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Arts & Culture

Barry Edelstein Gives Us A Vigorous, Youthful 'Hamlet'

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

New Globe production offers fresh take on Shakespeare's play

Barry Edelstein Gives Us A Vigorous, Youthful 'Hamlet'
GUESTS: Barry Edelstein, Old Globe artistic director and director of "Hamlet" Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

The old globe's artistic director just opened his production of Hamlet over the weekend. Our arts reporter speaks with him about making Hamlet feel fresh for modern audience.The new reduction of Hamlet opened here at the old Globe. I have to say, I have seen about 12 productions of Hamlet. When I saw this one, I felt like I was seeing it fresh, with new eyes. In reading some of the notes you put in the program, I see there is a reason why it felt so new. You looked at different versions of the text of Hamlet. Explain exactly what you did to craft this version of Hamlet.Thanks of all first of all, thank you. I'm glad you know your Shakespeare. Half of Shakespeare's plays were only printed once in the first folio of 1623. Then, for that half of shakes -- Shakespeare's output we only have one authoritative text. Hamlet has 3. There is no such thing as Hamlet, there are three. In any modern production you have to make a decision about which one of those text to do. Scholars have arguments. Some say the only authoritative text is from 1623. That is the one his actors printed and therefore it would most closely represent his mind. In that version the death line which is the rest is silence, one of the most famous speeches in literature is followed by four groans. No production does the rest is silent and then four groans. The 1603 version is called the bad version of Hamlet. At about half the length. You get to be or not to be. There is the point. And all these strange, clearly mistakes in the text. The theory is that an actor and the company was paid to write down the play so that a rival publisher could rush it into print. The following year the official printing house puts out 1604 Hamlet. It says much corrected and much expanded. Meaning, don't trust the previous one. In the bad version, there are interesting things. First, the stage directions are long and narrative. They tell you how the play was done in the.. In subsequent versions it says enter Ofelia. In the 1603 version it says enter Ofelia with her hair down carrying a flute and singing. The second thing is that the order of scenes is different. The to be or not to be speech comes much earlier in the play that it does in subsequent versions. The third are the characters of Gertrude, his mother, it is rendered differently in the 1603 version that is subsequent versions. And that when she very explicitly says I have no idea that the king murdered my four former husband. In subsequent versions she does not say that. The play uncut is four hours long. It would've been in and we understood that the players were going to cut the place significantly. We, to have cut the play to about three hours and have used the complicated history to try to make the play feel a little pressure and a little more new.Two things that people think about is the melancholy Dane, a sad young man and the fact that he doesn't act quickly enough on the notion of revenge. Is indecisive -- indecisiveness. Those two things feel like they paid to the background in your production. We get something new and different.Both of those ideas are carryovers from the Victorian area. It is a romantic vision of a lone person disenchanted with the fallen world and sadly brooding over it. And the indecisive Hamlet is a consequence of this history that I just talked about. In the 1623 version, a lot of hamlets illuminations of what he should do are not cut. He is for more decisive in the 1623 version. These things take on lives of their own. They don't have to do with anything actually in the text of the lay itself. The one thing that I really wanted to do was cast eight young Hamlet. Every death is tragic but the death of a young person is exceedingly painful and tragic. I knew I wanted to do that. When you cast a young Hamlet, a couple of things come along with that. That is physical vitality, impulsiveness, quick to anger, quick to respond. It is emotional volatility. The active Hamlet, that stems from a commitment to cast the young guy in the roleWhat you think it is about place that makes it an iconic piece that people want to do. And actor doesn't feel like there career is defined and to they have tackle that or the director wants to tackle that? Is there something in particular?The thing that captures our imagination, oddly, is the fact that it is so unexplained and in some ways kind of long. I did a lot of reading around it for the past year. There is a essay by TS Eliot in which he has a lot of things in the play that do not work it just pops up first second and then goes away and pops up a second and then goes away. It is not resolved over the course of the evening. One person tries to get revenge. You see -- you hear this chaos proclaiming him king. It doesn't go anywhere. Most importantly, there is a deep threat of disgust at female sexuality that Hamlet talks about again and again. That is unexplained in the play. It comes from somewhere outside of the plate. There are these things in the play that don't add up. These ministries and strangeness is. I think that keeps the play in during. It is not tied up he talks about, he accuses one of wanting to pluck out the heart of his ministry. That is it. We want to pluck it out. It eludes us. It seems to make sense for moment and then it dissolves into the ether. I think that is what has made it a wellspring for those of us in theater at a touchstone for people around the world who love literature. There is a deep truth that is messy and miss spare -- mysterious and does not always add up yet seems to talk with surpassing eloquence about a recognizable human condition that we can all connect to.Thank you very much for speaking with me.

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.

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