H2016: The Devil Hath Power

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A scene from the Royal Ballet’s Hamlet. The ghost of King Hamlet, father of Hamlet (Rudolf Nureyev) tells his son how he was murdered by his brother the present king to ascend the throne. The ghost is played by Leslie Edwards.

Today, two weeks into my Hamletian blogsperiment, it feels like the time is right to start talking about my own plans for producing the play in 2016.

I’ll be revealing my hand very slowly, partly because I know this medium has the potential to generate excitement and suspense amongst the local populace (local, in my case, being Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada), and I don’t want my audience to get bored twelve months before the curtain goes up. But I’m also going to tread carefully because I really haven’t decided anything for sure just yet. Even big-picture design concepts can be changed profoundly based on, oh, say, casting, and I’m still a long way off from that. To give you a sense of my timeline, auditions will take place in September 2015, so I basically have eight months to spend inside my own head before I get a team to work with. That’s more than enough time to drive myself insane. I need to enter this labyrinth with care.

First, I’ll tell you what I know for sure. The production will occur at the Boardmore Theatre, which is an adjunct of Cape Breton University, where I teach. The Boardmore is half teaching institution, half community theatre, so there is an onus upon me to cast CBU students wherever possible. But I also have a rich pool of local talent to draw from, since up till about 8 years ago, the Boardmore was essentially the only show going on the Cape Breton theatre scene. Moreover, as far as I can tell, Hamlet hasn’t been produced on the island since 1982, so its novelty alone should hopefully bring some talented performers out of the woodwork.

I’ll talk about the Boardmore as a performance space later; for now, the most important consideration is my audience — partly high school students, who will get dragged into student matinees against their will, and partly the general public, which in the case of Cape Breton tends to be an older demographic. High school audiences will probably have read the play (or at least, been assigned the play…no guarantee they’ll actually have read it), whereas older patrons may not be familiar with it, except in broad strokes. The final tiny demographic is the CBU faculty and staff, who will probably be the most Shakespeare-savvy contingent.

So, it’s a mixed bag, and while I’ve always prided myself in directing highly accessible productions of Shakespeare plays, I’m having a hard time calibrating how “user-friendly” I should make Hamlet, a play which contains some of the most easily recognized lines and phrases in history. My desire to deliver an accessible Hamlet sometimes clashes with my personal impulses, many of which involve deconstructing the play in ways which won’t make a whole lot of sense to spectators who (unlike me) haven’t lived with one foot in Elsinore for 20 years.

(Aside: This is the problem with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, an otherwise terrific piece of post-modern theatre. I have a friend who would sacrifice his firstborn for a chance to act in R&G, but honestly, I don’t think the local crowd would get it. It’s just too intellectual and esoteric — which sounds a bit derogatory to the locals, but there you are.)

But I’ve been in the game long enough to know that it’s a fool’s errand, trying to guess what your audience wants or needs. If you want to make great theatre, the cardinal consideration is what thrills you, as an artist. If the material, or the production, is genuinely exciting, then that frisson will get passed along to the spectators; but if you are just going through the motions, to teach kids about Shakespeare or educate the masses or whatever, then you’re going to end up with more deadly theatre.

I’ve had a short lifetime to prepare myself for this question, but I still find it daunting: What thrills me about Hamlet? I’ve already alluded to the fact that Hamlet seems like the ultimate theatrical puzzle…but is it fair to direct a play that is all puzzle and no solution? Doesn’t a director need to approach his subject with a bona fide vision in mind?

So far, my vision of Hamlet is only shreds and patches. I have a strong sense of mood and tone, but not a lot of ways to put it into words just yet. But I can provide one clue: a line from the play, a puzzle within a puzzle, something that might serve as a sort of central reflector for all my stylistic choices to come. This nexus was hard to come by, since there are a thousand exciting lines in Hamlet. But I have to start somewhere, so here goes nothing:

HAMLET: The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me…

There are a lot of Big Questions in this play — so many, in fact, that sometimes some Big Questions get sidelined, just because other ones seem much more interesting. This is a Big Question that scholars seem to pass over hastily. In Act 2, Hamlet asks, “Is this spirit actually my father? Or is he the devil?” By Act 4, he seems pretty much convinced that, yes, it’s really his father — and so, the audience goes along with him, because it’s a much less complicated (or terrifying) alternative than…well, the devil.

So, for now at least, that’s my starting point. That’s the puzzle from which all the other puzzles will extend.

What if this is a play about the devil?

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