Saturday, October 13, 2012

Trippingly on the tongue

Squaring off against Hamlet's own history?
As I left the Shakespeare's Globe production of Hamlet (at ArtsEmerson through next weekend), I wondered myself at how much I had enjoyed it.  This isn't the kind of thing I'm supposed to like - millennial in its attitudes, and thus somewhat flat and unevocative, and all but dripping with admiration for immaturity.  Usually this kind of thing makes me break out in hives.

My only excuse for being so tickled by this wicked-smart production is that it is, indeed, the smartest version of this warhorse (oh btw, be sure to catch War Horse, Metro readers!) that Boston has seen in ages.  Indeed, watching these actors scramble over their bare-bones set as they scamper through Shakespeare's bare-bones text, you realize just how coated and clogged Bostonian (and American) Shakespeare has become with pseudo-intellectual gunk.  We've suffered through the ministrations of the Method, and the orbiting low-end and high-end Big Apple bull of Joe Papp and Bob Brustein, and now the wacky conniptions of the Actors' Shakespeare Project - there has been just so much crap between us and Shakespeare!

Thank God that the raison d'ĂȘtre of Shakespeare's Globe is to bring audiences back to something like Shakespearean Ground Zero - literally, the actual ground of the old Globe (or as close as we can get to it), its actual stage, and the unadorned text.  And frankly, in this production they pretty much succeed at conveying that concept in shorthand (for better and worse), even if they can't recreate the original context of the play (indeed, sometimes this production's funny mood seems to derive from a sense of Hamlet as an ur-text floating in a certain quizzical postmodern frame).

But needless to say, there's a flip side to this achievement: many of the interpretive riches that have been mined from Hamlet by our long excavation of it are here tossed aside.  Young Michael Benz's bleach-blonde Prince dazzles us with a sense of contrarian, ironic brilliance let loose and running free; and witty commedia stagecraft supports his capers at every turn; but we sometimes pay for our fun by forgetting the emotional depths of Hamlet and his play.

Indeed, the text is consistently clipped to neutralize the prince's unconscious emotions, and likewise trim the complicating facets of the supporting cast; we essentially see everyone as Hamlet sees them.  And since he is here played as roughly sixteen or seventeen, there's much he doesn't perceive, despite his  high IQ. His mother is merely a cipher, for instance (rather than a psychological complex), and Polonius just a foolish old man, rather than our hero's doddering doppelgĂ€nger; likewise Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are clowns who play to the groundlings, who themselves probably never realize that in working out his revenge, Hamlet becomes the chief villain of Laertes' parallel tragedy.  Indeed, the famously complex dance between theatre (or should I say consciousness?) and reality that is perhaps the play's most haunting dimension is here simply a clever sight gag  - admittedly, a hilarious one, one of the production's many comic brilliances.

Then again, if you're going to evoke the first performances of one of the touchstones of Western culture, doesn't it also make sense to forget and forego all the exegesis to follow over the next four centuries?  Well - let's just say I appreciate that argument.  I also have some sympathy with the case for a very young Hamlet, as played here.  Although the standard version that we all read in high school nails Hamlet's age as thirty (yes, 30!), that's based on textual readings that some scholars have long called - well, at best unstable.

Okay, not to get bogged down in all this, but the chief evidences for Hamlet being thirty are the Gravedigger's famous lines in Act 5, in which he tells us he came to his post the very day that young Hamlet was born.  In most published versions, he says the following: "I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years." Which would make Hamlet thirty.

The trouble is that as printed in the First Folio the line actually reads: "I have bin sixeteene here, man and Boy thirty yeares."  Hmmm.  So did the Gravedigger actually say "sexton" (which makes sense in context) or "sixteen"?  And is Hamlet therefore 30, or a teenager?

Well, the Second Quarto text uses the word "sexten" rather than "sixeteene," which argues for "sexton" - but then the First Quarto omits the line entirely, but says that Yorick's skull has only lain in the earth twelve years, rather than the 23 years of the Folio (which would make Hamlet, yes, about 16).  So you see the problem - and that there's an argument either way.

A word more about that First, or "Bad" Quarto - it seems to figure in this production, even though it's called "Bad" for good reason: it's hilariously inaccurate and second-rate, and almost certainly derived from the poor memory of one of Shakespeare's players.  Yet intriguingly, some of its variant lines were spoken in this production instead of those from the standard version.

Here, for instance, is the standard take on the Ghost's entrance into Gertrude's closet:

Ghost: Do not forget: this visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose . . .

But onstage at Shakespeare's Globe, the Ghost muttered:

Hamlet, I once againe appear to thee / To put thee in remembrance of my death: 
Do not neglect, nor long time put it off . . .

"Do not neglect, nor long time put it off"?  Is this Shakespeare, or a memo from upper management?  And there were other textual oddities in this performance - mostly in the Players' scenes, it seemed to me.  Clearly the conceit here is to give us a Hamlet as it might have been performed before the text was clarified, and the First Folio printed (in 1623); but are the "Bad" Quarto lines even from Shakespeare's quill, and do they belong onstage without explicit explanation? (I'd argue "no.")

But enough Shakespeare geekery!  Even with a sixteen-year-old Hamlet, and even with the odd bad line from the "Bad" Quarto, I think you can still argue for more passion (even adolescent passion) in Hamlet than Shakespeare's Globe delivers (for the record, Michael Benz even got ironic laughs with his very last gasps, which is surely pushing it).   There are other gaps: the lovely Carlyss Peter is far too rosy an Ophelia to make her delicacy and madness credible, and Dickon Tyrrell wasn't nearly formidable enough as Claudius - oddly, however, his prayer speech was superb.

Which points up another winning aspect of this production - everyone but Benz doubles over and over again, so if they don't impress you in one role, they may score in another (Miranda Foster's Second Gravedigger is actually more compelling than her Gertrude, at left with Benz).  Add to that the fact that the cast sings and plays instruments well (Boston's own Bill Barclay, one of the brightest lights at ASP, arranged the music) and even dances (yep, all the dead people get up from the floor at the end and do a rueful, hearty jig, just as they did in Shakespeare's day) - and you find yourself liking everyone, even if maybe you don't like what they're doing at any particular moment (a curious twist on Brechtian distance, surely).

And you cannot deny that the production conjures a sensation we almost never feel anymore - the startling tumble of thought from Shakespeare's pen, the sensation of insight piling onto insight, of epigrams immediately enjambed with quips and quibbles, even as the virtual parchment of the text is sprayed with imaginary ink.  By simply conjuring the freshness of that incredible cascade, the Shakespeare's Globe team - and young Michael Benz - have surely earned themselves a worthy place in Hamlet's history.

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