In the ten Seattle productions I’ve seen of Hamlet in my life, I’ve seen Hamlet-as-Oedipus, Hamlet-as-Walter-Mitty, Hamlet-as-drag-queen, Hamlet-as-gangster, and similar put-ons that strike me as being utterly beside the point. I’ve seen Bright Ideas and truly stupid conceits. Four times out of five I have wondered whether or not anyone was truly interested in what the play had to say about anything; instead, the play served merely as a vessel or, in Picasso’s words, “an old grab bag for everyone to reach into and pull out what he himself has put in.” This sort of foolishness is why I rarely bother to attend, much less review, Shakespeare productions, and of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays, Hamlet is the one I am most likely to avoid.
It’s not that Hamlet requires a producer to make a “big choice,” as directors are fond of saying. On the contrary. As with any other play, producing Hamlet requires a director and her cast to decide what the play is about. The difficulty with Hamlet especially is that in deciding what the play is about, producers and directors will often cut the text just so that it fits such an interpretation, yet the editing is so patchwork that the play falls apart.
In order to have me to take a production of Hamlet seriously, a director has to answer at least three questions within it:
- Is Gertrude a willing or unwilling partner to Claudius?
- What is madness, and how is it evaluated differently for men compared to women?
- What do I do about Fortinbras?
Without answers to those three questions, a production cannot get into the real substance of the play, which for me comprises male-female power relations within a patriarchy, the social misdiagnosis of emotion as mental illness, and the questionable values of monarchy.
The Horse in Motion’s version of Hamlet strikes me as having answered two of those questions.
- Gertrude is a gun moll who will go wherever power lies.
- Madness is an internal struggle of self and shadow in which shadow has the upper hand.
The third answer, regarding Fortinbras, remains tentative.
- Fortinbras is a deus ex machina.
I’ve been a fan of The Horse in Motion since they were undergraduate actors in UW UTS. I’ve likewise been a fan of Julia Sears since she was an undergraduate director at UW. So I was excited to see them join forces to present their version of “The Danish Play.”
Director and producing company here seem ideally matched. They both have similar backgrounds in education. The Horse in Motion actors love language and language plays, and have great gifts in handling poetry. Mx. Sears loves metaphor, and has a gift for transforming literary metaphor into theatrical imagery.
So it’s no surprise that the two together, company and director, have come up with a bold production. Not only have they decided on an environmental approach, staging the play in the antiquarian Stimson-Green mansion, but also they have staged two versions of the play simultaneously, with two different casts.
In most productions that move (or remove) Shakespeare to different times or locales or both, the evening winds up being about those things rather than anything within the play itself. Here, however, the environmental conceit matches the text: an antique mansion stands in for a castle. So far, so good. Then there is the conceit of performing two versions simultaneously, one “masculine” wedding and one “feminine” funeral. I have no problem with this, either.
The challenge comes in the overall conception of the play which, if I read it accurately, is a tale of split personality (thus the two casts). I have seen this before — in Tony Lewis’s I Am Hamlet, where Hamlet is not a man of two minds but at least three.
Here the role of Hamlet is played simultaneously by Jocelyn Maher and by Kevin Lin, who also play Laertes to each other’s Hamlet. It is easy enough to see this opposition as a kind of anima/animus metaphor a la Carl Jung — and as an introduction to schizophrenia. Again, this is hardly a novel interpretation of Hamlet or a “big choice.” It need not be either. All that matters is whether or not it coheres, and whether or not it illuminates the play in some meaningful way.
For me the answer is yes. In fact I prefer such a simple interpretation. Its simplicity gives the production room for other themes to emerge, submerge, and re-emerge throughout the evening, and these secondary and tertiary themes make the initial conceit stronger. Certainly the gender problem of the play — namely that Hamlet is driven by a macho code of honor to the exclusion of “feminine” solutions — takes a much more interesting form in this production than in the misbegotten Ghost Light Theatricals version from a couple years ago. Hamlet’s own inner cowardice presents itself here much more strongly than I’ve seen in other productions. Too, the mother-son relationship avoids the trite Freudianism so typical in Hamlet scholarship. It is quite matter-of-fact, and thus refreshing.
Rather than just “directing Shakespeare” in that way Joe Papp disparaged, Mx. Sears has given the play not merely an effective staging but an effective meaning. The real function of her clean and simple handling of the text is that it gets all of the usual accoutrements of Shakespearean production out of the way and opens up the play for the actors. And this is a fantastic group of actors.
What I’ve always admired in The Horse in Motion’s acting ethos is they presume that actors are not merely the roles they play but also that they are intelligent people, capable of commenting on their roles implicitly or explicitly. (Undoubtedly their experience with Brecht plays a part in this.) They value ensemble work over individual tours de force. In a fragmented production like their Hamlet, this ethos lifts the performances out of the quotidian as each actor emphasizes different parts of the roles.
I especially love Jocelyn Maher’s approach to Hamlet. As she finds the impetuous, thoughtless quality in Laertes, she also brings an exciting decisiveness to Hamlet himself — a quality often lacking in portrayals of the melancholy Dane. Kevin Lin, on the other hand, plays Hamlet largely as a boy stuck inside his own head then brings a certain pathos to his portrayal of Laertes — again, a quality often lacking from portrayals of the character. The counterbalance is perfect. Similarly, Ben Phillips and Ian Bond both bring out different aspects of Claudius, one concentrating on Claudius’ lust for power and the other on Claudius’ lust for Gertrude, and together pose the old question: which is worse, fratricide or regicide?
I’m also impressed with Hannah Ruwe. I’ve always thought her voice was an exquisite tool but here she has finally learned to move as well, with grace and formality yet without the stiffness that once crept into her performances. Opposite Nic Morden’s rather more sullen Ophelia, her performance gives the character a kind of dignity that often lacks in other productions. Watching her play opposite Kevin Lin I was reminded that the nunnery scene rarely makes any sense to me, yet here everything was crystal clear. With her love of poetry, she is growing into the truly gifted classical actress I always thought she could be.
With such an excellent production in front of me I’m inclined to wonder why it doesn’t go even further. Which returns me to my original Question #3: What do I do with Fortinbras?
I bring up Fortinbras often when discussing Hamlet because I always wonder why he is in the play at all. The answer within this production seems to be routine: he is the clean-up crew. That’s not enough for me. On a lark one might propose this production’s Laertes is actually Fortinbras, since they fill a similar role in mirroring Hamlet, but that strikes me as glib. Fortinbras is Hamlet’s double in many ways. But he is something else, too: he is the one who restores order. The question is, what order? If there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, what is the source of the rot? The easy answer is that everything goes wrong after Claudius kills King Hamlet. Yet it is King Hamlet who starts the cycle of revenge by killing King Fortinbras.
You’d find no hint of this in The Horse in Motion’s production. As with virtually every version of Hamlet I have seen, one can watch the play and never, not once, remember that there is a war going on. The play’s action seems to take place in a distinctly American vacuum, in which everything comes down to individual psychology, emotion, and motivation without the slightest awareness of the world outside. In a world of globalization, such productions always appear to be missing a great opportunity. Whatever their strengths and powers, The Horse in Motion remain an American company, and this problem rears its head in their work, too.
Still, this is a small quibble for such an excellent production. I wish I’d had the chance to see it twice for a richer perspective, but that is a measure of its success. It is the production I would expect to see from Julia Sears and The Horse in Motion. Next time I want to see the production I don’t expect to see, one that plumbs the text for its sociological and not only psychological commentary.