Class gives ‘bad quarto’ its day on stage

q1-hamlet-poster

Hamlet Q1 – the first-known printed edition of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy – is not the text you studied from. It’s not the text traditionally used for theatrical productions, either. In fact, you probably haven’t encountered this version of the play before.

Among scholars, Hamlet Q1 is known as ‘the bad quarto.’ But it is a good version for stage performances of the play, said Jo Devereux, who teaches in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western.

“It’s usually referred to as the ‘bad quarto’ because it is so short, and it has a lot of strange readings in many of the speeches, including some of the famous soliloquies. The names of some of the characters are different, and the spellings of some of the characters are unusual,” said Devereux, whose fall class, Special Topics in Drama, is staging a production of Hamlet Q1 at The Arts Project next week.

Some scenes are out of order, she added, and there is an extra scene between Gertrude and Horatio in which we find out the queen knows about Claudius’ plot to kill Hamlet. This is something we would not know from reading the second quarto (1604) or First Folio (1623) editions of the play – the longer editions most commonly read and used for performances. But for the most part, the plot remains the same.

While the second quarto and folio versions of Hamlet are “big and bulky” productions, even when pared-down for a show, the total performance runtime of Q1 is about two hours, which includes a 15-minute intermission, Devereux added. This makes it ideal for a staging such as the one her class has been rehearsing.

The performance will be, in some ways, an echo of the earliest productions of Hamlet.

“It’s fun; it’s action packed; it’s really great,” she said. “It’s an interesting exercise to put on what is, as far as anyone knows, the first printed version of the play. The play was first performed around 1600, and Shakespeare didn’t leave any manuscripts. Some people speculate maybe this was a touring version of the play because it’s so short, which would also explain what clearly look to be mistakes in word choices in the speeches.”

Devereux’s course has been running since 2007 and always includes a production of a play. It is not a core English course, and draws students from all faculties together to perform, produce and even compose as a team, something she has enjoyed over the years.

“We don’t just have Arts students, which is great. We’re getting a lot of really great students who tend to do most of their work in Science and lab courses. It’s a nice way to bring together students from all the faculties. They often don’t get a chance to interact,” she said.

“It’s really nice to have this interdisciplinary group. And they’re super energetic, and very bright and have lots of talent. We have a composer from the Faculty of Music, too, and live music for the play – there is an ensemble playing. I met with the student last spring and gave him free reign to compose whatever style of music he wanted, as long as it was nice and melodic. And it is beautiful.”

Because the play is so short and because a lot of students auditioned for the show, Devereux is including a short version of a Tudor interlude – Four Elements by John Rastell (1520) – at the beginning of the performance. It’s an allegorical play, she said, and the characters include Nature, Humanity, Studious Desire, Sensual Appetite, Experience and Ignorance.

“It’s been really fun to do. Most people like Hamlet. People learn it in school and will be drawn to it because it is familiar. They like all versions – I like all versions. I’ve seen a number of productions I thought were great. It’s a fun play because you can do it so many different ways,” Devereux said.

Devereux is dedicating the performance to the memory of her father, E.J. Devereux, a Renaissance scholar at Western from 1963 to 1994. He worked on early printed books and Shakespeare.

“I wanted to do something in memory of him and give students a chance to act,” she said.

SET FOR STAGE

Q1 Hamlet is playing at the ARTS Project, 203 Dundas St., Nov. 9-12.  Tickets are $10 for students and seniors, $15 for adults, and are available at the ARTS Project box office. Visit www.artsproject.ca or call 519-642-3919.