The award-winning Guildford Shakespeare Company focuses on site-specific theatre in Guildford, England. Their next production is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by Tom Littler, running January 29 – February 19 at Holy Trinity Church. Freddie Fox plays the Prince of Denmark, who is stunned that his mother, Queen Gertrude (Karen Ascoe), married his uncle (Noel White) so soon after his father’s death.
Ascoe is a well-established actress and voiceover artist in the UK. She studied at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her theatre credits include A Splinter of Ice (Jermyn Street Theatre), Switzerland (English Theatre, Frankfurt), Shakespeare in the Abbey (Globe Theatre at Westminster Abbey), and The Tempest (Petersfield Shakespeare Festival) to name a few. She’s played many roles in television shows such as Holby City, Coronation Street, Drifters, Emmerdale, and The Armando Iannucci Shows.
During an early morning Zoom call, Ascoe was happy to discuss her experiences in past Shakespeare productions and recent Hamlet rehearsals. She also provided tips about what we should pay attention to when it comes to Gertrude. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
What were memorable Shakespeare plays for you in school?
Interestingly enough, when I was at school we studied Shakespeare. When I was about 15, we saw the [Franco Zeffirelli] film Romeo and Juliet. I remember it so clearly because Olivia Hussey was so beautiful playing Juliet. I think we were all very hormonal and everything. This Romeo and Juliet was just the most wonderful thing. Then we saw the Polanski Macbeth film soon after that, which is very bloody.
The first big Shakespeare I remember as a teenager was a theatre production of King Lear. I went on to study it quite a lot for part of my degree. An actor named Michael Hordern played Lear and to this day, it’s my favorite ever interpretation of that role.
What’s your advice to students trying out Shakespeare?
I had a brilliant teacher especially when I was 16 and studying at A-levels. [Shakespeare] has to be read out loud. If you’re just sitting at home trying to read it without anybody guiding you and without hearing the language [and its] rhythm, that’s already not so good. It’s always better to read out loud with a group of friends even if you don’t understand it. Make sure you get used to anything in iambic pentameter. Once you do, it’s really something beautiful.
Rehearsing here, we’re constantly looking at notes. We had two full days just going through the text, making sure we all agreed on the meaning of each line. Everybody needs to find an understanding of it.
What was it like doing Shakespeare in the Abbey in 2017?
With the Globe Theatre, we did a whole evening of sonnets in Westminster Abbey. That was extraordinary. I’d never even been in there before!
I’ve also done an outdoor production of The Tempest. I played Prospera, as opposed to Prospero, in the wonderful outdoor grounds of a school called Bedales in England. There’s nothing more magical obviously as it gets darker and darker. I can’t imagine you would experience it [this way], however good the lighting designer, inside in a theatre.
What about coming to a site-specific Hamlet now?
It’s so atmospheric. Working on site-specific things offers up many challenges. For actors, it adds a whole new dimension to the play, being in a wonderful location. The acoustics are completely different… When you do ghost scenes in the context of a church, I can only imagine that it’s going to be really spine-tingling for the audience and the actors alike!
What are the challenges in portraying Gertrude?
She’s extremely vulnerable. It’s a horrendous thing that her beloved husband has suddenly died! Clearly what we’re all discovering is that as the queen, this state of Denmark is in a bad way. She’s constantly got things pulling at her. The [new] marriage is very much to try and secure some kind of stability for the country. She’s also got this only son, Hamlet, who she’s massively close with. It must feel on some level like a betrayal, even though she doesn’t explicitly say that to him.
At the moment, I’m feeling the pain of somebody who has to keep presenting a good face to the public. With Hamlet, we hear what’s going on with him! For me, it’ll be a really interesting journey for me in rehearsing it and playing it, in finding out the inner life and what’s going on.
Do you have a favorite scene?
We’re starting to block and move things from the first scenes. At the moment, when she comes on and reports to Laertes about Ophelia’s death, it’s really fascinating. Gertrude tells this long spiel about the willow tree and how Ophelia was climbing on the branch and she fell down as it snapped. The reality is probably that she did kill herself. I’m loving that there’s profound sadness in going and telling somebody anything, but to what extent is [Gertrude] making up the language? Is she trying to soften the blow for Laertes?
Have you worked with any of the cast members before? What’s the vibe?
The vibe is great! There’s eight of us in the cast. I’ve worked before with our director [Tom Littler], who I really like. In 2020, I went over to Frankfurt to do a two-hander, Switzerland, with Daniel Burke. Stefan [Bednarczyk] plays Polonius and the organ in the church. I did my very first theatre job with [him] in 1987. That’s so exciting because he’s just brilliant.
What else can you share about the live music?
They’re still playing around with what’s going to be used. It’s not composed specially for the play. It’s wonderful old pieces of music. There’s a cello, which is played by the lovely actress Rosalind Ford, who is Ophelia. Stefan as Polonius doubles as the grave digger and plays the organ like a dream. Just the thought of watching Hamlet with the organ playing in a big church already sounds good.
I know you play guitar. Are you going to play it here?
My other half kept saying to me, “Tell them you play guitar!” [laughs]
I haven’t managed yet to wheedle my way into the music. I think they probably need people a little more proficient than myself.
What do you hope audiences will take away about Gertrude?
Gertrude is always a bit of a hazy character. People tend to put quite a strong stamp one way or the other because there’s not much in the text to go on. I really hope whether they like the character—or they don’t like her—that they can at least somehow see her journey, her vulnerability, and her pain. They can find some clarity on who she is and where she stands within the context of the whole play.
For more information about ‘Hamlet’ and to purchase tickets, visit GSC’s website.