When Holy City Shakespeare began rehearsals for its upcoming production of Hamlet, one of the first things director Laura Rose asked her Hamlet, Craig Trow, to do was a kind of musical experiment. "Make me a Hamlet playlist," she said. This was not one of those team-building playlists to blare in the theater during warm-ups. This was to figure out who this Hamlet was. "It was such a great way to get inside [Trow's] head," Rose says. When he brought it to her, there were songs from the Nine Inch Nails, fun., and the Jam, among others. "We experience so much of our lives through music. It was a really great exercise."
This kind of creative character work is typical of HCS, an ambitious theater and education troupe dedicated to reviving Shakespeare in Charleston. Rose, who is currently pursuing her Ph.D. with the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, founded and directs the company. For Hamlet, she's joined by Chicago-based actor and director Chris Marino, who will co-direct the production. Both Rose and Marino are trained Shakespearean actors and directors, and have worked tirelessly to find a core ensemble of actors who are as committed to performing Shakespeare as they are. HCS performed its first play, Much Ado About Nothing, last February, and will perform Hamlet, its second production, for three weekends in April in the intimate Gage Hall.
It's a major undertaking, to say the least. "I don't think anyone's ever really ready for Hamlet," Rose says. "Rather than a mountain to be climbed, we see this as more of a doorway. It's an invitation to ourselves to learn more about Shakespeare performance and to see what moments of beauty we uncover." It doesn't hurt that it's also her absolute favorite Shakespeare play. "It's such a feeling play," she says. "It's got a lot of heart."
Rose and the HCS crew have been working hard to communicate the story's intense passion and drama through their adaptation. Rose adapted the play herself, drawing on her years of study and deep familiarity with the text to decide which scenes to cut from Hamlet, which is, unabridged, a four hour performance.
She's also placed it in modern times, with the music, clothing, and technology to match. The power-hungry Claudius and his cronies wear power suits, and Ophelia is given a hippie, earth-mother spin. As for Hamlet, we know in the play that he's spent years in Wittenberg, which in Shakespeare's time was the seat of subversive intellectualism. In HCS's promo photos, he's wearing a black hoodie and spray painting graffiti on political posters of his evil uncle Claudius. He's the same rebel that Shakespeare created during the Renaissance — he's just been translated into 2013.
Balancing this translation with the original is the great challenge of working with Shakespeare, Rose says. "It has to be an experience you recognize, but it must retain the magic of those words." In other words, you'll never find Rose telling her actors to insert an "umm" or a "hey" to make the language sound more 21st century.
One thing audience members may notice about HCS's Hamlet is the abundance of technology. When Rose was adapting the play and imagining what it would look like, she kept seeing cinematic images. "I had these very filmic images," she says. "Lots of cut-tos and action under music. We were bringing in so much tech that I had to think, where does it come into [the characters'] lives? The same places it does ours."
So just as you wouldn't catch a president today without his smartphone, you probably won't catch King Claudius without his. "I hope the audience sees that this is not a gimmick we've layered onto Hamlet," Rose says. Instead, it's an integral part of understanding the story and its characters.
Shortly after Hamlet closes, Rose will be on her way to England for the summer to continue her studies, so it will be some time before the company performs another play. Plans for next season include more educational outreach for both children and adults, perhaps even including some performance classes. HCS's ensemble will continue to train and hone their technique with experts from the Shakespearean acting world. Because HCS is, financially speaking, a volunteer company, everyone balances the work of studying Shakespeare with a full-time job.
But these are a dedicated group of actors, and they won't rest until Shakespearen theater is alive and thriving in the Holy City. "Shakespeare is a man for all ages," Rose says. "Our task is to find out what he is for our age."