Written By: William Shakespeare
Directed By: Martin Jago
Production Dates: November 7th - December 21st, 2013
"Incorporating elements of
physical theatre, Commedia, and a powerful command of language, TE San Pedro Rep (TESPR) presented a bold and imaginative retelling of Shakespeare's greatest work, Hamlet.
TESPR's production of Hamlet brought an international ensemble of artists together, lead its audience on an unyielding journey of discovery into a sensory exploration of the physical and the elemental and dared to examine anew the universal themes that lie at the heart of Hamlet, such as Time and its existential narrative that runs like a thread through the fabric of the play.
To play the play is to hold a mirror up to nature in the most literal of senses, since Time itself is at the heart of the theatrical event. It is that shared experience, a breath, a transient moment never to be repeated that was, in a sense, the world of the play as much as it is our own existence."
There is simply so much to live up to in terms of this play’s reputation that in many ways, Hamlet, presents the ultimate challenge to a director, actor, and company alike.
Who hasn’t heard of Hamlet? Who doesn’t know this play, or at least know of it? Who isn’t aware of Hamlet as a piece of art so highly regarded that it is thought to stand alone in all of theatre? Hamlet the exemplar, Hamlet the superlative, Hamlet the great! And who cannot quote at least the first line of “To be or not be…” or else, “Alas, poor Yorrick…” without a sense and understanding that those words belong to the most profound ironist ever to strut the stage?
To say the least, Hamlet is a bold and fearless choice for any company, and in the case of TE San Pedro Rep characterizes the company whose work you are about to see, and typifies the approach of its artistic director, Aaron Ganz.
As a guest director here at TE San Pedro Rep, I first worked with the company in the autumn of 2012, on a production of three one-act Vaclav Havel plays at the company’s old home in La Crescenta.
The level of professionalism and integrity that I encountered were outstanding and the production was not only well received but also highly regarded.
As is the often case when things go well in theatre, one cannot help feel a twinge of sadness when the final curtain falls. Save the experience itself, carried around in the memories of the audience and those artists involved, what is there to show for the art we make?
In its transience, you won’t find another art form more akin to the human experience. Theatre, the living, breathing, present, moment, will forever be yesterday’s news. There is no monument, no record, no picture hanging in a gallery for a thousand years. There is only the shared experience, in which case (and I really don’t wish to add weight to the director’s lot), we had better do the very best we can, and doing that, striving without fear towards an artistic goal, is at the very heart of TE San Pedro Rep.
It is an approach, a philosophy, and an aesthetic that also embodies the conservatory program at TE San Pedro Rep, where the company fosters and nurtures the talents of fearless artists for the TE San Pedro Rep productions of tomorrow.
So having finished my Vaclav Havel production in 2012, I was curious to know what the company would tackle next. There was talk of a Shakespeare play, but what, exactly? Othello? Macbeth? What about The Tempest? Or perhaps they would go in a different direction, moving away from Shakespeare but staying with the Elizabethan era - Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, now there is a play that I would like to direct, I thought. Then the phone rang.
Hamlet, a voice said at the end of the line.
Hamlet? I asked, meekly.
Hamlet, the voice said.
You have to admire their Chutzpah.
As a director who specializes in Shakespeare and one who at the time had recently published a book on acting Shakespeare, I was always going to be a part of this production…but Hamlet?
I experienced what can only be described as a kind of terrified ecstasy.
Next, the company moved to San Pedro. There old home in La Crescenta had been a journey from my Pasadena home, but I would follow this company to the ends of the earth, so San Pedro didn’t seem that far.
Of course, for many actors in LA, Pedro is too far. They want to be in shows in Hollywood, posturing and posing and praying that someone will discover them, which are entirely the wrong reasons to be in a production. Yes, actors want to capitalize on the good work they do, but the cynical stepping-stone pursuit of something bigger, something better, rather taints the notion of an inherent value in what one is doing right now.
Who would have thought, for example, long before it established itself as one of the most vibrant festivals of Shakespeare anywhere in the world that Ashland, Oregon, would take up the mantle.
Or (to cite an example from my native Great Britain), who would have dreamt that Hay on Wye, a small village and rural idyll on the border between England and Wales, would play host to a huge and prestigious worldwide literary festival?
All power to SP and its thriving arts district. Happy to be the new kids on the block, we are delighted to share this theatrical experience with you, and to know that the artists we brought onboard for Hamlet wanted to be a part of the production for the intrinsic value of the art first and foremost.
At the heart of the casting process on this production was the spirit of TE San Pedro Rep, the teaching theatre. We saw some great actors who ticked all the boxes on the casting breakdown, and great actors who didn’t quite fit the casting breakdown.
Great actors excite audiences either way, but the promise of those standing beyond the specific age and gender casting for Hamlet was something that captured my imagination. I had, as a young actor, been in a production of Romeo and Juliet in which the casting was taken from an existing company of actors in Rep.
During the early stages of rehearsals the director had toyed with the idea that the rotund actor who was clearly right for the Friar, should have a crack at the hero himself, and so he did, and the results were extraordinary, astonishing, breathtaking, but by week two of the rehearsals the director had lost his nerve and by curtain up the lead man was playing Romeo, the fat character-actor playing the Friar.
By contrast, and without giving too much away, this evening, you are going to experience a totally different kind of approach, and I would ask you to embrace the changes we have made. There is nothing Naturalistic about Hamlet, after all. Despite Naturalism being the currency most often used to tell stories in 21st century western culture, audiences readily accept that characters in Shakespeare speak in poetry and break the convention of the fourth wall by addressing them directly. It has never stopped the plays being truthful and real to us, which is why they are still with us today four-hundred years after they were written. So don’t be surprised to see a female actor in a male role, a younger actor in an older role, or one actor playing three parts. We want to challenge and excite you (and put the fear of god in our actors).
The Play’s the Thing…
Finally, we come to the play itself, which quite apart from being the finest example of literature in the English language…is simply too long.
In response to the unauthorized publication of the First Quarto (also known as the Bad Quarto), the Second Quarto and subsequent First Folio in 1623 made sure to give the fullest version of the text “according to the true and perfect copiee.”
We know from writers like Ben Jonson who oversaw the publication of his own First Folio (published the year of Shakespeare’s death in 1616) that texts intended for the reader were considerably different from those seen in playhouses like the Globe. The fullest possible version of Hamlet would cast no doubt on its authenticity and give Shakespeare the opportunity to flex his literary muscles as the preeminent writer of his age.
In a way, this is where Shakespeare falls victim to his own success. Such are the literary merits of his work that his plays are endlessly analyzed, dissected and deconstructed in universities the length and breadth of the country.
In his foreword to my first book on acting Shakespeare, British actor and Shakespeare teacher Alfred Molina writes of a reduction of ‘a living language, pulsing with drama, emotion and relevance, into a rather neat, over-cultivated, academic garden, where the texts are preserved like insects in amber.’
The unwieldy Hamlet in all its glory might serve contemporary audiences best with an hour lopped off, and yet, cut anything and you immediately lose something worth keeping, but I promise you there will be no four-hour war of attrition here. I have made deep (and while I stand by your judgment), what I hope are judicious cuts.
Never should we feel, as I know many do, that Shakespeare is something we should suffer like a dose of medicine, knowing because the doctor told us that though we might not like the taste, it will do us some good.
Instead, I have aimed to serve the drama and focus on the sense of urgency that consumes the play, drawing attention to what lies at stake for each of the characters. In places, I have made somewhat radical adaptations to the text. A large part of Act Four for example, has been subsumed by Ophelia’s madness. So if you came to the theatre this evening to see the immortal Dane ‘preserved in amber,’ you won’t find it. What you will find, however, is an ensemble of fearless artists embarking on a journey and taking its audience along for the ride.
For me, Hamlet has always been a play about Shakespeare’s enduring theme of Time and the miracle of life that runs through it. Not once in his “To be or not to be” speech does Hamlet use the word “I” or “me,” but rather, he gives the impression of someone as sorry for humanity itself as he is for his own predicament.
What Hamlet captures so beautifully is the human condition and all its frailties. No other writer has touched Shakespeare in his exploration of this central, existential, theme. It is a thread that runs through the very fabric of the play, connecting what might otherwise be a revenger’s-tragedy-gone-wrong to the most profound expression of what it is to be human, the futility of life, the arbitrary nature of existence, the idea that Alexander the Great or Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
It is the idea that what life is after the death is much the same as before it started, an oblivion, a void, an endless nothingness. For anyone who has wept at a funeral, it is the idea that our religious convictions douse not the flame of our conscious mind. We know what death is, and the terrible reality that all humans must ultimately face, the obliteration of our own consciousness, makes a mockery of all the fairy tales we tell ourselves about heaven and earth.
And on that cheery note I bid you all, adieu.
Director, Hamlet, TE San Pedro Rep, Oct. 2013