Random Thoughts on Hamlet

Saturday, we went to see Hamlet at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. Nicely staged, some good performances, but as so often with Shakespeare, I found myself listening past the actors to the words.

When you read annotations of WS, you discover that there are layers and layers of lost meaning: puns, allusions, references that are so packed into every line you get dizzy. Yet even without catching half of what he’s saying, he’s still a riveting dramatist because he gets at primal emotional dilemmas: the intersections of love, betrayal, trust, ingratitude, selfishness, idealism, ambition. Even a callow actor like the kid playing Hamlet was able to put across the character’s shrewd intelligence, his confusion and vulnerability, and his impotent rage.

Maybe it’s impossible to fully act Shakespeare, at least a whole play. When you see an actor really connect with the part and put all the meanings across, it’s a thrilling experience. Brando standing on the steps eulogizing Caesar, his passion bursting through his finely chosen ironic words… Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, sneering at Romeo as his challenges go unanswered (he practically mouthes the word “pussy”)… Olivier staring at the camera and forcing you to identify and empathize with Richard’s bitter self-justifications… Howard Keel’s strutting, vain, hilariously overconfident Petruchio realizing he isn’t nearly the badass he thinks he is.

One of the best biographies I’ve ever read is Michael Morrison’s “John Barrymore, Shakespearean Actor.” Using various sources he meticulously recreates Barrymore’s legendary 1922 performance of Hamlet, taking you through the entire play so vividly that you feel you’re sitting in the front row watching it. Miraculous writing. This was the first production to take Shakespeare out of the old declamatory tradition and ground the play in modern psychological meaning. Stylized minimal sets, simple costumes. The operating principle was that this was a brand-new play no one had ever seen.

What people loved most about the performance was that Barrymore played Hamlet as a Prince — noble, proud, charismatic. That aspect was completely missing the other night: the kid played Hamlet more like Adam Lambert having a sustained snit (maybe I’m getting more crochety as I get older).

Yet, listening through to the words, I felt in some ways I was seeing a brand new play, or at least seeing it through new eyes. For the first time, I felt intense compassion for this idealistic, smart but fatally innocent young man reacting a few beats too late to the careless treachery of the older people around him. I know this kid, I thought. I am Hamlet. But I’m also way too much like Polonius for comfort, and I discovered that I have more than a bit of Claudius in me too.

If the purpose of playing is to hold a mirror up to nature, then wow… ouch.

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