Director and Title Character Put On "Antic Dispositions" For Surprising, Unconventional "Hamlet" at Berlind Theatre
So you think you know Shakespeare's Hamlet, probably the world's most famous, most quoted and most admired play? Do you remember that dramatic opening scene late at night where six tense figures, in casual modern dress, sit around a white table in what might be a stark conference room or rehearsal room and question each other nervously until one of them suddenly takes on the role of a visiting apparition and shakes up the furniture? Do you recall only eight actors playing more than twenty parts, without transition time or costume changes, and the same actor embodying King Claudius and the ghost of the murdered King Hamlet; the same actress playing Ophelia and the grave digger who helps to dig her grave; and Gertrude and Claudius transforming back and forth into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? How about the ten T-shirted young boys who surprisingly appear (from Norway?) to listen attentively to Hamlet's departing-for-England, "from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth" speech? Or when Hamlet, sitting on the toilet reading the "Escapes" section of The New York Times, taunts the meddling Polonius? Or when the bespectacled, cigar-smoking ghost sits Hamlet down in the den for a serious father-son talk? Or when the melancholy Dane (to threaten his uncle? to shock the audience?) strips down entirely? And if you're sure you know how it all turns out in the end
Perhaps you don't know Hamlet as well as you thought you did. The unconventional, thought-provoking Daniel Fish version currently playing at McCarter's Berlind Theatre will definitely make you wonder. One of Mr. Fish's goals in this staging of a play the lines of which many theater-goers can recite along with the actors is to defy expectations, to force us to take a new look, to challenge our assumptions about what we thought we knew, and to surprise us again and again.
Hamlet is about fathers and sons and families. It is also about revenge, political intrigue, love and lust, corruption, mortality and so many other themes which have engaged the imagination and emotion of audiences throughout the world for more than four centuries. Perhaps most pervasively, however, at least in this production, Hamlet is about playing. Shakespeare's text is full of the language of theater and drama, as all the characters in the tragedy must play certain roles in the corrupt court of Denmark. The plot of Hamlet is a constant series of plays-within-plays, as Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius and others stage particular scenes to serve their personal and political purposes.
"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King," Hamlet declares, after a troupe of visiting actors help him to realize that he must use these theatrics to his advantage in his life-and-death struggle with his scheming uncle. And, as Hamlet later instructs the visiting players, "the purpose of playing was and is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature."
Despite its extensive double-casting and the absence of thrones and scepters, battlements and kingly robes, Mr. Fish's production, does explore the multiple themes of this endlessly rich play. But the greatest energies of this production focus on the spirit of playing. The stage left wall is literally a mirror, reinforcing the figurative mirrors throughout the play. The actors are playing their parts. Hamlet is playing at being mad and trying to assume the responsibility, as Prince, to "set it right" in Denmark, and the other characters are constantly playing and staging the roles and scenes of their lives. Meanwhile, Mr. Fish is playing with his audience shocking, surprising, amusing, entertaining, upsetting preconceived notions and long-held assumptions, forcing us to see and hear in new ways. We are spectators of the troubling events of the play, but we are also enlisted as witnesses, eavesdroppers and even actors in the drama.
This is a Brechtian production, alienating the audience from the immediacy of the characters and action in order to make us think rather than get lost in subjectivity and emotion, forcing us constantly to question: Why is Claudius bringing an old record player on stage? What are we supposed to interpret the fact that old Hamlet's ghost, Claudius, Rosencrantz and Osric are all the same actor? Why are we behind the front stage curtain with Polonius, listening but unable to see the first minute of Hamlet's traumatic meeting with his mother in her chamber? What do we make of Ophelia's attending and participating in her own funeral? Mr. Fish repeatedly reminds us, with his conspicuous display of the upper reaches of the Berlind backstage, the wheeling onstage of the requisite fog machine for the ghostly "battlements", the sudden descent of a dangling loudspeaker, that we are witnessing not life but theater.
Audiences, rather than simply accepting previous conceptions and assumptions about Hamlet, will find themselves engaged in the intellectual challenges of parsing Mr. Fish's sometimes eccentric choices and interpretations. This production will provoke thought, speculation, lively discussion and also, unquestionably, a certain amount of scorn for some of its more unusual, seemingly arbitrary choices. It also is a production that will prove difficult for viewers who are not thoroughly familiar with the play. They may face some confusion with the double-casting, the instantaneous transitions and the deliberate jarring of realism and expectations.
In many ways, however, Mr. Fish and his dynamic, experienced ensemble present a sparklingly lucid Hamlet, with communication, projection and audience engagement further enhanced by the virtues of the intimate 360-seat Berlind Theatre.
Rob Campbell in the title role leads the company as an intense, sad-eyed, sympathetic Hamlet. His unpredictably varied and athletic performance and his thoughtful, strong and meaningful reading of the lines deliver even the most familiar moments and speeches in a fresh light. Incomprehensibilities there may be in Mr. Fish's production, but Mr. Campbell portrays the complex and troubled protagonist with winning originality, sensitivity, intelligence and clarity.
Among his finest scenes and the most memorable moments of the evening are his meeting with his father's ghost (Michael Emerson, excellent also as Claudius), which is set not on the craggy ramparts, but with two chairs, a standing lamp and large ashtray, as if in the father's den; Hamlet's advice to the Players ("Speak the speech, I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue"), which here takes place in the context of an evocative conversation between Hamlet and the single Player (Frank Wood) as the Player works on a "to be or not to be" speech that Hamlet picks up on immediately after the Player exits; and a dynamic climactic scene at the play-within-the-play where Hamlet enlists his mother (Stephanie Roth Haberle, sorrowful and sympathetic as Gertrude) and uncle to actually read the appropriate parts in "The Murder of Gonzago," thus forcing them to reenact their wicked deeds.
David Margulies, as Polonius and the first Gravedigger, is also impressively strong, colorfully bringing across rich nuance in Shakespeare's language and characterizations. Haynes Thigpen's Horatio, with heavy beard, horn-rimmed glasses and shabby attire, admirably embodies the scholar, looking as if he just emerged from the computer lab or engineering quadrangle of Wittenberg. Carrie Preston plays a spirited and fragile Ophelia, and then doubles as the second Gravedigger, while Jesse J. Perez portrays her forceful, vigorous brother Laertes.
The stark, abstract, no-frills set by John Conklin, costumes by Kaye Voyce and lighting by Scott Zielinski all contribute effectively to Mr. Fish's goal of stripping away the illusions and relying on the actors themselves to tell the story.
Since Richard Burbage first assayed the role in 1601, with Shakespeare himself playing the ghost of Hamlet senior, Hamlet has seen countless interpretations, updatings, adaptations and stagings. "The more I direct," Mr. Fish reflected, "the more I understand how important it is to approach all plays as if they were new plays... I want to free the play from its own reputation... We've worked on Hamlet as if it were a new play, cutting and re-arranging the text, doubling roles in ways that revealed hidden aspects of the story and focusing on the humanity of even the most supernatural events of the story." It's a valuable, fascinating experiment, not intending in any way to be a "definitive" Hamlet (whatever that means), not appealing to everyone's tastes and ideas on this cherished classic but admirably challenging us all, whether seeing Hamlet for the first or the hundredth time, to participate as active, thinking spectators.
Shakespeare's Hamlet, directed by Daniel Fish, will be playing at McCarter's Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through June 19. For times, tickets and further information, call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.