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George Rennie: Hamstrung

By | Published on Friday 21 June 2024

I’ve been covering the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for longer than I would care to tell you now and one thing you can pretty much always be guaranteed to see listed in the programme is plays by Shakespeare and plays that are not by Shakespeare, but do interesting riffs on Shakespeare. 

I confess that my favourites of all the Shakespeare-connected stuff tend to fall into the category of not-actually-Shakespeare, because it’s very much in the spirit of the Fringe to do something new and fresh, while acknowledging, or using, time honoured ideas, stories and themes. 

So, it felt extremely appropriate to begin our series of 2024 edfringe Q&As by talking to George Rennie, who is bringing his show ‘Hamstrung’ – a play about Yorick, the dead court jester from ‘Hamlet’ – to the Pleasance Courtyard this year.

The show sounds amazing, so obviously I wanted to find out more about both the piece and the creative brain behind it. 

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from the content of ‘Hamstrung’? Who is it about and what story does it tell?
GR: Very simply, ‘Hamstrung’ is about Yorick, the dead court jester who appears as a skull in ‘Hamlet’. But it’s also about those who are forgotten or left out of the main narrative, and the hidden struggle of performers who have to maintain a veneer of merriment when inside they might feel a deep sense of dread.

We don’t know much about Yorick from Shakespeare’s play other than that he was Hamlet’s ‘fellow of infinite jest’, whose ‘flashes of merriment were wont to set the table on a roar’. He bore Hamlet on his back a thousand times and was much beloved – but now he is departed. Alas!

In my play, Yorick has come back from the dead, as he is every time someone stages the tragedy of ‘Hamlet’. At first he tries to entertain the audience, but soon discovers the world of Elsinore offstage. This leads him to confront the ways in which court has changed, including Hamlet having aged and the king having died. 

In reckoning with what he’s lost, Yorick unfolds the tale of how he came to court in the first place, revisiting his childhood as a ‘weird little wart’ and detailing how, through making people laugh, he managed to rise into the heady heights of fame.

As his actions influence the world beyond, he realises that perhaps it was better for him to stay lost in the shadows of obscurity – for at least then no one was getting killed, and he wouldn’t have to suffer the guilt of abandoning his lover.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
GR: The play uses death as a metaphor for a performer’s feelings of invisibility and irrelevance when without an audience or sense of purpose. Yorick fears losing his audience more than anything, and seeks out laughter and applause with the compulsion of an attention-starved child.

It’s about lost laughter, the faded glory of youth and the desire to bask in the marvel of an adoring crowd. It’s also about whose stories get to be told, and flips ‘Hamlet’ on its head to explore the space between tragedy and comedy, laughter and tears, life and death. It’s quite a philosophical show but is also lots of fun!

CM:  What inspired it? What made you want to create a play about this?
GR: The play grew out of my own ambivalence around performing, having stopped pursuing acting in the wake of the pandemic. This was a necessary step towards personal growth, but the space left behind when losing my identity as an ‘actor’ created a feeling of genuine loss. 

At heart, the play is about someone wanting to simply stand in front of people and sing their song. More broadly, it’s about the struggles of spreading joy and love in a world that prioritises money and security.

The melancholy and complexity of thought in ‘Hamlet’ as well as the famous absence of the clown captured so many of the feelings I was having about my relationship with theatre, and out of this feeling sprung a play that reclaims the narrative of ‘Shakespeare’s greatest play’ for the unseen, queer every-clown.

CM: To what extent is the content of the play drawn from ‘Hamlet’? Do you need to know ‘Hamlet’, do you think, to appreciate this?
GR: The play weaves around ‘Hamlet’, with the events of Shakespeare’s original occurring offstage. Each time Yorick exits, role-playing as the king, he finds himself in one of the scenes in ‘Hamlet’ where the king’s ghost appears. He therefore accidentally causes the events of the tragedy.

All of this is narrated when he comes back, but there’s a lot more going on, relating to Yorick’s backstory and the live action of his relationship with the audience.

The show will definitely tickle the imagination of anyone familiar with the melancholy Dane, but my goal here is really to make the themes of ‘Hamlet’ accessible to anyone who’s ever been curious about theatre, heightened emotions and the image of the skull. Why do we revere this so much? What does Shakespeare have to say about death?

The greatest joy for me is when people who don’t know the play are swept along for the ride, and I hope that people will feel inspired to seek out more exposure to what I think is truly a fantastically layered story told in the most curious, poetic and intellectually stimulating of ways.

CM: How did you go about creating this? Did you sit down and write it, or was the process more devise-y?
GR: This script grew out of another play I wrote about a children’s entertainer in a world with next to no children. I spent months on this play and it’s so well structured, so intricately plotted and full of such whimsy and silliness.

However, I got some feedback from a very good – and successful – writer friend who said all this, but that it also lacked me. This was quietly devastating, considering how much work I’d put in and how much I truly believed in its value. 

But after hearing this, I found myself going back to the beginning and starting again. The first draft of ‘Hamstrung’ poured out as a dribble of pure emotion, before I’d even made the connection with Yorick. It was later, after I realised what I really wanted to explore, that the relevance of ‘Hamlet’ kicked in, providing a brilliant structure around which to build this story.

I developed it with a couple of dramaturgs and actors before taking it to a scratch night, then a full play reading, then a performance at the Old Red Lion last October. It’s been a very gradual and porous process, and the previews we’ve done since have confirmed that the show is full of both laughter and emotional truth. Audiences have loved it!

CM: Did you always plan to perform this yourself?
GR: I didn’t initially plan to perform it, as I had very much quit acting. I had a brilliant actor friend perform it for me at the first scratch night and this was illuminating. But there was something missing.

The show is incredibly personal and there’s so much of me in it. I gave myself the challenge of performing a dynamic reading at the Cockpit and quickly realised that I needed to see the show through.

It’s so cathartic to share this story with an audience, and a beautiful blossoming of my own creative life, coming back out of the shadows and embracing the joy of performance – just as Yorick does in the play.

I want to share that process with people, and inspire them to find and nurture their own creative voice. We all have one, it’s just about finding and taking the opportunities to express it.

CM: I hear there’s some audience interaction – to what extent does that happen?
GR: There is plenty of interaction with the audience via direct address and participation. The play starts with a provocation to the audience, and throughout I engage audience members – voluntarily, of course – in various roles from Horatio to the queen to the actors in Yorick’s own play.

Breaking down the barriers between audience and performer is very integral to this show, and it makes each performance so lively and magical. I want to empower people to embrace their own performative side and get a bit silly!

CM: Have you brought shows to the Fringe before? What made you decide to bring this one?
GR: This is the first show that I’ve taken to Edinburgh Fringe. I was supposed to come up in 2020 with a three-hander that I was in and co-producing, but then the pandemic put a stop to that.

I’ve wanted to do Edinburgh for many years, but made ‘Hamstrung’ independently. I was just exploring creatively, and it was only after the WIP at the Old Red Lion that I realised that the show was good enough, and the Festival a perfect opportunity to share my story and connect with audiences and the industry.

CM: What are you looking forward to about being in Edinburgh? What will you be doing when not performing?
GR: I’m staying with a friend so I am looking forward to spending time with him. I’m also looking forward to being outside of London – it’s easy to lose sight of the rest of the world there.

There are so many people I want to meet and shows that I want to see. I plan to do a lot of walking, and will keep on writing and networking in my down-time. 

CM: What other shows are you hoping to see?
GR: So many! I’m keen to see ‘Beyond Krapp’ – on at The Pleasance like ‘Hamstrung’ – as creator Peter McCormick really excites me as a creative and I see our shows as exploring somewhat similar themes.

I’m a sucker for all things queer, alternative and/or spooky, so Andrew Doherty’s ‘Gay Witch Sex Cult’ plus shows by Tarot, Catherine Cohen and, of course, Ginger Johnson are very much on my list.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your background in performance? Is this what you always wanted to do? What steps did you take to begin a career in the arts?
GR: My background was… complicated. I left home with bold ambitions of being a doctor, but switched off my medical degree to study Philosophy and never looked back. This was when I got back into performance, acting in and producing lots of plays up in Manchester before coming down to London for further studies.

It was a community production of ‘Cabaret’ – in which I played Sally Bowles – that convinced me to pursue acting professionally, and I went to Central where the focus was almost exclusively on Shakespeare. This was such a brilliant challenge, and my poetic inclinations were set alight.

Following this, I did a lot of new writing, comedy, children’s theatre and a few screen projects before COVID hit and I took a new direction, focusing more on writing and building a career and life beyond performance. Now I’m back, and am so thrilled to be donning my acting socks again!

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life thus far?
GR: In 2019, I performed in my first professional co-production, Oliver Page’s ‘Mating In Captivity’ at King’s Head Theatre, and the reception was just incredible. The play ends with a ‘chaotic tableau of millennial angst’ after an hour of quick repartee, anarchic wit and sexual crossed-wires, at which point the audience were so amped up to cheer, not just us but the whole production.

Feeling such a sense of ownership over this show, doing the curtain call topless and covered in fake blood and feathers, standing with two of my best friends and having both loved ones and strangers alike so thoroughly entertained was just the best feeling.

It’s a cliché, but there are few jobs where you get such a clear indication of whether you’ve done well, and it’s honestly so gratifying. We felt like rock stars.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
GR: My main goal is to write. I feel much more at home with the lifestyle and career of a writer, and have a few projects at quite exciting stages, including a multi-character play, a fantasy novel and a TV sitcom.

I love performing and will probably always seek it out, but I will be investing more of my energies into learning how to craft and shape stories on the page, before taking them out into the auditorium or onto the screen. Having said that, I will most certainly be performing this show beyond the Fringe!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
GR: After the Festival, I’m going to spend some time in Glasgow and on the West of Scotland too. I have been told to bring plenty of midge deterrent.

‘Hamstrung’ is on at The Pleasance Courtyard from 31 Jul-26 Aug. Find the edfringe listing here

LINKS: www.georgemrennie.co.uk | x.com/GeorgeMRennie 



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