H2016: Cutting Scene 1

Not from my 2003 production of Othello, alas. But a striking image none the less.

Not from my 2003 production of Othello, alas. But a striking image none the less.

With less than 12 months to go before my production of Hamlet opens, I still don’t know much for sure. I know that I’d like my Prince to be young, and for both Hamlet and Ophelia to be a little bit goth and emo right from the get-go — lonely outsiders drawn together by their mutual distaste for stuffy royal life. And I’ve got that “Tim Burton meets Harry Potter” elevator pitch, whatever that means.

And I know I want the Ghost to be scary, or at least super-creepy. I’m not convinced that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy (and/or that the genre “revenge tragedy” has any cachet these days), but I find it easy to imagine as a supernatural thriller.

So, with that bit of pigeonholing in mind, why oh why do I want to cut Act 1, Scene 1 — easily the most atmospheric, if not the most iconic, scene in the play? The first of only four scenes in which the Ghost appears, it’s got to be the most economic way to set the tone…right? Sure, cut all that blather about war with Norway (1.1.78-106); cut Horatio’s standard set-piece speech about astrology and Roman ghosts (1.1.111-124); but why drop the scene altogether?

I’ve got three reasons. Independently, none of them would have been enough to persuade me, but they add up.

1. Something’s Gotta Go. Every director (except the really sadistic ones) would agree with Polonius’s dry critique of the First Player’s speech: “This is too long.” Most scholars today agree that Hamlet, in its longest (Q2) version, was never performed uncut in Shakespeare’s time. So the question shouldn’t be whether to cut, it should be where. My aim is to bring the play down to a svelte 120 minutes, plus intermission. It’s a longshot, but I don’t believe that modern audiences, especially teenagers, are going to stay tuned in for much longer than that.

Knowing that substantial cuts are necessary, a few standard choices present themselves. Many modern productions (including Zeffirelli’s 1990 film version) cut the Fortinbras sub-plot entirely, for example. This includes the excision of 4.4, although sometimes directors will find a way to shoe-horn all or part of Hamlet’s soliloquy, “How all occasions do inform against me” (as if the play were somehow short on soliloquies). 4.6, an expository scene between Horatio and a letter-bearing Sailor (read: Pirate), is another common victim of the red pen.

If I could chop that stuff, and make a few tweaks here and there within the other scenes, and bring my script down to 2 hours, then I might consider keeping 1.1. Except…

2. Keep ‘Em Guessing. I want my Hamlet to be accessible for the uninitiated, but also full of surprises for those who know the play well. That’s partly because I’m a bit capricious, but mostly because familiarity breeds contempt, or at least ennui. Producing a Hamlet that follows the same exact pattern as the last five Hamlets will lull an audience to sleep, even if the performances are strong. I believe it’s possible to keep an audience on their toes, even with a 400-year-old script. You just to zig sometimes when they expect you to zag.

To establish this right off the top, it makes sense to shake up expectations by starting with 1.2, instead of 1.1. That’s not a completely radical choice — again, Zeffirelli beat me to it — but it has the virtue of immediacy. When the house lights go down, the Shakesgeeks in the audience will all open up their mental copies of the play, expecting to read along with Francisco and Barnardo: “Who’s there?” etc. I want them to know right away that they need to shut that mental book, and pay attention to what’s unfolding in front of them.

Which brings me to #3 — an argument which, I concede, somewhat contradicts #1, in that it will add to my running time. But I’ve had it in mind for so long, I will only relinquish it if absolutely necessary…

3. Smart Plays Do Dumbshows. The Mousetrap in 3.2 begins with a dumbshow, a pantomimed performance designed (in that case) to serve as a preview of the action to follow. By Shakespeare’s time, dumbshows were already a bit outmoded, and became extremely rare after the 17th century. It’s not hard to see why: even if you’re watching a play whose ending you already know, it can be a bit of a let-down to see the whole thing right up-front — sort of like being shown a very spoilery trailer to the exact film you’re about to watch.

None the less, I’ve experimented a bit with dumbshows in the past, with surprisingly positive results. Most successfully, my 2003 production of Othello began with a series of vignettes in spotlights, set to a Philip Glass soundtrack; the six tableaux only took a minute or so to enact, but when they ended with a powerful image which set the tone of the play instantly: whereas the first five tableaux had been completely motionless, the sixth one sprang to life when Othello raised his hands to Desdemona’s throat, just as the music hit a crescendo and the spotlight snapped from white to red. The ensuing blackout really crackled with energy, and the comic antics of Iago and Roderigo that began 1.1 (my Roderigo was a real ham) worked cathartically, instead of just serving up a few uncomfortably racist jokes just for the sake of demonizing Iago (as if Iago needed any help in that regard).

Anyway, the old tradition of the dumbshow not only seems particularly fitting for Hamlet, but it has also been shelved for long enough to feel fresh and unexpected again. My Hamlet dumbshow won’t recount the story of Hamlet, quite. In fact, I’m imagining it as a kind of origin story for the Prince, coupled with a few foreboding flashes of Ghost-y action. That way, I can begin creeping out my audience whilst still defamiliarizing the play’s opening moments.

Soon, I’ll go into a bit more detail about what my “prelude” will involve. In the meantime, I’m more than happy to hear alternative opinions. Should 1.1 be retained, come hell or high water? Is a dumbshow just plain dumb? You can reply here, or on the Forum topic I’ve started for this purpose!

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