- One Summer, Three Hamlets: A Practical Guide to Flow Fight Direction
The concluding sword fight in Hamlet . . . after 400 years, has been staged in almost every conceivable way—from Lord Olivier’s florid and athletic fencing exhibition (including that extraordinary leap) to Mel Gibson’s gritty minimalism. . . . Since Hamlet is one of the Western World’s most frequently produced plays, it is likely that someone using this book will be called upon to direct or perform its final, fatal fight. What would you do to bring new life and luster to this best-known of all stage combats?—Richard Lane1
As a Shakespearean scholar and a fight director, it was simply a matter of time before someone hired me to stage the iconic duel in Hamlet. It just so happened that the first of many such opportunities came not in single spies, but in battalions. Over the course of summer 2016, I was hired by two different companies to choreograph this scene for three different productions of Hamlet. The first production was a site-specific theatre-in-the-park production by Apollinaire Theatre Company in PORT Park, Chelsea, Massachusetts. The production was strolling, taking advantage of the park’s many places to create different backgrounds and facades for the play’s varying locales. “To be, or not to be” (for instance) was delivered while Hamlet stood high atop a salt pile the city stored next to the park, introducing the very real possibility that Hamlet might jump from the pile at any moment to his inevitable death on the concrete below. The second production was performed by Apollinaire’s children’s summer program. Middle-school actors (with no prior stage combat training) presented a bilingual performance of Hamlet in English and Spanish, often transitioning from one to the other in the same line of text. It was performed outdoors on a thin strip of park land. The third Hamlet was a concept piece titled Bad Hamlet (written by John Geoffrion), highlighting the differences/similarities between the Q4 text of Hamlet and the F1 text of Hamlet. This production presented at the Providence Fringe Festival featured six actors performing the various characters from Hamlet—three actors speaking from the 1623 First Folio, and the other three from the 1604 “bad Quarto.” For the big fight, I worked with four actors playing two Hamlets and two Laerteses conducting separate, but intertwined duels on a traverse stage.
The challenge of creating the same fight three ways was a true test of my approach to fight direction, and gave birth in my mind to a vocabulary for this approach. With so few treatises on fight direction available in print (the notable exceptions are almost all older texts at this point: J. D. Martinez’s Combat Mime ; William Hobbs’s Fight Direction for Stage and Screen ; J. Allen Suddeth’s Fight Directing for the Theatre ; and Richard Lane’s Swashbuckling  are the major industry texts on the matter), it seems worthwhile to explicate these methodologies. Martinez, Hobbs, Suddeth, and Lane all recommend a prescriptive process for fight direction, in which the fight director choreographs the entirety of a fight outside of the rehearsal space before teaching it to their actors (and perhaps even before meeting their actors). My method, by contrast, involves the actors and director in the process of fight creation, allowing the shape of the fight to be guided by collaborative theatrical forces in the room. [End Page 53]
One of the reasons the Hamlet fight is such an intriguing challenge to choreograph is because of several textually demanded specifics that Shakespeare wrote into the surrounding scenes. This duel features two characters whose prowess with a blade has been revealed, in one way or another, by the text of the work before act 5. Let us talk about Laertes: the text of Hamlet very strongly suggests that he is a classically trained Italian/Spanish fencer. Laertes is being schooled in France. In Shakespeare’s time the French fencing schools looked heavily to the Italians for influence: the first French fencing manual was written by Henri de Saint Didier in 1573, and it declared the Italian...