Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hamlet - Performance Log (August 2008)

After seeing the Guthrie's lavish and exuberantly designed, appointed, and produced Midsummer Night's Dream last May, summer Shakespeare in the park has offered a striking counter-point. I saw, for example, a Love's Labor's Lost in a Minneapolis park this summer which had no set at all and maybe four props, and while the actors certainly wore costumes, they weren't far from what you could probably dig out of a trunk in your attic (the costumes, not the actors). I wonder if the minimalism of Shakespeare performed in the park, which as Gil noted must be "suitable to be loaded in a van and carted to another park in the next county by the next afternoon," is more akin to Shakespeare's simple stage than the elaborate productions we tend to find at places like the Guthrie, the Berkeley Rep, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. With that in mind, I headed off to Hamlet in the park with my dad.

Directed by Susanna Wilson
Lincoln Park, Seattle, WA
August 2, 2008

1. Throw to earth this unprevailing woe. GreenStage's "Elsinore" is three connected Medieval stone arches, with purple curtains, in front of and through which the action takes place. And action is the key word here because Susanna Wilson's Hamlet is an active event. Everyone and everything is constantly in motion (including the text, which moves along briskly to its conclusion in roughly two and a quarter hours). Hamlet, played by Shawn Law, jigs, lunges, paces, and storms his way through, a passionate young man tormented by the nightmarish intrigue and corruption of his family's politics and his assigned vengeful role. Even moments one expects to be more measured, like when Hamlet admits he is not insane and knows a "hawk from a handsaw," are played in antic vein; Law delivers this line humping another character's leg. Most indicative of his frustration (or "woe" as Claudius calls it), he's constantly throwing things—books, and daggers, and grass, and wadded up letters, and his cloak, and clover, and pages torn from books, and musical instruments, and sticks, and his mother's necklace, and clothing, and Yorick's skull. (Okay, he just tosses this last one.) If Doubleday had invented baseball in the 13th century, this Hamlet would have been a hell of a pitcher. It's not just his noble mind that's "o'erthrown."

I go to productions of Hamlet in part because I'm curious. How does a director, or more specifically an actor, handle one of the most famous, most difficult, and most produced plays of all time? At some point I'm going to read English critic J. C. Trewin's Five & Eighty Hamlets, wherein he describes some of the most memorable performances he saw, just to get a sense of the range actors have brought to the role in the 20th century alone. But for an actor this must be terribly intimidating: the weight of history, the fame of the role, the number of lines, Laurence Olivier's ghost looking over your shoulder—holy onus! So Law's approach to Hamlet works first because all his effort seems effortless and is consistent with the text and second because the energy and physicality he brings to the role focuses it in a way consistent with Wilson's production. This Hamlet throws things. He emphasizes his youth. He suggests an untempered passion, a pent-up violence, a certain rashness (although Law makes it clear that Hamlet can think rings around his opponents). He brings energy to the role and to the audience, sitting without an intermission on the grass of Lincoln park.

I find I like a passionate Hamlet. It makes the human detritus of the final scene plausible, clearly the product of human passions rather than Fate or ineffable tragic flaws.

2. I wuz framed! For me, the most interesting aspect of this production is the way Wilson chooses to open and close it. The play begins not with scared soldiers on a castle battlement, but with Hamlet and the one of the players from the troupe that will later perform at Elisnore, play fighting and going over, together, "Aeneas' tale to Dido" about "Priam's slaughter" (from Act 2, scene 2). I think you can take this one of two ways. I saw it as Hamlet at Wittenberg, hanging with actors, an innocent before he's called home (which he is, as Wilson stages it, by a messenger at the end of the scene). The playfulness establishes an interesting benchmark for Hamlet's character later, specifically his knowledge of and interest in acting and plays. (In fact, Hamlet's instructions to the actors—"speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue"—comes off better than I've ever seen it before, in part because we've been prepared for his understanding of theater in advance.) But it also cleverly highlights the play's classical analogy—Hamlet is like Pyrrhus, who kills Troy's king Priam as vengeance for the death of his father, Achilles. And although the phrase comes from a different Pyrrhus, the speech that Hamlet and his actor friend practice serves to remind us, in advance, that Hamlet's coming vengeance will be itself a pyrrhic victory. Buried in the play, this analogy still stands, but coming first, it sets the tragic scene and tone.

Dad thought the opening scene might, perhaps, be something like the Christopher Sly scene at the beginning of Taming of the Shrew. In which case, Hamlet becomes a play within a play itself (making the "mousetrap" production a play within a play within a play). But I don't see this. It would work if Wilson continued to use Act 2, scene 2, having the rest of the players begin to perform and segue into Hamlet's opening scene. But instead, a messenger shows up, hands Hamlet a letter that clearly disturbs him, and he dashes off, leaving the Player looking perplexed.

3. There's a divinity that shapes our ends. Wilson ends the play with another interesting twist. She's removed Fortinbras, so there's no one to march onto the stage, observe the carnage, and bid the guns to shoot, bringing political closure to the fatal Danes. Instead, after Hamlet tells us "the rest is silence," three actors step forward, drop their characters and speak the following lines (cadged from Fortinbras and Horatio): "Where is this sight?"; "What is it ye would see?"; "Cease your search." Now, these lines go directly to the audience, calling our attention to the play's central action and asking us to consider why we go to Hamlet (again and again, even). Taken together with the opening, the chorus-like conclusion closes Wilson's frame, emphasizing the tragic scope of the play by beginning with a story of Greek vengeance and making us, in the end, responsible for realizing that scope. That frees the internal play, from frightened sentinels to "the rest is silence," to pursue more directly the simple story of a passionate young man overwhelmed by his uncle's fratricide and his own attempt at vengeance.

It is a story well told.

Logged by Randall

Photo: Shawn Law as Hamlet and Carolyn Marie Monroe as Ophelia in GreenStage's Hamlet. Photo by Ken Holmes.

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