"Hamlet" interview with Alexander Vlahos & Scott Handcock

To be, or not to be: that is the question

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Hamlet - Copyright: Big Finish
Alexander Vlahos, Hamlet
© Big Finish

Aug 3, 2017 / Dec 14, 2016 by Nicole Oebel @philomina_
Here's a German translation of the interview.

A piece in three acts on Shakespeare's "Hamlet" from Big Finish. First, actor Alexander Vlahos on his journey with the character of Hamlet. Second, both Alex and director Scott Handcock on their shared process and hopes. And third, Scott on realising this ambitious audio drama.

Order "Hamlet" at Big Finish.

Alex, first of all congratulations on fulfilling one of your dreams! Your career so far shows a remarkable journey from five years of Dorian Gray, that very much reflect the shaping of your craft, to taking on a role like Philippe d'Orléans in "Versailles", the biggest series filmed in Europe. All these challenges you've faced could almost only lead you here, couldn't they, to playing Hamlet who combines all character facets into one. When did you know, now is the time?

That's very kind of you to say. I guess you're right in that certain roles an actor undertakes lead to something, or someone. I feel so lucky that I've been given this opportunity - Hamlet as a character has a huge variety of different facets, each one complex and deeply rooted in human psyche. You do really feel when you immerse yourself in him that you're discovering a very deep psychological view of the world and of yourself as a human being. I've said before that I'm constantly drawn to complex characters - ones that are not only a challenge to play, but ones that allow me to discover something about myself. So in going back to your question, Hamlet felt right at this time in my career because I guess I was looking for that next step, that next leap into the unknown, that fear of failing and Hamlet is that for me. You could say Mordred to Dorian to Philippe were all part of some grand plan - that fate, or something like it lead me here. That's a very optimistic look, even for me as a proud pessimist - but I'll agree just this once.

There have been many interpretations of "Hamlet" both on film and on stage. You have even played opposite a great Hamlet, Sir Kenneth Branagh, in "Macbeth". How do you break away from the portrayals you've seen and find your own approach? A bit like finding a new melody?

I think the first mistake any actor could do would be to TRY and be different, just to prove a point. I in fact immersed myself in every portrayal I could find. I watched films, I listened to audios, and performed in a stage production - which is the best first hand experience you could want - all to fill up my brain. You look for things that work, things that don't, stuff you love & stuff you equally disagree with... And then you try and forget it all. Well, that was my approach. Also, it's a combination of what you bring to the production & what the rest of the cast bring to it, add to that the direction & the version of the script you've decided on - hopefully it all comes together to create the world you perceived. All of those combinations are going to make this version of Hamlet be different from any other, purely based on that alone.

About Philippe d'Orléans you said you admire and share a lot of his character traits. Philippe and Hamlet are both royalty, the impact of their family crises is felt across the nation, but in many ways Hamlet is very different from Philippe. How did you get into his mindset and does he have character traits you admire?

My way in was his grief. His melancholy at the start of the play drew me in, that was the hook. It fascinated me - so I needed to tap into that 'woe' he describes and then allow the rest of the play to inform my decisions. At the start we find an isolated young man, isolated from his Mum, isolated from the court, even isolated from Elsinore... In that respect, Philippe and Hamlet are very similar. Finding yourself not of this world. With Philippe I think he believes he's ahead of his time, with Hamlet the world is moving too fast for him to keep up. He just wants to mourn & can't fathom why the rest of the world aren't doing the same.

As for traits, I do admire his drive, determination. The minute the Ghost appears and tells him of the treachery, he suddenly has a purpose: revenge. It was so interesting to allow myself that thought & almost give myself permission to do it. He has to grow up during the play... become a man. In my own life, I'm currently coming to terms with the idea of what that entails, what being a man is. Responsibility. Consequences. Maturity.

An audio production requires a very raw form of acting, doesn't it, as you leave the visuals purely to the imagination of the listener. With that in mind, how did you tackle Hamlet's huge soliloquies, especially given the famousness of lines like "To be or not to be, that is the question"?

Well without giving too much away, myself & Scott decided to use the audio medium to its full capacity. Using the microphone to lure the listeners in. If this was a staged production, I could never whisper any one of his soliloquies - as the audience sat in the Upper Circle wouldn't be able to hear, or at least experience any nuances. What we, hopefully, have achieved with this version is by using that available space between the actor and the listener, we can draw you in or push you away. The final effect is very raw, but also deeply exciting.

On the first day of recording you shared on Twitter you were nervous. Was there a moment when you looked up from inside your recording booth and realised you had just returned from Elsinore and the jitters were gone?

Haha! Never! The jitters stayed with me over each day of recording... it never got easier. On the first day of recording, there was a specific moment I looked up to see Scott through the booth and had a moment of utter dread. I felt I was in way over my head, completely terrified - to the point where I started questioning any reasoning. Which as you can imagine is neither good or productive. I got myself out of it and came back the next day even more prepared. It was the only way I could tackle the fear. Of course your own insecurities are only visible to yourself, so it was more a mental panic. I never underestimated the part, I knew what I was getting myself in for - but it fully dawned on me that's what Shakespeare is great at doing - allowing actors to confront their challenges head on.

Foto: Alexander Vlahos, Hamlet - Copyright: Big Finish
Alexander Vlahos, Hamlet
© Big Finish

In TV, Alex is used to adapting to a new director for almost every episode. You two have been working together for years, bouncing ideas off each other, creating things as a team. So how did working on "Hamlet" go? Both familiar territory and new?

Alex: I hope I'm not too wrong in saying this but I guess I was the most familiar with it, over Scott. Scott is a phenomenal director who I trust implicitly, and I could never have imagined doing this with anyone else at the helm - but usually, say with Confessions, Scott is the most prepared & familiar... for once there was a slight imbalance. But it only meant we helped each other out a lot more. I believe we honed our craft together on this, more so than on the Dorians. It was both a leap into the unknown and working with our usual trust. Quite a peculiar but rewarding combination.

Scott: For me, I was far from comfortable. I was really, really nervous about the idea. I mean, obviously I was excited about it too - it's great to have a challenge - but it is pretty much the most important text in literature. I'd be mad not to feel the weight of responsibility!

Thankfully, Alex sensed that, and was able to talk me round. He recommended a few books and sources for me to investigate, he shared ideas from stage productions he'd been involved in, and we chatted at length in the run-up to the recording to thrash out ideas and make sure we were on the same page. I remember, the night before our first recording day, we met up at my hotel and went through the entire play, page by page, discussing every aspect of the play. We spent around four hours!

But yes, whilst it was all-new territory in one sense, the dynamic was very familiar. I'm not sure I'd have felt so confident with a different leading man. After so many years, Alex and I have developed a shorthand. His agent told me we were completing each other's sentences. But that's great, in a way. It genuinely feels like this is our version of Hamlet, rather than just his or mine…

What we know so far is Alex's belief that Hamlet should be played young. Also there's the promotional photo that has a very dark and intimate feel, almost unsettlingly intimate, like Hamlet's soul is bare to us. Is this a hint maybe to your overall approach?

Alex: You could read it as a hint. I do know that when I sat down with Scott almost two years ago with the idea to tackle this behemoth of a play, I knew together our version would be more akin to the human aspect of the play. This version is a very stripped back, instinctual production. It most certainly is intimate and the rest of the cast add a very real, deep rooted earthy quality that was purposeful. This isn't a glamorous approach, but an Elsinore full of cobwebs and grit. The promotional images I hope reflect that.

Scott: I think audio is perhaps the most intimate medium there is. People tend to listen to audio drama alone and, unlike reading, there's still a level of control over the performances and sound design that allow the production to influence the listener's imagination. It's why people say Shakespeare needs to be heard rather than read. You get a lot more from a performance on audio than you might elsewhere.

So yes, my plan was always to exploit the medium to its fullest. We have the freedom to really bring the performances down, and even drop it to a whisper on occasion. You'd struggle to do that on stage, you might choose to do it on film, but listening to a voice through headphones is a unique experience, and we've certainly tried to tailor the performances to draw the listener in and keep them engaged throughout the play.

Big Finish breaks new grounds with your projects like "Confessions" and now Shakespeare and I see a huge amount of trust among the listeners; Big Finish fans, Versailles fans, Dorian fans. What are you most excited about for all these different fans to find?

Alex: That our Hamlet opens up the world to people who may not have wanted to visit. New listeners, old listeners - I hope they approve of what we're trying to achieve. The cast tackles the text with such bravery, I'm excited for them to hear that.

Scott: Honestly? I love the idea that everyone will find something different. Doing Hamlet was an absolutely massive learning curve for me - both professionally, but also personally. Whilst I had a great deal of respect for Shakespeare before, I've always felt somehow disconnected from him. This project's given me a colossal appreciation for his words and craft, and I'm now less apprehensive about his work and how to approach it.

Also, not everybody's lucky enough to be able to go to the theatre and see a production of Hamlet live on stage, so this will hopefully enable an audience to experience Shakespeare who otherwise might not have the opportunity.

Foto: Scott Handcock, Alexander Vlahos, Hamlet - Copyright: Big Finish
Scott Handcock, Alexander Vlahos, Hamlet
© Big Finish

Scott, in modern terms "Hamlet" would be a thriller, wouldn't it, a mystery thriller even. It has a ghost, revenge, star-crossed lovers, murder, madness and political conflicts. And resists definitive interpretation. Did you look to lay focus on certain plotlines and did your own interpretation of the story sneak through?

It's an odd one, certainly. Definitely a psychological thriller on so many levels, but also, as you say, it doesn't pigeonhole itself by sticking to a single genre. There's the Ghost's visitation in the opening act, which is almost like a scene from a horror story; Hamlet's descent into madness is potentially entirely imagined, depending on whether you choose to believe he's actually mad (we chose to focus instead on the grief that drives him on); and the whole play revels in a world of mass duplicity, in both senses of the word, encompassing parallels and deceit at every turn. No wonder, then, that there have been so very many productions of Hamlet - there must be hundreds upon hundreds of different interpretations! For Alex and I, it's a story of doubt and grief. Nothing in Hamlet's world is entirely certain…

Your "Hamlet" is going to be a three hour production that means there is a bit of editing. Does this have an effect on the character development of Hamlet? He mourns, he loves, he kills, he "must be cruel only to be kind". Is he a character you actually like?

Actually, although the original text has been edited for this audio version, we were very lucky to secure the services of Justin Richards. Justin's not only a brilliant writer in his own right, but also a bit of an expert when it comes to Shakespeare, so he had a very good sense of where trims could be made to drive the story on without losing significant character developments, or to avoid repetition of exposition and other inconsistencies.

One of the most interesting things about Hamlet is the realisation that it was almost certainly never performed in its entirety during Shakespeare's lifetime. Theatre at the time was a far more slapdash, crowd-pleasing affair, so although Shakespeare wrote all the words we now know as Hamlet, different companies might have dropped a variety of scenes depending on the audience they were playing to, how much time they had, and all manner of other factors. It was only after Shakespeare's death that the definitive text was constructed by his players, so in a sense, it's always been edited!

So yes, the characters' journeys are still in tact, and the spine around which everything else is built. As for the character of Hamlet, there's a reason it's called a Tragedy. He's an utterly tragic character. He doesn't even make the wrong choices - not directly - rather his indecision and self-doubt lead him down a path where he makes mistakes and triggers a domino effect of destruction. Events get out of hand very quickly. So you certainly feel sympathy for him, but whether you actually like him? I'm not entirely sure… He's like those friends who can't make a decision over where to meet, or what film to see. After a while, you just lose patience and want a decision! Hamlet's infuriating because you're on his side, but he doesn't have the confidence in himself that others might do.

For the cast you chose many who have worked with you on "Confessions" - Dan Brocklebank as Horatio, James and Dorian had a grippingly intimate dynamic, and Deirdre Mullins as Ophelia, who Hamlet takes advantage of like Dorian took of Scarlet - just as two examples. How did that shape your "Hamlet" production?

I never really considered the parallels between the characters in Hamlet and the actors' previous roles in Confessions! I suppose there are certain similarities - but then, there will always be certain character types in drama. When it came to casting Hamlet, I just wanted bloody good people. Actors I knew I could trust and who I enjoyed working with, because it's a demanding piece of work to undertake, and Big Finish schedules are punishing enough at the best of times! So you want people around you who you know will have fun whilst taking it seriously, and at the same time are just damn lovely to have around!

There's no denying it: Shakespeare's a daunting prospect at the best of times - Hamlet, even more so - but everybody rose to the challenge and was excited to be involved. They're all experienced Shakespearian actors too, of course. It sounds obvious, but if you're tackling something like Hamlet, you want people who won't be intimidated by the language, and that wasn't the case here at all. Daniel Brocklebank, for instance, did years at the RSC, and Shakespeare in Love; Miles Richardson was pretty much born into it, following in his father's footsteps; Samuel Barnett's even played a few of Shakespeare's female roles on stage… so we ended up with a cast of a) strong audio actors b) strong Shakespeare actors and c) adorable personalities. We were very, very lucky!

In technical preparations for the line readings, how did you deal with words in Shakespeare language most listeners may not be familiar with, these moments when in a play the actors could emphasize visually?

Honestly? I've always been terrified of Shakespeare. When Alex first approached me with the idea of doing it, I needed quite a bit of convincing. This was way out of my comfort zone, and so I spent weeks, day in, day out, studying the text as thoroughly as I could. As with any script, the director needs to be on hand to answer any questions an actor may have, so I knew I needed to be ultra-familiar with the text in intricate detail. I couldn't just rely on an overall sense of what was going on in the scene…

What really helped me, more than anything else, was a brilliant book called Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal. We actually had him in for the final series of Dorian, and he mentioned he'd written it, so naturally I had to pick up a copy. And it's a joy! It really helps you ‘crack the code' of appreciating Shakespeare, and overcoming the obstacles that you might have imagined would keep you at a distance.

On a basic level, it provides context to the world in which Shakespeare would have been writing, and his plays were performed in. You remember, actually, that a stage was simply that. They didn't have huge budgets, or props, or CGI - so the events and story would have been communicated entirely through the language. In that most basic sense, it's an audio drama, so translating it to the medium wasn't overly complicated. I just had to ensure I understood every line!

The meter wasn't much of an issue either, as it follows the form of a lot of the Greek tragedies, which was my subject of choice at university. Applying those rules to Shakespeare was surprisingly easy! Ben's book also had a really lovely line about being respectful to the text without being antique. Shakespeare's plays were designed to be heard and to entertain. So yes, whilst we took the project extremely seriously, my main concern, first and foremost, was to make it work for the listener. It's a very Big Finish production, in that sense. We keep the drama moving…

You've done "Doctor Who", Classic Horror, created your own original series "The Confessions of Dorian Gray", now there's Shakespeare. What is your next dream project?

For Big Finish, I'd love to do the Greek tragedies in the style of their original performance: three male actors playing all the parts, with a mixed chorus chipping in as appropriate. Stylistically, I think that could be fascinating! More widely, who knows? I count myself very lucky to work on a variety of projects across the board. One minute I'm in a Big Finish studio, the next I'm writing some stories for Penguin, then I'm in the Sherlock production office, before teaching radio drama to students at the RWCMD… I love that. I'd hate to lock myself down to any one field. So that would probably be my dream: to just keep on doing all sorts of things!

Order "Hamlet" at Big Finish.

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