A “Hamlet” inspired by MUSE

This is the second musically-driven production this fall for the What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW): the production is shaped by director Emily Murdoch’s MUSE play-list, meant to echo particular themes and ideas in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The soundtrack’s overwhelming and melodramatic orchestrations contrasted productively against the stripped-down performance space of the University Place Christian Church basement, mirroring the stark Denmark environment’s contrast to the depth, vitality, and stoic modernity of Hamlet’s emotions. The ensemble also reaffirmed there commitment to interesting stagings and use of unconventional spaces.

The troupe played to their strength of using unassuming spaces in interesting ways for staging purposes. The church basement is a wide and sanitized space; there is something perfect about the sparse, dingy, and whitewashed hall, entirely without ornamentation that implies a Denmark rotten in more ways than one. When I first entered, I found it odd that the chairs were arranged facing away from the grade school-esque proscenium stage, and were instead facing a large door frame at the back of the room topping three small steps with a utilitarian “EXIT” sign overhead. Using the back of the hall rather than the front allowed the actors to move about more freely and to establish hierarchy and reinforce power exchanges with the subtle use of steps. The large double-doors–always opened–were framed by two unremarkable casement-like windows, which provided the right amount of division during episodes of spying and asides, such as bedroom seen where Hamlet confronts Gertrude, Polonius spies from these windows. In a brilliant stroke of space adaptation, Hamlet stabs this “rat” between the space where the door is hinged to the wall. This particular audience was very active, laughing hard and often at the moments that allowed for it, which appropriately matched the very bodily production. In her anguish, a sweet and cheeky Ophelia (Kelsey Pigg) drops hard her book of religious devotions, conveying a surprising degree of frustration and interiority.

There are many hearty hugs between Hamlet (Jacob Lessing) and Horatio (Brittany Gerke). Hamlet tastefully falls to the ground with a heavy thud for his “rogue and peasant slave” speech (2.2), again as a display of frustration not overwrought as this is only done once despite his many soliloquies and opportunities to do so. Like the set, the cast seemed to work with the basic premises of their character’s roles in the world and build from there. Gertrude (Liana Alcantara) is notable for wearing her anxiety and tension in her face–a difficult skill to master even for professionals–that portrayed a little-spoke maternal and confused mother rather than one tied up in her queenly status. Polonius (Erik Allgood) was down-graded to goofball royal adviser, but with an “Office“-type twist. Wearing giant hipster glasses complemented by suspenders, his hurried managerial delivery really struck a funny-bone with this audience while maintaining the hint of malice and self-interest. This method was not lost on Hamlet either, played as the loyal young man too smart and too thoughtful for his own good, beleaguered by inaction.

This production presents a sense of artistic cohesion in its minimalist approach, not only in the set and staging choices, but in the students’ approach to character. In fact, the only point of excess was the MUSE soundtrack, which worked as an aural aesthetic balancing device. Hamlet is a character upset and pissed off from the very opening of this play, and often it is hard as an audience member to register emotionally the extent and stakes of his anger. As an emotionally capricious play that transitions between scenes of slapstick and others of death and drama, the soundtrack threaded through the production as a stabilizing force, resulting in a rare sense of cohesion and clarity at it’s end. The group’s final production this semester will be Moliere’s Tartuffe, the French impostor comedy, to be held at the same locale with hopefully sinilar interesting and unconventional results.

Ham(let)in’ it up

One summer my  father decided it would be a good idea to raise a commercial pig. My mom, being a high school English teacher, named her Ophelia–she thought the pun on Hamlet‘s girlfriend was cute. We called her Ophie for short. She was a lot of fun. I do not tell you this story for any other reason than to say that, as blasphemous as this may be, I am getting sick of Hamlet. There has been sparse review of PBS’ most recent adaptation of this play, which aired about two weeks ago and can still be viewed online.

Of those few substantive reviews, people generally seem to be undecided about former Dr. Who-star David Tennant’s performance. Kenneth Branagh, despite his contributions, has trained us to want something big and gratuitous from the Bard in film–turning Americans into consumers of Shakespeare only if it is about his particular spokesman, Branagh himself. (on a side note, Branagh was recently tapped to be the head director for the upcoming super-hero movie Thor.) While across the board there seems to be appreciation for Patrick Stewart’s shaded and sinister double duty at the Ghost and Claudius, it seems a love-or-hate situation regarding Tennant. There have been several cute quips, including from the LA Times, about this film as a “kind of sci-fi super-summit.” Undoubtedly the PBS production will benefit in DVD sales from their personal brands as well as the Royal Shakespeare Company pedigree.

Hamlet only gets harder and harder to put on film. There seems to be one or two adaptations every decade, and because many of the roles are so coveted, the field is a bit full of titans: Branagh for the purists, the under appreciated historical Mel Gibson rendition produced by Playboy, Olivier set the actors’ bar in the ’40s, and the perennial Derek Jacobi to list a few. Stewart’s performance is convincing but he seems a bit lost in his role. He has moments so sinister it seems like he is squaring off Magneto, and other moments he brings a caring sense of humanity to Claudius unseen before. But these stark dimensions to Claudius were confusing rather than giving him a multifaceted honesty–they just didn’t seem to sync up.

Polonius is really perfect; the most difficult scene is always Ophelia’s first with her father. A potentially very cruel Polonius on the page, that character is sometimes hard to reconcile the with fact that Ophelia’s insanity is triggered by his death, implying some kind of loving relationship between father and daughter. Oliver Ford Davies presents the most truthful and balanced depiction of their relationship I have seen yet. This may be due to the fact that the play as a whole invests less in the past romantic relationship of Ophelia and Hamlet, a direct reversal from the seminal Branagh adaptation.

Tennant is coming in with a lot of fresh baggage, having just finished his successful role as Dr. Who. The infamous “to be or not to” speech has perhaps a little more baggage to manage. I really enjoy the first half of his delivery of it. The lack of zoom camera lenses and under-cutting angles allows the audience to connect with psychological realism that Branagh’s grandiose tends to over shoot. I was surprised that Tennant didn’t do more with the manic element of Hamlet, something he was particularly noted for as Dr. Who. Perhaps due to his near-psychotic blue eyes, Mel Gibson’s depiction of manic madness is the only attempt I have ever fully bought into. Overall, the tone of the work is subtle and tempered, where no theme or issue sings out above the rest.

While I appreciate the emphasis here on a cohesive powerful ensemble performance, the lack of thematic emphasis is a little tragic in and of itself; there is just so much crazy, madness, ghosts, and heartbreak going on. Also, I felt the film suffered from the British stylized flattening effect, which I think was a choice made in an effort to further force performances to stand on their merits. This is film however, and if you are going to build magnificent sets and gesture towards camera play, I do not see the point in undercutting those technical elements. The individual performances do ring out, each very thoughtful and expressing each actors knowledge of their character. This well-pitched cast is especially evident in the ancillary characters of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Grave Digger. One of the greater benefits of this ensemble is that you really comprehend what each member’s purpose is in the story arch.

Despite all of these merits, the entire time I was plagued by one question: Do we really need another Hamlet? Community and professional theaters keep this one in continuous rotation. Jude Law just finished a run on Broadway as the lead, and has several Tony nominations to show for it. There seems to be a flooded market in the last four decades, and I just feel that this poor playtext needs a little room and time to breathe before attempts to “re-imagine” it for the screen begin again. Shakespeare did write more than thirty plays, some of which I would argue are far more cinematic than the ever-popular Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello. It is slowly coming to the fore that other dramatists were writing in the same period and have texts equally if not better suited for the screen, The Revenger’s Tragedy and Edward II to name a few. In this film I was looking for something different, radical or not, about the prince of Denmark and didn’t get it. Nothing wrong with stellar ensemble performances–something the industry is less and less suited to handle–but I could do with one less predictable Dane.