Thursday, October 3, 2013

Hamlet and The '70s

Not our base text for Hamlet, more a decorative reminder of the task ahead.
October finds me in Pittsburgh, in residence at the Manchester Art Farm, directing Hamlet for Pittsburgh Classic Players. There is no website for the Manchester Art Farm and you won’t find an entry for it in that yellow-paged relic of the pre-digital era. It is a nickname the landlord gave but it suits this beautiful red-brick home and the garden that surrounds it. You can find Pittsburgh Classic Players online and I hope that you will. They are an ambitious new company founded by three fellow alumni of Mary Baldwin College’s Shakespeare and Performance program and it is such a privilege to join them as the director of their inaugural production.

When you consider directing a classic, you know that you will be asked that fair but petrifying question: what are you going to do with it? The fear around the question is not just the terror of the white blank page or the knowledge that you will have to live with and be accountable to your answers. The fear also revolves around your suspicion that secretly the world thinks you have no business directing that classic work of staggering genius unless you are also a staggering genius who has something new to offer – and when it comes to Hamlet, well, it’s been done. Trust me, it’s been done. Of course, things do not have to be new to be worth doing. We read things that have been read before, cook things that our great great ancestors cooked. None of us, alive today, discovered sex and yet…

Defenses and tangents aside though, you are doing something with that play, at least you should be. The beautiful thing about plays as rich as those Shakespeare wrote is that there is more to do with it than one could possibly, or wisely, do in one production. – There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio (1.5) – The question, what are you going to do with it, is really an invitation to preview the story you are about to toil so hard to tell.

So what am I doing with Hamlet? Well, I am telling a story of family, loss, grief, sorrow, love and despair. There is deep love and ambivalence in the Hamlet family. These are relationships haunted by specters of disappointment and disapproval. There is a trend in modern productions of Hamlet to minimize Hamlet’s depressive nature and play up his agency as a kind of would-be action hero. (It can be done and well. It’s just not what I want to do. Not this time). A friend pointed out to me that you can say a lot about Hamlet by calling him a feminine revenge hero and it occurs to me that the very characteristics Hamlet is criticized for early in the play – his caution, his sensitivity – are qualities we more frequently associate with women. I want a Hamlet that embraces and explores those qualities. And though I tried for awhile to ignore the influence of Patti Smith's Just Kids on my imagination as I prepared for Hamlet, I soon realized that my Hamlet would have been at home (still tortured, but at home) on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1970s. To me that is where all the Wittenberg kids hang out spouting philosophy. 

And though I am emphasizing the personal in Hamlet, I have not cut the political: it informs the characters’ sense of self and means their decisions reverberate in a terrifying way. Denmark is a country in the midst of a tumultuous transition: trouble abroad, political intrigue at home. Hamlet is a kind of a canary in a coal mine; though of course the colors are inverted as he wears his suits of black and the kingdom tries to soldier on with pomp and pageantry. I can see Gertrude wearing Pat Nixon's canary yellow mimosa silk satin encrusted with Austrian crystals inauguration gown. I am not planning a direct transplantation of the play; Claudius is not Richard Nixon, and there are no guns in this production. Still, it is useful to ground my thoughts on the play in a specific time and place.

The disconnect between the court’s sense of self and the erosion of the state is not the initial reason I chose the 1970s with the Nixon White House and New York City’s Lower East Side as my main source of inspiration for the look and tone of Hamlet, and yet, there it is now staring me in the face: it was a tumultuous and transitional time, a time of corruption and disillusionment. No wonder Hamlet is fighting not to be king but to go back to Wittenberg. Hamlet is a play of poets and politicians, neither of which save Denmark. That's the story. At least that's where I'm starting.

Oh, and here is a taste of what I'm obsessively listening to...

1 comment:

  1. Wish I could come see it. Let me know if there's something I can do to help long distance.