Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Hamlet that Hits Home

Hamlet is the hoariest of classics: up to four hours long and talked-over by so many academics and imitative undergraduates that there’s nothing left to say.

Except when you see a production like I saw last night, by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at the Paramount Theatre in Boston as part of Emerson College’s wonderful ArtsEmerson program. Then you say to yourself, OK, this matters.

You know the story:
Claudius kills his brother, Hamlet, King of Denmark, and marries Hamlet’s wife, Queen Gertrude, causing her son, Hamlet Jr., Prince of Denmark, to stew, abuse his girlfriend Ophelia (who drowns herself), and accidentally kill Ophelia’s father Polonius (when he coulda shoulda woulda killed Claudius), inciting Laertes (Ophelia’s brother, Polonius’s son) to kill Hamlet, naturally. Each of these named characters is dead by the end of the play.

The problem is, most of us don’t have uncles who have killed their fathers and married their mothers. And plus, we’re not royals. Not princes of Denmark. Not even kings of Queens. So what’s to identify with? Hamlet thrashes through soliloquies ultra-famous (“To be or not to be”), famous (“O that this too too solid flesh”), semi-famous (“O what a rogue and peasant slave am I”) and forgotten (“How all occasions do inform against me”). We scratch our heads and say, What’s the biggie? He’s just a mixed-up oversexed-kid who can’t make up his mind. Kill Claudius, fergawdsakes!

The Globe production is confined to a small (20x15-foot) stage within a stage with a shallow second story above. Downstage center, at the edge of the main rectangle is a one-man-sized triangle built out toward the audience. This is where Hamlet delivers his soliloquies and Claudius prays. The Globe company comprises just eight actors, with all but Hamlet (brilliant young Michael Benz) assuming multiple roles. The one scene requiring the most characters—the play within the play—is handled brilliantly, using a drawn red curtain to move our perspective back and forth from the players to those watching the players. Hamlet’s asides to Ophelia are used as the pivot for this shift.

The houselights remain half up throughout the production, so that actors can see audience as well as vice versa, and there is a resulting intimacy to the experience that is part of what touched me. But here’s what really touched me:

Imagine for a moment (as I did last night for nearly three hours) that Hamlet, that old chestnut, is not about murder and incest but about something much more common. Imagine that Hamlet is about something that combines violence and incest: namely, sexual abuse. Something terrible has ripped apart the fabric of Hamlet’s family, doesn’t matter if it’s royal or not, it’s a family. Someone has done something unspeakable. Hamlet is about what happens then.

What happens then is, the victims know they should do something about it but don’t. They thrash, they talk to themselves. What’s harder, they doubt themselves: their own value, the rightness of their cause. In Hamlet’s case, a new bad father-king has supplanted the old good father-king, and Claudius now controls the official perception of reality. Hamlet’s view is invalidated.

A further result is that the pain and sometimes violence spreads. The victim, unable to contain or understand or sometimes even feel his anger, unwittingly allows it to spill out on others. Desiring to kill Claudius, he kills Polonius instead. Loving Ophelia but unable to express his love, he drives her to suicide.

Hamlet is about sexual abuse. Try that on the next time you are afraid you’re going to fall asleep during one of the soliloquies you memorized in high school. Hamlet may snap back to life for you, as it did for me last night.

Many thanks to the Globe company for bringing it home to me at last.

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