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27 October 2010

Thoughts on Hamlet

I just got back from an idyllic weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I soaked up crisp air and brilliant autumn leaves, caught up with friends, ate some great meals, did some productive writing and plotting. And–the point of my trip–I had the chance to revisit two of my favorite productions from the 2010 OSF season. An enchanting, delightful She Loves Me, directed by Rebecca Taichman, and a riveting, electric Hamlet directed by Bill Rauch, with Dan Donohue in the title role. Two truly phenomenal productions with amazing casts that left me with the rush of exhilaration and wonder I get from really spectacular theater.

The night I arrived in Ashland, I picked up my tickets, then ducked out of the rain into the Member Lounge where I had a chance to read the fascinating Hamlet production notes by Judith Rosen. I’ve always seen Hamlet as a Renaissance man caught up in the warrior’s world of the older generation (the conflict between the older generation of warlords and the Renaissance politician is one I wrote about in my honors thesis). I always thought the moment when Hamlet says “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” is a key turning point in the play. But I never quite made the leap Ms. Rosen made in her notes to Hamlet’s adoption of a more warrior-like approach (his father’s approach) in the latter part of the play being a negative transformation. Yet once I read it, it made so much sense.

The philosopher prince becomes the man who coolly arranges the deaths of his former friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and shows no qualms (to the evident discomfort of Horatio, who in many ways is Hamlet’s conscience). Watching the play with this in mind, so much fell into place for me, including the bitter irony of Fortinbras’s lines about “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the platform” and the fact that the play ends with the line “Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”

Hamlet has always fascinated me. There's the sheer propulsive excitement of the story, which is both political thriller and family drama. The multitude of fascinating characters and relationships. The richness of the language. The mordant wit (which came out strongly in the OSF production). Lauren and I saw a great production in New York last fall, directed by Michael Grandage with Jude Law in the title role. Every time I see the play I discover new things in it. Hamlet has echoes of the Oresteia. I see echoes of Hamlet in all sorts of contemporary stories. There's the Lymond Chronicles with Francis Crawford haunted (metaphorically) by his dead father, questioning the behavior and past of his adored mother, driven to suicide at times. In The X-Files, Fox Mulder is similarly haunted by his his parents' legacy and questions about his father's death. Early on in the series Scully is set up to spy on Mulder, such as Polonius and Claudius use Ophelia to spy on Hamlet. In the series finale, Mulder sees ghosts that are invisible to the other characters. Not to mention that he's frequently suspected of madness...that is, mental illness.

The last time OSF did the play (another wonderful production directed by Libby Appel with Marco Barricelli as Hamlet), I was plotting Beneath a Silent Moon. I tend to pick one or two Shakespeare plays which influence each of my books, and Beneath was definitely a Hamlet book. In fact, my working title for the book was Time Out of Joint (I even have an early draft of the UK cover with that title). Charles’s struggle with his father (and ultimately the legacy of his father’s death), his questions about his parents’ generation, his suicide attempt as a young man were all inspired by Hamlet to one degree or another. Thinking about the Hamlet production I just saw at OSF, I’m particularly struck by the fact that Charles is a man with a very different world view from his father.

Do you have a favorite production of Hamlet, whether on stage or film? What books can you think of that Hamlet seems to have influenced? Writers, do Shakespeare plays (or other plays) influence you when you write?

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Blogger Tasha Alexander said...

Tracy, great post.

I think my favorite Hamlet was one I saw in New York years ago--Ralph Fiennes in the title role. It was a simple production that didn't distract from the poetry. That's what I like...

5:08 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I was five. It was Hamlet done as a space opera. They guy playing Hamlet was SUPER TALL, wearing giant KISS boots and a silver lame cape.

I think we’ve discussed my obsession with this play before. I’ve always loved it. It was part of my undergrad thesis (“The Absurd, Skeptical Hero”). It was the “book” I chose to trace the history of for my Book Arts minor (leading to a true obsession with someday owning the Cranach version from the 1930s).

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tracy, I'm torn between the production that I saw in college at Stratford with Roger Rees as Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh as Laertes, the Derek Jacobi production on PBS and the most recent with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius. It's funny that this came up because I'm going to a round table on Saturday on Hamlet with Robert Brustein speaking along with actor Christian Cammargo.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Tasha, thanks so much for visiting us! I would have loved to see Ralph Fiennes as Hamlet. I definitely like productions that let the poetry show through, though I don't mind strong concepts when they work with the play (as opposed to against it). The Jude Law production Lauren and I saw last fall was also quite spare, modern dress, against tall, dark castle walls. The OSF one was also modern dress with castle walls that slid in and out in various configurations, which gave a wonderful sense of a rambling castle with lots of nooks and crannies and passages in which people could be spied on and overheard. Both sets had a cold feeling that felt right for the play.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

How cool, Isobel! I knew you loved the play, but I didn't remember about your undergrad thesis, which sounds great. I could totally see Hamlet working as a space opera.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, the Derek Jacobi PBS production was the first time I saw Hamlet, and I totally loved it. The one with Roger Rees and Kenneth Brannagh must have been amazing. I missed the PBS broadcast with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, but I hope to see it at some point.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This obviously betrays my age, but the best Hamlet I ever saw — and I have seen many — was the Richard Burton one, with Hume Cronyn as Polonius. It was fantastic. (Except for the Ophelia She was dreadful.)

1:53 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for posting, Anonymous! Did you see the Richard Burton Hamlet on film? The friend I saw the OSF production with had only seen Hamlet once before, and it was the film version with Richard Burton. She loved it, and she also loved the OSF production. I'd love to see the Richard Burton version.

12:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I saw the Burton Hamlet on stage, and it was far from my first Hamlet. I am not quite old enough, however, to have seen Gielgud's performance as Hamlet. He directed the Burton one, and his voice was the ghost.

6:13 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Oh, how fabulous to have seen Burton on stage as Hamlet! That must have been truly amazing. I saw him in a revival of Camelot, and it's a memory I treasure.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Oh how lucky to see Burton as Hamlet on stage! And I would love to see Ralph Fiennes as well.

I saw Patrick Stewart as Macbeth in Stratford many(many) years ago.

When I taught high school English I used the Mel Gibson film version. While it is definitely not the best production it had the virtue of being accessible in the minds of my students. They could relate to Mel Gibson so I used it. They loved it and it sparked an entire week of spirited debates in my classroom on the characters, meanings and literary merits of the play. With kids in rural Alabama that is a victory!

I saw a production by the National Shakespeare Company when I taught in Selma, Alabama. I can't remember the young man's name who played Hamlet, but he had that audience of teenagers in the palm of his hand from the first moment he was on stage. The production was fabulous. You could hear a pin drop in that old auditorium. And the last scene had those kids on their feet before the curtain dropped.

I guess that my be one reason Hamlet is such a favorite of mine. I no longer teach, but I treasure those memories of Hamlet and those teenagers.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Louisa, how wonderful to teach Hamlet and have your students respond so well! Last Saturday you could feel the actors had the audience in the palm of their hands as well. People were leaning forward and there was so much laughter (the production really brought out the mordant wit in the play, as I mentioned above) and a few audible gasps at key moments. And we were all on our feet the moment the lights went down on the last scene. A great feeling.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Susan/DC said...

When I was a girl my father had a record of the Richard Burton Hamlet. Not nearly the same thing as seeing a production, but Burton's voice was so beautiful and emotive that it worked. It's been years, but I still remember exactly how his voice sounded and the chills that ran down my spine when he responded to Polonius with the line that ends "except my life -- except my life -- except my life" (Act 2, scene ii).

1:45 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Hi Susan! Thanks for posting! Richard Burton had the most amazing voice--so rich and emotional. I wonder if the film version of his Hamlet (I think it was a filmed rehearsal) is on DVD?

2:34 PM  

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