Today was a big, big day in #cbuhamlet history: the first table read. Nearly all of our Danes were in attendance — only a handful who had other commitments couldn’t make the read-through. It was a bit intimidating to see the long line of tables pushed together, and the towering stack of scripts waiting for collection. I know it isn’t always like that; soon enough, we’ll be on our feet in mostly fewer numbers, but for a few hours on this Sunday afternoon, we were legion.
And we are a mighty legion. When I introduced myself, I snuck in a brag: Hamlet will be the 13th Shakespearean production I’ve directed. That gives me the experience, I think, and the perspective on how a fresh, new cast is going to work out. In this case, I am optimistic: we’ve hit upon the perfect balance of new blood and old guard, the Shakespeare newbies and the grizzled veterans. When that balance is struck, the neophytes will lend their excited young energy to the older performers, while the veterans will provide insight and stability to the new kids, flying without a net.
Before our read-through, I asked the cast to contribute their thoughts about Hamlet, the play: what sort of story were we trying to tell, I asked. It was a broad and loaded question, I’ll admit, but the answers still surprised me. “Grim,” was the first answer, followed by “bleak.” Then an actor said, “hypocritical,” and while I think she was talking mostly about Hamlet as a character, an argument could be made that the play itself flirts with hypocrisy. It is, after all, a revenge play that’s mostly about anything but. And, through the mouthpiece of its hero, Hamlet asks you to hesitate, reconsider, and philosophize about revenge (though things like misogyny are generally fine)… right up until the very last scene, whereat fuck it, let’s just kill the killer and be done with it, already.
I had a hard time responding to these charges. I don’t really think anyone was volunteering them in a critical way, and it’s definitely not my job to defend Shakespeare from the critics anyway. But I felt like it was important to emphasize that I did NOT decide to produce Hamlet because it’s such a grim, bleak, and hypocritical play. And so I accentuated the positive — what little of it there was — by vehemently agreeing with the actors who acknowledged something vital and, dare we say, uplifting in the play.
On the other hand, there was one charge which I did have the chance to refute. What do you think of when you think of Hamlet? “Long,” was one response. But our table read clocked in at under two hours. The Shakespearean purists in Cape Breton might not recognize this cut-and-paste-job as the 400-year-old tragedy they know and love…but, as it happens, most of the Shakespearean purists are in the cast already, so I’ve got four months to get them on my team.
I also had the chance to talk a bit about concept and design, emphasizing the 1920s and the ideas of sin and dread. And I wrapped things up by steering the cast to this song, which I hope will become our unofficial anthem: