BY JON HOULON THEATER CRITIC I’ve been on this heavy Shakespeare trip for several years. It started with the library scene in Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus expounds his theory of Hamlet. Something about the Ghost actually being Shakespeare’s dead son, Hamnet and Shakespeare playing Hamlet. The usual biographical number that so many like to play on Willie the Shake. But Joyce drew me in. He always does.
Ron Rosenbaum’s book, The Shakespeare Wars, pushed me further into what’s become somewhat of an obsession. Rosenbaum found his way into Shakespeare — in terms of a lifelong passion — via Peter Brook’s late 60’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Something about that performance led Rosenbaum (also known for his book Explaining Hitler) to a recognition of what he calls Shakespeare’s bottomlessness: no end to interpretation i.e. just when you think you’ve got Will pinned, another angle appears. The recently deceased Harold Bloom — arguably the greatest Shakespearean of our time — quoting the play itself called his book about Hamlet, Poem Unlimited.
Last summer I got myself over to England to chase the poem without end. I saw the entire Henriad at the Globe in one day, standing in the yard, leaning against the stage. Falstaff even plucked the ghastly gift shop baseball cap — depicting the Globe itself — off my head and used it as a phony crown in the play within a play scene in Henry IV pt. 1. The one where Hal plays his father, the King, and then switches roles with Sir John allowing the withered knight his best chance at royalty. I got the hat back.
I also journeyed up to Stratford and caught two performances at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Like the Globe, the RSC is a beautiful theatre and the costumes and surroundings alone made the trip worthwhile. The closest I actually got to a Rosenbaum-like epiphany, however, was a very modern production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream at London’s Bridge Theater. An amazing display watched from the floor of the theater with the actors performing on raised platforms, the fairies suspended on cloth swings, part actors, part gymnasts. It didn’t hurt that Gwendoline Christie from Game of Thrones starred as both Titania and Hippolyta. “Elegant” does not begin to describe her charms.
Still, I continue to look for a deeper way in and took myself down to the Independence Seaport Museum last Sunday to see Dan Hodge’s Hamlet. The play was performed in the round facing the Delaware. Passersby strolling along the American Water (I kid you not: there is an actual sign across the river in Camden with these words) watched us — the audience — watch the notorious play within the play of Hamlet. Just the sort of hyper-voyeurism our post-human era demands. I wondered what they thought? Spam? A lot? [*groans* — The Ed.] This Hamlet was a free performance so I’m hesitant to snark out but, you know, I didn’t go from unknown folk singer to the top of the Phawker masthead by following my mother’s advice: if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. The rest is silence, mom!
I’ve been to quite a few stateside Shakespeare productions over the past few years and I gotta say that an American accent simply fails the Bard. I’m not sure exactly what it is but WS wrote for the English cadence and something terribly stilted results without it. Robert DaPonte played a credible Hamlet at the Seaport but when he delivered words like “this most excellent canopy, the air”, they fell flat rather than floated on actual air as they do when given the proper British pronunciation.
Anyway, I profess no expertise when it comes to theater and, with the exception of Shakespeare, generally try to steer clear of it. For all I know, Hodge’s actors hit their marks and performed adequately if not memorably. If you want a memorable Hamlet, try the otherwise execrable Mel Gibson’s take from 1990. I hate to admit it but he sorta nails the Prince’s madness, feigned or real. He is, however, overshadowed by Helen Bonham Carter’s very real madness that leads her Ophelia to a watery death.
So shall we assume the best about Hodge’s Hamlet and turn to a few props, the signs that signify:
1. Three French Letters: Actually it looked like about a dozen. I’m not sure how he worked them in — I went back to the text and unsuccessfully looked for the apposite line — but incredibly Laertes produces a package of Trojan Mags somewhere in I.3.1-50. These Denmark dudes are no incels! But, seriously, what is Hodge’s point here? Hamlet is about, inter alia, the consequences of pleasure — in this case, Gertrude (Hamlet’s father) and Claudius (his uncle) “making love, over the nasty sty” to the detriment of Denmark. So why the bags? Condoms represent sexual pleasure without consequence. Perhaps in the summer of love inserting these letters into the poem unlimited may have made sense. But in 2020? The actors played it for a laugh at the Seaport and they got one.
2. Black pumps and a little red number: Like any director confronted with a four hour play, Hodges had to make his choices — even in Willie’s day, they didn’t perform the whole thing. In theory, I have no problem with the Seaport’s compression of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s school mates, into one composite called Rosencraft and played by Annette Kaplafka who looked dazzling in formal dress and heels. Hodges again makes a sex move here — Hamlet and Rosencraft kiss and the former simulates cunnilingus on his erstwhile school chum. The point? To highlight that female sexuality is based in the deceit that is the trade of R & G? Yeah, I could be overthinking this but when playing with powerful signs the significance can get away from you. And I’m afraid that here it did.
3. The harmonica plays the skeleton keys in the rain: Kudos to Hodges for having Hamlet hand Rosencraft a harp versus a recorder after demonstrating its use with a Dylanesque wheeze. Guildenstern in the original: “But these cannot I command to any utt’rance of harmony; I have not the skill.” A sly wink at the scene in Don’t Look Back where his Bobness hands the High Sheriff’s Lady a harp? Perhaps but unlike the letters this prop did not distract. Did you know that Dylan once had a dog named Hamlet?
That’s enough for now. Do you really want to hear my take on the blood running down Ophelia’s thigh. That’s one track I better avoid. So it’s “good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike
Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom
The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum