Since I’ve done a string of how-to pieces, I thought I’d try something a little different today. In truth, also, my train of thought was hijacked by turning on the TV on Wednesday evening mid way through the PBS airing of the BBC film of the most recent RSC Hamlet directed by Greg Doran. Enough acronyms for you? If that doesn’t convey which one I’m talking about, it was the one starring David Tennant (of Doctor Who) as Hamlet, Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek TNG, X Men etc.) as Claudius, Mariah Gale as Ophelia, Penny Downey as Gertrude and Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. More to the point it was mesmerizing: beautiful, touching, real, exciting and loaded with surprise.
I started watching during the “To be or not to be” soliloquy (here moved to the earlier First Quarto position, for those following along at home) and stood there immobile for about ten minutes before finding my way to the couch where I stayed till the credits ran. Part of my fascination is that I know the play and have a particular nostalgia for this production which I was fortunate enough to see live in Stratford two years ago (and got to hang out with the principals in the pub afterwards: they all signed my program, yours for about 50 grand). But that doesn’t explain how utterly sucked in I was.
Now, I am a Shakespearean. I’ve read this play a thousand times and taught it almost as many. I’ve seen countless productions on stage and screen over the years. It is familiar to me: a known quantity. Except that this production made it fresh. Suddenly, it was like hearing the words for the first time, full of urgency and life, the characters pulsing with blood and breath, and the raw stench of humanity, passion and mortality redolent everywhere. It was electrifying. Every line came from thought and feeling, every moment was charged with humor or menace, insight or sadness, sometimes all competing for space in the same instant. It felt new and real.
I’ll spare you my musings on how I think this was achieved, nor will I try to head off the inevitable complaints from those who didn’t like the production for one reason or another, and say simply this: There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to fiction. All our stories have, in some sense, been told. Yes, we color them with new tones drawn from our own lives and cultures, but much of what drives our stories would not be out of place in Shakespeare. What we need to do is make them feel fresh and insistent, breathing life and imminence into them as did the actors and crew of this production of Hamlet.
That’s all I want to say today. The production reminded me, above all, that character is king, that whatever we do with world building or intricate plotting, the heart of our stories is in the people with which we populate them. They are the link to our readers, and whether we set our yarns on other worlds or in imagined pasts, those characters should feel familiar, true, complex and driven by thought and feeling. We should see ourselves in them because art, to paraphrase Hamlet himself, is to hold the mirror up to nature. These are the stories I want to write.
What about you? Anyone care to share moments of inspiration about writing from beyond our genre? And, of course, I’ll be happy to chat about Shakespeare too, should it come up…