I’ve been watching Shakespeare in some form or another for as long as I can remember. One of the joys of being home schooled is that I wasn’t forced to study Shakespeare until I was in college and was already in love with the stories for themselves. Instead, I was introduced to these stories by my mother, with various movie and theater productions, accompanied by the enthusiasm of my older sister. I can still remember the first time that we saw a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) in a small black box theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan and thought it was one of the most brilliant things we had ever witnessed. I had to have been under thirteen years old at the time.
One of the things that I love about Shakespeare’s plays is that you can see the same ones over and over again, and yet one particular production can completely change your perception of that story. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, you think you know what a story means and you are usually right, but if you think that is all that the story means then you are almost always wrong. And this has been proven to me over and over again with no other story than Hamlet.
I grew up with Kenneth Branagh as my primary example as the Prince of Denmark (I’m not sure I’ve ever actually watched Mel Gibson’s version). I am grateful to Branagh for bringing so many of Shakespeare’s plays to the screen, however it has always been a serious struggle to sit through four hours of his Hamlet. As a result, I didn’t really have an appreciation for Hamlet for a long time. It was long and confusing and I didn’t really care for any of the characters. I would rather have just watched A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night.
My appreciation of Hamlet didn’t really come until college during a short study abroad in London, where we were able to see a production by The Royal Shakespeare Company. It starred David Tennant as the titular role (this was pre-Doctor Who days for me, so I had no idea why this was a big deal) and Patrick Stewart as Claudius (much more exciting to me at the time, as I had been solidly raised on Star Trek: The Next Generation). Except that shortly before our trip David Tennant injured his back and so was out of commission during our stay, and so the production that we actually saw starred his understudy (who normally played Laertes). But because I didn’t even know who David Tennant was at the time (oh, the follies of youth) I wasn’t actually disappointed by this and ended up enjoying the show immensely. You see, for the first time the show seemed to come off as an ensemble piece and not just as a vehicle for some hot shot actor who wanted to do Hamlet (to be fair, I’ve since watched a filmed production with David Tennant, and it is also wonderful). Claudius seemed more human, the relationship between Laertes and Ophelia more playful and subsequently heartbreaking, and Hamlet (played by a younger actor than any previous production I had seen) suddenly made more sense as he bounced between grief and insanity and cold plotting.
Last weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to watch yet another production of Hamlet that furthered my appreciation and understanding of the play even more.
The Montford Park Players are an outdoor Shakespeare Company in Western North Carolina, and if you have never checked them out (and you are in the area) you are definitely missing out in life. I’ve been going to their shows whenever I can for about a decade now, and way back in my college days I even worked as Costume Designer for one production that a friend of mine directed (it was Cymbeline and I’m still incredibly proud of it).
The Montford Park Players do a great service to the local community and to our culture in general (and not just because their shows are free), because they are giving us what we need and are always hungry for: good stories. They put on several shows throughout the summer, each running for multiple weekends, mostly Shakespeare but occasionally they’ll throw in some other classics. Of course, the more popular plays (Midsummer, Tempest, etc.) tend to repeat every couple of years, but with new directors and new visions that help keep the plays fresh. I’ve seen several different productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream there over the years, but each one has felt unique and with it’s own special feel. And because the shows are all free, you can easily spend your summer just soaking yourself in these stories, the words, and the characters that are so familiar and yet always new.
This most recent production of Hamlet was not something I was expecting but was indeed something I fell in love with from the first scene. As explained in the Director’s Note, it was “cut, rearranged, augmented… It is comic in dramatic moments, stripped of soliloquies, and re-framed. But it is, at its core, Hamlet.” The director admits to loving Hamlet “indecently.” I can dig that; and I really, really did. By pairing things down, by choosing very specific themes to focus on, and by doing it all out of love of the play in the first place, this production made me notice things that I had never been able to see before. For instance, passages were introduced from Virgil’s Aeneid (which is also a favorite of mine) that highlighted the theme of fathers and sons, retribution and destruction. Ophelia was given more stage time (and was beautifully acted), and shared parts of Hamlet’s great soliloquies, and suddenly her descent into madness made more sense than it ever had to me before. The differences in how Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes react to the deaths their of fathers was highlighted and exposed in ways that I had never really stopped to consider before. I’ll also say that the actor playing Hamlet killed it, playing the role with more passion and heartache than any of the “professionals” I have seen in the role.
Why do we tell the same stories over and over again? I know that we (and I’m very guilty of this) complain that everything is just re-makes and sequels these days, but the truth is that this has been case for as long as people have been telling stories at all. Hamlet has been told thousands of different times and in different ways, and it’s not like Shakespeare was even the first. The great Bard stole all his stories from other sources, and Hamlet was no exception. So why do we keep telling these stories? Because they are important. Because they are the stories of humanity, and humanity is important. But because our cultures change and our understandings develop in all different kinds of ways, we have to keep telling these stories in new and different ways. I’ve known the basic story of Hamlet for probably two decades now, and yet the production that I saw last weekend completely changed my perception of it. That’s the power of stories: they are eternally ancient and eternally new.
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