Friday, January 20, 2017

Hamlet on Stage

As you know, I've been planning my move back to Scottsdale for the past month and a half. This week I finally made it over, and you know how I celebrated? (Well, besides going to see Moana, which I hadn't had time to go see before and which I loved and which will get its own post later.) I went to watch Southwest Shakespeare's production of Hamlet.

Do you know how excited I was?

Here's the thing. They did Hamlet before--I think it was my senior year of college. But for this and that reasons, it wasn't convenient for me to go and I was a little disappointed by that. So when I realized that it was going to be playing as soon as I moved back, well, it was like they were putting on the show just for me.

That is, I didn't like Hamlet the first time I was forced to read it. I was fifteen, and there just wasn't much to draw me in. (By the way, I also think that Romeo and Juliet is a terrible first introduction to Shakespeare and I don't see why it's the first one that all high schoolers must read. Just because the characters are teenagers doesn't mean it speaks most to teenagers. But I digress.) I, however, kept returning to the play over the years. At seventeen, I read it again and my topic of analysis for my paper and presentation was Hamlet's attitude toward death. Given that I now had more experience in literary analysis and was all set to study literature in college, I was able to approach the play in a more mature way. It was getting to be an interesting play. And, of course, in college I read it one more time; we watched one or two film versions (including the fantastic one with Patrick Stewart and David Tennant). So by this time I was able to conclude that not all Shakespeare plays are the same and however hesitant I feel about much of Shakespeare's material (I don't usually like the comedies), I do like Hamlet (Macbeth is cool, too).

My, that was a long intro. Can you tell that I haven't been posting lately? All the words want to slip from my fingers, as if I haven't spoken to all of you in ages and must make up for the lost time.

Back to Southwest Shakespeare, the company I have adored ever since I saw their production of Pygmalion around ten years ago. (Before the play started last night, they talked a little about the upcoming shows and the high school program. They mentioned that people who don't see a live production before they get out of high school are I think 75% less likely to ever see one in their lives. Wow, what a statistic. And he's right: while I always liked live things, seeing that play with my high school is what spurred me on to keep an eye on future productions from this company.) David Barker directed, and William Wilson starred as Hamlet.

The stage was very interesting, and caught my attention right away. Ropes dangled from the ceiling in various curves and arcs, one shaped subtly like a noose so that you might not notice it right away. These are metaphors for the ropes tying down the characters. There are more ropes, too. There are ropes in their clothing--something that at first seemed odd to me but came to make more sense as the play went on. The types of ropes or the the way in which they're draped over or with the clothing varies for each character, expressing something about each one's personal bondage. There are also ropes that sometimes physically tie them, ropes that stretch from backstage and that the characters must struggle to stand or walk with. With the Ghost, these ropes tie him to the world of the dead. With Ophelia, they keep her locked in her father's will.

The directer made interesting comments in his director's notes. Basically, he wanted to cut down the long dialogue and keep the action going. He succeeded wholeheartedly: my attention was drawn in the whole time. Scenes go together with scenes, and always the emotion of the moment keeps moving and keeps developing.

Right away, William Wilson shows himself as a talented actor. He plays Hamlet as a man in grief--not just a depressed youth or a madman but someone who is truly grieving and overcome by that grief. Not everyone does that, but the approach makes sense (especially to me, with my memories of that paper I did about Hamlet's attitude toward death). Not only, however, did Wilson play the drama well; he also played wonderful comedy. Many of Hamlet's lines have such wit about them and Wilson also added physical comedy and various voices that all rounded out his scenes into a full range of emotions. He really did have me laughing and crying. I can't even describe how much I loved his performance.

Now we come to Ophelia, played by Melody Knudson. Ophelia is usually on the sidelines, the girl Hamlet had a fling with and then left behind. Not so in this production. Here Ophelia is someone you can actually see Hamlet falling in love with, someone who would fall in love with Hamlet. She watches his moments of anguish and is touched by his sorrow. She feels deeply, too, as he does. She ponders deeply, and her "mad" speeches aren't so much from a girl who went mad for love as companion speeches to Hamlet's. They're both not quite mad but distraught.

The rest of the cast was also good, though I haven't enough space to talk about all of them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were hilarious as women and that casting choice fit in surprisingly well, even better than leaving them as men. I was a little sad to see Polonius die because he was a good actor and played well opposite Hamlet.

Another note on the production. Perhaps the most modern touch (other than the ropes) was the use of pauses. The actors physically pause while one of them speaks to the audience or to highlight a particular moment, such as the dread when Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup. Sometimes the pauses are longer and sometimes they are short, but they all made sense for each moment and helped to highlight the emotion of the action.

The emotion. That brings us to the final bit. Very touching ending. More than anything, this particular production was about each character having to come to terms with mortality but also with judgement and redemption. They're the same lines that are in other productions--but everyone gives more or less emphasis to certain elements to move forward their particular focus. This theme was moving. You see Claudius there praying, the Gravedigger there making his comments about death, and Hamlet dancing around the topic of mortality from every angle. It really makes you pause and see this very familiar play as if you're seeing it for the first time.

Well done, everyone. Well done.

For their winter season, they're switching off between Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing. Given how much I enjoyed this one and given that many of the actors are in both plays, I might just have to see Much Ado, as well.

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