How They Got It Right

Hamlet is such a familiar play, read in high school, again in college if some liberal arts professor requires it, almost obligatory to see when a theatre undertakes it, and rarely done exactly right.

Why? And how to do it right?

It’s such a sprawling play, with textual variants that all included would make the play run at about four hours –as our city saw in the 1990s in what everyone referred to as SledgeHamlet, where the actor playing the Gravedigger was able to make the call for his appearance at the top of Act V after seeing other shows around town.

And it’s a “problem play,” with thorny questions that impact on other questions in a complex chain reaction. Like a lie that hasn’t been though through, you’re sure to get caught in it.

And so, you’re not likely to see a production that completely pleases you.

Last month, I was able to catch a production that was deeply satisfying: Intrepid Shakespeare’s version, directed by Christy Yael.

Here’s how they got it right.

1. A Father’s Death: smart staging of a veteran performer in the role gives “The motive and the cue for passion”

We start and end with death, and mortality stalks nearly everyone throughout this play.

Act 1, scene 1 of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark takes place, as everyone knows, upon the battlements of Elsinore Castle, as the night-watch awaits a ghostly apparition. The titular prince is only revealed in I/ii as the unhappy wedding guest at his mother’s remarriage to his uncle, acclaimed the late king’s successor. It’s not until I/iv that we’ve a chance to see the relationship between father and son –and though the boy is respectful, they don’t exactly seem like they were close.

And yet, the ghost is the spirit of revenge that lies at the heart of Hamlet’s genre. That has to work. Or we’re off to a poor start.

Many years ago, reviewer Jeff Smith of the San Diego Reader commented that although he had studied Hamlet in grad school (with a leading Shakespearean scholar, I might add) and read it regularly since, it struck him with renewed personal relevance that the action of the play is in the context of the recent death of Hamlet’s father.

Intrepid’s interpretation featured the Prince onstage as the audience entered, standing over a funeral casket draped in the flag of Denmark. It set a brooding tone that the ghost’s appearance in I/I and I/iv broke into. It was a great way to draw us into this familiar story in an unfamiliar way.

And Jim Chovick’s Ghost, first seen floating in the netting traps above our heads and then –yikes!—at our elbows, was grim and exacting, an imposing figure as cold a death. (Jim’s own warmth shone through later in delightful double-casting as a Player King looking like beaming Wallace Shawn at a  and as the priest who protocol-bound can’t see his way to saying a simple prayer over a poor dead girl)

Putting that relationship up-front made the play’s context more clear to us, more understandable. It is not based on affection, but upon a sense that we are duty-bound for our very existence. We embrace that, even when it hurts. That’s how we start with Hamlet: “But you must know that your father lost a father / That father lost, lost his…” We are caught in a chain of mortality, and our only escape is to live in a way that does honor to the dead –whatever that means to each of us.

2. Women and girls: A worthy actress Making Sense of the all that Hey-Nonny-Nonsense

Often, the demureness expected of a lady of court relegates Ophelia to relative non-entity in the earlier acts, who then transforms into a virago in a star-turn mad scene. “Madness” is a tricky term that, prior to the 19th century, encompassed a range of problems, from emotional fragility and anger management issues to paranoid schizophrenia and outright hallucinations. Playing a “mad scene” tempts the actress to explore that range, often all over the map, when Ophelia’s mental state is quite specific.

Teaching the play to a class of AP seniors, I asked them to enumerated the instances of textual evidence they found that Ophelia carries or carried Hamlet’s love child. Though it went against the timeline many critics establish for the action of the play, the students presented material to support their speculation. It certainly made extreme emotional behavior make sense to that audience, who otherwise felt she was a bit over-the-top. High school seniors, these were.

J.D. Salinger had Holden Caulfield comment on a production of hamlet, where Holden was pleased with the byplay between Ophelia and her brother. Though Holden sees it as added business, there’s some important emotional truth in it for him. It mirrors his own sense of protectiveness with his sister, Phoebe. That kind of personal response lies at the heart of a literary work’s continued relevance.

Perhaps the adolescents are discovering something fresh in this four hundred year-old play?

Though not an adolescent but an attentive mother, Jennifer Eve Thorn found this freshness in Ophelia. I heard one ungenerous audience member remark that Jen is a tad on the old side for Ophelia. Aside for the fact that Jen –though an accomplished actress– is still quite young, and aside from the inherent sexism in casting Hamlets in their late thirties (or even forties –looking at you, Lord Olivier) opposite Ophelia’s in their twenties (or teens, as this woman suggested) there’s probably few actresses in that age range who possess the emotional depth perspective necessary for the role. The star-turn mad scene arises from life not yet having pushed the actress to the limits of a woman’s endurance. So brava to Jen Eve Thorn, and kudos to director Christy Yael for casting her. And nuts to the enmeshed ageism and sexism of that comment. When in doubt, cast the veteran stage actor, and let’s leave off type-casting.

3. “I Hate Hamlet” –Great title for a play aimed at a mass audience, but too simplistic as the major motivation for a complex character- ization by an accomplished actor

Laertes is a Dionysian hothead to Hamlet’s Apollonian thinker, or so some scholar decreed, and how the teacher’s guides saw it when I was teaching it. However, that doesn’t mean the two men have to regard each other as opposites. Characters don’t relate to each other as diametrically opposed symbols, but as human beings. If all Laertes does is rail against Hamlet from the get-go, his anger at his father’s and sister’s death is nothing new and his regrets at the end of the play strike us as a Deus ex machine for revealing his plotting with Claudius. Give yourself someplace to go.

Brian Mackey understood that Laertes is all duty at the beginning. Though there are suggestions in the text that he would like to do other than as his father advises, he is dutiful and would teach that duty to his sister. In an odd way, this hot-head is actually a kind of conservative –or at least, would be a conservator. That kind of complexity plays well, and makes us love Laertes. There’s more than one body on that stage that represents a man who, had he been given scope, might have proved if not “most royal” then at least
most noble. Mr. Mackey made us like Laertes –without hating Hamlet.

By the way, Brian’s Laertes had to face a Hamlet in Sean Robert Cox who is a master fencer. It made their exchange and Laertes behavior make a different kind of sense from that of most productions. Another welcome freshness at the end of what is, after all, quite a long evening of theatre.

4. Polonius Assault: How one fine actor tackled this tricky role

A pantaloon who is the butt of many jokes, Polonius nevertheless appears the be sage chief councilor to the King of Denmark. Rouse and other scholars believed he was a caricature of the able Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s steward, drawn in a way to please the Essex circle with which the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had connections. However, playing to the conceit of that discredited coterie of four centuries ago renders the character flat and static, and his death an expected come-uppance. How much more rich and textured if he is a good father if overfond of sharing the benefit of his experience with his rash young son and a daughter he would not have acting like “an unsifted girl” , a sage politician whose counsel counts for much at court.

Danny Campbell has always been one of my favorite theatre artists. It helps that he has the eye of a good director, and I suspect that like many theatre artists he benefits by getting feedback from accomplished theatre artists close to him. His Polonius is, quite simply, the best I have ever seen.

5. Claudius: Lecherous? Treacherous? Try Plausible Villain 

Playing Claudius as Hamlet sees him, a uni-dimensional villain, is false to realities of statecraft as well as several aspects of human psychology and, I would argue, the text. A warrior dies, and the council selects as his successor his brother, an able politician capable of rapid dispatch of his duties in preference to the meditative Prince Hamlet, away at U. Wittenberg studying metaphysics. The queen has found it not only politic to seal the deal by marrying him, but responsive to her own deep-seated emotional needs.
Granted, we only see old King Hamlet as a ghost, but he doesn’t exactly strike us as the sensitive type. More on this anon.

Casting loveable Tom Stephenson as Claudius cast this character in a different light, made us see what it feels like to be a step-father, made us doubt that he was a shallow, callow villain -and, I insist, he’s not. In III/iii, he admits to the deed, which my trusty teacher’s guide told me was a revelation to an Elizabethan audience who has good reason to doubt the ghost. Personally, I believe the revelation is motive. This is a man who would pray if he could, and I relate to that as a man who finds “Bow, stubborn knees” both a sympathetic assessment and stern rebuke of those who find it difficult to humble themselves before God. And this is where he admits he’s not willing to surrender his gains: crown and ambition, yes, but also “my queen.” Tom Stephenson found lustiness in Claudius that was full-blooded and human, and is perhaps better suited than any other actor to see to the heart of what has to be one of the most difficult set pieces in all the canon.

6. The Sensuous Woman vs. the Perry Mason confession

Gertrude, like Claudius, is portrayed as made of flesh and blood. It bothers her son, who thinks that in her “heyday” the blood should be “tame.’ Well, grow up, Hamlet. That’s not true to our modern sense of a woman’s needs and I sincerely doubt it was Shakespeare’s. Of the three kinds of evidence we have of a character, one character’s comment on another is the worst. That’s his view of her, not who she is.

Slightly better is her own view of herself, and she admits to looking within her heart and seeing “black and grained spots.” Actresses often take this as an indication of her complicity in the murder of her husband.

However, the best evidence on a character, especially from an actor’s viewpoint, is that character’s actions.

ASIDE: One of the few convincing anti-Stratfordian comments I’ve ever heard was my partner’s. Betty remarked that the man who wrote the plays doesn’t seem like the man who stranded Mary Arden in Stratford and ran-off to be an actor in London, nor like the
retired burgher who left her his “second best-bed.” Regardless of the merits of the Baconian or other theories, or the meaning of that comment in Will’s will, it’s worth observing that this is a writer who at least likes writing for women. Right, ladies?

Debra Wanger made the clear choice that Gertrude’s guilt is not that she knew, but that she didn’t. This is not the confession of a culprit caught in the act, but one wrung from a person who believed themsleves guiltless. A look at Queen Gertrude’s  actions and her relationship with King Claudius thereafter bear this out.

7. “There are no small parts”: How Every Actor Matters

Even when productions of Hamlet get most of the big questions right, they often relegate roles with less line load to performers of lesser ability and experience –strangely, this is especially true in theatres where “money is no object” but actors are. It is always a great pleasure to see such roles filled by committed actors,and Intrepid did so.

One of my pet peeves is that reviews no longer consider it obligatory to mention all members of the cast. This practice can be seen as understandable in a world of increasingly briefer communication, of sound bites and Tweets, but it breeds the kind of disrespect for the craft and disregard for community that is detrimental to the continued practice of theatre. SO:

Savvy Scopaletti is a good example of an actor in service of a play, company, and her craft –something larger than the individual actor. Betty turned to me during the show and whispered “Who’s playing the ambassador?” because Betty, conservatory trained, understands full-well how “the Court makes the King.” I whispered Savvy’s name, and watched Betty beam. We remember her when she was the toast of the town for her work in My Sister in This House at the old Marquis Public Theatre, back when Betty and I met. The marquis will be ancient history to some, but I warn you: theatre has short generations, and ageism is the one prejudice that always catches up with everybody. Savvy’s still doing work befitting her name, and there are many, many actors who’ve fallen by the wayside since. Respect, in its etymology, means looking at something again. It did Betty & I good to see her.

That need to see things fresh was evident in the work of Brian Barbarin, an actor rightly noted for his gorgeous voice and great stage presence. Rightly seen, those are attributes of a Shakespearean actor, and it speaks well of him.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern were played by actress Wendy Waddell & actor Steven Grawrock, respectively. The production handled that gag well, using the name confusion to point out that these two work as a unit (in this case a marriage) at the risk of losing their individual identity, while at the same time granting them those identities –and without flogging the bit to death as many productions do. Also, “My lord, you did love me once” was quite affecting coming from a female. The sense of history, of old college chums who’ve grown beyond each other’s understanding, was quite affecting. They took the characters and gave them the dimension that Stoppard saw in them, with their own rich emotional lives, their own individual relationship with each other, and with the Prince.

(My only quibble with the production, really: the short shrift given them is so hard to handle when they’re not flat-and-static villains, but problematic when Hamlet himself is so unrepentant of their deaths, and so close to his own)

Eddie Yaroch is quite simply the best Gravedigger I’ve ever seen, playing him like a real person and not a comic character as portrayed by Will Kemp stopping by for a cameo on his triumphant Morris Dance from London to Yorkshire. It’s tempting to clown, but the Gravedigger has a more important role than comic relief. Eddie understood that.

Though he played only the role of Horatio and no ensemble roles, I include Tom Hall here because the role of Horatio and Tom’s grasp of it exemplify, again, acting in service of something greater than ourselves. Horatio has some nice moments. Tom’s “a piece of him” at the top of the show was spot-on for this man whose sense of duty finds himself in a place he doesn’t want to be, viewing something he doesn’t want to see. “indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon” was likewise exactly right for an old friend trying not to point up a painful reality. And his loving encomium at the end of the play “Good night, Sweet Prince,” is especially important in productions that spare us Fortinbras and the depressing drum-beat as all those bodies are borne out. Really, though, Horatio is called upon to do something that is at once much simpler than handling the lovely language, and much more difficult. Simply stated, this man has to love Hamlet. It’s one of the boldest choices one can make in life or art. And it’s not always easy.

8. Let’s see… Have I left anyone out?

In the end, it’s not so important that the audience love Hamlet, or even that he be loveable to anyone –though I suspect that each individual actor making that positive choice helps a lot.

That the play, or the actor in the title role, panders to its audience is probably the most common problem of this “problem” play, and yet the one that passes without comment, given our social proclivity for stars and stardom. Ironically and unfortunately, it can make a terrible prima donna out of the actor who essays the role –or, to be fair, the actress (Looking at you Sarah Bernhardt) A friend of mine identified this trap in the role years ago. He called the prima donna allure of the role “Little Miss Hamlet.”

There was absolutely none of that at Intrepid in the masterful performance of Sean Cox.

What the role calls for, what his Horatio and Ophelia and Laertes and Polonius and Gertrude, all the court, and yes, even Claudius, gave to him, what his director gave him and what he gave himself in spades, was that Hamlet is human –a living, breathing (the text draws attention to it, as well of course as the language) fully flesh-and-blood human, in this ultimate dramatic expression of Renaissance Humanism.

It’s a difficult thing to achieve –with any role, really, and especially with this one— precisely because Hamlet has become that demi-god literary figure, that star-turn by which John Barrymore transforms himself from a dissolute matinee idol to the ghost that haunts the television actor who essays the role in that oddly titled play.

Everybody dies in the end. That’s the play’s message, from beginning to end.
The question, then, is whether to be or not to be –to embrace our own humanity or to oppose it.

Our city got to see a magnificent, self-empowered actor embrace it, within a community of actors who embraced it.

That’s how they did it. That’s how Intrepid got it right.

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