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I Hate Hamlet Proves Perfect “Classic” Comedy for Colorado Shakespeare Festival

Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: I HATE HAMLET (2014, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, USA)
Review date: 17 August, 2014

Colorado Shakespeare Festival forays into more contemporary work are a relatively recent phenomenon as there was significant angst during the early years of the Festival when it came to straying from the Bard.

Ben Jonson’s Volpone (first produced in England in 1606) was the first to break with CSF tradition in 1972 and it took two decades before what many considered a perilous plunge into non-Shakespearean work to once again surface on Colorado Shakespeare stages on the University of Colorado campus.

Fast-forward to summer, 2014, and the non-traditionalists are at it again—this time with an entertaining Boulder, Colorado twist. Paul Rudnick’s comic romp I Hate Hamlet is all about the fateful casting of a young television actor as Hamlet (who is haunted by the ghost of stage and screen star John Barrymore). In a fascinating bit of serendipity, Colorado Shakespeare dramaturg Roxxy Duda discovered a treasure trove of Barrymore’s belongings in the University of Colorado library archive. Boxes of Barrymore historical documents including the contents of his wallet at the time of his death and correspondence with George Bernard Shaw were evidently donated to the university by a friend of the legendary actor. What great source material for tackling a play!

It may not be Shakespeare but it is a whole lot of fun. Colorado Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Timothy Orr assembled a marvelous ensemble to join the otherwise Shakespearean summer season (The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV, Parts I and II) and guides them with aplomb. Sam Gregory is riotously bold, cocky and debonair as Barrymore’s ghost. Alex Esola plays Andrew Rally, the conflicted television star gauchely cast as Hamlet at the New York Shakespeare Festival (for his commercial appeal). Esola is gratifyingly confused, cloying, and charming as he struggles with Barrymore and his impending opening night.

The overall ensemble adds to the joy of the production. Martha Harmon Pardee, as the realtor who tracks down Barrymore’s New York apartment, and Jamie Ann Romero (who plays Rally’s girlfriend) add mirth and a touch of reality to Rudnick’s farce. Stephen Cole Hughes threatens to steal the show as Rally’s writer/producer/director friend who shamelessly and hilariously tempts Rally into returning to his tv roots. Anne Sandoe is very funny and delightfully cast as the actor’s agent, Lillian Troy.

Scenic designer Caitlin Ayer creates one wonderful New York apartment that provides usable levels, ample playing space, and a host of visuals evoking an earlier era of Broadway. Katie Horney’s costumes are lively and interesting and the rest of the key artistic team (Jason Banks, Jason Ducat, Amy Chini, Geoffrey Kent and Roxxy Duda) all contributed to the success of the production. Of course, it’s director Timothy Orr who cast, shaped, timed, and produced the general merriment and, more importantly, successfully risked infuriating the masses with a “contemporary classic” that would most certainly have made Shakespeare smile.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Professor, Theatre, California State University, Fullerton

[Dr. Jim Volz is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, former CEO/Managing Director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and the author of seven books, including How to Run a Theatre (Methuen Drama/2011), Working in American Theatre (Methuen Drama/2011), and Shakespeare Never Slept Here. He has produced over 100 professional productions, consulted for over 100 theatres and professional arts groups, and written over 100 articles for publication in newspapers, magazines, books and journals. He may be reached at jvolz@fullerton.edu.

Permanent link to full entry 12:56:42 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

iTunes, There’s the Rub: Hamlet and Technology Meet Again at Bard on the Beach

Review Author: Cameron Butt [mail]
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Production: Hamlet (2013, Bard on the Beach, Canada)
Review date: 16 July, 2013

This year’s Hamlet at Bard on the Beach shows a lot of promise, but there are a few things that need to settle into place if the performance is to reach its full potential by the end of the run. Nonetheless, the production is memorable for its integration of modern technology, not to mention a couple of really neat gender switches.

Let’s start with the technology. Director Kim Collier employs several familiar devices as stage props, arming Hamlet with an iPhone, for example, to combat his sea of troubles. As if trying to maintain some control over his chaotic environment, Hamlet frequently selects and plays songs from an iTunes playlist. During his early brooding scenes, therefore, his musical choices give the audience privileged access to his angst-ridden emotions, even before he starts going on about his “too, too sullied flesh.” Later, Hamlet tries to intimidate Claudius by blasting punk rock throughout the castle, affirming the villain’s suspicions that the prince’s wavering mental health has become a threat to the state. That Hamlet controls the production’s music gives him an artful authority over Claudius, who struggles to contain his nephew’s inner turmoil.

The devices also serve to contextualize the events within the twenty-first century. Messengers deliver news holding iPads, Claudius’s special agents speak frantically on mobile phones when searching for Polonius’s body, and a high-definition TV screen shows silent news footage of Claudius delivering political speeches or Fortinbras advancing on Elsinore.

But transplanting a story like Hamlet into the twenty-first century poses a major challenge for the rendering of the Ghost. Ghosts are, if you’ll pardon the turn of phrase, things of the past, and Collier’s Ghost sequences stand out as odd moments in an otherwise modernized version of the play. Collier’s ghost is a powdered-up medieval spirit who sleepwalks about the stage. But the time is out of joint. In a production that so pointedly makes use of modern technology, why not smooth things over by making the Ghost a technological apparition rather than a supernatural one? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate? To Duncan Fraser’s credit, he has a great Ghost face: open-jawed and slanted like he’s been tossing and turning in a grave. But to see a new-age iPhone-wielding Hamlet cower before a fairy tale apparition seems inconsistent. Then again, ghosts can’t be expected to follow the natural order of things, so perhaps I’m completely out to lunch here.

At other times, the technology seems more a novelty than a necessity. During the performance I attended (6 July), the footage on the too-small television screen was largely ignored by characters and audience members alike, and was only really part of the action when it was wheeled on- and off-stage with the rest of the furniture. In other words, it wasn’t always clear what the technology was doing. It was just there. What’s more, the performed use of these devices seemed awfully forced a good deal of the time, especially in Hamlet’s unrealistically pronounced iPhone gestures. He accentuated every swipe and tap with a liberal flick or bob, probably deemed necessary to assist the audience in seeing him touch the device. Unfortunately, the whole charade was just distracting.

But the gizmos really find their stride in the scene leading up to the Mouse Trap. First, Hamlet records a video of the Hecuba speech on his iPhone, playing it back for the audience while marvelling at the actor’s feigned emotion. The technology thus participates in the troubling process by which feelings can be bottled and reproduced without the immediate presence of their source. It worked really well.

This rendering of the Hecuba speech prepares the audience for the Mouse Trap sequence, a brilliantly weird fusion of reality and performance, which melt together in an absurdist Julie-Tamor-meets-Fear-and-Loathing-in-Las-Vegas amateur art show. Gathered before the court, the thespians film a dollhouse performance of The Murder of Gonzago played out on a miniature version of the Bard on the Beach set. Using a tiny video recorder that cheaply captures and projects images onto a larger screen, the players alternate between filming the dolls and themselves. As Claudius and Gertrude whisper to each other during the show, the player holding the camera shifts his attention to them and they too become projected onto the screen. Since their backs face the actual real-life spectators, some of the audience members find themselves projected onto the screen, their collective role as meta-observers captured and reproduced through the lens of technology. At this moment, technology mediates the reality of the play in a hallucinatory performance-induced dream vision. It left me lamenting the arrival of the intermission. I’ve never seen anything like it.

While Collier’s vision for a modern Hamlet produces some interesting possibilities, these potentialities are not fully brought to life, perhaps because the cast members have yet to develop a group chemistry worthy of Hamlet, or perhaps because they are still growing accustomed to their roles. For example, Collier’s decision to cast Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a couple (Jennifer Lines and Craig Erickson) opens the door for some promising readings of the text. Perhaps it lends Hamlet’s off-stage life at Wittenburg a solitary nuance, like he’s always been the third wheel of their university shenanigans. Or maybe their heavy metal attire underscores their opposition to Hamlet, who dresses rather plainly, and marks them less as friends than acquaintances. But the rendering of the conversations between Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern leave these potentialities flatly unexplored, and there is little evidence of any tension when Hamlet calls them out for playing him like a flute.

Similarly, Collier opens the text to a neat reading by casting a female Horatio (Jennifer Lines). As a woman, Horatio might become a rival for Ophelia, with Hamlet favouring a male-female friendship (perhaps sexualized) over his love for Ophelia. Again, however, nothing much was made of this potentiality.

I also question some of the ways that individual roles were interpreted. While Bill Dow embodies an articulate and firm Claudius, his genuine nature seems to leak through and undermine his believability as a furtive villain. Richard Newman’s Polonius is adequate as a concerned father, but lacks some of the feckless ignorance I love so much in that character. Todd Thomson’s Laertes overplayed his hand at drunkenness, detracting from the gravity of Claudius’s plot to murder Hamlet by draping himself inappropriately over a couch and twisting his feet up behind him. Even Jonathan Young’s Hamlet, though perfectly adequate, lacks a certain spark. There is little of the mad, unpredictable fervour that characterizes the role in the text, except for the times he holds a scribbled smiley face up to his head as if it were his own. Young instead delivers Hamlet’s most contemplative soliloquies like a spoiled intellectual whose heart just isn’t really into metaphysics anymore. Without the wild depression, Hamlet’s drastic actions lose some of their pathos.

Some of these pedantic remarks are more personal than academic, but if a production is to really hit the mark, the setting, direction, and performers need to cohere. Hamlet is a play ripe with potentialities. A good production will open the text to certain readings and a fantastic production will harness them under a unified banner. That certainly happens during the Mouse Trap, and if the other pieces fall into place soon then this version of the play will definitely be the thing.

Permanent link to full entry 10:53:49 am. Categories: Stage Performances  

Hamlet and Putin

Review Author: Jami Rogers [mail]
Production: Hamlet (2010, The National Theatre, UK)
Review date: 03 December, 2010

In the post-World Cup 2018 bid moment, Nicholas Hytner’s production of Hamlet at the National Theatre gains in relevance. It did not escape my notice watching it earlier this year that Patrick Malahide, with his shaven and balding pate and wiry physique, resembled Russian Prime Minister (formerly President) Vladimir Putin. My suspicion that Claudius equalled Putin on the Olivier stage was confirmed at the interval when one of my companions brandished a torn piece of paper, the remains of Hamlet’s travel papers. This scrip had been extra-textually presented by Hamlet to Claudius/Putin for the king’s approval signature for the former’s return to Wittenberg. Claudius had pointedly ignored his nephew/son, instead signing Laertes’ documents and giving Polonius’ kin permission to travel from Denmark. The silent rebuff clearly told Hamlet he was not allowed to remove himself from Claudius’ sight, which had been the impetus for Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet to rip his papers up in frustration and throw them into the audience, where it was leapt on as a souvenir at the interval. Upon inspection, I found that this fragment my friend had acquired was in Russian – or at least, a typeface and letters that looked remarkably like the Russian alphabet. The analogy between Vladimir Putin and Claudius in Hytner’s production had been confirmed.

That Hytner’s production had been set in an eastern European totalitarian regime was obvious, even without the Putin lookalike as Claudius and the Cyrillic typeface on the discarded paper. The constant watching of characters - particularly Hamlet - constructed the oppressive aura around Elsinore. There were also bits of business that had can be seen as hand-me-downs of previous modern dress productions: Claudius was accompanied by guards in suits, who wore visible earpieces and scanned the area for assassins (signifying political oppression); Laertes returned from Paris yielding a firearm as his weapon of choice with which to confront Claudius; Gertrude numbing her emotional pain with copious quantities of alcohol. These semi-traditional pieces of modern dress performance were mixed with contemporary images that were drawn straight from Russian political oppression. Or, to be precise, images that had been culled from resistance to Russian oligarchy.

I had seen Hamlets draw a smiley face before during the “smile and smile and be a villain” riff – Joseph Millson at Stafford’s outdoor Shakespeare festival, for example. There, it seemed a rather cutsey gesture which was perhaps intended to mark Hamlet’s descent into madness. Within the context used in Hytner’s production, Kinnear’s smiley face artwork was not an isolated incident. It appeared on walls and was handed out by Hamlet in the form of tee-shirts emblazoned with the symbol before the players’ performance of The Mousetrap. By then, the smiley face had become the silent symbol of protest against the regime.

Gertrude and Ophelia both donned the tee-shirts, although their complicity with Hamlet in resistance was not fully formed before Hamlet’s exile. Clare Higgins’ Gertrude had exhibited signs of unease with her second husband’s regime from the beginning, however. Her fixed smile as Claudius made his televised address to the Danish population was broken once the cameras had been switched off with a visible sigh of relief and a stiff drink. She thought about being her son’s advocate regarding his exodus to Wittenberg, but decided against it. Her “willow” speech was the utmost act of complicity with Claudius’ regime, as in Hamlet’s absence Ophelia had joined the resistance. For Claudius’ regime, Ophelia was an enemy of the state who had to be dealt with – fatally. Higgins’ delivery made it clear that Ophelia had not drowned, but her utterance was clearly stage-managed and designed to tow the Party line.

While some of Hytner’s choices took liberties with Shakespeare’s text, it was thought-provoking as a critique of the contemporary Russian regime. The analogy with Putin was impossible to ignore, with his paranoiac grip of the state in the onstage Denmark gradually growing in vice-like intensity. With this Hamlet, played In the country where the apparent contract killing of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko by the Russian secret service, the Shakespearean political analogy is particularly apt. The combination of Hytner’s critique and the triumph of Russia in its World Cup bid should raise questions about Putin’s totalitarian regime. Sadly, it is unlikely that the smiley face revolution will happen before the world’s premier sporting event, but Hytner’s work should not go unnoticed as Russia heads into the sporting headlights.

Permanent link to full entry 01:58:37 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

Hamlet directed by Jonathan Miller for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

Review Author: Pete Kirwan [mail]
Production: Hamlet (2008, Cube Theatre Company, UK)
Review date: 25 November, 2008

Clocking in at 3 hours 45 minutes, Jonathan Miller’s new production of Hamlet was something of an endurance test in the cramped and stifling auditorium of the Tobacco Factory, still fundraising for a badly-needed ventilation system. The ceiling was low, the room was pitch-black and the seats very close together, making for an extremely uncomfortable experience on a hot spring afternoon. Despite all that, it’s a great space, and the extreme close quarters allowed for an intimate, near-full text production that concentrated on providing a clear, no-frills interpretation and some fantastic performances.

Leaping straight in with the main source of praise for the production, Jamie Ballard’s Hamlet was a revelation. I’ve seen Ballard a few times before, notably as a solid Mercutio in Nancy Meckler’s Romeo and Juliet, and I knew he had promise, but I wasn’t prepared for Ballard’s phenomenal energy and committment. Never dull for a moment, this Hamlet was by turns hysterically funny and gut-churningly moving, desperate and confident, brutal and gentle, and yet never self-contradictory. Ballard’s Hamlet was a deepy troubled young man who embarked on a scheme and followed it through to its inevitable conclusions, weathering everything that he encountered and single-handedly bringing down the state in doing so. And he did it with a smile.

Ballard’s greatest strength is his ability to not only be very funny, but to be funny while also being desperately sad (witnesses of his performance as Flute-as-Thisbe in Greg Doran’s 2005 A Midsummer Night’s Dream may recall how he turned the riotous comedy into a sobering lament in his final moments). His Hamlet began slumped on a chair, but as soon as his course towards death was begun by his encounter with the ghost, his own personal comedy began. No-one was safe from his dark humour - Yorick’s skull was mercilessly turned into a ventriloquist’s doll before being tossed aside, Laertes had faces pulled at him as their duel began, Polonius was treated to insults even as his dead body was tugged away and the jokes he made to Claudius as his banishment to England was pronounced were scathing in their sarcasm. For most of the middle three acts, almost every word Hamlet spoke was with a jest, and yet behind it all Ballard’s eyes remained serious and joyless, watching the reactions to his words with deep interest and using it to his advantage.

Yet the veneer of humour was frequently broken. As Annabel Scholey’s Ophelia tried to hug and caress his face during the nunnery scene, the tears he shed while shouting at her became real. Ophelia was his weakness, the hardest part of his life to reject (his joking with her during “The Mousetrap” was particularly cruel), and his screams as he realised whose funeral he was watching were heartfelt. Elsewhere, his screams at the weasely Guildenstern who tried to play upon him belied the feeling of betrayal he felt from his former friends, while his interview with Gertrude became desperate in his imploring of her. Hamlet’s humour was his key to survival, and when the humour was removed one could see how close to the edge events were drawing him. His wonderful delivery of ‘To be or not to be’, making it sound like a genuine part of the character’s mental process rather than a set-piece, epitomised the skill and dexterity with language that Ballard brought to the role.

Desperation was also a key part of Jay Villiers’ excellent Claudius, an unusually sympathetic reading of the villain. No apologies were made for his murder, but his love for Gertrude was genuine and almost every action he took during the course of the play was an attempt to survive the aftermath of his crime with minimum disturbance. One could almost believe that he would be a good king, were it not for the albatross weighing him down. As he and Gertrude spoke in the bedroom after Polonius’ murder, he kissed her with a desperate urgency, fearful of his sin catching up with him and clinging on to a true and pure feeling of love. His attempts at contrition seemed genuine and, in one of the play’s most powerful images, he accepted his death unconditionally. Facing Hamlet, he closed his eyes and spread his arms wide, exposing his chest and embracing oblivion. He willingly drank from the cup of poison, and his final act was to crawl across the floor, touching the hand of the fallen Gertrude in a final gesture of genuine love which Hamlet, amazed, finally accepted, placing the cup next to their hands but leaving them linked in death.

The other two characters who emerged in this production in particularly clear focus were Polonius, played capably by Roland Oliver, and Nicholas Gadd’s Osric. Polonius was the central figure at court, running events while the smiling Claudius sat in a pew at the edge with Gertrude. Bustling and comic as one would expect, this Polonius nonetheless felt like someone who achieved things and had a real power and influence, the King and Queen accepting his recommendations unhesitatingly. Osric, on the other hand, only gradually came to prominence. Serving as the court clerk throughout, he was present at the sidelines of all the dodgy transactions that took place, receiving his education through watching Claudius and becoming increasingly embedded in the seedy world of the court while simultaneously becoming dissatisfied with the intrigues. When he finally came to his invitation to Hamlet, he gave it with a dignity unique to this character, and Hamlet’s bawdry teasing of his manners was made to seem ridiculous by his calm and slightly despising attitude towards the prince. This Osric was not ostentatious and had no time for jokes, the severity of events having made such an impression on him.

Scholey didn’t stand out in her early scenes, but was excellent in the scenes of Ophelia’s madness - made up in the garish face paint of the players and stabbing a straw doll brutally with a twig before clutching at whoever was closest, her depiction of Ophelia’s mental collapse was deeply affecting. Elsewhere, Philip Buck and Francesca Ryan provided excellent support as Horatio and Gertrude, the latter particularly coming into her own in later scenes as the enormity of events started to oppress her.

Despite being excellent throughout, the play managed to step up a gear for the final scene, coaxing a final amazing display of energy and skill from its cast. The fencing duel was spectacular (all credit to Kate Waters’ fight direction), Ballard and Oliver Le Sueur’s Laertes diving about the stage and Laertes eventually being smashed painfully into a pillar. Hamlet deliberately swapped rapiers, grabbing Laertes’ as he thrust it, tapping the end in full knowledge of what was going on and tutting at his opponent before lunging at him in anger. His final death, too, had a powerful impact, he suddenly collapsing and spluttering out his final words in Horatio’s arms. A gripping end to a wonderful reading of the play, it’s only a shame that it didn’t get a chance to tour.

Permanent link to full entry 08:03:17 am. Categories: Stage Performances  


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