When performing the works of Shakespeare with the care and respect that the work warrants, the player must have an equal measure of finesse and flourish with weapons as they do with words, especially in the case of Hamlet. Great care and disciplined training have been attentively applied to ensure this year’s Summer Shakespeare production delivers on all fronts with panache. Transferring the classic 17th century play into a modern setting has lead to some drastic changes in the show’s combat scenes.
The famous climactic duel in the fifth act is not being done with the traditional weaponry of the play’s era, the usual rapier and broadsword have been hung up for this modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic. Very seldom is a student of these disciplines found in the modern day, so the weapons have been changed to keep congruent with the present day. The players have gone under the instruction of a total of three separate Japanese combat styles; as these are much more common practices today.
The disciplines featured are the unarmed art of Karate, the staff-wielding method of Tai Chi, and the deadly katana practice of Kenjutsu. One might be skeptical of the players’ abilities to study the philosophies and practices of three depthful martial arts as well as face the challenges of performing and presenting a full production Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the rate of progression as well as the dedication of the players could beat, bludgeon and slash the doubt of such skeptics.
The instruction for the players began with the Japanese philosophy of combat, that the purpose of knowing how to wield these weapons is to ensure safety of yourself and others, and ending conflict with as little harm done as possible; a mind set that lends itself well to the combat of theatre. The following lesson was on the weapons themselves, how is a master of any art to become a master without a deep understanding of his tools? The players were taught the proper names for the weapons and their parts as well as the etiquette with which to treat the weapons.
Once the players understood these fundamentals, they felt ready to take up the weapons themselves and start swinging, but to ensure that the fights in the show were as accurate, entertaining and safe as possible they had a few more steps to walk before taking up any stances. The players had to know how to stand before they could move; how to move before they could hold a weapon; how to hold a weapon before they could parry; how to parry before they could swing; and how to swing before they could fight.
The time taken to learn the history behind these martial arts has shown in the performance and progress of the players as the rehearsal process continues. In the limited time allotted for the preparation of the show, the players have rapidly acquired the skill necessary to wield a katana, staff and their own bodies with flourish and finesse.
Unlike many other productions that feature combat, we trained the players in the real and traditional usage of these weapons as well as their stage variations. Most productions only instruct their actors in the staged version of any given style. Whilst this is not a bad practice by any means, we remember that the safety of the performers is the greatest priority of any stage fight, and who is more trustworthy to be safe with a weapon than one who knows how to properly use one? Especially when the first thing they learned was the true intention of the weapon, to ensure that harm is not done unless absolutely necessary.
The players have had their hands full outside of their scheduled instruction, not only with the acting work of studying the text and memorizing lines; but also with exercises and fight rehearsals to maintain the stamina and flexibility required to execute the more complex maneuvers featured in the show. These students of Summer Shakespeare Theatre will walk away from this year with unexpected physical refinement to accompany the expected mental enrichment the program is known for. Summer Shakespeare does not cut corners in its productions, just as the language is thoroughly studied and understood by those using it, so well understood are these honored weapons and the techniques that use them.