Sunday, September 30, 2012

CalShakes - Hamlet - Too Much in the Sun

My first year teaching seniors, I had a class that was filled with a few particularly negative nellies.  Upon finishing Hamlet, I had to hear how it was "pointless".  I was also informed by one particularly bright individual that even he could "write a story where everybody dies in the end".  Now, I didn't think that there was something wrong with the writing of William Shakespeare.  I'm the kind of person who blames himself for everything, so my assumption was that I must have somehow did something wrong.

Imagine my surprise at the end of the year when I asked the class to write down what their favorite things we did all year.  More than half the class picked Hamlet and if you counted Macbeth, the works of William Shakespeare counted for about 2/3 of what my students liked best.  I'm on my 9th year teaching seniors, and this is a pretty standard result.  Even last year, when I had a lot of kids not like much of anything, the enthusiasm for Hamlet was noticeable.  Basically the lesson I learned is to never listen to the one or two kids who think that their opinions represent the class as a whole.

Anyway, over the years I have found myself liking the play more and more, and while it doesn't strike me in quite such a personal way as Cyrano de Bergerac does, it definitely is something that provokes an emotional reaction out of me.  I've written my thoughts on various movie versions, but I have never had a chance to see the play live.  That's why I was especially excited about the last play for the CalShakes season when my wife bought us the tickets.

I'll start off with my biggest complaint.  It was frikken' hot, and I felt like I should have brought a change of shirt with me.  Where we were sitting, the sun was blaring right down on us for about 2/3 of the play.  My body tends to have only two settings when it comes to sweat, and those are "not at all" and "full blast".  So, I was slightly distracted by the heat which threatened to dry up my brains.

My second complaint is that the stage decoration made no sense.  It was a swimming pool that looked like the water had been drained from it months ago.  This really distracted Kirsti.  I got over it pretty quickly.  I know the play pretty well by now, but I don't even have a good guess as to why they may have gone for this.    It just strikes me as being random.  I completely understand why everything is dingy.  That makes sense, as while Denmark is "rotten", everybody (but Hamlet) pretends like everything is just fine and dandy.  But a swimming pool?  If anybody out there can figure it out, I'd be interested in hearing it.

Aside from that, the play was pretty good.  LeRoy McClain did a good job as the title character, which is pretty important.  One thing that I've always found important with the character is that you need an actor who can show a range of emotions.  It's not just important that you have a guy who can brood, but you need somebody who can elicit some genuine laughter during the scenes with Polonius.  McClain did a pretty good job of that.  I probably didn't like him as much as I liked the David Tennant in the BBC version, but he held my attention just fine.  Oh, I do think that he goofed up a line though, as he said "Farewell dear father" to Claudius when it's supposed to be "dear mother".  The joke afterward doesn't make much sense if you don't get that bit right.

The rest of the cast was pretty good as well.  Two standouts are Zainab Jah as Ophelia and Dan Hiatt as both Polonius and the Gravedigger.  With Polonius, he didn't go the doddering, senile old man route.  Instead he went with the full-of-his-own importance interpretation.  One part that I found amusing was when he was giving his long preamble about Hamlet's madness.  He was searching for a phrase (I believe it was "outward flourishes").  He had his hand out to the audience like was looking for help in finding the right word.  I didn't shout it out, but I bet that my lips probably moved as I certainly wanted to feed him the line.

As for the overall direction, I thought that they made some good choices.  A lot was cut out, including the whole Fortinbras subplot, but that's to be expected unless you want to sit there for another hour.  Aside from that, I like that they had Hamlet do the "To be or not to be" speech not as a soliloquy but as him talking to Ophelia.  That's a nice touch, and it makes her fate make more sense.  Also, usually Hamlet is speaking to Laertes when he says "What is the reason that you use me thus?  I loved you ever."  I think it's pretty clear that's what Shakespeare intended, because the line starts with "Hear you, sir".  However, in this version, Hamlet jumps into the grave with Ophelia and says it to her, sans the "sir" part.  I liked that, and it adds to the idea that one of Hamlet's problems might be that he's a bit self-absorbed.

Other than that, I only caught some minor changes, like changing words for clarity.  For instance "bodkin" became "dagger" and "fardel" became "burden" in the "To be or not to be" speech.

Overall, I had a good time, and it really went by rather quickly.  I hope to see another production or two of this play before I shuffle off this mortal coil, as it's always great when something so familiar can continue to surprise you.

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