Vanessa Upton to discuss the logistics of such an ambitious project, and how a wider idea of audience can be a benefit for getting the most out of Shakespeare.

“It’s a bit weird taking the show back to Cambridge,” Emma admits. Her vision of Hamlet has been designed specifically for tour, but the scope for innovation such a project enables seems to have lead to some interesting decisions. This production stands out due to its setting, a “really claustrophobic” war boat that emphasises the military aspect of the play whilst also playing on Hamlet’s mutiny against the state, and the consequences of his actions in putting a whole country in jeopardy.

Yet taking this vision to different countries is no mean feat – the struggle to fit a huge mast into a tour bus already filled with lighting and power equipment is just one of the many challenges the team has faced. “Theo Haymann (the technical director) was amazing,” says Emma. “I’d never done a tour before … the technical aspect of it changed every time, and everyone was integral in keeping the show together. Some aspects of Hamlet are incredibly tech heavy – the ghost appears three times. We didn’t have space for smoke machines so finding creative ways around that was a fun aspect.”

The European Theatre Group has existed since 1957, and has always had innovation as one of its top priorities.  Emma has followed in this vein, explaining her desire to illuminate some of the key relationships in Hamlet that are overshadowed – Ophelia and her brother, for one – in a play with “some of Shakespeare’s most iconic and interesting” characters. To do so, they’ve incorporated a host of songs into the production, taking their composer (Toby Marlow) on tour with them. “Music is so evocative – people understood the dynamics of characters a lot easier, and it provided a nice break from the verse”, Emma explains. Vanessa highlights the difference in target audience, 16-18 year olds from Europe whose first language isn’t English. This meant most didn’t know the plot of Hamlet, giving it the feel of “a genuine Shakespeare audience”.

All this combines to make a refreshingly different take. “We weren’t scared to be experimental,” says Emma. “We wanted to make it accessible and fun for people that haven’t really got into Shakespeare before.” Many of the actors in Hamlet have a comedy background, with Hamlet himself (Sam Knights) coming from the Footlights. “It worked really well for the kids”, Vanessa explains.  

One key benefit of touring is a longer run date, which often makes for a more polished Cambridge show. “Actors would try stuff out for certain shows. I could see the slightest nuance they changed, could discuss its effectiveness, and we were able to treat it as an experimental process,” explains Emma. This is perhaps where the production sees its most marked difference – “I’m not a director, I just really love this play,” she states. “We’re just a group of creatives trying to put this show together, and that was a really interesting perspective”. 

If you fancy seeing something sure to be very special, ETG’s Hamlet plays at the ADC from Tuesday 17– Saturday 21 January, at 7.45pm