I’m not sure I have a whole lot that I want to say about the Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet, but I did say I’d come back and write about, so let’s see what comes out. And I guess that this is as good a place as any to get started: I don’t think I like Shakespeare.
Now yes, I respect Shakespeare and his works. I see great value in his work being produced and read and studied. But here’s the thing: I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw Shakespeare that wowed me. Hell, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Shakespeare that wowed me. The work is the work and the words are the words and there’s a lot that’s impressive about it, of course, but does it still strike me as great theater? Rarely, if ever.
Now granted, I’m pretty particular in what I like onstage, and my tastes tend to run to works that are (a) relatively accessible, (b) containing some kind of young person energy, and (c) by or about contemporary folks, especially folks of some kind of color (and maybe in another post I’ll write about how insufficient that phrase feels to me, but how I can’t think of anything that better expresses what I’m trying to say). Shakespeare, no matter how you slice it (fitting choice of words for the last scene in this production), no matter how you jazz it up and reimagine it, is none of those things.
And yes, there is a timelessness to Shakespeare’s work, and I understand the idea of universality, and Shakespeare is important because he speaks to everyone, and it’s not about race or creed or color, or even about specific issues, because the plays are about big themes, big ideas–I get it. I understand the argument. And I believe the argument, up to a point. I think kids should be reading Romeo and Juliet. I think Iago is the baddest dude on the theatrical planet (although watching Hamlet again reminded me of how evil Claudius really is). I’ve even seen a really good production of Cymbeline (at the Pearl, many years ago) that spoke to Shakespeare’s effectiveness as well as any production I can remember.
But I mean, seriously. Enough.
Enough for me, at least. Part of my problem is structural–Shakespeare’s plays are five acts, and they climax in weird places. The main character dies, and we’ve still got speeches left to be told. We spend big chunks of time on subplots and disconnected thoughts that don’t do it for me–not that I think neoclassically and want unity of time, place, and action, but I do want continuity and connection and steady forward movement. That’s not what Shakespeare’s game plan was. He’s got a different pace (and really, all classical theater does, and really, all theater that is of its own time–that is, all good theater–is operating at a pace specific to its time period. It’s written for its audience, not an audience 400 years later), a more languid pace at times, more about language and poetry, which is all well and good (I mean, I write 1000 word blog posts about punching monkeys, so you know I’m not afraid of language), but really, seriously, enough already.
So that said (545 words before getting to the point), any production of Hamlet is starting out in a hole with me. I’d rather be seeing a production of a new play. And yes, I understand the economics, and that Shakespeare sells tickets, but that doesn’t change my personal preference. So that’s the hole any production has to dig itself out of with me: proving why this show needs to be done now. And I can’t say that this particular production made itself feel especially essential to me, even though I certainly didn’t hate it, and probably even kind of liked it some, if not many, levels.
What I definitely liked was, maybe surprisingly, all the TV actors. Sam Waterston was hilarious, Andre Braugher is a bad ass still, and Lauren Ambrose is, as we previously discussed, one of my favorite actors ever. They all brought good natural feels to their roles, regardless of how small those parts might have been. But Hamlet obviously lives and dies with Hamlet, and I’m not sure how I felt about Michael Stuhlbarg (and I haven’t read the Times article on him yet, which might provide some insight into how he approached the role). His Hamlet felt kind of legitimately crazy–not putting on airs to lull his enemies into submission before attacking–and I think that it hurt my overall connection to the show. It’s an interpretation, of course, a choice in acting and directing, and it’s completely legit as a choice, but I couldn’t help feeling that if Hamlet felt less crazy, then Ophelia’s legit madness would feel more tragic, and everything else would fall into place to have more of a moving impact.
But honestly, I’m not sure I even agree with what I just wrote.
(NOTE: I wrote this post a few days ago. Since then, I have read the Stuhlbarg article in the Times, and didn’t find much of anything to change my view. Then today, Brantley’s review came out, and I can’t say I disagree with any of it, really. The moment he’s referring to did indeed inspire a reaction from me, one of those verbal “huh.” things you make when you appreciate an impressive beat. And the “actor, direct thyself” bit — I couldn’t agree with that more. In fact, I think I predicted a version of that line in the review as soon as I saw the scene. It was hard not to see it coming)