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.