H2016: How Many Hamlets???

Philip H. Calderon. The Young Lord Hamlet, 1868.

Philip H. Calderon. The Young Lord Hamlet, 1868.

I have been long a truant in my posts, but I have some pretty good artistic excuses — chiefly, the world premiere of my play, First Time Last Time, at Edmonton’s Shadow Theatre. If you are in the neighbourhood, I recommend you check it out!

To attend the premiere, I traveled to Edmonton, which also gave me the chance to reconnect with many of my old friends and theatre colleagues. Unsurprisingly, the subject of Hamlet came up a lot. I was pleased to be able to run some of my secret plans past them, confident that they would not spill the beans to Cape Bretoners. Mind you, their enthusiasm might give me the confidence to throw a few more of them up onto this blog…soon.

One unexpected suggestion came back to me, however. It was from my mentor VT, who recently spend a number of years in New York City, adapting Shakespeare plays for inner city kids. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet, but I’m putting it up here so I have an excuse to confront it head on.

The subject was casting, and I had confessed that I was anxious about finding a Prince. The Cape Breton talent pool is impressive given our population size, but there are still a few limitations that make it a challenge. For one thing, since my Hamlet is to be a university-sponsored production, I’m under some pressure to draw as much as possible from the student body when casting — which, fair enough, except I know that students often find themselves overcommitted, and unable to pursue demanding extra-curricular projects. Playing Hamlet definitely qualifies as demanding.

And even if I expand my search beyond the 3,000-or-so students enrolled at CBU, I still face the inherent challenge of finding an actor with the range necessary to play the Prince. Ophelia describes him as a Renaissance Man, composed of

The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;

Tricky enough finding a young actor who can portray “courtier,” “soldier,” and “scholar” — but then you need to toss in all the fragments of Hamlet’s identity that Ophelia doesn’t know about — the drinker of hot blood, the “scourge and minister,” and weaving in and out of it all, a layer of feigned and/or genuine madness. I’m getting dizzy just writing it down.

VT’s solution? Multiple Hamlets. “Split it up, give each one a different speech,” He said. “Or break up the speeches into choral pieces.”

On one level, this is tremendously tempting. I’ve been looking for ways to defamiliarize the play, especially the soliloquies, and I’ve always enjoyed choral performance, to the extent that I usually give my acting students group choral assignments, to their dismay. And of course, it solves the problem of finding a Hamlet for All Seasons; instead, I’d want to find a “Scholar Hamlet,” a “Man of Action Hamlet,” maybe a “Crazy Hamlet,” and then assign the scenes accordingly. Plus maybe one or more of them could be female!

The drawbacks? First, it runs the risk of making the production into an intellectual exercise. It wouldn’t be too difficult for me to invent a conceit that explains, or at least justifies, the presence of multiple Hamlets; since most of my design concepts have tended towards expressionism and interiority — seeing the world of Denmark through Hamlet’s own eyes — it’s easy to imagine that Hamlet sees himself as having multiple identities. And yet I’d be afraid that, every time I did a pinch-hit, the audience would lose engagement with the story, thinking, “Oh, now here’s a new one. We haven’t seen this one before. I wonder which part of Hamlet he’s going to be?”

Another related problem: multiple Hamlets can mean dueling Hamlets. I don’t want the audience to start measuring the actors up against each other — especially since it’s inevitable that one actor would be weaker in terms of verse, or shakier with his or her physical presence, etc. The Hamlets might even feel competitive towards each other, especially if one feels that he or she could do better with a particular scene or soliloquy. I don’t want that sort of spirit ruling my production; even if Hamlet is at war with himself on stage, a cast should be friendly offstage.

And then, perhaps the biggest problem with multiple Hamlets: finding them. Earlier, I said that Cape Breton has a deep talent pool, but there’s also a lot of theatre going on at the moment, and Hamlet would be a heavy, long-term commitment, especially for the lead(s). Other directors have had trouble finding, or holding on to, young male performers. It does not seem wise to multiply the difficulty of my search by four, or five, or more.

So, despite feeling attractive at some levels, the notion of multiple Hamlets probably won’t come to pass. However, it has reminded me of two considerations: one, I should certainly arrange for at least one understudy for the role; and two, I ought to start thinking about holding auditions soon.

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