Archive for the 'other Hamlets' Category

Hamlet on Trial

February 9, 2007

A real Supreme Court Justice will preside over a trial; real lawyers will argue whether Hamlet was insane when he murdered Polonius.


I love this. But there’s really no question. Hamlet has to have been sane — conscious of and responsible for what he did — or nothing is at stake dramatically.

I’m not reviving this blog. Just couldn’t resist posting this. But I may soon start a new blog for my new job… I’ll post details here within a few weeks…


Poor Yorick

September 24, 2006

I loved this show.

The Animaniacs doing the Yorick scene. Dot does a pretty damn good job translating, too.

Shakespeare In The Bush

August 29, 2006

Someone forwarded this to Shakespeare-by-the-Sea’s Artistic Director, who passed it along to me. It’s an account of an American spending some months with a remote West African tribe, and winding up trying to tell them the story of Hamlet.

I protested that I was not a storyteller. Storytelling is a skilled art among them; their standards are high, and the audiences critical–and vocal in their criticism. I protested in vain. This morning they wanted to hear a story while they drank. They threatened to tell me no more stories until I told them one of mine. Finally, the old man promised that no one would criticize my style “for we know you are struggling with our language.” “But,” put in one of the elders, “you must explain what we do not understand, as we do when we tell you our stories.” …

The old man handed me some more beer to help me on with my storytelling. Men filled their long wooden pipes and knocked coals from the fire to place in the pipe bowls; then, puffing contentedly, they sat back to listen. I began in the proper style, “Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”


This reminds me a lot of my attempts to summarize the story of the play as a pre-rehearsal directing exercise.

Are Shakespeare’s stories truly universal?

theatre without lighting

August 25, 2006

Lucas Krech, a lighting designer, blogger, collaborator, friend, and frequent commenter here, wrote on his blog the other day about a play I directed several years ago in a community center under the room’s flourescent lighting — he’s interested in why that worked, and in the idea that “Any show should be complete and dramatically compelling when performed under worklights and in rehearsal clothes.” Go read his post. I touched on this idea in a post a while back about the Richard Burton Hamlet.

Our production of Hamlet this summer had very minimal lighting — eight ungelled instruments on two poles. An actor with some tech background was in charge of hanging and focusing them during the setup each night, and his job was to make everything visible. We had no lighting cues — not even a blackout at the end of the show.

I love having good lighting in the shows I direct. But I also like the challenge of sucking the audience in without it. Shakespeare wrote for sunlight.

manga Shakespeare

July 10, 2006

This was forwarded to me the other day. A blog about creating manga-style graphic novel Shakespeare adaptations. A strange idea, but as a big fan of both Shakespeare and comic books I can’t deny I’m intrigued. And turning Shakespeare into a graphic novel means making all the same big decisions that have to be made in turning a script into a play.

Kevin Kline’s Hamlet

June 25, 2006

Watching another Hamlet on my last day off before opening was probably not the best idea. I couldn't finish it. I should have watched something with lots of explosions instead. It was impossible for me to just enjoy the story without jumping on every little thing they're doing differently from our production. A beat change? On this line instead of that line? What are they thinking?

It's a video of a stage production, filmed without a live audience. The feel of it is very similar to Jacobi's — especially in the set design (and the instant set changes; I wish they had shown how they handled those). The staging is extremely static: the actors get into a position and stay there for lines and lines and lines. The costumes are early 20th century, not all that different from our production.

I've always liked Kevin Kline. How can you not love him after A Fish Called Wanda? It took me a while to get used to him as Hamlet. He does well with the language, though he has a tendency to elongate vowels more than is really necessary for emphasis. And he cries all the time. There are literally tears running down his cheeks in every soliloquy. Still, he's doing solid work.

Overall, it felt safe; almost tentative. But again, that's probably because I've spent so much time thinking about all the risks I'm taking in our production. Oh, well. I can at least say this — if you're only going to watch one Hamlet on video, I'd say track down a copy of Peter Brook's. Kline's is further down the list; somewhere above Mel Gibson and below Derek Jacobi.

Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet

May 30, 2006

This is a good one; Jacobi knows what he's doing. It's a stage production remounted for television cameras by the BBC — no audience, no hint of how the scene changes actually worked in live performance. A book I've been reading called Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies by Mary Maher talks about some changes that the BBC asked to be made, making for a more traditional take on the play.

It's certainly a straightforward Hamlet. There are a few clever interpretations of certain moments — a small cut that allows Hamlet to use "absent thee from felicity a while" and that whole speech to stop Horatio from drinking the poison, rather than physically tearing the cup from his hand, for example. Otherwise, it's traditional maybe to the point of being stodgy. Patrick Stewart is very strong (and curly-headed) as the King; Claire Bloom is a fairly weak Gertrude. Ophelia is played weak and submissive, a choice that fits the text but that I find hard to stomach. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are forgettable and interchangeable.

It's all about Jacobi, though, of course. He's amazing with the language, crisp and bright and maybe the smartest of all the movie Hamlets I've seen so far. He does have a tendency to disconnect from the other actors (as do many of the other movie Hamlets), and sometimes the soliloquies sound like he's narrating rather than pursuing an action. Still, you see why Branagh adores and clearly emulates him; I'm trying to find Branagh's Hamlet on DVD and I'm looking forward to seeing Jacobi again as the King. He speaks the speech trippingly on the tongue.

Mel Gibson’s Hamlet

May 5, 2006

Rented it. Started it. Couldn’t keep watching it.

Maybe I’m getting sick of movie Hamlets. Or maybe it just wasn’t very good.

Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet

April 14, 2006


…I'm tempted to let that be the whole post. It's not that there isn't anything to like about this New York City, year 2000 Hamlet. "To be or not to be" in the Action aisle at Blockbuster is cute. Sam Shepard is a fun choice for the ghost. But there seems to be nothing more to this movie than just using as many different locations as possible (a laundromat, an airplane bathroom, a hip nightclub, a rooftop, a limo, somebody's apartment, somebody else's apartment) and using fax machines instead of messengers. It doesn't shed any light on the play, doesn't actually bring out anything to make the play more relevant to the present moment. And it doesn't go as far as Baz Luhrmann did with Romeo + Juliet in terms of filmmaking stylization — Hawke is a big step up from DiCaprio in terms of using the language, but at least Luhrmann had a vision for the story that had some kick to it.

One thing that works surprisingly well is the violence. It's interesting — when a play is set in the past, the violence is easier to take. That's just how things were then, we think; it's not like that anymore. When Hamlet shoots Polonius in the eye in his mother's bedroom with a pistol, even the ridiculous casting of Bill Murray doesn't take away from the shock of it. The stakes are higher. We think about police reports and a trial and sentencing for Hamlet, whereas in a world in which everyone has a sword at their side all the time, stabbing the councillor seems more like a pardonable offence. Setting the next scene in the laundromat, with Hamlet washing his bloody clothes, is a nice touch. If there's one thing I can take away from this movie for my production, it's the sense that the violence is highly disturbing to the characters.

Also: what is it with Julia Stiles and Shakespeare adaptations?

Jan Kott, Brecht, and rethinking the plot summary

April 10, 2006

Finally picked up a copy of Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary, on the repeated advice of Lucas Krech. It's fantastic — essentially advocating the idea that great art is that which speaks in a particular way to each new and different age or generation. Or turned around: in whatever time and place you find yourself, you can find your own way of approaching and understanding the great works of art. He's writing in mid-20th-century Poland, and he talks a lot about the politics of war in Shakespeare. He quotes — as do many other people writing about Hamlet — Brecht's Little Organum for the Theatre, in which Brecht breaks down the plot of Hamlet from an unashamedly political point of view:

After some hesitation as to whether he should add one bloody deed to another, Hamlet…meets at the sea shore young Fortinbras… Following his example he turns back, and, in a scene of barbaric slaughter, kills his uncle, his mother, and himself, leaving Denmark to the Norwegians. Thus we observe how… the young man, already somewhat stout, badly misuses his new knowledge aquired at Wittenberg university. This knowledge gets in the way… His reason is impractical when faced with irrational reality…

Here's the thing. I don't agree with Brecht's take on Hamlet as a legitimate straightforward analysis of Shakespeare's play as written. It willfully ignores many central aspects of the story, and overemphasises others. But it's all done for a very specific purpose — finding a way in to the play that will reveal its special relevance to a particular group of people in a particular time and place. And there's something about that purpose that appeals to me very strongly.

Of course, I'm working in a completely different time and place for a completely different audience. I'm going to choose different aspects of the story on which to focus, and different aspects to downplay. This is all as it should be, so long as I am similarly striving to bring the play to life in the most compelling possible way for this specific audience (and maybe with a little more respect for the source material).

Much as I may disagree with the specifics, reading Brecht's biased and somewhat devious plot summary makes me rethink some things about the way I'm working. Just yesterday I wrote that the reason a director should write out a plot summary is merely to wrap her mind around the narrative of the play — I even said it probably wouldn't make for interesting reading. Brecht uses the plot summary to state his point of view about the play, his directorial focus, and it makes for very interesting reading indeed. So here is a revision of my plot summary of Hamlet, dropping all pretenses of objectivity:

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