Turner’s Hamlet, a more than kin and less than kind

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Last Thursday, England’s National Live Theater broadcasted “Hamlet” in cinemas across the globe. The play stared Benedict Cumberbatch and was directed by Lyndsey Turner. As Cumberbatch explained in a pre-production interview, this version of Hamlet was designed to introduce a new (meaning young) audience to Shakespeare’s most famous play. He was right, this was no scholarly approach.

Turner is not the first director to approach the play from a modern perspective. Director Michael Almereyda’s 2000 movie “Hamlet” set his work in modern New York with the kingdom moved to the corporate world. Almereyda took great liberty with the play in order to sell it to his young audience. While the movie is not bad, it didn’t do well and fell short of expectations. Turner did not quite make the leap Almereyda did; over all it felt like she was walking a fine line between the pre-modern and modern world. On some level it worked but over all it left some audience members confused. Time in this play was out of joint. The props felt as if we should have been in post WWII, but Ophelia’s modern clothing style and Horatio’s tattoos pulled us forward in time. But let’s not start with what didn’t work, let’s look at what did, for both a student of Shakespeare (me) and my friend to whom this play was aimed.

The play begins with Hamlet sitting on a floor in Elsinore listing to a song on a gramophone whose title escapes me, but may be from the 40’s. It was a big band number, something to do with remembering. It is obvious that Hamlet is playing the music because it reminds him of his father. That Turner skipped the opening scene didn’t bother me, but having Hamlet utter both Barnardo and Francisco’s lines, “Who’s there?” “Answer me and unfold yourself” did. Horatio enters and the two engage in the conversation that originally takes place after we are introduced to the court and the first soliloquy. This would be the first of many times Turner omits and replaces both dialog and scenes. While this time it worked for both of us, there were times that the removal of scenes confused us.

Cumberbatch’s scenes between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was theater at its best. Unlike other productions I have seen, the pain of knowing his friends were playing him was heartbreaking. These scenes between the three were haunting, especially given that Hamlet would go on to coldly write their death warrants. At least it worked for me. My friend missed Hamlet’s explanation of what he had done, because the scene was rushed. There was little emotion from Horatio when he heard the news, so it was not surprising she missed it.

Despite the occasional confusion and rushed scenes, the play worked well for my friend who was unfamiliar with the plot. At times it had her on the edge of her seat, and she laughed when appropriate. She felt Cumberbatch displayed a wide range of emotion and she bought his heartache and rage. She understood Hamlet to be at his wit ends (no pun intended) by the death of his father and his mother’s hasty remarriage. Yet we both agreed that the Hamlet we saw should have had no problem revenging his father. So here lies the rub, or why it didn’t work.

Crazy, or just bad cos play?
Crazy, or just bad cos play?

This Hamlet, though well acted, was not conflicted. In fact, this Hamlet seemed bent on making his new step-father’s life a living hell, not unlike a lot of teens who resent a new parent. His antic disposition was nothing more than a ploy to keep his parents at arms length. The less he had to interact with them the better; so much for trying to figure out if Claudius was guilty of murder or not. Turner cut out most of the scenes between Claudius and Polonius as they tried to figure out what the hell is up with Hamlet. Reynaldo is cut from this production. This makes Hamlet’s crazy disposition seem ludicrous and done only for laughs. By the time we get to the players scene we’ve forgotten why it is that Hamlet is acting crazy.

During the players scene Claudius seemed more embarrassed by Hamlet’s stealing of the show when he jumped in and took over as the villain. Did Claudius leave because of guilt or embarrassment? It was hard to tell.

As much as I appreciated some of the moments between Hamlet and his friends, there was not enough time devoted to character development or personal connections. When Hamlet confronts his mother, the two actors seem more concerned with their dialog than they do each other. We never felt that moment of clarity when Gertrude realizes the position she has gotten herself into. We aren’t even sure she has such a moment. For all we know she never does.

Turner favored visual spectacle over human drama. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that after Act 3, there is a sudden and very dramatic boom, followed by a hurricane force wind that drives rubble into the castle. This is never explained, though it may have been a metaphor for the splitting of the kingdom. It is never talked about or mentioned by the characters, even as they had to walk on it, and at times, move it aside for clean floor space! It was distracting at best, and at worst, one of the poorest thought out metaphors in the English theater.

After all of this, you’d think I would end by telling you I hated the play, but I didn’t. As a live performance piece it was not bad. A few of the actors give stellar performances despite the physical challenges Turner presents them. Yet, this was not, and should not be thought of as a production Hamlet. This was Hamlet lite. Turner’s production captured very little, if any of the emotion and drama that makes Hamlet, Hamlet. Shakespeare lays out the entire human condition for us to discover and experience in this one play, which is why so many actors yearn to be in it. Each word, each scene was written to encompass the human condition, and to lay bare our fears, our desires and how they overwhelm us, to the point that we would take gladly take our own lives or the lives that stood in our way. We thankfully will never do either of these things, yet Shakespeare allows us to acknowledge those hidden emotions that drive our outer behavior.

Yet Turner seemed to sweep all that aside for a visual show piece. As if to say live theater can be just as physically and visually entertaining as cinema. If this had been any other play I would have said job well done. But this was supposed to be Hamlet. The audience should have been pulled in because of the dialog, because of the human drama that all of the characters had to face. Instead we witness Cumberbatch rage at everyone, while they in turn did little to hold their own. Even when Gertrude decides to drink from the cup, she does so as if to say she’s had enough of the play, while Claudius is listless in his plea not to do so. I was half expecting him to say, “so much for her”.

So much is missing from this production that I have to agree with the professional critics when they say Cumberbatch would make a great Hamlet. Too bad this wasn’t it.

When is a Shakespeare play not Shakespeare?

Getting ready for the play
Getting ready for the play
This backdrop is supposed to tell us where we are. Can you figure it out?
This backdrop is supposed to tell us where we are. Can you figure it out?

 

There was a large crowd for the August 2 production of Lake Tahoe’s Shakespeare festival. As you can see a nice  crowed had gathered for a night of cultural entertainment. How can you go wrong with one of Shakespeare’s best well written plays? Some of Shakespeare’s best lines are found in this play. From the well known, “All the world’s a stage” speech to Touchtone’s witty comebacks, what the play lacks in plot more than makes up for it with very witty writing. One would have to try very hard to screw this up. Yet, as much as I enjoyed the performance of the actors, a question came to mind as I watched. When is a Shakespeare play not Shakespeare?

I’m well aware that most modern productions of Shakespeare discard Elizabethan settings and dress in order to connect with their 21 century audience. Last year I saw a Midsummer’s night dream set in the 60’s; a time of free love and hippie spiritualism. It worked because the idea of woodland spirits and capricious love are found in both the play in the era of the Beatles. There was a lot of forcing of the action to fit the setting. But this year it was hard to imagine the connection between the era of the railroad barons and setting Shakespeare intended.

In the opening scene we see what appears to be railroad workers, both labors and timekeepers enter and exit the stage, for now apparent reason other than to illustrate the setting. Then Orlando, dressed as a lowly worker, appears with his servant Adam. Orlando, now changing his dirty cloths for clean cloths complains about his lot in life.

As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion
bequeathed me by will but poor a thousand crowns,
and, as thou sayest, charg’d my brother, on his
blessing, to breed me well: and there begins my
sadness. My brother Jaques he keeps at school, and
report speaks goldenly of his profit: for my part,
he keeps me rustically at home, or, to speak more
properly, stays me here at home unkept; for call you
that keeping for a gentleman of my birth, that
 differs not from the stalling of an ox?

This speech indicates that instead of being allowed to become a well-bred man (educated) he is stuck at home with nothing to do. This is Shakespeare 101. The wordplay, on “unkept” means that his brother’s lack of attention is not in keeping with his father’s wishes. Yet on stage we see a dirty unkempt youth, washing grime from his face. It would seem his brother has given him something to do (work on the railroad lines we have to assume) and not kept him at home like an Ox in a stall.

The lines and the action on the stage do not match. We are not introduced to a youth so bored he decides to risk his life in a wrestling match. If he wins, he will be rewarded with money. Money that will allow him to leave his brother’s home and seek his own fortune. By showing him as a workingman, we are left to wonder why he doesn’t save his wages and become his own man?

Touchstone, the wise and saucy fool has some of the best lines of the play.

The more the pity that fools may not speak wisely when wise men do foolishly”.

When asked how he likes his new life as a shepherd, he says:

Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious.

These lines alone are enough to make us laugh. The audience is smart enough to get the humor, yet in this production Touchstone is a buffoon. His physical mannerisms and cartoonish facial features detract from the words. Saturday night’s audience did not laugh at the lines; they laughed at the shtick that accompanied them. His lines were lost, hidden behind the clownish mask.

Were it not better,
because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?

 

When Rosalind and Celia decide to flee the court, the two talk of disguises. Rosalind makes the observation that being tall for a woman she should dress as a man so the two can safely make their way to the Forest of Arden. But in this, Shakespeare made a mistake (or the writers of the first folio made it). In the beginning of the play it’s established that Rosalind is the smaller of the two. Yet in the course of the play she is described as tall. Folger fixed this problem years ago by changing the first reference. Rosalind is said to be the taller of the two. Thus, eliminating the confusion and making the disguise make sense. The point of the manly disguise is to fool would be robbers into thinking twice about messing with a tall man. And later, Rosalind will give advice to several characters. Yet this director of As you like it, chose to make her short and petite. When Rosalind as Ganymede steps on the stage the audience is confronted with a youth who looks 15. The audience is left wondering why anyone would take orders from or find wisdom in a teen.

These are just three examples of how this adaptation fell flat. I heard someone behind me ask, “What is this, Shakespeare the musical?” when we were faced with a third vaudevillian song and dance number. He wasn’t the only one to show his displeasure. Some people left during intermission never to return. When it was over, the crowed applauded (the actors had done a fine job) but did not rise and show overwhelming gratitude for what they had just paid to see.

So when is a Shakespeare play not Shakespeare? When the director tries to conform the play to what he thinks his audience will understand. In this case, changing the play’s setting, action and physical characteristics. All this accomplished was a conflict between the action and the lines.

Why would one American railroad baron ask another, “So how goes it in court?” Why was Touchstone doing a soft-shoe number while reciting some of his best lines? Did the director think his audience to dense to get the original humor?

The first objective of a director of Shakespeare is to make sure the true spirit of the play comes through. Any changes should be done in order to make sure the first objective is met. Failing this, the play is not Shakespeare.

Let’s hope next year’s Tahoe Shakespeare Festival returns to the true spirit of Shakespeare.