Several of Shakespeare’s tragedies are challenging to stage effectively (King Lear, Julius Caesar and even Macbeth spring to mind), but of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet probably adapts most readily to the modern stage. Even so, the work contains some tricky patches. The revenge-requesting Ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father is particularly problematic. I have seen big budget film productions burdened with the cheesiest apparitions imaginable and often theater versions, both professional and amateur, fare little better.
Improbable Fiction’s recent staged reading of Hamlet (directed by Nic Helms) solves the problem with nothing more complex than a tape recorder.
To open the play, Hamlet (played by David Bolus) and Horatio (Amber Gibson) engage in a bit of philosophical dialogue which Hamlet records to revisit later. The text of their musings comes from Quarto One, the infamous “Bad Quarto,” and the mangled “To be or not to be” speech found there. Where the speech originates is likely only of interest to Shakespeare nerds (Guilty!), but the effect of such an opening is to set before us the questions that Hamlet spends the rest of the play ruminating. Later, after arguing with his step-father and mother over his excessive mourning, Hamlet listens to the tape again, trying to retreat from the problems of reality into his comfortable world of the mind. He is rudely pulled from the philosophical to the spiritual, however, as his and Horatio’s voices fade into static to be replaced with the forceful and demanding voice of his father (a never seen Steve Burch). It is a scene that has left me cold in many a Hamlet, but as I watched the young man shout panicked responses to the implacable, disembodied words of his father, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.
Not all of this production was uniformly brilliant; the limited rehearsal time that is typical of the staged reading format left a few uneven areas. The cross casting of a woman as Horatio could have had intriguing effects on the relationship dynamics in the play, but as a result of cuts and a lack of chemistry, her friendship with Hamlet is never sufficiently felt. Laertes (Michael
Vine) also has some weak moments. The part is difficult; Laertes is absent for the whole center of the play. Vine does a solid job in the early scene with Ophelia (Jess Richardson), bringing a refreshing level of sibling affection to the scene. However, he had trouble conjuring up the sheer wrath needed at the end of the play to overcome his long absence from the stage. When he says he wants to “cut [Hamlet’s] throat i’th’ church,” I was not sure I believed him.
Nonetheless, the decisions made by the director and the actors largely seem to put the rawness to good use. For example, the spontaneity of amateur theater tends to work better for comedy than tragedy. Repeatedly, performers in this Hamlet take advantage of this tendency, drawing humor out of a moment only to undercut it quickly with the brutality of the “rotten” world of Denmark. To cite two examples, Claudius (David Ainsworth) frequently moves rapidly from mustache-twirling villainy to icy deliberation, while Ophelia’s madness is particularly powerful because some lines are played for humor immediately before achingly sad deliveries.
Above all, however, Hamlet is about Hamlet and Bolus carries off the role brilliantly. Hamlet is not always the most likable of characters; his incessant intellectualized petulance can become tiresome. Bolus brings an affable humanity to the role and, as a result, the audience actually roots for this Hamlet. Despite his bookishness, he seems a genuinely pleasant individual undone by the forces at work around him. It is exactly this likability that makes his transformation so powerful. In the most shocking of the shifts from dark to light in the play, Hamlet takes recorder instrument he has just employed as a humorous prop for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Jonathan Hinnen and Jen Drouin, pushing the roles to their hammy limits) in 3.2 and savagely beats the hidden Polonious (Charles Prosser) to death with it in front of a distraught Gertrude (Deborah Parker). In that moment, Hamlet is believable, not merely as a melancholic taking an impulsive action but rather as a sincerely good person who has been pushed past the point of what he can handle. It is a disturbing moment. Part of the genius of many of Shakespeare’s tragedies is his ability to make the central tragic figure more relatable, more human, more like the rest of us. In a staging like this one, such intimacy can be terribly uncomfortable in the most satisfying of ways.
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