Looking at John Marsden, I imagine that if I were close enough, I would see remnants of chalk dust on his clothes. (Or maybe, in these modern times, smudges of whiteboard marker.) He looks exactly like the school teacher that he is: maroon cable-knit jumper worn loosely over a checked shirt; wispy grey hair; a shuffling, bear-like amble across the stage. His easy manner with the schoolchildren massed before him is borne of long habit. You can see their teacher custodians relax as he briefly takes over.
First, though, session chair Mike Shuttleworth (from the State Library of Victoria’s Centre for Youth Literature) introduces John and provides some background on his reinvented version of Hamlet. He tells us that Marsden has just spent seven years writing it, and reminds us that the original version of the story predated Shakespeare by 400 years – and just ten years before the Bard’s version, a playwright named Thomas Kidd wrote his own.
Marsden begins by telling us that stories always remind us of other stories, and we are all storytellers in our way. “What we call conversations are exchanges of stories.” He riffs into a strong of invented conversation stories, kid-style, including things like skateboards. “There are the big stories but there are also the thousands of little stories we carry within that are so easily forgotten.”
“Our memories shape us, define us. Our stories tell us who we are. And our stories are unique. Many cultures, like the Aboriginals, didn’t write down stories, but retold them.”
He reflects that the original story of Hamlet is lost, and perhaps oral story telling is in some ways better than the Western tradition of writing things down, because it’s not so easily lost as manuscripts or books (like those in the lost library of Persepolis).
“Writing is my preferred method of creative expression. Some people dance. Not me. If I did that, I’d fall off the stage.” The sea of school uniforms ripples with laughter in response.
He moves on to tell us about how he used to make up ghost stories when teaching at a bush school, approximately 20 years ago. “There’s something quite delightful about terrifying people, I find.” Years later, he revisited the school and found that his stories still existed – albeit in a different form. They survived as truth, as living legends. He marvelled as he listened to tales that he had invented, but didn’t let on about their origin.
“Stories are about interruptions to routine.” If you get up for breakfast and everyone is there, eating, that’s not a story, he explains. But if you get up and your family has disappeared, that’s an interruption to routine – and a story!
Hamlet is a series of interruptions to routine. First, his father dies. Second, his mother remarries. And third, his father reappears, urging him to avenge his death. “MAJOR interruption to routine.”
Stories are also about changes of status, Marsden continues. Sometimes it works out well, sometimes badly. “One of the great lessons in life is learning how changes of status work.” He points out that, as the author and someone older than his audience, he has a higher status. “And because I’m a male and it’s 2008. To some extent, that’s still the way things work.”
“We love it when people lose status.” This, he says, can easily happen. “In writing a book, understanding status is everything.”
Hamlet is a young man with high status who is threatened by the actions of his stepfather and trying to deal with a very high status father figure. Hamlet has three father figures (his father, Polonius, and his stepfather/uncle). He kills two of them. “Maybe Shakespeare had problems with his own father,” Marsden jokes.
We’re all engaged with status battles with our parents, teachers and siblings, he says. Boys are engaged with status battles with their fathers that “they must win”. That battle comes for every young man. It may be a game of chess or tennis, or a fight. “If the day comes and the boy loses, he’ll forever live in the shadow of his father.”
He sums up with a few choice words on the book: “Hamlet is about identity, love, sex and becoming who you want to be. It’s about dealing with memories that your parents have passed on to you. It’s about fathers and sons.”
It’s question time. I have to say that high school students seem (judging from the few Schools Program sessions I sat in on) to ask much smarter questions than the grown-ups do.
“What was your status battle with your father?”
A curious hush descends. Marsden pauses for just a fraction of a second before answering.
“It was over the fact that my father used to beat me quite often and I said ‘you’re not going to do that anymore’. I was about 14. It was one of the defining moments of my life.” Pause. “I hope nobody here has to go through anything like that.”