Hamlet gets up close and personal in new production

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One of Shakespeare’s most enduring works, Hamlet gets up close and personal in the Honest Fishmongers Equity Co-op presentation at the Havana Theatre from November 17 through December 11, 2010.  Christopher David Gauthier talks about the show and his role as costume designer.

Christopher David GauthierTell us about this version of Hamlet – it is billed as “a chilling and innovative approach to one of the world’s greatest tragedies”. What makes it so chilling and innovative?

This is a better one for the director but … Kevin Bennett (the director) get’s us in really close, literally and figuratively. You won’t have to guess how characters are feeling, you’ll see it, hear it in their breathing. In a very real sense the audience becomes a sounding board for the characters. “To be or…” takes on new meaning asked that close. Bringing the audience literally inside as Kevin and set designer Jennifer Stewart do is thrilling, the walls surround the audience. And one great example of chilling, Benjamin Elliot’s music for Ophelia sung by the wonderful Julie McIssac (Ophelia) had my hair standing on end as I wept. Sad, and terrifying, and yet simply gorgeous.  To see how quickly the “good family”, as one might term Polonius and his children, are destroyed when you want to reach out and stop it, is chilling.

Why Hamlet?

I sit and watch these actors and Kevin bring their interpretations to this play and they answer this one for me. Two examples: Polonius and Hamlet. I have seen this play many times and never imagined Polonius like this, stern and terrifying. I mean Polonius terrifying? Isn’t he the gasbag you laugh at in high school when reading this? Simon Webb is a marvel, he plays this wonderful father who obviously loves his children, king in his own “castle” – we’re talking absolute ruler here, and yet he will have you in tears of laughter, marvelous. And Rhys Finnick, well I’m a great fan of his. And it’s a huge undertaking to essay the role of Hamlet, but I love his approach. It’s so loaded talking about the character, but he demystifies him a bit for me, in a good way. If you’ve ever been someone who says “I don’t get Hamlet.” Well you might get this one. He’s fresh, and fun, and a bit irreverent. Rhys doesn’t seem to be daunted by the role, he just trying to be honest, and I love that. And of course Hamlet is great fun; murder, ghosts, madness, plots, poison and funny gravediggers. What’s not to like?

Why does Hamlet endure as one of Shakespeare’s most popular works?

Glib answer? It’s about the only family that is consistently more dysfunctional than your own. But seriously that’s also true. I mean at heart it’s about two families really, the Hamlets and the Polonius’s. Think about Ophelia. Her “boyfriend” rebuffs her and kills her father (because his uncle murdered his father…), and she loses it. It sounds trite the way I’ve said it, but if the family dynamic is right in the production it’s heartrendingly sad. And then her brother, Laertes,  watches her “madness”. I mean can you imagine being the brother? I can. Shakespeare can grab you like that. And in the same play you have some of the most terrific comedy. I mean … zounds, that’s theatre!

You are working as costume designer – how different is it to design for Shakespeare than any other playwright – or is there?

Well, you often deal in Shakespeare with Kings and Queens, so there’s that, but of course Shakespeare’s genius is in showing us how much we are like them and vice versa.  One can be a bit “bigger” in look, but really the process is the same. Often budget and time dictate that even though months pass in the play many characters don’t really change clothing, it’s a theatrical conceit, and with a smallish cast playing many roles you need to help the audience so they know this is a different character from that. So you need a look for each.

What’s your process like? How much input does the director provide into the costumes?

Director input, what’s that? Seriously though I want lots. And trust, on both sides, makes for a really exciting working situation. It’s what I love.  Take this production, Kevin and I met and he talked to me about his views,  what he felt, what he would stress in the play. Even a bit about look. We then came up with a basic idea after I had gone away for a bit and looked for images that spoke to me. There was this blurry photo I found from a fashion show, in which a man’s jacket had the sleeves rolled and the model had snug pants. It looked a bit like that classic tights and jerkin look old Shakespeare productions have. That became our base. Kevin wanted something contemporary in a way – recognizable to us but not necessarily our world, think parallel universe but not in a Sci-Fi sense. And the culture in Hamlet is military, it’s in the dialogue, the back story, Fortenbras, etc., as well as royal, so that became important. Then there are concepts we had but discarded, and others like “masks” that became imbedded in the design in odd ways. Each step of the way I need to know that we are moving toward his vision, which becomes “our vision”, because of course his vision changes or better it grows when given visual language – the best directors are actually very flexible, they bend without breaking, staying true to the core. Kevin is like that, very focused, but he wants input, needs it, and then he uses it.  And amazingly generous, and respectful.  He’s now going to step in to fill some roles due to illness and he asked me how he should do his hair! I love that.

What’s the toughest part in being a costume designer?

Budget! Without question. Getting what you want as a look for what you have. Or maybe I should say compromise. Knowing when to say this is worth the money, but not that. And on our tiny budget the generosity of places like Bard on the Beach, Arts Club, Studio 58, Carousel Theatre is invaluable – they are so amazing to the little guys, but if there is no arts funding they won’t always be able to be! When I go hunting for items you have to look at things sort of sideways – could that be a characters coat? How would this and that look together? Maybe ski pants?

Where did the interest to become a set and costume designer come from?

My parents. They always felt it was important to show me the world, art was a huge part of that. I always had a very active imagination – I once many years ago ruined several of my mothers best scarves pinning them to the arms of my sister, myself, friends for a play we created called “The birds of paradise.” Sorry mom!

Do you have a preference – set design or costume design?

Honestly whichever one I’m doing at the time is my favourite. In the abstract before I’ve said set, but I discover that that’s not really true. Both are world creating, and collaborative, that’s what I love. Because it’s not really even people versus places, because people inhabit places, both are very intimate and public in interesting ways. Is it more intimate to chose the bed or the nightclothes?

A number of the people involved in this production have or are part of Studio 58 – was this intentional? Is there a comfort level in working with the people you went to school with?

Yes it’s certainly comfortable. Kevin, Jenn Stewart and I had design classes together, Benjamin Elliott and I auditioned for Studio 58 together and Joy Castro is a grad, so there is a shorthand. But the community is not huge so it’s likely, especially as a designer, that I would be aware of or know personally some of the actors as well. It’s another thing I love about the business, I’ve known a few people at least on everything I’ve worked on so far.

What’s next for Christopher?

I’m designing costumes for Carousel Theatre’s Munscha Mia at the Waterfront Theatre from March 5-27, 2011 starring Benjamin Elliott (among others).  I’m writing a play about… ‘nuff said! You’ll have to wait.

Havana Theatre
17 November – 11 December 2010

Boasting a chilling and innovative approach to one of the world’s greatest this emerging director draws from classical and modern influences to create something new for today’s audiences. Featuring some of Vancouver’s most interesting theatrical players, “HAMLET” will shake you to your core, leaving you with the eternal question: To be or not to be?  Tickets are $15 available at Tickets Tonight or by calling 604.684.2787.

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