A couple of my friends have a running joke that on the 31st December they are going to put on a one-woman play in one of their living rooms, sell tickets... and then not tell me about. Thereby bringing down my marathon at the final hurdle. Now, they would never really do this. Firstly because they are not that mean. And secondly, I'm fairly confident that marathons don't have hurdling involved (I could be wrong though, I don't follow sport).
Anyway, as I arrive at my next theatre on the list, I begin to wonder whether perhaps I had stumbled on their plan a little ahead of schedule as Drapers Hall wasn't anything like the image the name had conjured in my head and instead looked like a pleasant suburban bungalow. Albeit owned by someone with severe privacy issues, as the garden is almost hidden behind some very heavy duty black gates.
If it hadn't been for the poster board outside, I would have presumed it part of the estate that it lives in.
Which, I suppose, is the point.
The homely atmosphere extends in off the street, as the hallway is full of people shrugging off their coats to hang up on the rail, wandering around clutching large mugs of tea, and flopping down on the sofas.
I grew suspicious. Perhaps it really was a home, and this entire trip had been a meticulously planned prank from my friends. It was a little late for an April Fools', but it was all too perfect. If I were going to send me off to a fake show in a fake venue, then an immersive Hamlet would be exactly the sort of thing that I would plan in order to torture myself.
Confession time! I've never seen Hamlet. Well, I've never seen it all the way through. I've seen bits of it. A touch of Tennant's when it was on TV. A dab of "to be or not to be," acquired through cultural osmosis. I’ve watched that Tom Stoppard Play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And The Lion King. Seen that one. The film. Still have to make it to the musical. Although the countdown is on to get to that one…
As for immersive... well, you should already know my feelings about that by now.
I do my best to shake off the feeling. My friends wouldn't do that to me. They couldn't possibly be so cruel. Not least because one of them was supposed to go with me, but had to back out because she needed to go to some academic thing I didn't really understand that was happening at Yale... Oh.
I'm a cynical old bag by nature, but this conspiracy theory was a touch too extreme even for me. Still, I am so struck by the feeling that I have literally just wandered into someone's living room that it takes me a moment to realise that I should be checking in.
This is done, via mobile phone, and my name is instantly recognised.
Now, that isn't unusual. My name is very memorable. But sadly, this isn't the Smiles-effect at work here.
"You were supposed to be here..."
"Last Friday, yes."
That was true. I had booked to go last week, but the lovely people at BAC offered me the chance to crack through three of their spaces in one night, and when it comes to marathons, three theatres beats one every time. It's just basic maths.
Thankfully the people at Drapers Hall are even lovelier, and allowed me to switch my ticket to a different night.
"There's tea and food in the kitchen just round the corner, in exchange for a donation."
Well, this needed thorough investigation.
There really is a kitchen around the corner. A proper kitchen. Not some little pokey corner-room with just enough counter space to fit a kettle balanced on top of a microwave. There's an oven, with five hob rings. A chopping board lies ready to use next to it. I could knock out a Sunday roast in that kitchen if needs be. But there is no shortage of food. Beside the still steaming kettle, there was a plate of custard creams and an array of milks, and fruit teas. And on the other side, there were crackers and houmous and hot cross buns and crisps and apple juice. No one is going hungry tonight.
“Follow me!” comes the call when the doors are opened. “You can take your drinks in, if you like.”
Many people do like, and they go through, clutching their cuppas for comfort, leading to the bizarre sight of five or so people trying to work out what do with their mugs as they take their seats. Do they tuck it under their seat, or go for the more risky knee balance option? The rest of us join the circle without the benefit of a soothing hot drink, and try not to look anxious.
The space is a small one. Not round exactly, but hexagonal - or one of those other geometric shapes that I can’t remember the name of - with high vaulted ceilings that stretch up into a sharp point above our heads.
It’s dark. There are wood panels. Kinda like a sauna. I’m certainly sweating out my nerves.
In the centre, sat on the floor, is Emily Carding - now making a record-breaking third appearance in this marathon.
The doors close, sealing us in. That’s it. It’s happening. There’s no escape.
Carding leaps up, ready to shake hands and greet us. Are my hands sweaty? They’re probably really sweaty. I hope they’re not sweaty.
No time to think of that. Carding is explaining what’s happening. We’re actors. We’re going to be given roles. Scripts are handed out.
First up: Horatio. That goes to a man sitting across the circle from me. Carding explains that it’s an important role. A speaking role, no less. He nods. He’s up to the challenge.
Next up… Carding comes over to me. “Will you be my Ophelia?”
Now, I may not have seen Hamlet, but I’m pretty sure that Ophelia is a significant role. Hamlet’s love interest, no less. Carding warns me that it’s going to be emotionally challenging. I’m going to get spoken to with some not very nice words. I smile nervously, trying not to show my fear. That was apparently the right thing to do. We were on. The role is mine.
As the other roles are handed out, I look at my script. I’m to take a letter and hand it back. Stand up. Sit down. Listen as people talk to me. That all sounds okay. I can deal with that. I stand up, sit down, and listen to people every day.
I keep reading.
I have a line. No, two.
Well, alright. Speaking is fine. Been doing that for years.
I keep reading.
Oh. Oh! I had forgotten the thing about Ophelia. The very important thing about Ophelia. The one thing that ends up defining Ophelia.
I was going to have to die.
I read the instructions. Then read them again just to make sure I understood them.
I say instructions, but this was no IKEA step-by-step breakdown of a theatrical suicide, but rather a guideline. Firstly, I was to tear up my script. Fine. Nice. I like it. But then I had to crumple the pages into flowers. Poetic. Nice. I like it. Except… how?
Carding is giving our Laertes a stage combat lesson with invisible swords. She’s amazing. She’s got the stance down. She reveals she’s done this before.
Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear ohdear ohdearohdear.
We have a trained pro in our midst.
Don’t fuck up, Max, I order myself. And don’t you dare show fear.
A thought occurs. Perhaps showing fear was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Is that why Carding picked me? She could see the raging anxiety behind the eyes? I didn’t know enough about the role to tell. This Ophelia-chick is clearly not having a good time of it. Perhaps I should be all shaking-nerves. In which case, I’m nailing this.
As the play kicks off and my fellow audience members began performing their assigned parts, I tried to figure out the problem of the flowers.
I could tear my pages in half. That would be very dramatic, I thought. And then perhaps roll each half into a tulip, twisting the length into a stem. No. That would take far too long. And besides, the script said to crumple.
Polonius and Laertes come over to sit with me. “He’s mad,” says Laertes. “Completely bonkers. Wouldn’t you agree, Polonius?” She ad-libbing, and she’s great at it.
I nod. My script says I’m supposed to listen to them, but I chance a weak “right…” of agreement.
Hamlet’s writing a letter. Carding looks up and locks eyes with me.
“Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.”
I mean… oof. That Shakespeare could write a mean love letter. No wonder Ophelia went barmy over this bloke.
I take the letter. My hands aren’t just sweating now. They’re shaking. I blame the contents. That is a damn inferno of words being held in them.
I hear my name. Ophelia’s name, even. That’s my cue. I get up. I’ve been told to return the letter to Hamlet. Carding won’t take it. I try again.
This is it. The scene I’ve been warned about. The letter is crumpled and tossed away. It looks so sad and pathetic on the ground.
“Get thee to a nunnery,” Carding orders.
I clutch my script. It creases under my grasp. That feels right. I try to leave, but Carding shifts to block me.
Now, I’d always fancied that I’d make a rather good nun. I do look great in black. But Carding says it with such venom. My heart is thumping. Eventually, Hamlet is spent. The tirade is over. I’m allowed to return to my seat. I collapse into it.
Things aren’t going well for Hamlet either. He asks to sit in my lap while we watch a play, but Ophelia isn’t having it. A sentiment I can only sympathise with.
Hamlet ends up killing Polonius which is one hell of a day for both of them to be having.
“Tell Ophelia that Hamlet has killed you,” Carding orders the audience-member-formerly-known-as-Polonius.
This he does.
It is time for me to die.
I tear off a page of my script, crumpling it up and twisting the end to form a flower. It could almost pass as a lily if you squint real hard.
I offer it to the woman sitting next to me. She hesitates, then takes it.
The next flower goes to Laertes, sitting on my right.
I get up, crumpling the third page as I walk across the circle and hand over another flower. The fourth goes to Gertrude. The fifth and final page, the front cover which bears only the word OPHELIA, is given to Claudius.
I have no more pages left.
I go lie in the middle of the floor, crossing my arms over my chest, and close my eyes.
I try to channel Millais’ Ophelia. All wafting hair and serene expression. But I fear I’m more Elizabeth Siddal, freezing to death in the bath because she’s too frightened to tell the artist that the oil lamps keeping the water warm have gone out.
I can hear my fellow actors moving about. There's singing. Eventually, Carding touches my arms, and I am released into the world of the dead, free to enjoy the rest of the play as an observer.
The invisible swords are back. Hamlet and Laertes are fighting. All rather exciting now that I’m a ghost.
Death after death follows. Laertes falls to the floor. Gertrude too. Claudius slumps back in his seat.
As Hamlet proclaims his final words, Laertes twists round to watch. Different rules apply when you’re a ghost.
We applaud, but Horatio steps forward to stop us. There is one speech left. He thanks us for our cooperation and bids us to applaud one another. This we do.
“You had a really tough role,” says Laertes as we pull on our coats.
Not quite as tough as hers. Making flowers is a lot less scary than sword-fighting.
“And your dress was so perfect!”
I look down. Oh. Yeah. I’m wearing my Forsythe dress. So called because during a rehearsal, the choreographer William Forsythe couldn't stop laughing when he noticed that it read "over my dead body" all across the front and down the arms. The arms that I’d crossed over my chest while everyone had stood… over my dead body.
“That’s probably why you got picked as Ophelia.”
Probably. It must have been quite the sight when I was down on the ground being dead.
Hamlet may have escaped, but Carding doesn’t get away that easily. As we emerge back into the bright and welcoming light of Draper Hall’s foyer, we all queue up to thank her.
Hugs are exchanged.
I don't tell her that I stole one of my flowers.