Every year, Nebraska Shakespeare (which produces two of the plays each summer in a park here in town over a period of a couple of weeks) also does a roughly month long tour of a different show aimed at, mostly, Middle and High schools. Now, it would be difficult to tour a full production to schools, given time restrictions of the school day, etc., so, obviously the performance must be cut fairly extensively. Having played at schools during my days with Theatre 65, the Children’s Theatre of Evanston, I can easily understand this and don’t have real problems in accepting this as necessary. I also don’t have any real problems with not using a “full” cast since, we are pretty sure that Shakespeare’s company probably used at least some doubling with minor characters, at least.
Still, when I heard that this production was being done in 75 minutes and with a cast of only eight actors, I confess to having some reservations as to how effective it was going to be. While I do have some difficulties with the final result, I was surprised that the production was as good as it was.
The actors, all professional (although none credited with being Equity, which doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be) were all pretty good, although the extreme cutting (an uncut Hamlet does take about four hours) did create some real limitations and the elimination, or combining, of a good many characters (only one gravedigger, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also were the players, etc.) was something of a drawback to me, although the show did “work” reasonably well.
I think I would have enjoyed the Globe Theatre Versions Hamlet adapted by Thomas Wood Stevens for production at the Globe Theatre in San Diego in 1935 (available from Samuel French) more, but it runs about 85 pages in its script and used (in its original production) a cast of about 20, which is probably too long and requires a much larger cast. It probably would have been prohibitive under the circumstances. All things considered, the cutting, while VERY extensive, actually worked reasonably well.
On the other hand, I did have some “issues” with the production. I didn’t understand the set. It appeared to function pretty well, but it looked a great deal like a London subway (Tube) station, with a strange, elevated platform off to one side, which had a curtain hanging in it, something which I can’t imagine at a Tube stop. They even used a variation of the London Transportation logo with Elsinore across its middle, just as stops are indicated for the tube. I confess that I didn’t see how this contributed to making the play any clearer. As I say, it was acceptably functional, but it really didn’t speak to the story very well, at least to me.
The costumes were, of course, modern dress. Now, that didn’t bother me. After all, probably my favorite production of this play is the 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company modern dress production with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart (which was filmed and released in 2010, which is how I know it). And we know that in Elizabethan times plays were staged in contemporary dress and this has become pretty widely acceptable since Barry Jackson made it a common practice at the Birmingham Rep in the 1920’s.
No, my “issues” were mostly with some of the directorial (or adaptation?) choices for the production. Having Horatio played by a woman is still a bit of a “stretch” for me, although a production Steve Ayers did at Western in 1991-92 had that character played by Charity Moon to Sean Bridgers’ Hamlet and it worked quite acceptably for me. I built the set and played Osric, as I remember it (not the best role I ever played), but Steve drafted me into the cast. Still, while it can work, it bothers me, as I think Hamlet’s best buddy probably should be male, but that may just be my problem.
My biggest issue with the production was the decision to stage the “to be, or not to be” soliloquy as a shared speech between Hamlet and Ophelia. This I still can’t figure out. I suppose it may have been an attempt to “broaden” the play to be about more than just Hamlet’s issues, but I did not find it effective. The whole revenge motif I found rather strangely subdued. I don’t think that I’m just so set in my ways as to reject a differing interpretation out right, but this didn’t make sense to me.
Now, when I saw their touring production of As You Like It last year, they split up the epilogue (somewhat shortened) between the actresses playing Rosalind and Celia, so I suppose that I should have expected the possibility of some tampering with the script. Still, “To be, or not to be” is SO iconically Hamlet’s speech that I really didn’t understand this, mostly because, as I see the play, I don’t see Ophelia pondering over such questions. Her eventual madness may be understandable, given what happens to her during the course of the play, but I just can’t see how this speech works for her character.
I certainly thought the production worth my time and effort (minimal) to see and I’m glad that it is being presented across the state. I suspect that it led to a fair number of interesting discussions in English lit classes, due to the changes, but I also hope that it will lead at least some students to look more closely at the value of seeing Shakespeare performed, as it was meant to be seen and heard, not just read.
All things considered, it was an interesting way to spend a Saturday afternoon. I hope anyone reading this will have an equally enjoying afternoon someday soon.