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Barry Edelstein Gives Us A Vigorous, Youthful ‘Hamlet’

New Globe production offers fresh take on Shakespeare’s play

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Jim Cox

Grantham Coleman takes on the title role in Barry Edelstein's production of "Hamlet."

GUESTS:

Barry Edelstein, Old Globe artistic director and director of "Hamlet"

Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

Transcript

Companion viewing

"Hamlet" (1964 filmed stage play with Richard Burton as Hamlet)

"Hamlet" (1990, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, notable for Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia)

"Hamlet" (1990, starring and directed by Kevin Kline)

"Hamlet" (1996, Kenneth Branagh's uncut version of the play)

For some actors and directors, Shakespeare's "Hamlet" represents a challenge that must be met at some point in one's career. Five years into his job as artistic director at The Old Globe Theatre, Barry Edelstein is meeting that challenge and directing his first "Hamlet."

"I decided to do the play when my father passed away last summer," Edelstein recalled. "The play is one of the great works about what happens to a son when his father dies and I was immediately drawn to it. I read it in hospice next to my father's death bed and thought about it a lot. Also having been at the Globe for five years, I felt it was time to do something huge and ambitious and really rally the theatre around a vision of an enormously challenging piece."

And Edelstein is more than up to the challenge. What he delivers onstage at the Globe is a bold, vigorous production that makes the play feel fresh. The first thing you may notice is the color blind and gender bending casting. The key leads, Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet's father are all African American and a few male roles, most notably Guildenstern and Osric, are played by women.

But there are other creative choices that also make this production feel fresh. The production design begins in resplendent golds and the women's costumes are like brilliant butterflies. Hamlet may be mourning his father's death but the Danish court is not. It is a vision of the play I have not seen before and that new visual look made me hear lines and see characters in a different light.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Jim Cox

Grantham Coleman (center) is Hamlet and Opal Alladin plays his mother Gertrude in "Hamlet."

But Edelstein's vision goes deeper than just the look of "Hamlet's" cast and visual design.

This is when having a director who is also a Shakespeare scholar comes into play. Edelstein pointed out that most of Shakespeare's plays exist in only one version but "Hamlet" has three. One hastily produced in 1603, another followed in 1604 that included the notation "much expanded and much corrected," and then the 1623 First Folio edition.

Edelstein sifted through these versions to come up with an adaptation that cuts the play from four to three hours, that places the"'to be or not to be" speech earlier, and that gives more clarity to Gertrude's character. The result of all this is a production that moves swiftly with humor and energy, and it leaves behind the stereotypes some hold of the play being about an indecisive and melancholy Dane.

"We tried to use the play's complicated textual history to try to make the play feel fresher and a little more new," Edelstein stated.

Grantham Coleman, who is in his 20s, gives us a young Hamlet who is impulsive, witty, athletic, and emotional. He seems to shed his indecisiveness early in the play and instead of melancholy sulking we get a young man stricken with grief and rage.

His performance and Edelstein's direction reward audiences who may have seen the play multiple times.

"We know how it ends, so why do we keep going back to 'Hamlet?'" Edelstein pondered. "Because you want to see what this particular group of artists is going to find in this masterpiece of world literature that is so open to interpretation ... Make our own idiosyncratic version of 'Hamlet' that is by no means definitive or perfect."

But imperfection is one reason why Edelstein thinks people keep coming back to the play. It is not perfect and that means there is a lot of room for interpretation and a lot of room for productions to always find something new.

"Hamlet" runs through Sept. 10 at the Lowell Davies Festival Stage. Edelstein's complete interview will be available on the Cinema Junkie Podcast coming up later in the week.

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