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Hamlets’ Antic Disposition: Exploring Hamlet Through a Bi-Polar Lens| Shakespeare in Toronto

By November 9, 2018 No Comments

I am consistently blown away by the artistry, depth, and the nuanced and timely social commentary that the artists that perform and stage Shakespeare’s plays in this city deliver. From adaptations that deal with issues of gender, sexuality, and politics, the artists that make up this community continually challenge themselves and their audiences to think differently. However, Skipping Stones Theatre Collective is taking this social commentary to a new height by staging a production of Hamlet that explores Hamlet’s conflicted mind through the lens of bipolar disorder. Two actors will play Hamlet, Kate McArthur, and Tristan Claxton, and will stage Hamlet’s soliloquies as conversations. The artists will be drawing on their own experiences of mental illness, particularly Kate who was diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder last year and said that exploring Hamlet’s soliloquies as dialogue resonated with her experiences. The level of vulnerability and strength it must take for these artists to explore their own mental health and delve into Hamlet’s mind is astounding to me. They are joined by Breanna Maloney who plays a re-imagined and invigorated Ophelia and are directed by Sean O’Brien. I had the honour of chatting with them about the production, here is what they had to say.
I spoke first with Sean O’Brien, the director of this production:

Why have you decided to ‘drag Elsinore into the 21st century?’ What is present in the play that you feel speaks to our current society?

I think the thing that is most topical in the play’s content is the presence of a surveillance state. It’s no secret that our world has less privacy than ever before, yet there have been political waves in history where the state has behaved unusually intrusively. Shakespeare was living through one such period of time when he wrote Hamlet, as an aging Elizabeth gripped tightly to power amid the circling of political vultures.
Denmark in this play is a similarly paranoid place and is often referred to as such. “Denmark is a prison,” “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” An abundance of enemies without having amplified the fear of enemies within.
Lastly, our mental health focus was easier to communicate in a world that looks like our own. Hamlet is mad and melancholy in the time he lives in, but now we recognize symptoms of a mixed bipolar state. As our modern conversation about mental health evolves, audiences are primed to see these signs even if they’re not spelled out, yet seeing a character with mental illness in an earlier time period doesn’t quite seem to speak as clearly.

Why have you decided to focus on the mental health aspects of Hamlet’s character?

Our company has always taken a mental health focus with our work. It’s a topic that we are each fascinated with and affected by. When choosing to take on Hamlet, we knew early on that we’d have to examine the play through that lens. This need only became more urgent when one of our company artists was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Why have you chosen to cast two Hamlet’s? And why a female and male identifying Hamlet?

We had two actors I both really wanted to direct as the character, and we had a concept that focused on the character’s bipolar illness. It wasn’t a terrible logical stretch to arrive at the idea of splitting the character.
I also as a director and actor have found the idea of speaking to the audience in a soliloquy to be frustrating at times. Even major productions of Hamlet often struggle to make the speeches to the audience compelling. They’re too buried in mythos and cultural baggage to function as intended anymore.
So the idea came about to make the speeches into dialogues. Two sides of the character attempting to solve a problem. Our first play, 4.48 Psychosis, revolved around a similar conceit of mental illness and splitting the self between multiple actors.

Since our version of the play takes place in the modern world, Ophelia’s traditional portrayal of innocence lost is still valid, but less accessible. The original play, for example, never shows what’s lost when their relationship comes to a brutal end. Their only scene together is when they break up, the rest of the relationship is simply described. We have added agency to Ophelia through her efforts early on to address Hamlet’s mental health crisis. We also added a soliloquy where she grapples with the choice of revealing Hamlet’s behavior, despite vowing to keep it secret.

What are you most excited about for this production?

There are key scenes that are exceeding my hopes and expectations, where the actors take the text as fuel for explosive, beautiful, terrifying moments. Just wait to see what we did with those soliloquies.

What are you most nervous about?

Nailing a tough scene sometimes feels like catching lightning in a bottle. I hope every audience gets to see what I’ve seen when we’re at our best.

What do you want audiences to know before coming to see the show?

Don’t worry, we’ve drilled that sword fight so nobody watching gets thwacked!

Next, I spoke with Breanna who plays Ophelia:

Do you see yourself in Ophelia? How do her experiences resonate with your experiences?

I absolutely see myself in Ophelia. This is a young woman who loves BIG and wants to do right by the people who she cares for. She goes through two major losses back to back. This is an incredibly difficult thing to endure for anyone of any age. We all experience these events in our own time, and yet each experience is unique to each individual. I think what makes Ophelia’s circumstance especially difficult is that she too is under a sort of surveillance, and yet she has been emotionally isolated. This complicated duality is something that resonates with me.

What are you most excited about for this production?

I am excited for all that is to be discovered between all of us ensemble members. We have taken liberties with the text and the characters and I look forward to continuing to play within the realm of the story we are exploring.

What are you most nervous about?

This is the most commonly performed play and most famous play ever written. I would like to do it justice…and then some.

What do you want audiences to know before coming to see the show?

Our production focuses on characters who are dealing with their own various degrees of antic disposition. We are telling this story through the lens of someone who is experiencing their own battle with mental health. I’m not sure if there is anything I want them to know ahead of time…but I invite audiences to ask questions and/or express any ideas or thoughts that come up during or after this piece.
5. How has it been working with Skipping Stones?
This is the third show that I have co-produced and acted in with Skipping Stones. We are a young indie collective and I honestly feel consistently supported and artistically challenged by everyone that I’ve had the pleasure to work with. We are big believers in collaboration and we are big believers in approaching our rehearsal process with lightness and playfulness. I think we have maintained this respectfully while approaching a play that focuses on some very heavy subject matter.

And finally, I chatted with Tristan and Kate who both play Hamlet:

Do you see yourself in Hamlet? How do his experiences resonate with your experiences of mental health?

Of course, I think there are very few who don’t see some aspect of themselves in Hamlet. I’m fascinated with his duality. I find myself constantly living in a battle of opposing forces. Especially in this social media obsessed world, I find myself constantly trying to present an idealistic version of myself while at the same time fending off the (I hope) very human feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and personal worth that many of us grapple with each day. Hamlet’s struggle to find self-actualization in a world where no one – including himself – is what they seem really resonates with me. Where doubt and suspicion is cast on every action and thought. Where every act of love is clouded with hate, and where even his own thoughts live in opposition.

What are you most excited about for this production?

I’m so excited to offer an audience a new way to experience this story. Hearing Hamlet’s thoughts in dialogue opens up questions of his motivations and, at times, lack thereof. I’m excited to see how embodying his mania and duality will make him a more or less sympathetic protagonist to some audience members.

What are you most nervous about?

Playing Hamlet…

Why have you decided to ‘drag Elsinore into the 21st century?’ What is present in the play that you feel speaks to our current society?

I think that our current society really lends itself to the isolation, paranoia, and surveillance that is in this show. In a time where we post more pictures in a day than conversations that we have, I think a modern context lends itself to Hamlet’s sensation of feeling totally alone while standing in a crowded room.

Why have you decided to focus on the mental health aspects of Hamlet’s character?

Our company has a mandate to look at productions through the lens of mental health. It informs the productions that we choose or the way we approach a show.

Do you see yourself in Hamlet? How do his experiences resonate with your experiences of mental health?

As much as I hate to admit it, yes. (What a Hamlet answer.) I’ve always felt a connection with the character from the first time I saw the play when I was 12. I was properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder 1 last year, after well over a decade of trying to manage my mental health. The play takes place during a time of transition, after a great loss for Hamlet, and these kinds of major changes would affect anyone, but there is a feeling of him being “at the mercy of his moods” that, to me, screams a “bipolar person in crisis”.

Why have you chosen to cast two Hamlet’s? And why a female and male identifying Hamlet?

The casting of two Hamlets comes from wanting to explore a physical manifestation of bipolar disorder. Sean had mentioned that he was interested in looking at the dramatic potential of the soliloquies as dialogues and I explained that that resonated with how I feel trying to negotiate with my moods. But most people have that voice of internal conflict in their heads, I think. We wanted to explore the contrast between inner life and external performance, the conflict of being in a “mixed episode” (experiencing the symptoms of both mania and depression simultaneously or in rapid sequence), and what happens when the illness is leading.
We are gender conscious in the casting and performing of our show, but it is not the main focus of our exploration. Our Hamlet does identify as a male, but I believe that humans are a combination of masculine and feminine. That being said, there is a lot of text feminizing grief. And as a female, I have found it equally terrifying and freeing to investigate a lot of the darker aspects of this show. We’ve been socialized that there are few “appropriate” spaces for female anger just like there are few “appropriate” spaces for male grief. This is changing, but it is still in our media, literature, subconscious.

How is your adaptation’s interpretation of Ophelia different than the original text? Why did you decide to do this?

We have added and inverted some text, specifically during the first two acts, that give Ophelia more of a hands-on involvement with Hamlet’s wellbeing. We really wanted to be able to highlight the perspective of the partner of someone in crisis.

What do you want audiences to know before coming to see the show?

We debated calling our production “Not Hamlet” for a little while. I thought it was funny, but apparently, it was just me. I kept talking to friends about Hamlet and saying “Yes, but it’s not Hamlet.” Yes, we are using most of the text and most of the story, but we are using a very specific lens.

Thank you all for your contributions.
Don’t miss what is sure to be a nuanced and timely exploration of mental illness using Shakespeare’s most famous text as a touchstone.

Hamlet(s) runs at the b current Studio Theatre (#251-601 Christie St, Toronto ON) on November 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24 with a 7:30pm curtain.
Check out for tickets

Author Tori Carlisle

Toronto Regional Editor. Tori is a passionate high school English teacher based in Toronto. She holds a BA from the University of Toronto in English, History, and Renaissance and Reformation Studies, an MA in English Literature from York University, and a Masters of Teaching from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is a lover of all things Shakespeare and cats!

More posts by Tori Carlisle

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