The night is dewy and cool. A wet breeze tangles my 23-year old locks into temporary white girl-dreads, foreshadowing my role as a dreadlocked, contemporary version of Sophocles’ Electra later that year.
The courtyard is silent, the students of the British American Drama Academy having ventured out into the Oxford evening to mingle with all the other tourists.
African, Chinese, Norwegian shoppers buzz outside the walls of the ancient university, whose ghosts pace the cobbled pavements in anticipation of our scene.
My partner is barely visible in the inky blackness. I’ve lost him.
My instinct is to scan the bushes, search the garden frantically. As fear wells up, I stop myself, and allow the discomfort to linger, to feed the scene.
We have chosen to play outside tonight, letting the environment feed us, effect us, give us fresh insight into the 400-year old text.
I imagine students attending the university when the play was the hottest thing in London. How would they have traveled there? How long would it have taken them?
Suddenly, my prince’s voice rings out across the courtyard, cutting through the velvet black like a knife to my young maiden’s heart:
“Nymph! In thy orisons be all my sins remember’d.”
He isn’t the greatest Hamlet. He is merely the only one of my classmates brave enough to work on the scene with me.
We struggle on the grass as he reveals the depths of his insanity – perhaps putting on a show for the lurking Polonius. Heartbroken, I am flung onto the lawn where hours earlier students had engaged in their daily game of Ultimate Frisbee.
But I am in Denmark now. Around the very time Oxford was founded. Crying on the cold castle floor as I realize I’ve lost my love forever:
“And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O! woe is me,
To have have seen what I have seen, see what I see!”
(Act III, scene i)
I breathe. Wonder if Ian thinks it was good. Begin to help myself up from the wet ground (this Hamlet is no gentleman).
Sharp, piercing sounds echo across the courtyard as four hands break into thunderous applause.
There is a lovely monologue in Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, about the tragedy of performing without an audience. There is something about it that is absurd, hurtful, even damaging. Thankfully, it seems that our performance has not been wasted on the cool English night sky.
“You played it beautifully” a woman’s voice rings out, her gravelly British clip instantly giving her some kind of authority on theatre. “Just wonderfully.”
“We’ve seen Hamlet played – what, Barbara? Twenty times?”
Barbara agrees. They are strolling through the gardens of Bailiol, and in my mind it is the very campus upon which they first met and fell in love about a thousand years ago.
We thank them profusely for their kind words, somewhat sheepish and embarrassed and exhilarated at being spied upon.
They disappear into the night, hand in hand, smiles upon their lips.
“Well, want to keep working?” Ian asks.
I consider, ever the workaholic, my answer to that question usually leaning towards “Yes. Again.”
But tonight we have achieved perfection. Our two beautiful audience members approved, and were satiated. Tonight, the opinion of our teacher, the other students, Shakespeare Himself doesn’t matter.
“You know what? I think we’re good.”
Ian agrees, an unspoken understanding having formed between us. We part ways, moved and exhilarated by one of those rare moments in life when you actually feel like an artist.
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1. The British American Drama Academy offers month and semester-long Shakespeare intensives at Oxford University and in London.
2. Hamlet wasn't really crazy. Or was he?
3. That famous quote that tells you to "dance like no one's watching" applies to playing Shakespeare too.
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