From Denmark to Chicago, and Back Again

Be not too tame neither; but let your own discretion be your
tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with
this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of
nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing,
whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as
’twere, the mirror up to nature.

– Hamlet, III.ii

Last week I took a last minute trip into the city to catch one of the three shows of Hamlet being performed at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. The production is the main feature of this year’s Globe-to-Globe initiative by the education arm of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The conceit started back in 2012: as part of the London Olympic Games, Shakespeare’s Globe staged 37 Shakespeare plays on their main stage in 37 different languages. It was an amazing feat, and Chicago’s own Q Brothers were included, remounting their Funk It Up About Nothin’ that I’ve discussed here. This project aims to be equally massive: the company plans to tour this production to every country in the world in two years.

Rather than go plush and lush, Dominic Dromgoole and his designer Jonathan Fensom took the conceit of “tour” directly and infused it into every aspect of the production. Like the staged readings of the Shakespeare Project of Chicago where their promptbooksthe things that would seemingly impede performancebecame the primary prop, so here. The very trunks to store gear, props, and costumes were the primary tool for arranging space and directing sight lines of each scene. They were propped up as thrones, stacked in a line to make Elsinore’s turrets, smacked and shook to reinforce ghostly incantations, and even used to help actors exit. To mark his getting abroad a ship for England, Hamlet (Naeem Hayat) is enclosed in a trunk which is then propped up facing away from the audience so he could leave the stage unseen. It’s the kind of design I’m a sucker for: clever, creative, and rich with potential for actors to make meaning because of presumed limitations.

Hamlet (Naeem Hayat) soliloquizes in an Elsinore made of traveller’s trunks.

As plastic and pliable as the trunks became in shaping the world of the play, so too were the actors on a number of levels. First, in line with the global ethos of the project, the cast is explicitly multiracial. The troupe of 12 runs a production with a skeleton crew of 10, alternating between Hamlets (2) and Ophelias (3) night-to-night; on the Wednesday I went Hayat, an East Londoner of Indian descent, was paired with Hong Kong-native, Jennifer Leong. A cast like this I imagine resonates differently and powerfully depending on where the troupe is in the world; at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, such multiracial stagings shine a (healthy, I think) spotlight back on the predominantly white, upper class, octogenarian crowd that is, quite problematically, the theatre’s bread and butter.

Second, in terms of plasticity, the notion of touring for two years and having watched Kevin Spacey’s documentary, NOW, of a similar project so recently, got me thinking about what a commitment it must be for these actors to sign on to such a gig. It must be any casting director’s nightmare to curate an ensemble that a director wants, the theatre can afford, and will cohere into a production that can maintain the momentum of a tragedy for two years. It must have taken near that long just to get the bodies! The additional substitutions for Hamlet and Ophelia gives some ease and variety to the versions this skeleton crew performs, no doubt, but the version I saw, unfortunately, did not quite cohere as an ensemble.

Hamlet (Naeem Hayat) and Ophelia (Jennifer Leong) make brief contact before they realize they are not alone.

Some of the old hats at the game, like John Dougall (Claudius/Ghost/Player King), Miranda Foster (Gertrude/Gravedigger 2/Player Queen), and Keith Bartlett (Polonius) knew how to keep their emotional paces in check no matter how many times they had done the part. Hayat and Leong both succumbed to emotional plateau rather quickly. Hamlet was touched from the first words that left his lips, so we went on no journey of grief and self-doubt with him, nor were we allowed to question whether or not he had the reigns to his feigned madness. Leong played an intensely minimal and one-dimensional Ophelia, but unlike Hayat, who still seems to be untangling the threads of his part (and fairly so), I think Leong might intend her Ophelia this way. Her other responsibilities in the play consists of Cornelius, the diplomat to old Norway, whose most prominent line is: “In that, and all things, will we show our duty.” Her Ophelia seems informed by this absolute duty that looks absurd in its extremity as the cause of her death as it does Laertes to his father’s death and Hamlet to his. So while Hayat has yet to pace his madness so it looks something other than manic with motive (which even Polonius can deduce he has), Leong has chosen a cold madness unsatisfying to watch yet consistent in its effect.

While every member of this ensemble was responsible for at least one instrument and no less than two parts, Amanda Wilkin (as Horatio here, but other nights, Ophelia), seemed to be pulling extra weight and making it seem easy.

While this is not a play noted for its music in the Shakespeare canon, there was a lot of music here. Again, every body on the stage was responsible for a sound, and none was done unprofessionally. In fact, I was most impressed by Amanda Wilkin (Horatio and others that night, but whose Ophelia I would have loved to see) on the accordion and Matthew Romain (Laertes/Rosencrantz/Fortinbras) virtuosically on the fiddle, not to mention a pleasure to watch in their respective parts as Horatio and Laertes. (As a side note, I am a fan of the rather popular trend for casting women as Horatio, but always surprised Laertes never gets the same treatment. What if Ophelia had a sister instead? Is it impossible to think, in this day and age, that Hamlet’s “foil” could be a woman?) In line with what we know of original practices (see a great recent blog post about the origin of the this term here), a carousing opening tune drew audiences attention to the action as they decided not to turn down the houselights in order to keep with the daylight of the Southwark Globe.

Setting the mood throughout and marking time, the arrangements were most prominent again at the play’s conclusion. With bodies strewn about, a seemingly undeserving Fortinbras surveying the carnage and only Horatio left to tell the tale, what is a director to do? Here, an ethereal drum from a dead Polonius and Guildenstern summon the ghost of Ophelia from behind a trunk. She dances around each of the dead, summoning each to rise as well. They take up their instruments gradually as the tune builds into a jig, getting the crowd to applaud and allowing the actors to take their bows all without seeming to undermine the value of the theatrical experience of tragedy we as the audience spent the last two hours suffering through together. It’s a tough balance to strike, but in this moment, the play seems ultimately successful in its aims as it depends on the actors, the design, and the direction to reify rather than undermine what is valuable about the communal experience of tragedy.

The show is long gone from the US now, logging only three stops here, one in Canada and one in Mexico. Ultimately, I’m glad that while “global,” the production team decided not to linger in the US and its dependable ticket sales and audience numbers. I don’t really think this is a Shakespeare for us, and I am entirely alright with that. With the casting and design choices, I can envision this production being really powerful in East Asia and Africa, whose more variable performance traditions as well as cultural associations with the essential themes of the playhonor, revenge, deathare vastly different than in the West, giving performances of this play a new richness in its pliability. There seems to be a growing awareness of this richness and its commercial viability if the uptick in world-tour Shakespeares are any indication. Similarly, I have drawn so much attention to the nuances of design and casting here precisely because this production highlighted, for me, the creative options these same limits may have afforded touring for early moderns. As we attempt to “globalize” Planet Shakespeare, these local concerns seem to also always inevitably come back to us.