One-man play frames Shakespearean tragedy
Peter Cutts doesn’t clown around with Shakespeare’s fools.
The Ohio State University Theater Department and the OSU Arts Initiative will present the British actor and writer in the world premiere of Hamlet’s Fool, his solo play that will open Friday at Mount Hall Studio Theatre.
“I’ve always been fascinated by what makes a fool,” said Cutts, who is teaching an acting class as a visiting artist during OSU’s spring quarter.
“Fools are the off-the-wall characters, the ones you can’t really predict. Often, they are outsiders brought into the fold but can easily be kicked out. They can lose their status quickly, so they have a kind of perilous existence.”
The hourlong solo piece is suggested for age 14 and older.
“I want it to be enjoyed as a solo play that works on its own, so young people don’t have to know Hamlet,” said Cutts, who acts, sings and plays the piano in the show.
Shakespeare often used the fool as a sort of court jester who, through humor and cleverness, could point out truths that royalty might not want to hear. Set 23 years before all the “mayhem” in Hamlet, the solo play focuses on the court of the Danish king, Hamlet’s father, when Hamlet was 7 years old.
Cutts was interested in developing a show about Shakespeare’s fools while focusing on Hamlet — which technically doesn’t have a fool.
“Of course, there’s Yorick, the gravedigger and a clown. So I thought, well, let’s just explore it and find out a little more about him,” he said.
“There are so many types of fools in history. They go back to Roman times, when they had dwarfs as a kind of fools. . . . The Elizabethan era had the innocent and natural ones and the artificial ones — the clowns and jesters that Shakespeare uses as fools.”
Cutts, 61, plays five characters, including the narrating Fool (Yorick, unnamed), the Queen (at ages 14 and 21); the King (about 40); the Grave Digger (about 45); and the Little Man, a dwarf given to the Queen by the Duke, the King’s brother, to also entertain as a fool.
Through the fools, Cutts explores the beginnings of the relationship between Queen Gertrude and Claudius (the Duke), who would kill the king and take his place.
The two fools return as ghosts when the play jumps forward 23 years to the “present” of Hamlet, which makes Hamlet’s Fool something of a prequel to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.
“In that sense, it echoes Hamlet but never says, ‘This is Hamlet,’ ” Cutts said.
Cutts came to Columbus in mid-March for four weeks of rehearsal with director Mandy Fox.
“Peter is inventive and imaginative,” Fox said.
“I’ll never hear Hamlet again without thinking of Peter’s back story, which is modern and historical at the same time.”
The Theater Department and Arts Initiative commissioned Cutts to do the play.
“Because it’s our ‘Year of Shakespeare,’ we wanted to commission a new piece related to Shakespeare,” said Lesley Ferris, director of the Arts Initiative, which supervises the multiyear partnership between OSU and the Royal Shakespeare Company of Britain.
Cutts previously visited Columbus to play Peter Quince under the direction of Ferris in a 2005 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
He returned that year as a visiting professor in the OSU Theater Department and for the role of the narrator in The Rocky Horror Show.
In 2006, he came back for a stint at the Wexner Center for the Arts to work on Blue Hair — a solo children’s show consisting of music, poetry and storytelling.
“I work a lot by myself as a solo artist,” Cutts said, “so the great thing is to plug into a community.”
For several decades, he has focused on writing and performing solo shows for children in British schools.
“You have to really prove yourself,” he said.
“Being a solo performer is quite a dangerous occupation — and thus similar to the Fool.”