After a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, Ramin Gray’s production of Blind Hamlet is now touring around Europe. The play that uses audience participation, no actors and audio recordings of the writer, Nassim Soleimanpour, has been called a “ground-breaking” piece of theatre.
As a linguist yourself, having read Arabic and Persian at Oxford, and, of course, the internationality of this particular production, how has learning languages affected you in the theatre?
Well, every play is like learning a new language in the sense that you have to pick up an ear for the tone, the weight, the value, and the meaning that is encoded in the language the writer uses. It is revelatory hearing writers speak in their own language because you really hear what they intend. When writers read their work, they give them a spin and a twist and a real sense of humour. That I find invaluable.
If I lost my eyesight, I would probably still turn up to rehearsals, but if I couldn’t hear, then it would be very difficult for me.
In relation to previous plays you have worked on with the ‘Actors Touring Company’, what is new or different about Blind Hamlet?
As the name suggests, we normally tour around the world with actors, putting on plays. But with this one, one of the curious things was what would it be like to have a play with no actors. There is a stage manager, and that’s it. It literally depends on who’s there, which, by the way, is the first line of Hamlet: “Who’s there?” And the challenge in the team was to find a way to inveigle the audience to participate. And that, formally, is very difficult to achieve.
I just worked with Nassim on recording his voice. There is some delicious irony in turning up without any actors.
What is it like working with Nassim? What was it that made you want to work with him?
Some people think it really works well and some people think it’s a bit of a botched failure. Nassim has got a certain degree of self-confidence and you could say, stubbornness. There is something about writers, all artists; they have got to have a core of bloody mindedness and self-confidence. That core of stubbornness is really important, because the process of making any art is very difficult. You need strength in yourself to push through to get to the conclusion.
Why should people go and watch this play?
I think for Oxford students in particular, it is very interesting to get the perspective of a young Iranian playwright having a go and trying to attack or challenge the norms of drama, of how plays are and can be made. So I think it is formally very innovative and inventive, whilst referencing people like Samuel Beckett and Shakespeare. What you will experience is a sort of message in a bottle… from Iran. It touches on themes in literature and ‘Game Theory’.
We tour a lot of university towns in the country, and I am often shocked that in these towns, how few of the drama students come to see the work. I think that at Oxford and Cambridge, because drama is very much cherished, there is a completely different relationship with theatre.
With such an abstract piece, there are bound to be a lot of open interpretations. What would you want your audience to come out of the theatre thinking?
I think it all depends on if you participate imaginatively and go with it and see where it takes you. Not necessarily joining in actively, but I do mean imaginatively, and not just sit back passively. The other thing is if you get picked to be on stage, you will get a very different perspective of the play than if you were to just view it from the audience. I want the audience to be entertained and have fun, to come in with openness and wanting to join in.
There is a sense of parallel between the writer losing his vision and the idea of a blind Hamlet, isn’t there?
Well… Aspects of Hamlet, perhaps. Hamlet speaks to us all, or it would not be the world’s most famous play. We find ourselves in that moment of vacillation, existential questioning, disconbobulation, savage irony, and black humour… But you certainly do not need to know the play to participate. Just because a play has the word “Hamlet” in it, doesn’t mean it has to be the Hamlet, there are other reasons…
There are nevertheless all sorts of echoes between the two: the relationship of the stage manager to the tape-recorded voice is not unlike the relationship of Horatio to Hamlet. Or the fact that there is a voice, a dead thing, coming back is obviously like the ghostly and disembodied voice of King Hamlet. This is after all the thing that kicked off the whole magnificence of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There are indeed many parallels if you know Hamlet really well, but if you do not, that is fine too.
What is the aesthetic you are going for in this piece?
It is something that I particularly like, something that is very simple and pared-down. Only strictly speaking what is necessary, because the thing that you see on stage that you don’t normally see is people drawn from the audience. We just made a very simple space for that to happen, and it’s rather elegant, don’t you think?
You have been described as “ground-breaking”; the play has no actors but just a stage manager to set up the Dictaphone, and has been described as “boundary-pushing”, “original” and “experimental”. Do you think the concept of theatre is revolutionising in the modern age and how do you see the future of the theatre?
When I started doing plays some thirty years ago, I was obsessed with creating a reality in the rehearsal room, and I was always very disappointed because I tried to carry that through onto the stage, and then got even more depressed when the audience came and it failed to materialise. Since then, I have realised I was looking in the wrong place. The play doesn’t happen on stage, the play is really happening in the auditorium, in the head, the heart and the body of the audience. So, I come to the idea of investigating the audience, and putting them on stage; I see that as a logical development of my own thinking.
Theatre is always going to be about people in a shared space, interacting with each other. I think one of the reasons maybe theatre is anything gaining in popularity, and certainly not waning in any way, is because the more time one spends on the tablet or the telephone, the more one appreciates the physicality, the reality, the challenge, the grittiness, and the importance of interacting with fellow human beings in a shared space. And that is what it’s all about.
Blind Hamlet is playing at Cambridge Junction on 8th October and Lincoln Performing Arts Centre on 9th October