It is intimidating to talk about Hamlet, let alone play it, so I almost didn’t write this post. I wouldn’t have missed the Off-Broadway production though, directed by Austin Pendleton, a person I respect after having taken just a few scene study sessions with him last year. It seems, however, that I see his picture and name around town a lot in some way with almost every theatre I’ve treaded into in New York. It makes me feel that I’m walking in his footsteps along the carpets and studio floors and like he’s possibly thought all the thoughts I’m thinking now (also I know he does because he rambles about the ups and downs of his life in the theatre to make his students laugh and relate to him in class). That is partly why I wouldn’t have missed a production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet yesterday at the Classic Stage Company that involved Pendleton.
As I walked into the theatre to sit down I noticed that the set was modernized and the ceiling was draped with white flowers accented by purple light. The play starts within a void, a ghostly father, and yet the remnants of the premature celebration of Gertrude & Claudius’ wedding remained throughout every scene distracting from the very invisible but apparent void. The flowers seem to foreshadow that by the end of the play Ophelia, played by Lisa Joyce, will remain hovering over the rest of the players at her funeral.
I was moved by this production – very moved. Perhaps I’m getting older or something (I inevitably am) but everything – all the thoughts of death lingering underneath the white wedding flowers, the beauty and frailty of every relationship in the play plagued by an underlying mistrust or ignorance of human nature… its tragedy was much more unfortunate to me this time round. In this play most of the characters are fighting for something other than love (except Ophelia) – even if their actions might be born of love and loss – it’s difficult to watch. It’s not that Claudius, or Hamlet, or Polonius or Gertrude seem to start out as bad people but eventually a series of sinister actions, revelations and inability to correct bad circumstances cloud their complex characters.
It was odd to hear Good Ol’ Bill‘s language fragmented at times. Hamlet would pause and point somewhere and think and then say something else. It’s daring to experiment with Shakespeare’s natural rhythm and many would scorn at it. I can admire an experiment with heightened text, however, only if I still understand everything that is being said and every event that is happening on stage. I was able to follow and the story was still clear to me despite the departure from a use of Shakespeare’s rhythm that generally helps me when I’m running it over myself. The language was still able to move me with metaphor and to reveal truths about the characters so I was not opposed by the experiment in this particular production.
Hamlet, played by Peter Sarsgaard, surprised me because he was the first character to bring me to tears. (I’m a sucker for grief so that immediately got me… his father dying… but there was some unsentimental, invisible thing that clutched at me too). Within the opening scene of the play I noticed that his Hamlet did not feel like a victim – or if he did he hid it. Instead, his victimhood simply resonated inside as he lashed out at the people around him. His vulnerability surfaced through cracks in his bad behavior and I pitied him – but not because I wanted to. I wanted to be angry at him for getting stuck, for not choosing love over thoughts of revenge, and for crushing Ophelia. Instead I just stared at him from the audience completely crumpled and unraveled by default. By observing Hamlet sitting like an eggshell that no one dares crack I understood Ophelia’s pain better.
I didn’t expect to like Polonius, played by Stephen Spinella, but when a character always thinks he is going to win if he does this, or does that, or reasons a little better this time, or is a little cleverer next time it starts to become humorous. I saw the frailty of a flawed character that in plotting and looking towards the best interests of his family committed actions that actually did not tend to his daughter’s real emotional needs. I couldn’t fault him for his efforts – even though they were faulty. Polonius seemed to pull the wool over his own eyes and the unintentional consequence of losing not only his daughter’s mind, but her person, seemed too great in proportion.
In relation to the ensemble I can say that they were all living in the same world, although they all had their own very different intentions, and this I enjoyed. It is the invisible work of the director to achieve this coordination! At times in the Second Act I felt the need for focus to shift more appropriately from one character to another to reveal plot points, but that goes more to timing and theatre is a live interchange where things can change from night to night – and should.
I got the sense, and this is true of most accounts of most performances, the characters will deepen during the run of the show and become more and more specific and personal. I am left with a deeply personal sense of a group of frail human beings suspended underneath the actions of the play. Even though it was Ophelia whose mind left her body before she left a world that was written to be too dark to accept her love… I craved for the petals of the flowers on the ceiling to shower down on the rest of the characters to relieve them from their own blind misfortune.
O, the tragedy!