In my Netflix queue at present, there are 5 different movie adaptations of Shakespearean plays: Twelfth Night, Henry V, Richard II, and Hamlet. There had been three Hamlet‘s at one time, but I’ve already watched the Gibson followed by the Brannagh, with only the Tennant one left (not Olivier. Never Olivier. Perhaps Kline). I studied non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama for my Honor’s degree as part of my Bachelor’s in Literature and didn’t get enough of Shakespeare when I earned my Master’s degree. I still study the plays as I have three different Shakespearean lecture series that I listen to every year or so. The language got me early on and I go back regularly.
However, I’ve rarely seen the plays performed on the stage. Movies, yes. Reading, surely. But performed? In that I have been much amiss.
Last Saturday, on an impulse, I went out to the American Players Theater in Spring Green to see Hamlet and I wanted to put some thoughts down. I’m assuming that I won’t have to go into detail about the plot or the characters. If you need more of that, I can recommend some lecture series.
The play was performed outside on their thrust stage, an approach that I favor, having had my first theatrical experience on the thrust stage of Hopkins High School (now supplanted by a proscenium arch. Pity). The in-your-midst approach that it provides, coupled with the very minimalist set dressing made the play feel immediate and compelling. That I have to do more to imagine the setting makes me more complicit in the experience perhaps. It’s an approach that APT does well and this production was no exception.
Seeing the play live provides a much changed response to many lines. There are laugh lines that I’d never read as laugh lines. And crowd reactions that Shakespeare never would have anticipated! I’m pretty sure old Bill would not have expected derisive guffaws at the line “Frailty, thy name is woman!” And yet, this 21st century crowd no longer buys into the casual misogyny of the play. That’s a good thing, and I am resolved to see more live theater to regain my sense of the vitality and energy of the lines.
The performances were generally strong. Matt Schwader plays Hamlet and he hit all the right notes. Jim DeVita (who I believe played Hamlet the last time I saw the play at APT) was quite good as Claudius. Almost all of the main roles were well cast and properly acted. The one exception has me concerned, a bit. I have tickets for a later performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Ryan Imhoff as Rosencrantz was a bit overplayed for my taste. I hope the character isn’t that much of a clown in R&GaD.
But I’m not overjoyed by the production. Well acted, yes. True to the text and spirit of the play, of course. True to Shakespeare, without question. So what’s my problem?
The play felt very much by-the-book. Do the lines, hit the marks, let the text carry everyone along. I never got the sense that any of the actors were pursuing a portrayal that included a character arc or change during the course of the play. The mania of Hamlet after seeing the Ghost his Father was not all that much different than the mania that he put on for Polonius. But that seemed like it was him doing the “crazy schtick” more than a conscious decision to either draw a parallel between the two to cause the audience to wonder if he was actually mad instead of “mad in craft.”
There are so many ways to approach the role of Claudius and DeVita has been a marvelous actor. Again, he hit all the right notes, played each scene very well. But I didn’t get a sense of connection between the Claudius of the first scene welcoming he who is “most immediate to our throne” and the one who cries out “Yet what can it when one can not repent? / O wretched state!” and the one who calmly plots with Laertes to murder his wife’s son. As written, there’s an arc to the character, a movement from someone who got away with it, to one who might repent, to one who countenances even the death of his queen. Each scene: delightfully done. But the whole?
One question that was not answered I alluded to above. Hamlet can very easily be read as a misogynist. He rails against his mother’s sexuality and then Ophelia’s and then his mother’s again. This is something that really needs to be addressed by the performers and director. Just, please gods, not the Olivier approach that it is all about the Oedipal complex. But Hamlet DOES have issues and there should be a plan for dealing with them so as to address a 21st century issue for 21st century audiences.
In my opinion, Hamlet’s railing against Ophelia is mostly for effect. He should know that Polonius is there and is condemning Polonius by his words to Ophelia (I like Brannagh’s take that H and O had consummated their love). The issue with his mother is a bit harder to take. Again, not because he wants to fuck his mom but because he can’t see his mother wanting to be with any other man than his father. It is loyalty to old Hamlet that has him say such stupid things, and Gertrude should react to them as stupid things to say. Shakespeare was at least 35 when he wrote Hamlet. I seriously doubt that Bill believed “The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble, / And waits upon the judgment.” Depending on your approach, Hamlet might be near that old or Gertrude not much older. Perhaps it is our era, where people of any age can act as fools for love, but I don’t think people have changed all that much.
No, it isn’t about his mother getting it on, it’s that she got it on with Claudius! That same set of lines supports my thought:
have you eyes?You cannot call it love; for at your ageThe hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,And waits upon the judgment: and what judgmentWould step from this to this?
It’s not about mom, it’s about dad, and should be apparent to everyone that is where Hamlet has issues. But I didn’t see it in this production. Hamlet is a jerk to Ophelia, but was he just trying to get her out of the line of fire? He’s an ass to Gertrude, but was he just unnerved that she might move so quickly from his hero, his dad, to the scheming uncle?
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the play. It was well acted by those who obviously relish the material. But I had higher hopes for a stronger, more nuanced production.