As part of my PhD research on madness in contemporary Shakespearean adaptations, I ask what dramaturgical approaches might be used to portray mental illness in performance. To address this question, I used a practice-as-research methodology in the creation of a one-act adaptation of Hamlet called Let Her Come In. The piece was performed on 19-20 April 2016 in the Gilmorehill Centre Performance studio as part of the 2016 Shakespeare and Disability Symposium. It was delivered in partnership with University of Glasgow Theatre Studies and in association with the New Dreams Shakespeare 400 festival.
The play was originally developed during my MLitt dissertation on contemporary playwriting strategies for adapting the ‘mad’ characters in Hamlet. Here, I used Hamlet as a starting point by asking how madness appears in the source text. As much of the criticism surrounding the play deals with whether or not Hamlet is ‘mad,’ the ambiguity left me with several options to consider. In doing so I felt that Hamlet’s indecisiveness was a key feature in the play’s engagement with madness. From my perspective, it is his preoccupation with sanity that ultimately prevents him from making decisions. For example, Hamlet is unsure whether to trust the Ghost’s existence and is therefore left wavering between obedience and disobedience (i.e. he cannot decide whether to kill Claudius). This reading led me to ask what relationship might exist between madness and agency: is the inability to decide a sign of madness? Is the inability to understand madness a maddening experience in itself? Furthermore, since both Hamlet and Ophelia are often aligned with madness, is there a difference in how their dealings with sanity are portrayed? To address these issues, I chose to focus my adaptation on the complexity of comprehending sanity. As such, the play follows Horatio as he tries to obey Hamlet’s dying wish: “Report me and my cause aright” (Hamlet, V.ii.338). His inability to do so, whether because of grief or the task’s impossibility, eventually drives him into a purgatorial state of insanity.
In putting this play into performance, I tried to create a collaborative environment, emphasizing discussion and experimentation. The actor in the piece, Theatre Studies student Erfan Shojanoori, played a major role in bringing fresh ideas to the rehearsal room. From our work, we found the most success in representing madness when we externalized the character’s mental state. For example, we tried to create an environment that physically matched the character’s inner turmoil. We aimed to do so by cluttering the stage with notebooks, tapes and papers. The frustration in trying to create order on stage thus mirrored his internal struggle with ordering his thoughts. This sort of physicality is something I intend to experiment more with as I work on developing the play.
The process of creating this piece was filled with struggles and discoveries that lasted for the better part of a year. Ultimately, however, I feel it was a very useful part of my research. It has allowed me to critically engage with other adaptation processes, the challenges faced in portraying insanity and how they communicate with greater psychological discourses. I hope to continue with this sort of practice methodology again during my PhD.
Written by Molly Ziegler, PhD candidate in Theatre Studies