Last night, during the first half of Highland Arts Theatre’s HAT-aversary Cabaret, I had the privilege of sitting with Kathleen O’Toole, the actor who will be playing Ophelia for me next winter (during the second half, I was backstage, and then onstage as I introduced a scene from HAT’s next production, First Time Last Time by yours truly). We talked a lot of Maple Danish.
At one point, KO politely pressed me for information about the setting of our Hamlet. We’d already touched upon the Jazz Age as a possible concept, but I was — and continued to be — evasive. “I want our Elsinore to be its own universe,” I explained vaguely, “But we can draw on all kinds of different places and times.”
When I could tell this didn’t satisfy her, I tossed out a few more excuses. “Shakespeare wasn’t that concerned with setting, either: his Elsinore is in Medieval Denmark AND Renaissance England; it’s Catholic AND Protestant…”
Then, seeing these vagaries were not holding water, I asked her why it mattered to her when the production was set. KO’s answer was simple but wise: “My character work starts from an understanding of the relations between men and women, and that changes from era to era.”
With that observation, I realized how director-centric I was being with my refusal to commit to a period. Designers might enjoy incorporating elements from different times and places, but an actor needs to know the circumstances of her character. KO elaborated: “Mainly, I’m thinking of my relationship with Polonius. Is this a time when daughters were essentially their fathers’ property until they were married? Or does she have some autonomy in her choices at this point in her life?”
I realized that, although I could probably have answered those questions for her in terms of the play’s themes, it still wasn’t going to help her ground her characterization of Ophelia until she knew more about the world around her. So I adjusted my perspective on the issue of setting, and we started talking specifics.
Why the Jazz Age, she wanted to know. I tried to come up with an answer more profound than “sexy duds.” I explained that (even though this probably wasn’t how the 1920s really were) our impressions of the Jazz Age involve never-ending parties. “But the parties seemed strained, overdone, like the participants are in a marathon where they’re never allowed to stop smiling.” I framed Claudius as a sort of Gatsby figure, munificent with his revels, always trying to make sure everybody was have a good time… because, if they stopped partying in Elsinore, well, they might start asking questions.
I think there some elements of this party-age resonate with Elizabethan England, too, especially as the Queen was aging with no apparent heir in sight. There was also probably a hedonistic spirit that prevailed between outbreaks of Bubonic Plague — similar, in some respects, to Prince Prospero’s party in Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. It was a golden age with some very uneasy undercurrents, and Hamlet senses those troubles far more keenly than the rest of the court, even prior to the arrival of the Ghost.
Our discussion was cut short as the house lights went down, so I’m not sure whether any of that was valuable in terms of character-building. If nothing else, it gives both of us a more specific direction for our research. If the idea of the “mandatory party” comes to us via the Roaring Twenties, where would that leave Ophelia? The 20s was a watershed for first wave feminism, but as with so many other liberties at the time, it came with a steep price.