A Shakespearean classic, Hamlet is home to probably one of the most uttered lines in human history! But with the world of Shakespeare often feeling like an anomaly all of own, how can the themes of 400 years ago be in anyway relatable to todays issues? Hiraeth Productions answer this by updating the dramatic classic, setting the play in the gritty and male dominated confines of Her Majesty’s Prison, Liverpool. Typically the shy and retiring heroine, actress Jessica White redefines the role of Ophelia as a strong and independent psychiatric Mental Health Carer. Ahead of the production, I was able to speak to Jessica about Ophelia’s new found strength, her love for Stage Combat and why motion capture is the cinematic future!
You’re currently starring as Ophelia in Hiraeth’s production of Hamlet. How are rehearsals going for that?
They’re going brilliantly! We’re a couple of weeks in, all of the ideas are on the table, and we’re still in the playing stage, which is fun!
Could you describe the rehearsal process?
It’s not set in the usual classic period that Hamlet is usually set in because it’s set in the modern day, in Her Majesty’s Prison, Liverpool. We started the rehearsal process all just chatting through that and how we thought our characters would be relevant to this world that we’ve put it in. There was a lot of talk; a lot of research and then it was about working with the script and how we make that work. Understanding the text, doing a lot of text work with the Director Zoe (Ford) and more or less getting stuff on its feet straightaway and playing with relationships because the point of Hamlet is, not a lot actually visually happens. It’s all about him and his descent into what they called mania and madness, and just a lot is spoken about. It was important to understand the text and to get the relationships working. Without them being believable, we wouldn’t have had a good start!
What drew you to the role of Ophelia?
I’d seen Hiraeth’s work before and for me doing the character breakdowns, I noticed that they didn’t want a shy and retiring Ophelia. They wanted someone who would bring something different. Although I’d love to play Ophelia in a very classic production where she’s quite shy and timid and she’s spoken over, a very oppressed character; it really drew me that that’s not what they were actually going to be concentrating on. They were going to find this inner strength in this character.
With Ophelia being a nurse in the male dominated setting of Her Majesty’s Prison, Liverpool, how has that influenced your portrayal of her? How have you approached playing the role?
I found the most exciting thing of deciding that actually, rather than being a medical nurse, she was more of a psychiatric mental health carer. I watched a lot of documentaries, read a lot of interviews and documents by women who work in that capacity within prisons. I’m lucky enough that one of my friend’s mum’s actually does that job, so talking with her (helped me learn) how these women deal with being within the prisons all the time and how relevant they see their job in helping these people get back into society. Having Ophelia as this character, the main thing is, the only family we know of her is her dad and her brother. Even in her home life, as far as we know, there’s no mum, she’s got no sisters, no one else is spoken about, so she’s got a male dominated life. I think that was really interesting to look at; maybe there is a bit of fight in her and a bit of courage and a bit of power from needing to grow up without a female presence.
As well as being an actress, you’re trained in stage combat. What inspired you to study the course?
I’d always been really physical growing up; I’d done a lot of sports, gymnastics, that kind of thing. I have a very sensible mother that works in the arts that I spoke to a lot when looking at drama schools. One of my main things was, ‘how am I going to go to drama school and graduate 3 years later looking like 10,000 other girls with the exact same casting as me and the exact same training?’ I just felt like I needed something that set me apart and that I’d enjoy a bit more. I’d probably have enjoyed the standard acting course as well because it’s all about where you go, but I just stumbled upon this degree course, which, the list of things you did, just was incredible! I just thought it sounded like the coolest thing ever. You’d wake up, you’d do an extra long day in order for them to fit everything in, so you’d be there from 9am-9pm most days training. But it meant you’d get 2 hours of singing, 2 hours of rapier and dagger training, 2 hours of ballet, 2 hours of Aikido and horse riding, all in the space of a day! I thought, you only train once, you might as well make it fun! You might as well make it something you’re going to hopefully use but mainly enjoy!
You’ve also been a motion capture artist for Columbia Pictures’ 2012 blockbuster Total Recall. What was it like working on that?
It was great! The movie stuff is really interesting. Motion Capture in itself is really interesting because you turn up some days, and these projects are so wrapped up in non-disclosure agreements (that) sometimes you don’t even know what you’re working on until you arrive! You’ve been handpicked by these companies and you don’t even know who’s picked you. So you turn up and they’re like, ‘we’re working on this film today!’ You don’t even know if you’re necessarily going to be portraying a human, let alone what you’re character is going to be! So, that was huge, it was wicked knowing that you were going to be working on a blockbuster film. It was my first real taste of being like, this is where the future’s going, because I spent however long in a studio performing all of the moves that they wanted all the female extras to perform. Instead of hiring hundreds of extras, they hired me and a guy and replicated us 100 times. It was a real taster of where the movie business may be going.
What advice would you give to performers looking to get into Stage Combat or becoming a Motion Capture Artist?
Training and experience really. Train-wise for Stage Combat, there are so many good places to go! There’s only 1 degree course that specialises in it, that’s the degree course I did at East 15 Acting School. It’s a specialist degree programme called Acting and Stage Combat. There are a lot of other academies that run really great stage combat workshops and also long term training programmes as well. Across the Country, you’ve got the Academy of Performance Combat, the British Academy of Stage and Screen Combat, The British Academy of Dramatic Combat. In terms of Motion Capture, if it’s something that you’re really interested in doing, it’s about writing to the Studios, it’s about offering yourself up for a demo, it’s about getting put up by your agent for the right jobs, just keep knocking on that door! Embrace the skills that you’ve got, if you’re a brilliant dancer, and you’re interested in Motion Capture, inevitably there will be a job that needs you!
Jessica White will be starring in Hiraeth Productions’ performance of Hamlet will be showing at The Riverside Studios from Wednesday 28th May until Sunday 22nd June. For more information on the production, visit here…