Country Matters: Spoony Bard Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

The name of the new theatre company working on campus, Spoony Bard Shakespeare, references the video game Final Fantasy in which the Engrish insult is understood as loosely akin to “you bastard!” The geek culture meme to which the name alludes accurately represents the aesthetic of their Hamlet: a dark Mulan-ification of the Danish prince that tonally smacks of something like the ABC television series, Once Upon A Time. Through provocative costuming, soundtrack, and cross-dressing choices (including tags from Mulan, The Little Mermaid, the Harry Potter series, and Beauty and the Beast), Spoony Bard manipulates our familiarity with Hamlet to spotlight the rankness of transprejudice.

Caution: possible spoilers ahead.

It is not enough to say that Hamlet is played by a woman, Megan Scharlau, in this production. So are Rosencrantz (Hannah Kline), Guildenstern (Kara Lane), Fortinbras (Mylene Haus), and Horatio (one of Celia Mueller’s most understated and arguably best performances yet). Within the fiction of the play Hamlet is and isn’t a woman. It is unclear if a female Hamlet has been cross-dressing as male for her entire life in order to fulfill the requirements of an heir to the throne, or is a transgendered character that everyone seems to accept as female except for Polonius (rather perfectly cast with Tom Fornander), Ophelia (Sara Nie), and Laertes (Clayton Gentilcore). In this case, not only is the love between Ophelia and Hamlet taboo to her father for reasons of sexual orientation rather than class, but it seems too the Ophelia acquiesced to Hamlet’s courtship only when she was out of women’s weeds. Having realized she had fallen for a woman, this seems to motivate Ophelia into returning Hamlet’s letters and snitching. When Hamlet then asks Ophelia why she would be “a breeder of men,” that question rings entirely differently and I might say more meaningfully. Likewise, when Ophelia cries out to Hamlet “heavenly powers restore him,” she is literally asking Hamlet to be biologically transformed somehow or even back again. Even the well-worn joke, “did you think I meant country matters?” (with the play on “cunt”) rings quite differently as an embarrassing spotlighting of Ophelia’s possible bisexuality in front of the whole court—a kind of cruel outing on Hamlet’s part.

Suggesting the transprejudice also is the fact that nearly everyone in the play refers to Hamlet as “she” except for Polonius and his family. Polonius even corrects Gertrude (Delilah Hansen)—a kind of washed-up Snow White (who struggles to activate her chest resonator)—on the pronoun usage. In this regard, the death of Polonius from behind the arras is additionally satisfying, suggesting the rat, the source of bigotry, has received his comeuppance in a way that a pretentious father and sycophant never seems to fully deserve in traditional stagings of the play. Additionally, Horatio seems to serve as a more ideal romantic partner for Hamlet than the Ren faire princess Ophelia; it is suggested obliquely throughout and then made clear in the last moments of the play. In my notes as I was waiting for Tuesday evening’s dress rehearsal to begin, I asked myself whether this was going to be a ghost story, revenge tragedy, or tale of love gone awry, the usual suspects for Hamlet. That this play was so capable of encoding sexual prejudices and homophobia was a pleasant surprise that upturned my horizon of expectations. I started listening not for my favorite lines, but for moments made new under the pressure of these identity politics.

In this regard, what become most rewarding are the later soliloquies and the confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia. You don’t realize how often Hamlet contemplates “man” and ideal masculinities until you hear a woman saying those lines. A believable aping of acceptable masculine norms seems frustratingly out of reach for Hamlet. The act two speech, “what a work is man,” brings this particular point home and cultivates a powerful sense of empathy for all of this identities we wish we could perform but can’t seem to. The giggle that follows Hamlet’s line “man delights not me” has material weight behind it rather than just philosophy: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern giggle because Hamlet is stating the obvious, and everyone knows s/he is into girls. The recurring self-condemnations of “coward” (not as brave as a boy) and having to “like a whore, unpack my heart with words” ring differently as gendered prejudices and expectations. The need to perform a man correctly for her country and for her beloved seems an impossible task. And in that strife, the task of killing Claudius (Kevin Gomez) gets a bit lost in the motivations. The directors seems to have sensed this, and so usefully problematized Claudius’s character who here seems to care meaningfully about both Hamlet and Gertrude. When he requests Hamlet not go back to Wittenberg due to her “unmanly grief,” this comes off as compellingly protective rather than cruel.

When I read the description of the production, I was imagining something more cos-play, something more ornamental in its interpretation. I do not make much of the Disney costumes and production elements here I think because in part they were so evenly incorporated into the world of this Hamlet. (That anti-transgender legislation has spread rapidly across the country in recent months no doubt has colored my reading of this production.) Denmark doesn’t have a particular cultural resonance for American audiences, so the fairyland world of tales gave it a different, symbolic richness stressing ideas over realism. I am a sucker for a play that knows it is a play, that knows that the goal is not to recreate the fallen world we already live in, but to build one in which we can meditate on a particular idea, problem or question for a time. It is a Hamlet for the current moment, and an truly excellent way to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary this weekend.

  • Spoony Bard Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet plays at the Channing-Murray Foundation Friday, April 22 at 7:00PM, and Saturday, April 23, at 2:00PM and 7:00PM.
    • Note: I love this performance space. With only two stage entranceways and no discovery space, it recreates Tudor elite family halls that was the normal playing space for early modern troupes long before they settled in London playhouses. The recessed tabernacle space and bannister make for a natural tiring house, again imitating the spaces for which these plays were initially designed.
  • Tickets are $5 for students and $8 for non-student adults; check out the Facebook event to RSVP and to get more information.
  • Interested in more She-Hamlets? The Illinois Shakespeare Festival is also doing a Hamlet this summer with a female lead. Click here for more information.

Madness nay, Grief: “Hamlet” at the Barbican

There seems to me two ways in which playgoers assess whether they liked a production or not. The first is based on whether they agree with (or were moved by) a claim or perspective of the performance—if it was “relatable” in some way. The second is based on whether the production made good on a claim they believe the play to be about. While the former is a common metric, it seems quite unfair to me. How can a production mean something to everyone? If it does, surely it can only mean a little something. Rather, I like the challenge—as I attempt to explore in the reviews I post here—of identifying what it is the play is after, and then how convincing that perspective, that claim comes across. Such a metric makes room for amateur student theatre, like this past summer’s WYW’s Othello capable of rattling you to the bones as much as a big-budget professional production like the Barbican’s Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and streamed across the planet through NT Live. (The star power of both the play and its leading man got the performance two additional screenings at our local independent theatre, the Art, on top of the initially scheduled three.) Lyndsey Truner’s interpretation of William Shakespeare’s script was to take grief as a form of madness, to argue that this Denmark is plagued by a dearth of coping mechanisms for familial loss.

Hamlet sorts his father’s things while he listened to Nat “King” Cole.

Such a claim is gutsy because it takes the flash of insanity out of the plan. It also took the ghost out of a great ghost story. The first scene and encounter with the ghost of Lord Hamlet was skipped entirely. Instead their is a slow fade, with Nat “King” Cole’s rendition of “Nature Boy” seemingly wafting from the record player on the floor next to which Hamlet sits. He longed against crates of clothes, and we are led to assume he is packing up his father’s belongings. He is clearly struggling to keep back tears as he pulls out an old, black crushed velvet sport coat. Horatio (Leo Bill) interjects here to summon him to dinner, and Hamlet wears this “suit of woe,” his father’s coat, for the rest of the production. It is a rather brilliant bit of collaboration between set and costume direction to materialize and give meaning to a line from the play. From the start, then, the production puts pressure on not ghosts, but the effects and palimpsest that ghosts leave behind—the after-shocks of haunting rather than injustice of the haunted.

In the apocalyptic rubble, it dawns on Gerturde (Anastasia Hille) all too late that Ophelia (Sian Brooke) as fled to drown herself.

Of great debate in the reviews and blogosphere were the placement of soliloquies. The six big ones were moved around a great deal during previews and afterwards, and critics not used to reviewing theatre were thrown, uncertain if the revision was evidence of a weak production or what. Notably, “To be or not to be” but placed before the “Nature Boy” opening sequence, but was put back into place quickly. Let me be clear that I do not have an issue with moving or cutting texts. Certainly Renaissance dramatists did this all the time, depending on venue and actors available and time allotted; these plays were designed to be modular and amendable in just this way. But the movement has to do something. No doubt using “To be” are a kind of prologue may have been too heavy handed and perceived as didactic, making the entire production about suicide. The majority of the other soliloquies were done as a kind of interior monologue out-loud, as if Hamlet speaking to himself while others were present on stage but could not hear him. While I think these choices underscored the long and constant suffering that is grief, they also undermined the job of a soliloquy. As private meditations expressed with no others present, the soliloquy gives us the impression of a character not merely telling us how they feel, but verbally working through a problem or frustration. It is as close to palatable stream-of-consciousness as you can get on stage, I think. They lose the luster of interiority if soliloquies come off too pre-meditated, too contrived and artificial. With so many school children made to memorize those words round the world, it is additionally impossible to achieve this effect for Hamlet.

Ciarán Hinds as a convincingly fallible and dangerous Claudius.

The most compelling aspect of the production was the apocalyptic fall-out preceding the break for intermission. Claudius (Ciarán Hinds, my favorite Caesar and hot from his death as Mance Rayder on Game of Thrones) has just realized he is irredeemable, Hamlet just squandered his best chance to kill him. Hamlet exits the stage from a balcony above as Claudius turns his back to the audience, catching his nephew-son from the corner of his eye. At this point the lights dim a bit and the eight-foot double doors stage right blow open with impact, filling the stage with a grey soot or volcanic ash that continues and piles up. The entire stage is covered an inch thick, with a rise up behind to a door directly center of the stage eventually about two feet high. The entire second half of the play is performed on this post-apocalyptic landscape, although unacknowledged by the characters. For me it highlighted the “other world” in which Hamlet and Ophelia (Sian Brooke) feel to be living, where they are perceived as to be responding unnaturally (or unmanly) to grief, when it is in fact everyone else who is unnatural in their behaviors. It also helps to align the Ophelia’s grief with Hamlet’s, both comrades in loss by the end of the play. The production smartly rethinks the episode Ophelia reports to her father that Hamlet burst upon her room “with his doublet all unbraced.” During an earlier large set change we see Hamlet and Ophelia off to stage right, and she dresses him in a marching band uniform from her trunk of quirky items (she carries a camera throughout the production, plays the piano, and is a kind of artsy-hipster-Zoey-Deschanel version of Ophelia) to help him dawn the mask of madness. She is in the ruse all along, and the tale to Polonius is just that—until she is unexpectedly made a pawn in the other direction. With the death of her father they are both made mourners, but Hamlet cannot see his all-consuming grief matched in others.

Hamlet (Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes more rather than less straight-laced in feigning madness.

You cannot have a version of Hamlet without a clever bit of doubling involved. Here the ghost of Hamlet’s father, played with wry verve by Karl Johnson, is also the gravedigger. It is also really the only wry and roll moment of the play, which I appreciated. I am rarely convinced that Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildernstern (Rudi Dharmalingam) function effectively as comedic relief. They seem more suited, as the text suggests, as evidence of Claudius’ increasing power and control over Hamlet’s friends and life. Johnson as dad and gravedigger does double-duty as momento mori. Perhaps the ghost’s function (regardless of his request) is not to spur Hamlet to revenge but rather to startle him not recognizing his own mortality, as that is certainly the gravedigger’s end, achieved not with fear but with comedy. With this doubling, again the pressure is placed on grief as one entirely separate state from madness, or a state that produces madness. The post-Freudian tradition, certainly on film anyway (perhaps the best being David Tennant), of emphasizing the slippage between grief and madness as closer kin is overtly rejected by the production and Cumberbatch’s performance. It would have been more convincing if the interpretation of Ophelia’s flowers speech was treated in a similar way. What might be revealed from a cool, collected Ophelia, not bedraggled with torn hair and clothes, but prim and patiently handing out flowers as if in complete control of her faculties?

Sian Brooke as a hiper-than-thou Ophelia, tinging the character with a bit of madwoman-in-the-attic.

The Barbican production of Hamlet is a mediation on coping with death and the limits of the psychological mechanisms we use to deal with out own mortality. What is compelling about the claim is the production suggests their are communal stakes: the people surrounding Hamlet and Ophelia reject and cast as aberrant their forms of grief and so they can never heal, never move to the next stage because the current, natural on isn’t validated. In so doing it stresses the large ensemble that Hamlet the play requires rather than its figurehead. Perhaps casting a mega-celebrity in the title role doesn’t exactly do that position service, however. While I am not sure that this particular question is the one I find most compelling about the play, or the aspect that makes it “relatable” to me, the production more than convinced me of the perspective.

  • For availability and screenings of this production near you, click here.