Michael Lesslie’s prince: Hamlet for our generation

Throughout my meeting with Michael Lesslie, I’m struck by his animated personality. At 28 years old, Lesslie’s writing has already been nominated for a range of awards, including a BAFTA, and he is now developing two new plays, two TV series and three feature film scripts. He’s not up to much at the moment, then. It’s a little ironic that someone so young has been intrinsic in giving a company of young actors, only a few years his juniors, the chance to perform at the National Theatre in his play Prince of Denmark, a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But this is a reflection of his obviously generous character; very quickly I feel like we’re on the same page, and most definitely learnt more in an hour with him than in a year at university.

At university, Lesslie was taken under the wing of Patrick Marber, all because he simply took the initiative to make himself known to the playwright when he visited; Lesslie is adamant that “he really did give me a career, I owe him so much”. Marber’s advice to him was to “direct great plays, because it really teaches you to get inside them”. Lesslie is keen, but is yet to add a directing credit to his already impressive CV; instead he likens this to his acting experiences (apparently he was a terrible actor, but I get the impression his personality would definitely hold its own). “One of the things which helped Prince of Denmark was that I did play Hamlet at school. I tore the ligaments in my ankle the week before, I was a lame Hamlet. But my headmaster wrote a note to me saying ‘long after your ankle’s healed, the memory of the lines will live on’. Once you’ve learnt Shakespeare it’s in your head, it’s amazing how the rhythms stay with you.”

It seems Lesslie was blessed with teachers passionate about drama, as well as full of absolutely golden quotes for a writer’s essential arsenal of anecdotes. He remembers the influence that reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf had on him, and his first taste of Shakespeare. But then at university, he studied all of Pinter’s plays to death until “I just hit a wall. I could say the pauses and silences do this. Great. But the magic was in seeing it and how they work.” He knocks such dry approaches, especially to Shakespeare. “I’m not an authority on this, but in terms of my gut reaction, I think there is an unfair stigma against it as being hard and boring, and actually it’s the most exciting drama ever if you stage it right… People going out and saying kids have to read Shakespeare is as damaging as saying Shakespeare’s really difficult. It’s good for you, not the people telling you to read it.” He recommends students would find it more engaging to “read it out loud as the character”.

Prince of Denmark is a stepping stone for young people into Shakespeare, which steers clear of ‘fake-speare’ expression or an unjustified update. “I know how Laertes speaks, it’s in Hamlet. I couldn’t make him say ‘Wassup!’, it’d be ridiculous.” Lesslie initially questioned whether a prequel “was possible without being terrible,” until re-reading Hamlet and remembering there are ideas with which everyone still identifies and which make it so popular today. “Everyone sees themselves like Hamlet, like the protagonists of their own life. Aware that we know what’s going to happen to these characters, by calling attention to the fact in the very act of writing a prequel, the main point is, I feel like someone in control of my life. But am I in control? Or am I an actor in someone else’s tragedy? In the way the play is set up, there’s a sense that they could act in such a way that I was toying with the idea, what if Hamlet dies at the end of this?”

What’s refreshing about Lesslie is that he thinks “there is no difference between writing for adults and young people. I loathe things that patronise.” Reading Prince of Denmark, I’m struck by how it’s just as challenging as any other play, in no way patronising. Despite his rapid success, Lesslie evidently has both feet firmly on the ground and significantly echoes Marber’s kindness in the wealth of counsel he shares with me. “I’m not the best writer in the world by a million leagues, but just the fact that it’s actually what I do day in day out means I’ll have some advice. But I guarantee you will get contradictory advice too. It’s about finding the way that works best for you: what you want to say and how you want to do it. Writing is an incredibly selfish thing, what people want is you as a writer on the page.”

And the advice Lesslie gives rings true for me, and I’m sure for most young writers: “Write as much as possible and don’t worry about it. Don’t get precious and feel a need to perfect it, just get it out there or else you’ll cripple yourself because you never start. There’s nothing like writing an imperfect play to teach you how to write a perfect one.” Lesslie seems to churn out scripts at lightning speed; his ability to look forwards  is an example to young people wanting to get ahead in an increasingly competitive industry. “There’s nothing like biting the bullet. You’re never going to get perfection in a moment; a line only works in a scene once the scene’s finished, playwriting is as much about context as articulation.”

Considering everything he’s working on at the moment, Lesslie also feels “collaboration is the most incredible thing in the world”. As both a successful playwright and screenwriter, he compares his experiences working with directors in these mediums, and the idea of directing himself. “With a film, you see it in a certain way; you’ve only got one shot. With theatre, you’ve got hopefully endless reiterations of your play for years to come. Inevitably that means you collaborate with directors and make it something that wasn’t just the idea in your head. Sharing it with someone else will just make it richer.”

Prince of Denmark shares Hamlet’s world with young people by making the characters teenagers who have as much at stake in the decisions they make as teenagers today. “There is something in the characters with which everyone can identify: if someone’s in love, if someone wants something. But I think there’s a common approach to Shakespeare like it’s something unreachable. When we did Prince of Denmark at the National the first time [as part of the Discover season in March 2011, performed by members of the National Youth Theatre], we got really young audiences, and they loved it – there was silence, and people were really attentive. We’d been concerned that the language was going to be too challenging or too difficult but it wasn’t at all.” Lesslie’s play not only captures the essence of Hamlet, but of the Connections Festival itself: the breaking of boundaries and breaching of stigmas.

Michael Lesslie’s play Prince of Denmark will be performed at the Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre, on Monday 25 June at 7.00pm by Calderdale Theatre School, West Yorkshire. For tickets and more information, click here.

Image credit: Prince of Denmark, March 2011 by Simon Annand

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess is currently Duty Manager of the Battersea Arts Centre and a freelance writer. She has written subtitles for major production companies and channels including the BBC, and written for publications including The Stage, Broadway Baby and One Stop Arts. She trained at Arts Educational Schools London Sixth Form and graduated with a First in English and Creative Writing from Brunel University, as well as completing a year with MGC Futures and the Soho Young Company.