Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The other thing we saw at OSF was Hamlet, and this was splendid, more than enough to wash away the bad taste of Throne of Blood. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for you, O Reader), I don't know if I have anything much to say about it. Certainly not as much as I had to say about Throne of Blood. I mean, this Hamlet was awesome. Just amazing. But I'm a babe in the woods when it comes to Hamlet. I saw it on Boston Common a few years ago, and I've seen Kenneth Branagh's film (twice!), and of course I've read the play a number of times...but I wouldn't dream of saying I know anything about it.

This series of posts on Bardolatry talks about some of the distinctive aspects of this production: I particularly want to second what Murphy says about the decision to make Hamlet's father deaf, even at the expense of some of the Bard's verbiage:
...having Hamlet and the Ghost communicating in sign language—one might describe it almost as their “private” language—also served to produce the (in my experience, unique) effect of putting the father-and-son pair in a sort of psycho-spiritual bubble, contra mundum; a bubble that excluded all others and highlighted Hamlet’s isolation. The relationship between father and son portrayed in most productions comes across as distant, severe and (on Hamlet’s part) rather worshipful, even awestruck. In this production the father/son relationship is portrayed as having been loving and paternally intimate, which makes Hamlet’s reaction to his father’s tale of murder all the more harrowing.


Finally, in the OSF production’s captivating use of sign language—for me it put the icing on the cake, as it were—there were several very nice bits of stage business when we see, in a couple of key scenes, Gertrude and even Claudius breaking briefly into sign language when speaking of the late King Hamlet. These fleeting moments from the ancien regime seemed to signal, as it were, breakings-in of conscience and former ties of familial love into the toxic little Gertrude/Claudius bubble—that “rotten” thing poisoning Denmark.
This really captures something excellent about this production: it got the feeling of the relationships between the characters absolutely right. The brother-sister feeling between Laertes and Ophelia, the father-children feeling between both of them and Polonius, and of course Hamlet and his father and mother, and even uncle. I think what Murphy's suggesting - and I saw this - is that when Gertrude and Hamlet and Claudius break into sign language when speaking of the late King, it's force of habit: these are people who are used to speaking simultaneously in sign and by voice, for the benefit of the King as well as each other, and it's entirely natural that they'd slip back into that old habit at moments of high nostalgia and/or emotion. Natural, and more important for the play, affecting: touching.

This was a very emotional Hamlet. (It's here that I think the best aspects of OSF come through: I called Throne of Blood pandering; the flip side of that is the emotional intensity and accessibility of this Hamlet, populism of the best kind.) The philosophical aspects of the play are there for all to appreciate - you can't escape them, and this production does its best to highlight them too (I like the idea of having the rest of the action onstage stop like a freeze-frame when Hamlet steps out to do a soliloquy). But mostly what we get is a production in which everybody's emotions and the actions that spring from them make visceral sense. We feel Hamlet's turmoil, his grief, his frustration, his anger. His despair.

The wordless play-before-the-play that they've added is important here. (If you go, get there when the doors open so you can see the whole thing.) I'd love to somehow return to a state of innocence where I knew nothing about the play, so that I could learn about Hamlet's character the way the first viewers presumably did - so that I could let Shakespeare introduce him to me cold, and see what effect that would have on me. That's impossible, of course, for almost anybody coming to the play today: by the time Hamlet is first mention, much less appears onstage, we all know what's eating him. The play-before-the-play acknowledges that, and makes our first entry into the play through Hamlet, rather than through the watchmen: for a full half hour we see Hamlet utterly motionless in front of his father's coffin after the funeral, while the mortuary personnel mill around putting away chairs and jawboning in the back of the chapel. We learn everything about Hamlet here: not only that he's young and handsome in his mod suit and sunglasses, but that he's both much more upset by his father's death than anybody else (he's the last one in the chapel) and that he's capable of incredibly concentration (he sits motionless, lost in thought, for thirty minutes). In short we see the ingredients of his obsession, his madness, right here. We can identify (and it helps that Hamlet is dressed and played as a recognizable neurotic hipster, so that the ironic pirouettes of the soliloquys feel like the manic word-riffage of someone raised on rap); we can feel him. It's not strictly Shakespeare, but it quite effectively works with Shakespeare to lead us into the play.

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