Oliver Dench


by Joanna Orland

Summer of 2014 saw the debut of Revolve Theatre Company’s one-man rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as it was performed at this year’s Henley Fringe Festival.  Actor and Revolve Theatre Company Artistic Director Oliver Dench discusses theatre, Shakespeare and his great aunt Dame Judi.


How did you decide to form Revolve Theatre company and actually see it evolve into a reality?

Revolve Theatre Company was born out of discussions about what Joe Morris, Tom Smith, and myself each thought was less than perfect about theatre. The modern stage has a tendency towards the indulgent, and worse, the meaningless. We all believe in the ideas of Brecht – that theatre should be used for a purpose, to change the world in some way; not to simply exist as it’s own entity. Theatre is the type of art that can most closely mimic the living, breathing, real world. We believe that for that reason, the world and theatre are absolutely interconnected, and that theatre can be so much more than simply entertainment.

From that inception, it was a small leap to help the fledgling company put on its first show. Though juggling our daytime jobs with rehearsals left us stretched, anything is achievable with belief and hard work.


Your company was designed to remove vanity & indulgence from theatre to focus on the art. How do you go about doing this?

Stanislavski wrote in his famous System of the ‘Superobjective’ – the idea that every piece of theatre should have a purpose. This can be a point it wants to put across, or an idea to explore. As I said, theatre can encompass the whole world – so the Superobjective can be any purpose imaginable.

Stanislavski wrote that everything in theatre should be bent towards achieving this Superobjective. I believe he fell short of that mark. Unless the Superobjective is to entertain, and indulge the actors, what purpose is there in a curtain call, that couldn’t better be achieved by some other means?

We intend on all our work having a clear and discussed Superobjective, and from that point, to produce our work with all that in mind. There is no room for vanity in a show with, for example, a political or social message. There is no room for curtain calls.


You believe theatre to be educative and political in its power – how are you getting this message across in your current productions?

Our first, and so far only production, is a version of Hamlet. There is a dreadful stigma against Shakespeare in the world. It is a strange example of real life doublethink – on one hand, he is widely acknowledged as the greatest writer that ever lived. On the other hand, he’s famous as boring, stiff, confusing, old, or a whole host of other ideas.

This is simply not true. As a reviewer of our first show kindly corrected me, this is not due to too little exposure to Shakespeare, but to too much, of the wrong kind. Too many dispassionate teachers, teaching a subject that they don’t themselves enjoy, because it’s on the syllabus.

Our current production is solely educative (though the same reviewer I mentioned before suggested that approaching Shakespeare in this sense was political in itself). We intend to use our show to combat the unfair ideas about Shakespeare, and show a younger generation that he is indeed funny, understandable, and enjoyable.

After all, he wrote for the groundlings – the peasants of the day. And what crowd of peasants would be happy with a show that didn’t include various allusions to sex?


Your first show is a one-man Hamlet. Why did you decide to repurpose this classic as a one-man show?

Of all of Shakespeare’s works, I think that Hamlet lends itself to a one man format, more than any other. For my age range at least. Lear could have the same treatment, playing on Lear’s madness, but few people would accept me, a 21 year old man, as a Lear. It wouldn’t be doing justice to the text.

Hamlet was written shortly after Shakespeare’s own son, Hamnet, died of plague. It seems to me that Shakespeare wrote the play simply as a vessel for Hamlet, his ultimate philosopher, to… philosophize. Other characters exist simply for Hamlet to bounce off, to develop his ideas. The play is very Hamlet centric, contrasting to something like Romeo and Juliet, or Much Ado – they find their drama in conflict and relationships. It is not so with Hamlet.

In the one man format, our play lends itself to production within schools, and to workshop the text with students afterwards to further help them in understanding and appreciation with Shakespeare. With this format, we can travel, reach as many people as possible, and achieve the educative Superobjective of the production.


Oliver Dench stars in one-man adaptation of Hamlet


What are some of the challenges of doing a one-man show?

There is nothing to hide behind in a one man show. No prompts, no one else to pick up lines or help if another actor is floundering. It is absolutely imperative to hold an audience’s attention for the entire show – a moment of distraction, and you lose their favour.

I also find that some audiences, especially those who are particularly theatre or Shakespeare savvy, come to the show expecting it to be bad, or desiring mistakes, or less than perfect delivery. It is a monumental thing to take on a show of this nature, and it is necessary to prove your motivations are good to an audience who might have other ideas.


Did you have to repurpose any of the original text to adapt it for only one actor?

When adapting the script, I made sure I would not be writing in any new lines, or changing the text at all, as much as I could manage. After all, the idea is to showcase Shakespeare’s text. Writing in my own new dialogue would be missing the point. I unfortunately had to be merciless in cutting – our version runs at about seventy minutes, contrasting to a nearly four hour full text.

The closest I came to changing the text was changing some lines that would normally be dialogue into direct address. For example, Horatio’s first witnessing of the ghost, rather than be in conversation with Bernardo or Marcelleus, is now alone, and in conversation with the audience. “What, has this thing appeared again tonight?” is now aimed at the house in general, rather than another on stage character.

Oh, and also, I did add one teeny joke of five words into a Horatio speech, to allude to some characters that had been cut. I am upset that I had to cut so much, so a small allusion to those characters who are so wonderfully funny and appropriate in the play, but simply didn’t fit into our interpretation, just felt right. But I’ll say no more – it’ll ruin the joke if you see the show!


Do you have a favourite character to play or scene to perform?

In our version, Ophelia’s father, Polonius, provides almost all of the comic relief in the show. As a result, he is one of my favourite characters, because for those members of the audience who enjoy a laugh, he is assumedly one of theirs. His comic nature, and babbling text makes the play all the more enjoyable, and his untimely death, all the more touching and poignant. I hope that can’t be considered a spoiler – the text is four hundred years old, after all.

Beyond him, Hamlet’s unparalleled connection with the audience makes him incredibly fun to play. There’s nothing like philosophizing directly with an audience. After the madness of the play-within-the-play, the “now is the very witching time of night” is a favourite moment of mine, as the relative stillness lets the tension of the moment be almost palpable in the air.


What is it about Shakespeare’s work that remains timeless and allows itself to various renditions and modern adaptations?

They say that people talk about other people. Intelligent people talk about events, but great people talk about ideas. By this reckoning, Shakespeare was absolutely a great person. His plays aren’t about people, or the events that happen – he simply uses both those things as a vessel through which he can make his point. Hamlet isn’t about Denmark, it’s about philosophy. Romeo and Juliet isn’t about love, it’s about predjudice. It is for this reason, these universal themes, that Shakespeare is absolutely timeless – and will be performed until we finally forget what the word “thou” means.


Very serious question here: To be, or not to be?

Oh, Be, by all means. Being is so much more fun than not being. I suppose I’d rather bear those ills I have, than run to others that I know not of.


Your great aunt Dame Judi Dench has now become a patron of Revolve Theatre Company – how much is she and the rest of your family involved in the day to day running of the company?

We are extremely thankful to Judi that she has agreed to be our Patron. The rest of my family has been intensely supportive – namely my step-grandmother, Ann Curtis, who introduced me to some designers who helped throw around some ideas for the show.

My brother, Sebastian, another Shakespeare affectionado, was extremely helpful in the adapting process, helping me to understand which parts were imperative, and ultimately necessary to keep. And my other brother, Dominic, the editor of 14167 films, a fantastic film company, helped arrange some animations that take centre stage in some parts of the show.

My father was also incredibly helpful in production – filming and editing together some intensely important bits, as well as helping us with a trailer for publicity. And of course, my mum helped to feed and water us in the long nights of rehearsal.

Joe Morris’ partner Louisa did the overarching design of the show, and Tom Smith’s un-criticizable sister (another Louisa) has gone above and beyond the call of duty in helping us with press attention. Also, Tom’s partner, Chloe, has been fantastic in offering notes to the performance, and writing for us.

I suppose when written like that, it looks rather like something of a family enterprise. I’m certain there are more – there are so many people to whom my gratitude simply overflows for their help!


Do you think if you weren’t exposed to theatre and Shakespeare through your family connections from a young age that you would’ve taken this path?

Irrespective of Shakespeare, I love to read. Reading is absolutely the expansion of the mind, and I would like to think that if I hadn’t had the specific exposure to Shakespeare, I would have found him through that path. What better way is there to read and open the mind than with the finest writer the English language has ever known?

Perhaps I wouldn’t have delved so deeply so early, or even ended up as an actor or theatre practitioner, but I don’t doubt that I would have found the appreciation for the works that I now have.


What’s up next for you and Revolve Theatre?

We’re in the early planning stages of a tour of Hamlet to schools, fringe festivals, and theatres in order to hopefully spread our love of Shakespeare as far as it can stretch.

Beyond that, we’re interested in beginning our political season, and really confronting, through the tool of theatre, the issues in the world that we think are unacceptable. Immediately in our minds is the continued occupation of Tibet, and the unbelievable treatment of captives in Guantanamo Bay – both gross violations of every idea of human rights, that because of the size and power of the perpetrators, after a period of no movement, seem to now go undiscussed.


If there were only one word to summarize Oliver Dench, what would that one word be?

Any person that can be summed up with one word, or worse, can sum themselves up with one word, is surely a fairly two-dimensional person? I’d hope I can’t be summarized. I’ll go with ‘Human’. There’s a term I’m certain applies.



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