Podcast Episode 125: To Be, Or Not To Be 'Hamlet'
Comparing some cinematic 'Hamlets' with the stunning stage production at The Globe
Beth Accomondo: Welcome to another edition of listener-supported KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast, I’m Beth Accomondo. As you already know, I love movies but I also love Shakespeare. When I was little, my parents had a Shakespeare Board Game and I would cheat by memorizing lines from the plays so I could answer all the questions on the game cards. My parents believed in games where if we cheated we’d at least learn something and I did, and I also fell in love with Shakespeare’s plays. The Old Globe Theater has a bold new production of “Hamlet” on stage right now. It’s directed by Barry Edelstein and it made me see the play with new eyes. So, for this podcast, I get to combine two things I love – the bird and film. This episode is dedicated to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in particular and to understanding it better through film and an interview I did with Barry Edelstein. Okay, I want to quote Humphrey Bogart right now, because in regards to the Oscars, he once said, “The only way to find the best actor would be to let everybody play Hamlet and let the best man win.” It’s no accident that he chose Hamlet for his example. That role is the yardstick by which many actors have been measuring themselves for centuries. On film we’ve not gone a decade without an actor tackling the role since the 1900s. That’s right, even in the silent era we had Hamlet on screen. Cinematic hamlets have ranged from Laurence Olivier’s classical interpretation that emphasized some uncomfortable intimacy between Hamlet and his mom, to Ethan Hawke’s modern-dress Dane in Michael Almerayda’s contemporary take on the play. To date, I hesitate to label any of the film “Hamlets” as classical or definitive, but each illuminates the play in different ways. And each will live on for future generations to ponder and enjoy. The current stage production of Hamlet at the Globe, however, is of a more transitory nature. Once the production ends on September 22nd it’s essentially gone forever. The production benefits from the fact that director Barry Edelstein is not just an inspired artist with a vision, but a Shakespeare scholar who studied the play. The event that finally spurred Edelstein on to tackling the play was the death of his father last summer. But before I play his full interview part of that interview ran on midday edition last month. Let’s run through some of the key film versions of Hamlet” to highlight what each one does well and sometimes what they did badly, and then let Edelstein shed additional insights on the play and on the various texts that exist. Let’s begin with Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film Adaptation that won Best Picture and Best Actor Oscars. The film showcases Olivier’s pension for changing his appearance. Here, he dyes his hair blonde to be the melancholy Dane. As director and star, he reveals how the medium still are trying to figure out how to translate Shakespeare from stage to screen. What could be the cinematic language for something like a soliloquy on stage? So as Hamlet is about to begin his famous “to be or not to be” speech, the camera literarily zooms into his head into his mind to let viewers know that what they were about to hear were his innermost thoughts. But note the vigorous score that accompanies the images of rough seas hitting the shores. Again, it’s an attempt to use cinematic techniques such as editing and cinematography to help clarify which Shakespeare is trying to convey, in this came Hamlet’s inner turmoil. Clip: To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? Olivier’s performance especially in the soliloquies reflects a particular school of acting and playing Shakespeare. There’s an emphasis on clear recitation that reflects a certain reverence for the text itself. In 1964, there was no attempt to turn a stage production into something more cinematic when filming John Gielgud’s Broadway production of Hamlet starring a young vigorous Richard Burton. Here’s the trailer for it and it’s very conscious of bringing a stage production to life for a movie audience. Clip: The year was 1602, place London England, scene a Globe theater. The occasions of premier, over 1000 excited theater buffs jammed into the stalls and pit, lords, ladies, merchants, craftsmen, peddlers. They had come to see a new play by one of the city’s most popular playwright, the play Hamlet, the playwright William Shakespeare. Since that performance three and a half centuries ago, Hamlet has become the most talked about, written about, wondered about and widely-produced play of all time. The first Hamlet was Richard Burbage. There have been many other Hamlets – David Garrick, Edmund Kean, Edwin Booth, Sir Henry Irving, John Barrymore, Sir John Gielgud. In the past few months said it has been my privilege to play my interpretation of Hamlet on the New York stage. Now through a new technical process called Electron-o-vision, the entire stage production has been electronically recorded and will be presented in its entirety in 1,000 theaters throughout the country for full performances only on September the 23rd and 24th of this year. This has never happened before – the immediacy, the sense of being there is unlike any experience you have ever known. This is the theater of the future, taking shape before your eyes today and you will be there part of this historic first. I hope you will join me and the distinguished New York cast as Hamlet burst upon the 20th century through the miracle of Electron-o-vision. Beth Accomondo: The production tried to speak to a modern audience by staging it as if it were a dress rehearsal but done in front of a live audience. Burton’s performance feels more fluid and physical than Olivier’s was and the humor is more overt. Clip: You know me my lord. Excellent well. You are a fishmonger. Not I, my lord. Then I would you were so honest a man. Honest, my lord? Ay, sir. To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.. That’s very true, my lord. For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion— Have you a daughter? I have my lord. Let her not walk i’ th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, but, as your daughter may conceive—Friend, look to ‘t. Beth Accomondo: And the performance felt more physically active as in this scene with Ophelia. Clip: Where’s your father? At home, my lord. Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool no where but in ‘s own house. Farewell. O, help him, you sweet heavens! If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry. Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell. Heavenly powers, restore him! I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God has given you one face and you make yourselves another. You jig, you amble, and you lisp, and you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on ‘t. It hath made me mad. I say, there will be no more marriages. Those that are married already, all but one, shall live. The rest shall stay as they are. To a nunnery, go. Beth Accomondo: Also compare his soliloquy to Olivier’s more reserved one. Clip: To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep— No more—and by a sleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep. Beth Accomondo: Then in 2002, Peter Brook filmed his stage production which also had a lean look in terms of production design. But Brook sets the play in some vaguely modern time and eastern setting. As with Edelstein’s current globe production Brook goes from multiethnic cast and a black Hamlet. Adrian Lester is Brook’s hamlet and he’s a more intellectual contemplative Hamlet, less like Burton and more like Olivier but also very excitable when he catches the conscience of the King. Clip: O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive? Very well, my lord. Upon the talk of the poisoning? I did very well note him. Ah ha! Come, some music! For if the king like not the comedy, Why then, belike, he likes it not, perdy. Come, some music! Beth Accomondo: Another casting innovation Brook experiments with is having the same actor play Claudius and his murderous brother. On a certain level this makes Gertrude’s actions more understandable. After all, the two men looked the same. Clip: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son— A little more than kin and less than kind. How is it that the clouds still hang on you? Not so, my lord. I am too much i’ the sun. Beth Accomondo: Brook severely cuts the text of the play. He even leaves out the character of Fortinbras entirely and most noticeably from the end. So on Brook’s production, the rest really is silence. Clip: O God, Horatio, what a wounded name, Things standing thus unknown, shall I live behind me! If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart Absent thee from felicity a while, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain To tell my story. Let go. The rest is silence. Beth Accomondo: In starred contrast, Brook abridged Hamlet as Kenneth Branagh completely uncut text that he uses for his 1996 film. Clip: To be or not to be. Castle Rock Entertainment proudly presents Hamlet. The most celebrated drama in the English language, seen in glorious 70 mm format adapted for the screen and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Beth Accomondo: The trailer makes an epic out of Shakespeare’s intensely intimate portrait of a young man in emotional turmoil. Branagh has a 70 mm frame that he fills with opulent palace proceedings and battles and both offer a contrast to Hamlet’s inward ruminations. Clip: To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause. There’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life. Beth Accomondo: It’s definitely worth seeing the play uncut at least once, if only for comparison to other versions you may see. The play in its entirety reveals themes that are more richly developed especially about fathers and sons with Hamlet and his father set in contrast to Laertes and Polonius and to young Fortinbras and his father. But intimacy is precisely what Michael on the radio plays up in his 2000 film with Ethan Hawke in the lead. Clip: To be or not to be. Beth Accomondo: Hawke is a millennial Hamlet who videotapes his musings, so we can edit them and play them back repeatedly. Clip: To be… So oft it chances in particular men. That for some vicious mole of nature in them. Beth Accomondo: And Almereyda chooses to have Hawke deliver Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in the action isle of a blockbuster video store. Clip: And thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. Beth Accomondo: As with Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet, Almereyda’s film is all about finding visual ways to make Shakespeare’s language more accessible to a modern audience that’s not used to hearing it. Almereyda’s Hamlet is an uneven production but with flashes of brilliance, most notably with Julia Stiles (Ophelia) who is convinced by her father and the king to wear a wire so they can spy on Hamlet. Clip: Tis most true; And he beseech'd me to entreat your majesties To hear and see the matter. With all my heart; and it doth content me much To hear him so inclined. And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish That your good beauties be the happy cause Of Hamlet's wildness: so shall I hope that your virtues Will bring him to his wonted way again, Beth Accomondo: Almereyda uses camcorders, security cameras, and other modern technology to convey how people are constantly watching each other. So, when Ophelia wears the wire and Hamlet discovers it, we feel what a betrayal that is for Hamlet. Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool no where but in ’s own house. Get thee to a nunnery. Beth Accomondo: And again as with Lurmann, Almereyda uses a news report to help convey expository information to his audience. Clip: This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death, What feast is toward in thine eternal cell, That thou so many princes at a shot So bloodily hast struck? The sight is dismal. Beth Accomondo: And the final film Hamlet, I want to mention is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version with Mel Gibson. Zeffirelli has done gorgeous adaptations of Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Taming of the Shrew. He understands how to film Shakespeare to make it feel immediate and cinematic for a modern audience. In Gibson, he gives us a playful, energetic, and athletic Hamlet. One effective choice he makes is to let him deliver the famous soliloquy in the family tomb amidst his dead relatives. It’s a great way to make the content of his speech readily apparent to a contemporary mainstream audience. Listen to these words and think about Gibson, walking among the graves of his dead family members. Clip: To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life; Beth Accomondo: But one of the real strengths of this production is Helena Bonham-Carter as Ophelia. Her mad scenes are great and they reveal an anger in her character that we don’t usually see. Clip: Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark? Where is the… How now, Ophelia? He is dead and gone, lady, He is dead and gone, At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone. Beth Accomondo: There are many, many more Hamlets committed to film including Kevin Kline and Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant, Nicol Williamson as well as comic versions with Jack Benny and Mel Brooks. Clip: To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows… Excuse me pardon me, excuse me pardon me… Excuse me… Of outrageous fortune, Beth Accomondo: Each film sheds light on different aspects of the play and each is worth checking out with that in mind. After seeing more than a dozen versions of Hamlet on stage and screen, I didn’t think I could still find something new. But Barry Edelstein’s Hamlet has made me see the play with new eyes. He draws on a number of the same aspects that Brook’s Hamlet did – a black lead, a multiethnic cast, and a fearlessness in tackling the text and cutting it. But Edelstein issues Brook’s attempt at both a modern setting and stark set design. Edelstein’s Hamlet is definitely period. But the court is gaudy is opulent and a harsh contrast to the somber grief of Hamlet. The music though feels modern and experimental and it prompts you to listen with fresh ears. I spoke with Barry Edelstein just before the play opened and we discussed his casting, the cutting of the text, and some of his creative choices that helped make the production feel vivid and fresh. Barry, the new production of Hamlet just happened here at The Old Globe. And I have to say, I think I’ve seen about 12 productions of Hamlet and when I saw this one I felt like I was seeing it fresh with new eyes. And in reading some of the notes that you put in the program I see that there’s a reason why it felt so new. So, you looked at some different versions of the text of Hamlet. So, explain exactly what you did to, kind of, craft this version of Hamlet. Barry Edelstein: Sure. Well first of all, thanks for those kind words. You know your Shakespeare so it’s meaningful to me to hear that you enjoyed it and you appreciated it, thank you for that. Well, the play is, the textual history of the play is complicated. Most of us think that when you go to a library or a bookstore and you grab a copy of Hamlet that’s the play. But in fact, that volume that we buy some place masks 400 years of complicated transmission of that text from Shakespeare’s quill pen to today and many, many people have been part of it. People in Shakespeare’s period and editors, who over centuries, have made decisions about what words ought to be in that play and ought not. Now, in the case of half of Shakespeare’s plays, they were only printed once during his periods in the first famous first folio of 1623, the first complete work of Shakespeare, seven years after Shakespeare’s death and for that half of Shakespeare’s output, we only have one authoritative text, so that’s easy. When you do Macbeth, there’s really only one text of the play because it was printed once. In the other half of Shakespeare’s plays there are multiple printings in his day. They were printed during his lifetime and then again in 1623 and the tough part is that there are differences. We don’t know what account for those differences. Shakespeare might have revised the play in between its first printing and the time of his death. Shakespeare’s theater company, who printed the first folio, might have made revisions reflecting stage practice or ideas that they knew Shakespeare had. So, in half the plays, there are at least two versions of the play from Shakespeare’s period. Hamlet has three: the play was printed once in 1603; once again the following year in 1904; and then again in 1623. So, there’s no such thing as Hamlet, there are only three Hamlets and any modern production has to make a decision about which one of those texts to do. Now, that book that you buy at the bookstore or take out at the library is called a conflation because some editor has conflated those three texts and will say gee I like this word from 1623. And these ten lines are in 1605 but not in 1623 but I kind of like them so I will stick them together. And then there’s this one idea from the 1603 printing about the order of the scenes that seems to make better sense so you get this amalgamation of these three texts. But then it’s called William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when it should actually be called Hamlet by William Shakespeare and others. So, contemporary productions and the globe is not alone in this, there’s a production running in the West End of London, very acclaimed production at the moment, that also takes this kind of magpie approach to which text we should use. Now, scholars have arguments, some say the only authoritative text is 1623 because that’s the one that Shakespeare’s own actors printed and therefore would have most closely represented Shakespeare’s mind. In that version, Hamlet’s famous death line which is the rest is silence, one of the most famous death speeches in world literature is followed by four grones of O. So, it says in 1623 the rest is silence period, O comma, O comma, O comma, O comma. The strangest, most melodramatic and also not silent death for a guy who says the rest is silence to say and no production of Hamlet does the rest is silence O, O, O, O. Even though that’s the theoretically authoritative 1623 version, right? The 1623 version lacks Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy. How all occasions do inform against me and spur my dull revenge! It’s in 1604 not in 1623. We’re using that because it’s such an important statement of his psyche at that point. The 1603 version is called the bad version of Hamlet. It’s about half the length. There you get to be or not to be, I there is the point and all these strange, clearly mistakes in the text. The theory is that an actor in the company was secretly paid to write down the play so that a rival publisher could rush it in to print because there was a market in Shakespeare’s period, not just to see plays but to read them and money to be made, if you could sell the play in a bookstore, at a bookstall. So, there are these bootleg versions of three or four of Shakespeare’s plays (Romeo + Juliet, Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet) where we think that an actor was paid off to write the play down. The following year, Shakespeare’s official printing house puts out in 1604 Hamlet and on the title page it says much corrected and much expanded meaning, don’t trust that previous one. But in the 1603 “bad version” there are bunch of interesting things. First, the stage directions are extremely long in narrative so they really tell you how the play was actually done in the period. Shakespeare in the subsequent versions will say enter Ophelia. But in the 1603 version it will say, “Enter Ofelia with her hair down, carrying a lute, singing”. So really get, oh wow, she had a little lute guitar that she was singing when she was singing her mad songs, right, really interesting insight. Second thing is that the order of scenes is different. In the written down version and the “to be or not to be” speech comes much earlier in the play than it does in subsequent versions which is really interesting. And third, the character of Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother is rendered completely differently in the 1603 version than in the subsequent versions. In the 1603 version of the text, she very explicitly says, “I have no idea that the king murdered my former husband” whereas in subsequent versions of the play, she doesn’t come out and say that. And so it’s much more mysterious and strange and unaccounted her weird behavior towards her new husband and we don’t know whether she knew or didn’t know that a murder had taken place. So, scholars now argue that the theory that the 1603 version was written down by an actor may not be right. Some say it was an early draft of the play and the most important thing to keep in mind is that we in our culture now think that a published text should reflect the stage version. So, the globe just did Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Steve Martin made some changes and he’s issuing a new published script to reflect those changes because he wants the stage version and the pointed version to match. In Shakespeare’s period, there’s no such expectation. It was widely understood that the version that you saw on the theater and the version you read at home could be vastly different. So for example the play uncut is four hours long. Nobody in Shakespeare’s period would have expected a four-hour Hamlet. It would have been instinctively understood that the players were going to cut the play significantly because for one thing you’re standing outside and standing there watching the play right in the open air. Nobody would have expected people to stay there for four hours. So we too have cut the play from four hours down to about three and have used the complicated textual history to try and make the play feel a little fresher and a little more new. Beth Accomondo: So, in making the decisions as to which parts of which text you’re going to use, what was kind of your vision for this Hamlet that you wanted to present to a modern audience today? Barry Edelstein: Well, the answer is completely idiosyncratic. I went into this knowing, as you said, you’ve seen 12 Hamlets, right? I have seen, this one is my 23rd that I’ve seen, right? So, we know how it ends, why do we keep going, why do we keep going back, why do you want to see Hamlet a 13th time? Because you want to know what this particular group of artists is going to find in this masterpiece of world literature that is so open to interpretation. So, really our thinking of the globe was we’ll do Hamlet in the summer of 2017 and we’ll gather the most talented people we can and the result will be our own idiosyncratic Hamlet for this moment and not in anyway definitive or perfect. There’s going to be another one in San Francisco two months from now at one of the countries great theater with one of the great classical actors in the country playing Hamlet. There’s one running in the West End, there’s about to be a second one in London. The play is going through a real vogue, there’s one playing at the public theater in New York at the moment. The play is very, very much in vogue right now and each company brings its own particular point of view. So, I went into this with just my own taste, where I am in my life. I’ve spoken very publicly about the fact that I decided to do the play when my father passed away last summer. The play is one of the great works about when happens to a son when his father dies and I was immediately drawn to it, read it in hospice next to my father’s death bed, and thought about it a lot. And I thought, well that’s telling me something I really ought to work on that. I felt like, having been at the globe for five years, it was time for me to do something huge and big and ambitious and really rally the theater around the vision of an enormously challenging piece so we did hamlet for that reason, so a lot of different things. I don’t have some unified field theory of the play. I just have my own instincts right now and my own taste and the taste of the 20 actors and five designers and hundreds of crafts people who have worked on it to get this wonderful production going. Beth Accomondo: Well two of the kinds of cliché that people, I think, think of with Hamlet and this is based on a lot of people possibly not seeing it but seeing it spoofed in like “to be or not to be” films with Jack Benny and Mel Brooks. But two things that people tend to think of with Hamlet is the melancholy Dane is this, sad, grief-stricken young man and the fact that he doesn’t act quickly enough on the notion of revenge so this decisiveness. So, in your production, those two things feel like they fade to the background and we get something new and different, so talk a little bit about how hat kind of plays out. Barry Edelstein: Both of those ideas of Hamlet are carry-over from the Victorian era. This extraordinarily, this kind of romantic vision of a lone person disenchanted with a fallen world and sort of sadly brooding over it. And the indecisive Hamlet is frankly very much a consequence of this weird textual history that I just talked about. Because in the 1623 version, a lot of Hamlet’s rumination is about whether or not he ought to go do anything just our cut. He’s actually a far more decisive fellow in the 1623 version of the play than he is in the 1604 or 1603 version. So, these things take on lives of their own, they don’t have to do with anything actually in the text of the play itself. I guess the one thing I knew I wanted to do though was to cast a young Hamlet. For one thing, at the end of the play, we have a bunch of dead people on stage. The king and queen of course were dead but also Hamlet, Laertes and Ophelia and they are people in their 20s. And in this production, all three are played by people in their 20s and every death is of course tragic but the death of a young person, the early premature and unnecessary death of a young person is exceedingly painful and tragic, so I knew that I wanted to do that. When you cast a young Hamlet, a couple of other things come along with it which is physical vitality, impulsiveness, quick to anger, quick to response, emotional volatility that when you see a 45-year-old man play Hamlet, which of course we’ve all seen. One of the most important experiences in my artistic life was when I worked with Kevin Kline on his second Hamlet and he was in his 40s at the time. And he was magnificent and wonderful and yet on the other hand you go, well gee at 44 how upset are you that your mother remarried? It’s just harder to process why a middle-aged man would have that kind of strange obsession that oh my mom kisses people but, a young guy in his 20s that just seems a little more available, a guy who is earlier in his emotional development that that idea seems more available. So the active Hamlet, and the decisive Hamlet, and the muscular Hamlet, and the athletic Hamlet that really stems from a commitment to cast a young guy in the role I think more than anything else. Beth Accomondo: And I think he’s kind of playfulness with the language and with things that happen during the course of the action of the play makes more sense for the young man. I mean, he seems like he is goading people and is kind of making a game of certain things that with an older character doesn’t make as much sense. Barry Edelstein: When my wife saw the play she said, “My god he’s difficult to be around” and that’s really true. My oldest kid is ten and so teenage years are upon us, and I know my friends who have teenagers in the house, wow that’s tough, that’s a lot and you do get that from him. You think oh my god this guy is so difficult and all these people around him are struggling to just kind of deal with him and they can’t criticize him because he’s the prince. So that strange provocation, that goading, that kind of millennial sense of entitlement and the sort of millennial idea that my own truth is superior to everybody else’s is very much at play. Now, all credit to Grantham Coleman, the amazing young actor who is 26 years old, and giving the performance of a guy who’s been doing Shakespeare for 30 years. His technical achievement is his absolutely brilliant work with the text. He is so extraordinary plus he’s this 6’1’’ athletic, gorgeous, handsome guy. And it is in a way, a kind of throwback to the Laurence Olivier Hamlet, swash-buckling Hamlet, leaping off of things and running around, which I love. That’s a Hamlet that’s been out of fashion for many decades now and it’s wonderful to have an actor who is so fabulously energetic and so funny and so willing because he is a millennial to go right to that place of millennial entitlement and the emotional sort of chaos in some ways. Beth Accomondo: Another thing that makes this production feel fresh is visually the style of the production design and especially the costumes. A lot of times you think of Hamlet, you think of Denmark and again the notion of melancholy, their grieving after a death, you expect him in black, the colors and the costume and the set, there’s a lot of gold in it like, leaps out at you and the women look like almost this gorgeous butterflies in their costumes. What was your thinking in putting that part of it together? Barry Edelstein: Well that’s the work of Cait O’Connor, our brilliant costume designer who is just a genius and did incredible things here plus the globes world famous costume shop which can do anything with such sumptuousness and splendor. The design goes from extremely colorful at the beginning to very, very dark and somber at the end. Hamlet moves in the other direction, he’s wearing black at the beginning and at the end he’s wearing sort of cardinal red. So, you see over the course of three hours, this kind of chromatic shift that takes place. I knew that I wanted to do the play set in each period. I don’t and I think many Shakespeare plays benefit from being updated, Hamlet, I don’t think is one. It’s very, very steeped in the mores and customs of a Renaissance Court. It’s one of Shakespeare’s place that is deeply rooted in the period in which Shakespeare wrote it. So I knew I wanted to do that but I wanted it to nonetheless feel contemporary because I knew it was going to be young people, I knew that I wanted to find that muscularity and energy in it. So, Cait has found a way to do period clothing in this very fresh and contemporary way. I think it’s really cool; it is a beautiful period costume design that nonetheless feels modern around it. The second thing is all that gold in the set. Shakespeare wrote the play for an outdoor theater so we’re glad to be able to do it in outdoor theater. He wrote it for a non-scenic theater. The globe just didn’t have any scenery on it. It just was the background which they had and it would, you’d go anywhere you needed a battle field, a castle, a bedroom, simply because the language now says here’s where we are. We’re in the bedroom or in a battle field; it’s a place of imagination, not literal representation. And for my entire career, I’ve been trying to figure out a modern way to do that. The idea that we landed on had two components. I said to the set designer, the great Timothy Mackabee. In the 60s at Shakespeare in the Park in New York City, there was a great set designer named Ming Cho Lee, now a man in his 80s probably and a great design teacher at Yale University. And he did all these Shakespeare plays for the great outdoor Shakespeare in the Park Theater in Central Park, the New York Shakespeare Festival where he built these scaffold sets that just became kind of playgrounds for the play to take place on. And they had an emotional character, some of them would be rough hewn woods, some of them would be sleek steels, some of them would have a kind of strange medieval aspect to the lines or designs. But basically a non-descriptive scaffolding rig that would allow the whole play to kind of just unfold, with a suggestion of place but an emotional temperature that was conveyed to the audience rather than realism. So I went to Timothy Mackabee, who was a student of Ming Cho Lee at Yale, and I said, “Let’s figure out a way to do a 21st century version of those famous Ming Cho Lee sets from the Delacorte in the 1960s” and that’s what he did. So, the question was what emotional temperature should it have and that’s when we went to the idea of Claudius, the wicked king in the play. Some productions want to make Claudius very incredible figure and I thought no, it doesn’t never, that never really makes sense to me. He’s a bad guy who kills his brother for power, he is a libertine, he’s a drinker, all that stuff is in the play and Hamlet is this sober-minded, intense intellectual who finds himself living in this world of Versailles, like extravagance. And the image that came to us was frankly Trump Tower, this golden place of excessive decoration, right? And so we came up with this idea of making this big sort of panels that looked like a contemporary gold tower, and it’s got a kind of ancientness about it. On the other hand, it functions as a kind of playground on which all these period costumes can unfold and I’m super proud of it, I think it works just great. Beth Accomondo: I want to ask you a little bit about casting in particular one act, you have, Michael Genet, who plays three roles and the choice you’ve made here is he’s playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father. He’s playing the player king and he’s playing the grave digger. And in doing that I think it’s a really nice way to kind of keep the audience thinking about the death of Hamlet’s father and the threat and it seems like it’s a really nice subtle way to help the audience kind of carry through a theme. Barry Edelstein: And thank you, well done, that’s exactly right. I have nothing to add that’s precisely why we did that. Yeah, again you know the initiating impulse for the production was my father’s passing and so I thought throughout the night, the presence of the dead father needs to be there. There is this giant statue of this suit of armor that’s there that represents the memory of Old King Hamlet. And then Hamlet runs in to three people over the course of the play that becomes kind of surrogate fathers for him. One is, the ghost of course who is literary his father or the spirit of his father. Then there’s this actor who, sort of, takes hamlet through an emotional experience that gives him the idea of how he’s going to go about exacting his revenge. And then at the end there’s this grave digger who offers to Hamlet a perspective ways to think about death that Hamlet didn’t really understand. So, all three are kind of father figures and I’m not the first director to do this. You’re likely to get a better actor for all three parts when you can offer him all three, right? Because that’s a great night for Michael Genet, he gets to play all three of these parts. I have also given the ghost two entrances in addition to what Shakespeare gives him. So the ghost is very, very present in the play. And we decided to not attempt to disguise him knowing that the audience would now it’s him anyway. So there he is and you’re right, you get this thematic connection about Hamlet’s obsession with his lost father. And if you notice, Grantham each time he meets him again has a moment where he just stops for a second and stares at him as if to ask, “Do I know you, are you my father, how could you possibly be here”. And so I find it a really neat way to connect up the central thematic problem of Hamlet being haunted by his father throughout the entire night. Beth Accomondo: And I have a question about the actors in terms of their delivery of lines. One thing that stood out to me is, Polonius’s family so Polonius and Ophelia and Laertes seem to have like a different tone to the, and I don’t know how to describe it but in terms of my ears but it almost sounded more like American compared to everyone else and I didn’t know if there was like a reason for kind of separating them out. Barry Edelstein: No, that’s interesting to me. No, I mean it might be just that those three particular actors have a certain approach to it. Patrick Kerr who plays Polonius’s is a globe regular, Jonny Orsini who plays Laertes is a former student of mine, Talley Beth Gale is in out MFA program here. I think it’s just a luck of the draw if they have a more American sound than everybody else. I would say to my ear, everybody in the piece sounds tremendously American and it’s one of my favorite things about the show because I’ve devoted 30 years of my life to the idea that there is such a thing as American Shakespeare. It’s a hugely important idea to me because those of us who do Shakespeare in this country labor under constant comparison to the Brits, who do Shakespeare brilliantly. But they do Shakespeare for their culture and their audience and their traditions. We have a native Shakespeare tradition of which California has a huge part end of which the Old Globe in particular has a huge part of this long approach to Shakespeare as a native thing that belongs to us. There are 20 actors in our production of Hamlet, 11 of them are actors of color from all kinds of backgrounds, everybody has been trained, I think almost every single person in the play is a graduate of one of our countries great training programs. So, this is as American as Shakespeare gets and I’m completely thrilled with that. Beth Accomondo: In choosing Grantham, what was it about him that particularly appealed to you, in terms of how you thought he was going to bring that kind of that youth and energy to Hamlet’s lines? Barry Edelstein: Well, I knew Grantham, Grantham was in the company of one of the Shakespeare plays at the Delacorte in Central Park that I produced while I was at the public theater. He’s also a Juilliard student and, some number of years ago I went and taught a Master class there while he was there. He is hugely talented guy with a meteoric film and television career in the process of taking off and he came in and read for me. He came in, he lives in LA and he came down. We spent a couple of hours together and so many things about him just knocked me up. One, his technical facility with the language is, as I said earlier that of somebody who’s been doing Shakespeare for decades not just for a handful of years so that’s hugely important and powerful. He is an actor of deep emotional reserves. One of the scenes that we worked on in his audition was his confrontation with his mother and he brought such a ferocity and bravery and willingness to go to deep and dark and painful places so easily. That was extremely important and he is funny, which Hamlet has to be. The play is actually one of the surprises of this process for me has been to discover how funny it is. It’s very, very funny on the way to being harrowing which I think disarms the audience and opens them to being mood so powerfully at the end and Grantham is funny. He is just a guy with tremendous wit and charm. And then on top of that he’s always wanted to play Hamlet. It’s been a dream of his for a long time so that meant that he took it seriously in a way that I think was really important and he became for the company, the le adding man. Not just because he was playing the title role but the way he approached the work had a kind of serious of purpose and owns a kind of moral dimension to it that really made him the leader of this group of 20 actors in the most beautiful way. It was very special for them to watch it happen in rehearsal. Beth Accomondo: So, during the course of rehearsal, if he’s someone who is so invested in this role, was there any point with some of these key scenes where you felt you made a distinct change from what you had originally intended or thought about doing? Barry Edelstein: We had a really wonderful collaboration Grantham was extremely open to my ideas and I hope vice versa. And I told him early on, here are some of the things I want to try and do. I’m thinking about you should be in bed when you do to be or not to be and it should be the bed that your mother and stepfather were just cavorting in. You should do a lot of writing over the course of the evening which he does. You should have availability to real impulses of violence and a certain kind of quick-silverness which we talked about a lot. And so we really were together, able to forge all of those ideas through his imagination into that wonderful performance that you see him getting. Beth Accomondo: You mention the bed and one thing that kind of changes the tone or the way you hear lines is where you’ve set something. So, you do have a choice where you have Gertrude and Claudius in their bed, having being frolicking around and then they entertain some of the people from the court talking to them. So by placing it there, you’ve kind of changed how we see the scene of it. Barry Edelstein: That idea came from Lyndon Johnson, I was reading Robert Caro biography. He used to have meetings while he was in the bathroom and he would literarily be sitting on the toilet (excuse me!) and advisors in to talk to him while he was sitting there. And I just find that so crazy and so funny, and I thought well if that is an emblem of power I don’t know what is. And I thought wouldn’t it be great is Claudius who is Johnsonian, Claudius in our production is this big man of appetite and vigor and energy and he’s profane in a certain kind of way and so we talked a lot, Cornell Womack a great actor, another former student of mine who plays that role we talked about. These great leader that we remember in American history who were men of appetite, men of excess appetite, Bill Clinton and Johnson, people like that. So we thought wow, wouldn’t it be great if he’s just in bed with his wife and summoning people in to do official business, seemed like a tremendous emblem of who this guy is, this voracious spirit. This guy who just eats, there’s food in the bed with him, he feels free to grab people and just embrace people and throw them around, he’s constant, he’s very handsy with all the women in the play. There are five or six times where he just feel free to touch women in the play, grab them by the hand, pull them a little bit too close, just seemed a beautiful expression of this slightly corrupt, strangely avaricious guy whose running the country and the perfect foil for Hamlet, who says in of course one of the most famous lines of the play, “The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite. That ever I was born to set it right!” That idea the “time is out of joint” I think is what’s making the play so very resonant because hey the time is out of joint. Everything that we thought we knew is now truly up for grabs and the idea of a young black man in the center of it all saying wow it’s on me to fix this. It just seems exceedingly provocative and wonderful in our America right now. Beth Accomondo: And is this the, this isn’t the first time you’ve directed Hamlet, isn’t it? Barry Edelstein: It is, the first time I’ve directed Hamlet, yeah I directed when I was a student, when I was an undergraduate at Tufts and I first started taking directing classes. I directed the gravedigger scene. Then I assisted, I assisted Kevin Kline on Hamlet. I was on the producing team for Oscar Isaac Hamlet in Central Park with Michael Stolberg in the title role, I’ve taught the play many, many times but it’s my first time directing it. Beth Accomondo: And what do you think it is about the play that makes it this kind of iconic piece that people want to do, that an actor doesn’t feel like their career is defined until they’ve tackled that particular Shakespeare role or director wants to tackle that, is there something particular you see in Hamlet? Male speaker: I think the thing that captures our imagination about the play oddly is the fact that it is so unexplained and in some ways kind of flawed. I did a lot of reading around it for the past year, there’s this wonderful essay by T. S. Eliot, famous, famous essay about the play in which he just catalogues all the things about the play that don’t work. Part of that is Eliot’s crazy arrogance and narcissism but part of it also is the fact that there are strange things in it. There’s this whole thread in the play of Denmark and Norway invading each other that just sort of pops up for a second then goes away, pops up again for second then goes away. It’s not terribly well resolved over the course of the evening, there’s this thing that happens where Laertes whose father Polonius is murdered, tries to get revenge. He seems to be running a political rebellion and you hear outside the walls of the castle these kinds of occupy Wall Street chaos proclaiming him King doesn’t go anywhere. Most important of all, there’s this deep, deep thread of misogyny and of disgust at female sexuality that Hamlet talks about again and again and again. That is unexplained in the play, that seems to come from somewhere outside the play, that seems to come out of Shakespeare’s psyche rather than Hamlet’s psyche. So there are these things in the play that don’t add up, these mysteries of strangeness and I think that’s what keeps the play enduring. You look at a play like Henry V, equally a masterpiece in Shakespeare’s Cannon. But every T is crossed and every I is dotted, it’s a completely successful play and it’s on terms. It hasn’t entered the pantheon of the great works and quite the way that messy unresolved, unfinished Hamlet has, like, modern piece or something like that, this big sprawling giant thing that keeps on drawing us back because it isn’t tied up. Hamlet talks about, he accuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of wanting to pluck out the heart of his mystery and that’s it. We come to the play and we want to pluck out the heart of its mystery because it eludes us and seems to make sense for a moment and then it sort of dissolves into the ether. And I think that is what has made it this wellspring for those of us in the theater and this touchstone for people around the world who love literature because it encodes a deep kind of truth that’s messy and mysterious and doesn’t always add up and yet seems to talk with surpassing eloquence about a recognizable human condition that we can all connect to. Beth Accomondo: All right, well thank you so much for speaking with me. Barry Edelstein: Thanks Beth as always. Beth Accomondo: That was Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein. His production of Hamlet runs through September 22nd on the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival stage. Thanks for listening to another edition of the Cinema Junkie podcast. Next up will be a podcast from Horrible Imaginings Film Festival. I will focus on a San Diego filmmaker who will be debuting a radio drama at the festival. We’ll find out what that’s all about on the next episode of Cinema Junkie. So, till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomondo, your resident Cinema Junkie.
The Old Globe has a bold new production of “Hamlet” on stage now. It is directed by Barry Edelstein and it made me see the play with new eyes. This podcast is dedicated to Shakespeare’s great play and to understanding it better through film and an interview with Edelstein.
In regards to the Oscars, Humphrey Bogart once said, “The only way to find the best actor would be to let everybody play Hamlet and let the best man win.”
It’s no accident that he chose “Hamlet” for his example. That role is the yardstick by which actors have been measuring themselves for centuries. On film we have not gone a decade without an actor tackling the role since the 1900s (that’s right, even in the silent era we had “Hamlet” on screen, more than a half dozen times in fact).
Cinematic Hamlets have ranged from Laurence Olivier’s classical interpretation that emphasized some uncomfortable intimacy between Hamlet and his mother, to Ethan Hawke’s modern-dress Dane in Michael Almerayda’s contemporary take to Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour-plus uncut adaptation.
To date, I hesitate to label any of the film “Hamlets” as classic or definitive, but each illuminates the play in different ways. But each will live on for future generations to ponder and enjoy.
The current stage production of “Hamlet” at the Globe, however, is of a more transitory nature. Once the production ends Sept. 22 it is essentially gone forever. But the production benefits from the fact that director Barry Edelstein is not just an inspired artist with a vision, but a Shakespeare scholar who has been studying the Bard.
The event that finally spurred Edelstein on to tackling the play was the death of his father last summer.
For this podcast I will run through some of the key film versions of “Hamlet” to highlight what each does well and sometimes what they did badly, and then let Edelstein shed some light on why his production feels so fresh.