Winter “Hamlet” play director puts focus on words and language

Xander Layden as Hamlet and Tavis Williams as Laertes engage in a heated duel on set of rehearsal before opening night on Thursday. Photo by Mollie McLellan

Xander Layden as Hamlet and Tavis Williams as Laertes engage in a heated duel on set of rehearsal before opening night on Thursday. Photo by Mollie McLellan

James Van Leishout, the director of the college’s 2013 winter play, put a spin on “Hamlet” by emphasizing the theme of language and words. Van Leishout allowed some leeway for student volunteer actors to perform their personal interpretations of their parts.

“If actors don’t know what a word means or what a line is referencing, they can just ask James to get an answer, which makes everything so much easier,” said Samuel Johnson, who played Rosencrantz. The key to performing Shakespearean plays is understanding the meaning behind the words, he said.

Hamlet, being a scholar, uses words as his weapon rather than a sword, said Van Leishout. At the very end of the play, after Hamlet has used language to reveal the truth and achieve his revenge, his last line is, “the rest is silence,” which really brings home this theme, said Van Leishout.

“Each actor develops their own character, but James is always there to guide them in the right direction; he is truly a phenomenal director and a phenomenal man,” said Johnson.

Van Leishout has previously directed plays for SPSCC, and has an extensive background in theatre and directing. He received a Master of Fine Arts in directing from Brigham Young University in Utah; he has run the Shakespeare Festival as artistic director for the past 12 years; and, he has been a freelance director for 10 years.

Van Leishout said the best part about directing Hamlet was working with the actors.

“The creativity and inventiveness they bring to set inspires me,” he said. They had quotes cut into their faux steel columns, quotes that glowed at specific times in the play to emphasize the theme of words.

The funnest part of directing the play was choreographing the fight scene, he said. The fight scene was very elaborate. It had three sequences with three different phases to each sequence, and it took the actors around 10 hours to learn, said Van Leishout.

Van Leishout became a fight choreographer by coincidence, he said. In community college, he had learned how to fence. Later, he was cast in “Romeo and Juliet,” and the director asked if anyone could fence. When Van Leishout raised his hand, he was designated the fight choreographer. Since then, he has attended many workshops and classes to improve his skills.

Van Leishout was a pleasure to work with, said Johnson. “It’s amazing to be directed by a man that’s worked with Shakespeare for so much of his life,” he said.

According to Johnson, the camaraderie of the cast is one of the best parts about being in the play. “By the end of the play, we’re like a family,” he said.

Audience members of opening night, Jeff and Heather Springer, said the play was a strong rendition of “Hamlet” and great overall.

“Hamlet’s character did an amazing job. He had a wonderful stage presence and made his role seem very believable,” said Heather Springer.

Xander Layden, who played Hamlet, said he admires Hamlet’s intensely strong sense of morality and justice, even as it gets skewed further into the play.

Some audience members were fans of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose roles were meant to provide comic relief, according to Johnson. “The juxtaposition of Rosencratz and Guildenstern, one being extremely tall and the other very short, was hilarious. But, I also loved the chemistry they had,” said audience member Sophia Pettis.

Brad Raines’ daughter, Helen Raines, played Ophelia. He said it was great to see all the weeks of hard work coming together to create such a production.

“‘Hamlet’ is one of the best-loved Shakespearean plays, and I am glad that I got the chance to direct it at SPSCC,” said Van Leishout.

The play ran Feb. 22-24 and Feb. 28-March 3 at the Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts.