Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Hamlet" --Setting Things Right Despite Cursed Spite (But Not Quite)

Walking into the theater to see a recent production of Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I was surprised to find an actor already on stage a full fifteen minutes before the play was scheduled to begin. (see photo, left.)

Hamlet (Don Donohue) is seated by himself on a stage made up as representing a chapel.  A casket with the flag of Denmark is at the front of the stage.  It s clear the production has added a silent prologue--the son of the warrior King Hamlet, sitting all alone after the funeral of his father.  As the "curtain time" draws nearer, other actors come in and out taking the chairs about the young man away into some backstage area.  It is clear there has been a service for the monarch, and clearer that the son is in no hurry to part from his father.  At last, he gets up and walks over to the casket,touches it gently, and then departs. An effective opening I think.

And so the play begins.

The contemporary staging of "Hamlet" had a few things I had never seen in previous productions.  The Ghost was played by a deaf actor (Howie Seago) who give his lines in American sign language, with Hamlet saying them aloud for the benefit of the audience while "signing" with his father . The only words the ghost spoke in any of his scenes was"List, O List!" in an awkward and tormented  way that made the words convey an extra measure of agony for their being cried out by a man presumably deaf for a long, long time.  

 There was also the matter of the travelling players. The play they perform, "The Murder of Gonzogo", with some additional lines from Hamlet himself, was done as a hip-hop production.  At first this was jarring to me, but soon it did make sense--this play has a sense of modernity about it that makes it easily transformable to modern times.  If this is a modern Kingdom of Denmark in some parallel world we would expect modern performance styles from a small troupe of "players".

   Secrecy, artifice and surveillance are a major part of the play.  The guards are dressed like modern security officers. Claudius' chief spymaster, of course,  is his minister Polonius (Richard Elmore) , who also provides a good deal of the comic relief with his verbosity and long-winded advice to his two offspring, Ophelia (Susannah Flood) and Laertes. Since this is a modern rendering we get to see surveillance cameras about the palace and  at one point Polonius makes his daughter wear a "wire" to find out if Hamlet is really mad or playing at it.    

This play has a myriad number of  simple and complex themes running through it.  The internecine drama of people in high places scheming to undo their enemies carries us through Shakespeare's longest play like a guided missle. 

After all the productions I've seen, I confess I've never been quite able to make up my mind about the main character here---he seems to be equal parts scholar, militant, power-hungry, meloncholy, morose and fatalistic, spiritual and reasonable, misogynist and arch-romantic, crude and kind, angry and brutal, and most of all human.  It is said of Hamlet that he is like a real person who finds himself put down in a play.    Of that much I can agree in describing one of the most complex characters any playwright ever made. 

I've never seen a bad Hamlet or a mediorce production.  Olivier's film version is memorable, but so are so many others and the stage productions I've seen always leave me wondering what new twists and ideas will come from the next production.  





  1. This is the famous "Gravedigger scene" from Act V from the first "Hamlet" I ever saw, the Tony Richardson directed "Hamlet" (1969)with Nicol Williamson and Gordon Jackson. The gravedigger is Roger Liversley.

  2. I think you might want to start using an adjective or two in your blogs.

  3. Excellent blog Doug! Very well-written!
    I love the modernisation of classical works. It engenders so many new ideas and wafts the dust off some of the old concepts that have gone on through the ages.
    The idea of the mourning and miserable Hamlet sitting there stunned before the play "starts" must have leant an almost eerie atmosphere to it's grave beginnings. A deaf ghost? Hip-hop? I think the whole point of "re-doing" anything classical is to put a new shine on it by taking the core meanings of the work and presenting them with fresh impact. Metaphors and symbolsim must have abounded and I wouldn't be suprised if a second viewing of the same work revealed new things to it's audience.

  4. I know this kind of production can suffer at the hands of the critics, so I hope they were kind. A new slant on Shakespeare's plays can often bring about a new understanding. We don't have to stay with the conventional all the time, or things can become very stale. I love the hip hop idea, I bet that brought a smile to a few faces.

    As long as the script writer doesn't go all sesquipedalian on us we can cope with these changes.

    Interesting write up, Doug, thank you.

  5. Is that a hoodie I see on the stage, Doug?;-)

  6. Thanks for that excellent review Doug. It may seem strange coming from someone living but 30 miles from Stratford Upon Avon, but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival it seems delivers to your door an annual faire of drama almost unsurpassed in its focus and frequency.

    Your incisive analysis and understanding of the history of Shakespeare's England is nurtured and fed at least annually with new productions and interpretations of Shakespeare's oeuvre performed locally, it makes me wonder whether you moved to Oregon just for that reason Doug?

    This sounds like an interesting production, although perhaps not the most ideal introductory performance, for someone less familiar with the play than you are yourself?

    I'm prepared to think I'm wrong about that last statement, but it was intended to acknowledge the breath of your understanding of this subject from the literary, theatrical and historical perspectives.

    Your review whetted my appetite and made me feel I'd like to see this production of Hamlet myself if ever it were to come my way.

    It seems to me you are delivered these dramaturgical experiences at regular intervals, which given your own set of interests is akin to a bear being delivered honey by FedEx I think.

    You have clearly set your lair well there in Ashland Doug.

    Oregon is I think more steeped in Shakespearean drama than the county of Warwickshire is in England, where the Bard has to compete with ever more distracting novelties day in and day out.... the concentrated focus is not the same here (other than in Stratford itself) as it appears to be in the clear and bright air of southern Oregon.

    This at least seems to me to be true of yourself and the wider audience for Shakespeare (and other) plays in your neck of the woods.
    What I'm trying to say here may well be disputed by various residents of Warwickshire, England, or the World, but these were the thoughts that reading your post evoked, so thanks for your thought provoking review of this particular Hamlet so nicely juxtaposed with the 1969 film classic.

    Great post Doug cheers.

  7. I know. I know. I'm working on it, Fred, I'm working on it!

  8. Thanks Oakie.
    As long as the original words are there ("Words, words, words" as Our Lad the Dane would say) then its all right by me.
    I think you're quite right about trying to surprise veteran viewers of 'Hamlet' with the agelessness and adaptability of the play and open up the material to student audiences who think somehow its all going to be a time-set antique play with little movement (which is how I pictured Shakespeare after reading him aloud with half-asleep fellow students in high school English lit class , without actually seeing a live play.)

    I hope to see it this one again when friends come to visit in a couple months. Indeed the core meanings of the play (what to believe in, how to act in a world of duplicity) can only be enhanced in the hands of someone who can make the tools of modernity serve to cut through the centuries and "sell" the story to young modern minds. I think this production was successful in that.

  9. The main local critics (we have but two in the newspapers) were quite positive about this one , Cassandra, although some people on the blogs I notice were a bit taken aback by some aspects like the players doing hip-hop. (Metro critics also have started reviewing the plays here which is a good sign.)
    I can report that the audience at the performance I attended (a matinee , with a lot of students bussed in form out of state ) were quite receptive and upfront in their praise at the encore! The last production of the work here was more conventional and I liked the fellow playing 'Hamlet" a bit better than Dan Donohoe, but he was quite good and carried the irreverence in Hamlet's character off quite well. That humor was much appreciated by the younger audience. At one point Hamlet cuts off Polonius' tie with sissors in the library scene, an antic Marx Brothers touch I liked.

    Now that I've looked he definition of sesquipedalian ( a handy word) I quite agree. Shakespeare added hundreds of words to our language, long and short, and he was obviously working at the height of his powers here. That's why I shuddered a bit at the hip-hop business at first but it seemed quite all right after all.

    Thanks for your encouragement Cassandra.

  10. Great replies folks. Will post more feedback when time is less pressing. See you all later!

  11. ~*Hugs*~.. wishing/hoping the best!!!

  12. Good for the critics!!

    I'm glad the students seemed to enjoy this version of Hamlet. It is the kind of thing they'd do if asked to produce a play.When the tie of Polonius was cut it must have drawn back anyone who was losing interest. As for hip hop it can be introduced to tell a story in quite a unique way. I wish there was a clip of that.:-)
    After all, this kind of modernisation of Shakespeare has been done before with West Side Story, based on Romeo and Juliet and look what a success that was, albeit a musical. There are people who simply can't get a grasp on Shakespeare. I do feel bringing it up to date helps us ALL to see it afresh and that is no bad thing. It doesn't mean we are losing the way it would have been done in the days of the bard. I believe some of the plays performed in the early days of the Globe were changed and shown to the public with a bit of humour added. I would imagine quite a large slice of humour came from the audiences quipping, because they were known to be a rowdy lot!

    Yes, Shaky sure coloured the English language.

  13. Yes, AA, this a good spot for a Elizabethan/Jacobean history and literature buff like yours truly. I actually moved firstly to another part of southern Oregon about twenty years ago because I was tired of my job and the congestion of suburban life and wanted to try some rural living apart from the San Francisco Bay Area. I must thank my first wife for getting a partial scholarship to a university that sort of got me in the area. I suppose access to the Festival was always a secondary benefit for me.

    I had been to Ashland as a tourist a couple times and seen about three plays total. Before I met my current wife I never seriously thought I'd get a chance to live here so I am quite lucky. Ashland is a nice place even if it didn't have this eight-month annual festival, but it really is a boon to the whole area.

    A couple years back I went to a production of "As You Like It" and was sitting next to an English couple who told me at Intermissin that they thought the OSF version of the plays they had seen so far were better than the ones at Stratford! Although this is purely anecdotal, I was impressed. To get a chance to see a professional repatory company in a situation whose works other people travel hundreds of miles to see is a boon.

    Four or five Shakespeare plays go on a season plus seven or eight plays by American writers like Tennessee Williams and August Wilson and lately quite a number of international plays in translation. The production of "Equivacation" I wrote about in a blog earlier (a new play set at the time of King James and "The Gunpowder Plot), for example, had its premiere here and is now playing in a new production up in Seattle. It attracts union acting talent from all over North America and beyond i suspect, which is owing to the vision of a college teacher and part-time actor named Angus Bowmer, who created the first production of Shakespeare plays here one July in 1935 and steered it toward the heights it has reached now until he passed away in the early Eighties--aboutth same time I saw my first play here, "The Comedy of Errors". That would be a blog in itself.

    I agree that this would not be the ideal introduction to "Hamlet" in my opinion. But you may be on to something when you say that Warwickshire may have more distractions to offer. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has only occasional touring companies of plays and musicals coming into near-by Medford. Other than high school football (which holds no interest to me), the musical Britt Festival in Jacksonville (strictly Summer bookings) and a couple of cabaret showcases, this is the Big Deal in the area.

    Glad I could bring back some good memories of play-goings past, AA. Hope something interesting comes your way at a theater soon.

  14. Exactly Cassandra. A play like "Hamlet", so well known in many ways even to those who've never seen a live production, cries out to put a stamp of originality and at least some modern idioms to the structure of the story-telling.

    And Shakespeare himself probably had actors doing all sorts of things to draw attention to the story in ways that we can only guess about. And perhaps the players took it on themselves to "enliven" his dramatics all on their own.

    I imagine some of their innovations had "Shakey" pulling what was left of his hair out judging by the strict advice Hamlet gives to the players on not overacting and sawing the air with their hands.
    "'Speak the speech, I pray you, damn you!" I can imagine William yelling at his fellow players and sharers at rehearsal back at the old Globe in1600. Dick Burbage and others had their own creative flights of fancy to add wanted or unwanted aid to the poor playwright's toils.
    If only we had a diary from one of the Lord Chamberlain's Men of what went on during preparation for the big afternoon opening on the South Bank!

    But, yes, everything I've read about what has been gleamed from "the groundlings" of those early English theatres were that they hardly stood or sat in silence, letting their feelings remain politely subdued like most of us do. You had to earn their attention! ;-)

    If you are interested in seeing some highlights from the play--including the tie-cutting part--click to the website below and then click on the thumbnail for the poster for "Hamlet". It will then bring up a video to play.


  15. Thanks for stopping in, Growed!

  16. Thank you for the link Doug, how interesting. What an amazing setting. I love the Elizabethan theatre. How wonderful to see the such theatre kept alive in this way. In spite of the ticket prices, it's worth giving ourselves a treat now and again to experience this type of venue. Somehow in spite of television we still need to see plays and musicals live.

    I thought Hamlet looked great from the clip I saw. There was even a bit of the hip hop you spoke of. It looks quite a fast moving production and that helps to keep the attention of a young audience. No one could accuse Hamlet of being laconic could they? :-) Wouldn't it be great to cut the tie of the person who was getting on your nerves.Oh the joy to see the look on their face.

    I would imagine in the days of the Globe, where they reckon there was a lot of heckling, the audience reaction had a lot to do with the way an actor hyped up his lines, after all if one is losing their attention something has to be done. Maybe Shakey lost his hair from much pulling of it in frustration.

    Can you imagine the crowd laughing at the Dane when he is at his most wretched? Hamlet, is one of Shakespeare's longest plays, fortunately the scenes feigning madness, through to anger and remorse
    help to keep our attention.

    As you say, what a shame more wasn't written about what went on behind the scenes. We always want more don't we? I bet, the great man's anger would be music to our ears as he cuss'th.

    Thank you once again, Doug!

  17. I think live theatre really does add a dimension to story-telling that somehow cannot be replicated in film or television, Cassandra. There's more of an emotional current between actors and audience. One can find ones-self "lost" in any mode of story-telling, of course.

    Yes, if only "tie-trimming" was acceptable at least on one day of the calendar a la April Fool's Day. Might relieve many people of their workday frustrations and create new and imaginative uses for lopped-off menswear. :-)

    One always hopes (against hope) that there will be some new trove of material about the acting companies of those times and their tours. We do know that the Lord Chamberlain/King's Men were successfully doing shows before live audiences and at Court and the houses of the nobility. And then there were new plays to write and rehearse somehow! No wonder so many of Shakespeare's plays have scenes were characters long for a bit more sleep.

    No doubt Mr. WS longed for a nice warm dull Summer afternoon back at the village of Stratford. He got a bit of a retirement at the end of his life I gather--although he probably missed the hurly-burly of his urban life while tending to the ordinary affairs as a land-owning gentleman. I wonder if the locals realized what a seismic figure they had in their midst as the older gentleman strolled about on market day with Judith or Susannah by his side?

    Glad you could see the production trailer as well. It gives a chance to see the set design of the work, which was also done well I thought. The tall battlements surrounding the actors gave one a sense of watching people situated in a prison, which was a perfect setting for the torments of Hamlet and poor Ophelia.

    Thanks for looking in!