Something Wonderful in the State of Denmark

Next week I’m going back to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’ve gone several times. This year I’m somewhat unreasonably excited to go. It’s kind of been all Shakespeare all the time around my place the last couple of weeks.

This year they’re playing Hamlet. I saw it at the OSF several years ago and was so excited that I wrote a hyper over-thought entry on a blog that I had back then.

Here it is again, resurrected from many years ago, since that blog is long since dead and gone:

Over the summer, I went and saw Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival.  This was directed by Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the OSF, starring Dan Donohue as Hamlet.  I’ve read Hamlet many times and have seen it performed.  This is the version that completely blew me away.

The play starts off with a combination funeral and wedding celebration.  As the merry-makers toast the newly married Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet sits off disconsolately in the background.

At first, it’s somewhat off putting, admittedly for visual reasons.  Donohue is a relatively young man with red hair.  With his style of dress and slouch, I started off thinking that he was channeling David Caruso.  Erica, who attended with me, was somewhat amused initially because she was reminded of Conan O’Brien, which left an even harsher discordant note than David Caruso.  Coco playing Hamlet??

However, after getting used to him physically, Donohue drew us in.  He seemed to play Hamlet much as Harold Bloom described him in The Invention of the Human.  Bloom had the provocative idea that Shakespeare literally changed humanity through his plays.  It’s the classic discussion of how much does art reflect life versus define life.

His main thesis (at least as I understand it) was that before Shakespeare, the idea of the introspective human capable of changing his behavior as a result of this introspection did not exist.  It certainly doesn’t exist in previous literature.  With characters such as Iago, Falstaff, and yes, Hamlet, Shakespeare invented a new kind of character.  All of these characters could look within, understand themselves, understand their motivations, and in turn based upon that understanding change their path.  It’s a level of self awareness previously unknown.  From these characters, humanity began to do likewise.

Like I said, a provocative idea.  I’m not sure if I buy it, but I have to confess that I have a weakness for big theories, even if not true, because they in turn provoke much thought for myself.

Be that as it may, Donohue plays him in this way.  Clearly, his Hamlet is the smartest person in any scene (with the possible exception of the gravedigger, who, much to Hamlet’s amusement, clearly gets the best of him; how interesting is it that Shakespeare chose, among all of the Kings, Queens, and courtiers in the play, the lowly gravedigger to give Hamlet his comeuppance).  He toys with Claudius and ties him up in knots, he reads through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in about five minutes, proceeds to make fools of them both, and ultimately sends them to their death without a second thought.

It is not so much that Hamlet is indecisive (as Olivier pretty clearly plays him) as much as he is reacting and adjusting to an increasingly fluid situation.

An interesting quirk that Donohue employed was his voice.  As the play progresses, he makes increasing use of his vocal range.  As he speaks to various characters, his voice rises and then falls, in what can only be described as a series of vocal quirks.

Again, at first it was off-putting and seemed artificial, if not actually somewhat cloying.  As time went on, I came up with a theory that is probably half insane and completely off the mark, but it works for me.

To me, it appeared that he was making a reference to the Heath Ledger Joker character. Stick with me here, please.  I know that it’s weird.

Heath Ledger’s Joker was possibly one of the best acting performances that I’ve ever seen.  Think about it.  The Dark Knight starred Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Aaron Eckhart.  None of them are exactly slouches, but when I watched it the first time, sitting pretty much the entire time on the edge of my seat, I was just counting the seconds until Ledger appeared again.  Jack Nicholson’s, again not exactly talentless, Joker looked like a complete hack in comparison.

Again, to put a Bloom perspective on it, Ledger’s Joker is at least equal and possibly surpassing Iago.  He is clearly many steps ahead of everyone else in the movie.  He is always the smartest person in the room.  Many plans are laid, he foils all of them, almost effortlessly.

At times, Ledger clearly projects the absolute exhaustion that the Joker feels in his futile quest to find meaning in his life (most expressive line from the movie:  “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”).  It’s a tragedy that Ledger died, but you have to admit, there are worse ways to die than at the absolute top of your game.

Saying all of that, just like the Joker (yes, I know, I’m making the comparison in the wrong direction, so sue me), Hamlet is a destroyer of plans.  He destroys Claudius’ plans to have a happy life with Gertrude; he upends Guildenstern’s and Rosencrantz’s plan to have him killed by the King of England and instead they wind up dead instead;  Polonius plans he casts aside almost without a thought.  He ruins (partially, at least) Laertes plans to kill him with a poisoned rapier and Laertes dies as a result.  All of Denmark appears to be scheming against him, and almost effortlessly, he ruins all of their plans.

Hamlet is the The Joker and The Joker is Hamlet.  Q.E.D.

So, any play that has me making these weird connections is, at least in my mind, by definition a wonderful play.  The actor playing Claudius did an outstanding job.  Of the Hamlet’s that I’ve seen, only this production gives Claudius the strength and vitality that such a character must have had.  The actor playing Polonius did a wonderful job portraying him as the useless, old, barely tolerated counselor that in my opinion accurately reflects the character as written. I was shaky on Ophelia at first, but ultimately her close yet conflicting relationships with Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet are very well portrayed.

There were some disappointments.  Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were basically nonentities that did not bring much to their respective characters.  In a similar manner, Gertrude did not leave much impression.  The conceit of having Hamlet’s father played by a deaf actor employing sign language was to me distracting.  The hip-hop performers were a poor substitute for the players, and also Hamlet trying to dance hip hop was the single discordant note in Donohue’s performance.

All in all, though, this was the finest play that I’ve ever seen.  In fact, I was left with a little Hamlet obsession.  I re-read Bloom’s treatment of Hamlet, re-read the play again (I think now for the fifth or sixth time), and I watched not one but two movie versions.

I was somewhat surprised by the Olivier version.  There is a line from Hamlet itself mocking actors who wave their arms around and overact.  This appears to be what Olivier himself does.  Also, the subtle incest moments present in the play between Hamlet and Gertrude seems artificial to an almost jarring degree.  Finally, he plays him (and explicitly says this in his own written prologue to the movie) as being indecisive, which in my mind does not do justice to the complexity to the character of Hamlet.

I also watched (only part of it, admittedly) Kevin Kline’s version as well.  I have to admit that in the first thirty minutes or so seeing Hamlet shed tears three or four times seemed at best maudlin. I have watched some years back but now plan on watching again Kenneth Branagh’s version.

I have not quite gotten so desperate as to watch Mel Gibson’s version.  We’ll see if this fever breaks before then.

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