Kiwi/Possum Productions are going to have a go at Hamlet next year, making a change from local issue-based plays. It will be another learning curve for the group and interesting to see the response. I’ve directed the play before, the last time in the late 1970s, with Jim Moriarty as Hamlet and Don Selwyn as Claudius.
It’s been interesting to start working on the play again, to do the necessary edit – five hours is too long in the age of tweets. Immediately, the psychology kicks in: the melancholy, the cynicism, the irritation at oneself for a lack of action, the suppressed fury. Hamlet was of course, an intellectual, a student, with the need to act when faced with a rank injustice. Instead he started to play intellectual games, theatrical games, pretending to be mad, toying with suicide and so on. Behind this an unresolved Oedipal complex – his father remains a hard taskmaster. His mother’s fallen for a Trump type figure. The play bites quickly and deeply: There’s something rotten in the world today, what do we do- endlessly complain? Perform theatricals? Pretend to be mad?
And the problem of goody-goody Ophelia, or is she too playing games? Has she already slept with Hamlet? Jean Betts wrote a play exploring this, a piece which still gets regularly performed in schools.
But above all, I become yet again overwhelmed by Shakespeare’s extraordinary writing, the ability to conjure phrases that have become immortal: There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark; One may smile and smile and be a villain; To be or not to be; Alas, poor Yorick; This goodly frame the earth; The hour has almost come when I to sulfurous and tormenting flames must render up myself; This majestical roof fretted with golden fire; Sweets to the sweet, farewell. He was amazing. Yet pretty mediocre when it comes to plotting a story (and the story was borrowed). It gets creakier as the play goes on. Hamlet setting off for England- how the hell to get him back on stage? And then a rather silly set up of a duel to get everyone killed. But we forgive for the divine writing.
There have been various interpretations as to the richness of the imagery. Elizabethan England was a time when feudal society was transitioning to capitalism and its accompanying individualism. Under feudal/tribal societies the mind is akin to a totem pole of imagery, together with access to a collective pool of stories. Think powhiri with whakatauki, whakapapa and tribal memory to call upon. It leads to fluency. Whereas the individual analytic mind destroys this detail; the oral story being judged anecdotal, of limited truth. As a consequence, the totem pole falls into disrepair.
I once filmed a series of interviews with Tokelauan people on issues facing their community. As I recorded these interviews (which were in Tokelauan), I was amazed at the fluency – never a pause or an ‘um’. But then I realised that the interviewees were not analysing the issues, but regurgitating received opinion. Fluency comes at a cost; as does analysis.
The last time I worked in a Shakespearian context was in Poland at an encounter led by one of Peter Brook’s actors. We were exploring father/daughter relationships in Shakespeare’s plays. There were people from a variety of countries and it seemed best for each to speak their native language, rather than try and get their tongues around Shakespearian English, so each scene came to be performed with the characters speaking the text in a different translation of the original Elizabethan English: Lear-English; Cordelia-Yiddish; Goneril-French, etc. The result was rather wonderful, Shakespeare’s masterly language penetrating the languages of the world and telling a universal story: an old man stuffing things up. A pity there wasn’t a Zimbabwean there to complete the picture.