H2016: What’s in a Dane?

IWasHamletWith my Hamlet & Ophelia auditions drawing nigh (really damn nigh!), I realize I need to make some choices about what I’m after in these two characters. It’s all well and good to have faith that “my Hamlet” will emerge out of the woodwork on audition day. But it would be a latter-day tragedy if I didn’t even recognize him, because I don’t know what I’m looking for.

I need to approach the question with care, though, because it’s equally fatal to get locked in to expectations. If I only ever imagine a tall, thin, blond Prince, then the best candidate in the bunch will breeze right past me if he (or she?) happens to be short, plump, and ginger. Here’s what I can say with relative certainty at this point about the Dane (a post on Ophelia will follow):

1. My Hamlet is Young. There’s some relative language right there. But ever since I started scheming about this production, I’ve zeroed in on a Prince who looks like he’s between 18 and 22. The real actors’ age is less important, of course; it has more to do with how Hamlet reads on stage, especially compared to his elders (Claudius and Gertrude should have a couple of decades on Hamlet, visibly, and Polonius and the Ghost can skew even older). Even his contemporaries could mostly afford to look a bit older: 30-year-old Laerteses and Horatios could still share the stage comfortably with a 20-year-old Hamlet, and he’d have even better reasons to fear and respect them (respectively).

But even as I fixate on that age range, I realize I can be flexible. An 18-year-old Hamlet is a young man, whereas a 16-year-old Hamlet is a whole different kettle of hormones; and yet, I think I’d be willing to see where that adjustment would take my production. Likewise, I could consider a slightly older Dane — maybe even one who appears to be pushing 30, although then I think a young “energy” — whatever that means — is required.

(Yes, yes, I know that in 5.1, the Gravedigger reveals Hamlet’s age to be 30, based on some comparative date-running surrounding Yorick’s death and the military victories of Hamlet, Senior. But what the hell does he know? He’s literally a clown; he probably can’t even read; and why Shakespeare would have felt it necessary to pin down Hamlet’s age that late in the play I can’t even begin to imagine. Maybe he was stroking Richard Burbage’s ego (he would have been about 35 when he played the role.)

(And does that matter — knowing that the role was almost certainly written for Burbage, and that Burbage probably didn’t skew 18 at that time in his life? I think, ultimately, it doesn’t matter to my audience. If they come in with expectations about Hamlet’s age, it will more likely be the result of the many thirtysomething Danes in film adaptations. But all the more reason to shake up their expectations with a prodigy Prince instead.)

2. My Hamlet Moves. Probably the main reason I’m stuck on envisioning a young Hamlet is the play’s persistent need for energy and motion. Hamlet’s mind is always racing, yes, but despite all of Shakespeare’s truly amazing efforts to translate intellectual vigour into physical drama, the play is still in near-constant danger of dragging. So I need an entire cast who can carry, convey, and exchange a constant, crackling physical energy onstage. And since, in this play more than any other, the cast will take their cues from the leading actor, I need an Hamlet who isn’t afraid to move.

There are all kinds of theatrical energy, and some of the best kinds involve stillness and silence. I can already picture several moments like this in my production. But it’s far easier for a journeyman actor to show energy the more obvious way: through physical movement around the stage. Ideally, the Dane needs to show both the energy of paralysis (trapped in the prison of Denmark, pinned under the scrutiny of ghosts and uncles like a butterfly tacked to a wall) AND the manic energy of the freed creature (pretending to be mad, or exulting at his Mousetrap triumph, or fencing like his life depends upon it). But if forced to choose, I’d choose a kinetic Hamlet over a metaphysical one.

I’m painfully aware that it’s easy to go too far in this direction, especially where the antic disposition is concerned. I might even consider a Hamlet who is normally hyperkinetic, and who therefore chooses stillness as his part of his feigned madness. It’s a rare choice, but it certainly matches the other characters’ descriptions of the Dane when he’s getting his crazy on in Act 2.

3. My Hamlet Can Be Scared. I’ve already decided that I want the Ghost to be at least creepy, and hopefully mind-numbingly scary. Hamlet’s reactions are the key to that, so I need an actor who can voluntarily make the blood drain from his (her) face.

Nor should it just encounters with Daddy that send a chill down my Hamlet’s spine; he is a hunted man in a haunted world, and at other moments of the play, he is equally afraid of Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes, to say nothing of his mental spectres — failure, insignificance, cowardice, mortality. I think he can even afford to be a bit freaked out by Yorick’s skull, even though he seems to play it cool (and what Prince wouldn’t, with both Horatio and the Gravedigger watching you?).

Would you pay to watch a Hamlet who’d rather hide under the bed than stab the arras across from it? I’m not suggesting fear is the Prince’s only note, or even his most dominant emotion. However, I believe David Mamet when he argues that audiences come to the theatre to see acts of heroism, and that courage is most poignant and accessible when it comes from an ordinary person. Hamlet is far from ordinary in many respects, but he needs to be a human being, and I want that humanity rooted in fear.

It’s just so juicy, I guess — both rational and irrational, psychological and physiological, fear is inherently dramatic. And I think a lot of productions forget that Hamlet is a ghost story. I want Elsinore to be my campfire, and Hamlet to be the audience’s surrogate as they sit in the darkness and hear the “horrible, horrible, most horrible” tale.

4. My Hamlet Can Be Scary. This is where it gets tricky. An actor who can show fear can’t necessarily instill fear, or vice versa. The psychological cues for playing “scared” are common across all cultures, and most of them are pretty easy for an actor to mimic, especially an actor with good breath control. But everyone’s afraid of different things. So how can I ensure my Hamlet will be scary? And why would I want a scary Dane, anyway?

Actors who play Hamlet inevitably run up against the Question: is the Prince only feigning madness, or is he genuinely mad? And I think most Hamlets try to have their cake and eat it, too, and who could blame them? You only get one chance at the role, so why not try to do it all? To me, the question as it’s usually phrased is meaningless, since Hamlet wouldn’t truly know if he was mentally ill. He might suspect it, but if he does then it’s a result of feeling out of control. I want to explore those moments in ways that can afford to freak both himself and the audience out, big time.

I’m not articulating this very well, so I’ll just wrap up by saying that, when my Hamlet contemplates “drink[ing] hot blood,” there should be just a hint of discomfort in the audience, as they realize that he might just actually do it.

5. My Hamlet Loves My Ophelia. I’ve always known this, but it helps to write it out (even with the awkward insertion of personal pronouns). It also makes me re-think my approach to auditions, since what it means in practical terms is, my actors need chemistry — and the only way to know that is to put them in a room together.

Hamlet is not a love story, exactly, but there are ways to shine the spotlight on the doomed love shared by these doomed youths. I think they’re both misfits, and maybe they have a lot in common that even they don’t realize, but they never get the chance to meet on equal terms because Hamlet’s life gets hijacked by revenge. If there are ways, even in the very few scenes they share, to show Hamlet and Ophelia struggling for a meaningful connection, then I want to find those moments and paint them gold.

And if they don’t exist in the script, well, I’ll invent them. I’m the director; it’s My Hamlet.


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