In a theater town like Minneapolis, there is no shortage of Shakespeare. In just this fledgling year, I’ve seen productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, and Henry IV Part I, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what was available. According to AmericanTheatre.org, the 450 year old playwright was not only the most produced during the 2014/2015 theater season (which, they point out, he is every season); he outperformed the next five most popular entries combined. Also I’m pretty sure they’re not counting community theaters, colleges, and Shakespeare in the park, which would only skew the numbers even more in the Bard’s favor.
But even an avowed Bardophile like myself sometimes has to ask why. Good plays are timeless, but good performances also address their time with something akin to urgency. Is there really a purpose and occasion to every one of these productions? With everything going on in the world and a culture for which Elizabethan verse truly is a dead language (no matter how easily translated by a talented performer), how can a man whose interests were couched in an age of kings and queens and the Bubonic plague still so readily dominate the most immediate of all art forms? What prevents any individual performance from becoming a ritual watering hole for grad students and octogenarian season ticket-holders?
When I spoke with Leah Adcock-Starr, the director of Theatre Unbound’s all-female rendition of Hamlet, this question came up a few times. While we sat cross-legged on the lobby floor outside the Cowles Center’s Tek Box theater in downtown Minneapolis, she admitted, “It’s a question I ask myself every day. I am drawn like a magnet to those plays. They are big and I like that. I love the moment when you recognize yourself in a play that was made hundreds of years ago; when you hear language, heightened poetry that suddenly captures a feeling you had that you could never quite find words for. So then you have a moment like, ‘Yes! That! Exactly that feeling!’ And, ‘Oh my God Shakespeare knew what that was like and put that down in this play, so other people have felt that!’”
“There has been a sort of collective decision that Shakespeare has become king of the old dead white guys… I really don’t think that’s the nature of this playwright.”
Adcock-Starr has directed quite a bit of Shakespeare, and returns to the Twin Cities for this production after after a three year hiatus in Seattle, where she received her MFA in Directing at the University of Washington School of Drama. Over the last six years she has also staged Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus and assisted Greg Banks on the IVEY award winning immersive Romeo and Juliet at Children’s Theatre Company in 2009.
“There has been a sort of collective decision that Shakespeare has become king of the old dead white guys, and there’s a kind of classist, elitist, distant reverence that has been given to Shakespeare that I think frankly is… well it’s bullshit. It’s just a lie, and it’s dangerous because I really don’t think that’s the nature of this playwright. Shakespeare wrote for the masses. Shakespeare wrote for all economic levels, all classes, all different kinds of people. He wrote so that he could make the ‘royals’ and ‘intellectuals’ laugh at the bawdy and make the ‘groundlings’ and ‘working class’ elevate their minds and souls and think and feel to the height of their abilities and potential. These plays are about what it is to be human. He brought everyone together in these plays – connected through one story.”
The problem doubles when you add Hamlet, probably the most popular play ever written. Even if Romeo and Juliet is performed a little more today, the young Prince of Denmark’s shadow casts itself over everything from the psychology of Freud to the theories of Marx to the philosophy of Nietzsche to social studies teachers talking about the “shattered mirror” to someone at a coffee shop reading Infinite Jest to Spongebob Squarepants telling Squidward, “Goodnight, sweet prince.” As much as we like to dismiss the idea of “importance” as coffee talk for erudite old professors, it’s probably not possible for someone in Western society to avoid the influence of Hamlet for even a single day. It’s about as palpably “important” as any work of art or literature can be.
“Somehow when you take an icon and shake it up a little bit it seems to matter more.”
Adcock-Starr admits dealing with, as she calls it, “the dust of history” is daunting.
“As soon as I knew I was doing Hamlet, I had a little bit of a panic attack. I was like, ‘What am I thinking? Who do I think I am to do this play?’ And then I realized the thing I was afraid of was all the stuff in my mind. All the stuff we build up with Hamlet, the iconography of Hamlet, the Ghost of Hamlet in our culture being so huge and pervasive is overwhelming. It’s terrifying. I think we walk into the room with the myth of Hamlet every single night and have to shake it out and shake it off because you can’t actually try and top it or make the One Hamlet for All.”
At the same time, she also seems excited about the possibility of taking on such a sacred text.
“There’s something for me that’s really powerful as a feisty feminist theater-maker, that I’m going to take the most iconic old dead white guy playwright, and I’m going to say we’ve done something wrong to this playwright. And actually we’re going to break open these plays and recognize the power they have. Somehow when you take an icon and you shake it up a little bit it seems to matter more, or you put all women in the play and you see how that unearths or opens up the play and helps to break down some of our assumptions.”
Claudius: “Where is Polonius?”
Hamlet: “In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i’th’ other place yourself.”
On one level Adcock-Starr dismisses the supposed novelty of an all-female cast. None of the pronouns in the show have been changed. None of the characters’ genders seem to have shifted, despite the performers playing them. Even most of the dubious gender-related language remains. Admittedly in 1601 all the roles were played by men. In 2015 it probably shouldn’t be surprising that the reverse could occasionally be true.
“I have no doubt that women can play Shakespeare. I was almost going to say, ‘Yeah, I hope they leave and think girls can do Shakespeare,’ except I don’t need them to think that. I think that’s icing if they’re like, ‘Cool. Alright.’ But I know it. And these women are going keep doing Shakespeare, and I’m going to keep making plays with women making Shakespeare.”
And yet she also admits that it’s a huge part of what makes this performance vital.
“I think it’s about access. There was something really profound as a theater-maker when I was holding auditions for this. There were over a hundred, I think like a hundred and fifty women showed up to audition for this play. So many! I saw the most incredible, extraordinary range of women in this city… It was sort of a profound moment to be a female director sitting at the table with this amazing female artistic director, and watching incredible women actually get to play Hamlet the Prince of Denmark; to get to, for those two minutes they had our attention and were in the room, be Hamlet.
Which is usually not the case when a bunch of women are showing up for an audition call for Hamlet. You’re either playing Gertrude or Ophelia, or maybe if they’re getting really crazy with casting, Rosencrantz. There’s a reason that all-female is sort of brand new. You’re seeing people on stage who are totally, completely, fully aware of the fact that this is a privilege to play this play, and know that they may never get the opportunity again. There is a really incredible energy that is created in the room when people get to go where they haven’t previously been invited.”
“There is a really incredible energy that is created in the room when people get to go where they haven’t previously been invited.”
Additionally Shakespeare’s treatment of women was ofttimes inconsistent by a modern standard. He was more forward-thinking than most from his epoch, but while his works are littered with strong female characters like As You Like It‘s Rosalind, Much Ado About Nothing‘s Beatrice, and Twelfth Night‘s Viola, he is still a product of a pre-modern age. Elizabethans certainly were not shy about their idealization or condescension of femininity.
This goes doubly for Hamlet, in which the two major female characters, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and love interest Ophelia, are alternatingly weak-willed and veering toward insanity. And while some might object that the play is told from the perspective of a teenage boy (rarely stalwarts of feminism, historically-speaking) or that Claudius, Shakespeare’s depiction of unchecked masculinity, is the play’s only true villain, lines like, “Frailty, thy name is woman,” “Conceit in weaker bodies strongest grows,” “The woman will out,” and the attitudes behind them have been influential in damaging ways throughout history. They demand some kind of response from responsible theater-makers. Adcock-Starr suggests that on some level the problems come from lack of representation.
“There’s all this shade being thrown on women all through the show. And to have that come out of a woman’s mouth, for me I’m watching and thinking, ‘You know what? Instead of Shakespeare making a declaration about women, it actually becomes about that character’s, in that moment, personal point of view of the circumstances that they are in.’ So it’s not about Shakespeare believing, ‘Frailty thy name is woman;’ but actually, in that moment, Hamlet is struggling with the fact that he believes it’s his mother’s fault that all of this has gone wrong, and he believes it’s her fault because of her weakness.
Gertrude and Ophelia, the sort of two representations of women in the play, given the space and a room filled with women, are allowed to be all the layers of complex that they are; that they suddenly are not responsible for representing all mothers and all girlfriends. Often they get put into the categories of the virgin girlfriend and whore mother and they have to play these archetypes, and I think that’s a vast simplification of who they are in all of their relationships. And now in a room full of women they get to be as complicated, as layered, as powerful as every woman can be because they’re not responsible for carrying the burden of all girls.”
That “shade” is one of the biggest issues facing modern Shakespeare performances. Within otherwise beautiful plays, there sit challenges regarding characters like the women in Hamlet or Shylock in the Merchant of Venice who is at once a grotesque Jewish stereotype, but also a pretty stirring portrait of universal human bitterness. As evidenced by Theatre Unbound’s performance, addressing these “problems” rather than attempting to bury or ignore them can actually be what gives the show its power.
And in the case of Hamlet, seeking out what has been hidden, be it Claudius’s murder of Hamlet’s father or some of our own society’s less flattering impulses, is the distinct virtue of theater. In homage to the famous Players scene in which Hamlet attempts to push his uncle to confession through theater, this production utilizes only eight performers on a mostly bare stage. They nod and wink to the audience in one of the more playful stagings of this tragedy that you’re likely to see.
“I think it’s kind of brilliant in this beautiful love poem to theater that Shakespeare wrote, that Hamlet’s great discovery about the true guilt of his uncle comes through theater; that it’s the arrival of the players that allows Hamlet to see the power of performance, and he uses a play to have the truth revealed which I think is a gorgeous thing for a theater-maker to write in the middle of the play.”
I think we’ll probably all feel that…
“Had I the time I would have so much to say.”
Another flourish unique to this production involves the character of Horatio, who serves as a kind of chorus for the audience. Horatio, being the only major character to survive the final scene, is chosen by Hamlet as storyteller to inform the new King Fortinbras of all the evil that had been done that he might avoid it.
“When I read Hamlet the lines that make my hair stand on end, the lines that sort of move me and cause me to well up, are actually right around Hamlet’s death. It’s that moment where Hamlet knows he has no time. He says, ‘You who look on at this act.’ He wants to tell the audience his story. He wants to say, ‘I have more to say, but had I the time…’ I think we’ll all probably feel that in that moment. ‘Had I the time I would have so much to say.’
He turns to his friend before he dies, and he says, ‘Draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.’ At that moment he’s like, I know it’s gonna suck for you that I’m gone, and I know that carrying this story, bearing the weight of this story is going to be painful for you, and you have to tell it anyway. So Horatio is sort of the heart of the play for me in so many ways because Horatio is the storyteller.
I connect very much to Horatio as a theater-maker. There are stories that are hard to tell. I think making art is an incredible privilege and a total blessing and gift, but there’s a cost to making art and we have to do it anyway. We should all be someone’s Horatio and tell that story.”
“Prayers without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Listening to Adcock-Starr discuss these choices, it becomes clear that for her no decision is wholly separate from the other. It demonstrates all the ways understanding why you want to tackle a 4000 line cultural monolith can actually guide the how. For instance the usurping King Fortinbras, who many performances cut from the show because he only appears on stage for a couple minutes, takes on a prominent role in this production.
“Claudius has taken a life, and I think that the play is very much about what happens when you do that deeply wrong, profoundly evil act of murder. He took a life and he covered it up and now everything’s infected. You need a whole new world order to come in and that is what Fortinbras is so essential for. Fortinbras is the one who can come in and bring healing back to Denmark.”
So what is so often viewed as a play about teenage male ennui also becomes a story of a society that has committed much evil, the storytellers chosen to point this out, and restorative power needed to clean a rotten kingdom. Denmark, a broken world that refuses to acknowledge the blood that it has spilt to achieve its standing, bears some resemblance to, well, other places. And even Shakespeare’s allusion to the rejection of a voting system in Denmark is highlighted here as a kind of base evil that comes from a lack of representation.
“…to see yourself on stage is sort of an extraordinary thing.”
These observations are all very clearly in the text, and yet it’s ironic (or not surprising at all based on the interests of the critical establishment discussing it these last four centuries) that they often go unnoticed or unacknowledged. There is so much conflicted subtext in Shakespeare and almost no overt projection of the author’s own opinion. King Lear is often performed with Lear as the hero, and yet I’ve seen it successfully staged with Lear as a kind of villain. Shakespeare somehow, miraculously, allows for both. The bias, then, is often not the author’s but lies in the adapter’s choice of which perspectives to highlight and which to ignore. For Adcock-Starr, there is an enduring appeal in finding everyone’s stories within these seemingly well-worn tales.
“I would be thrilled if someone in the house goes ‘I’ve had that moment. I know what that breakup feels like. Or I’ve had this moment with my teenage son where I just don’t know how to talk to him. Or I have felt lost like that.’ Or whatever it is, I think the opportunity to recognize yourself in the biggest, most famous, Classical, most iconic William Shakespeare play, to see yourself on stage is sort of an extraordinary thing.”
Hamlet runs at the Cowles Center Tek Box theater in Minneapolis from May 16-31. Click here for tickets.
Photos by: Ryan Sanderson