There’s a lot in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that’s simply padding – they didn’t have a lot to do in the 17th Century so a four-hour visit to the theatre was a welcome break to the monotony. Kris Hallett spoke to actor Alan Mahon ahead of Bristol Tobacco Factory Theatre’s latest outing for the work and found there’s much to be said for a scaled down Prince of Denmark.
There is something very boyish about Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory’s latest Hamlet. Tall and gangly, with a child’s sense of enthusiasm and of laid-back demeanour meeting Irish actor Alan Mahon, only 23, you have no sense this is a man about to tackle perhaps the most famous role in world drama. At the end of a long day of rehearsals, just over halfway through rehearsals he is still buzzing with energy and a sense of joy that this part has fallen into his lap so early in his career.
I started off by asking him if this was always something that had always been on the radar. “Yeah, so I went to drama school in Ireland [The Lir Academy in Dublin, a drama school with an impressive reputation considering it only opened in 2010], and funnily enough as we were starting our final year we were asked to write five parts that we would want to play just so they could see what we thought our casting bracket was. And here we are 18 months later it’s kind of mad.”
The last 23-year-old to play the part was a then unknown Ben Whishaw who, after a couple of supporting roles, was cast by Trevor Nunn to play the role at the Old Vic. It has always been a role that has attracted stars, which means normally the youth of the role is overlooked for someone with a bit more experience. Recent Hamlets have included Rory Kinnear and last summer, Benedict Cumberbatch. So does he feel the pressure that comes with this kind of role? “It’s kind of great in a way; there is an inordinate amount of pressure on those guys when they play it. Cumberbatch now brings his own fanbase, who may be getting introduced to the theatre for the first time, for me this is my first role in the UK, people will be saying who the feck is this guy, you know?”
Mahon is a man who doesn’t seem to feel the pressure, sitting in the rehearsal room after a long day at rehearsal he seems to be having a great time of it. “I’m kind of a laid back guy in general, there are lots of lines in Hamlet that tells us we only have one go at life, obviously we’ll do our best, but if someone doesn’t like it, well everyone is entitled to their opinion, all we can do is, just as I’ve done in rehearsal is give it your best crack and enjoy it. Some actors are like ‘Oh God what if people don’t enjoy it?’ – well I don’t really care.” He doesn’t say this with any hint of arrogance, it’s just the sign of an actor who seems at ease with the industry he is in and can handle the pressure.
He was cast by director Andrew Hilton after just two auditions in London, followed by a couple of days when he stayed with him in Bristol before Christmas where between the two of them they came up with a list of cuts. “He was very generous to do that with a 23-year-old unknown, although it was obviously beneficial on the first day to come in and not to have to fight to reinstate speeches.”
So what kind of Hamlet will he be? Here the young actor gets more thoughtful and judges his words carefully, a similar trait that has come to define the director. “We are looking at doing the play as clearly as possible, telling the story the way it is meant to be done. For young people seeing the play for the first time it will be a great joy, there is no concept being put on it, you’re not going to see Hamlet in Syria for example; it’s such a good story though it doesn’t need it. People asked at home whether I’m a petulant Hamlet, or an angry Hamlet, but in rehearsals I’m saying the lines and go with what feels most natural and other people can then put whatever adjective they want on my Hamlet.”
One of the most interesting things to come out of our chat is Mahon’s belief that they may be taking Shakespeare’s longest work in under three hours. “We’ve cut most of the political stuff with Norway, there are lots of discrepancies and non-sequiturs, for example in the play there is all this talk of Fortinbras being this great warrior, yet in the play Claudius sends one letter over and its sorted. Andrew has talked a lot in rehearsals about how Shakespeare would write in these 30-page bursts, the actors would learn it and then another 30 pages. So these discrepancies are pretty common across the works.”
The second play in the Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory season will be All’s Well That Ends Well. I ask Mahon if there had been any discussion in the rehearsal room about the links between the two plays. Almost inevitably his mind has been elsewhere (he admits he has maybe read it once before Christmas). “Sometimes it’s very clear, I saw the posters the other day for the two Roman plays, which have obvious links, but for this I think we’ll work it out once we are playing, the only thing I know will definitely link them at this point is that all fifteen actors will be in both. Thankfully my role in All’s Well is relatively small part, it’s going to be harder for others with larger parts in that play, rehearsing during the day and playing at night, I think I’ve got it the right way round.’’
Are there any places he is particularly looking forward to going on tour? He laughs, “My geography is not as it should be in Ireland, let alone in the UK. However, I’m looking forward to the theatre in the round [the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough]. It’ll be interesting to convert a piece in the round to a proscenium and then back again.”
Mahon’s a born-and-bred Dubliner with an accent to match. So will he be using that on stage? The answer is somewhat surprising: “No I’m doing it in RP. Andrew said at end of my audition “you can do RP can’t you? and I was like yeah, right now? It seems to be going ok so far or the company is just very sound.” He confides that Hilton thought people would read more into it then was meant as the rest of actors are English and the accent would be forming some kind of commentary on the piece. “The fact most Shakespeare is done in RP in this country it kind of neutralises it, it allows us to keep viewing the story without putting a political point over the top.”
With that, he heads over the road for a pint with the rest of the company. There is no sense of a man about to tackle one of the most challenging parts in the canon, just of a guy happy to be out of drama school and working and excited about the mountain he is about to ascend.
Runs from 11 – 15 February 2016 | Image: Craig Fuller