After yesterday’s school matinee (the only one we had, and with a disappointingly small contingent of high school students), we’re officially halfway through our run. Here are some more lovely moments in a play chock full of Hamlet-y goodness:
Urgent Soliloquies: Even by Shakespearean standards, Hamlet has a lot of soliloquies. So it was a calculated risk when I broke them up into even more smaller speeches, but I think it paid off. For one thing, it gives the play a satisfying rhythm, especially the first half, when nobody’s dead yet (except the Ghost, I suppose) and all the pieces are still moving slowly into place. Specifically, Hamlet’s 2.2 speech, which starts with “What a rogue and peasant slave am I,” has always seemed like two separate ideas to me, so I restructured the play to account for that. First, there’s the frustration of being unable to resolve his dilemma with “words, words, words”; then, after a scene including the arrival of the players, Hamlet translates words into action: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
Even the speeches I haven’t tampered with feel tense and urgent, coming from characters who seem to have no choice but to speak their fears and frustrations. Kathleen O’Toole does an especially good job with “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown,” which I moved only slightly so that it could be the last word in the “nunnery” scene.
What A Piece of Work: One of my favourite Hamlet speeches isn’t a proper soliloquy, since it is addressed not to the audience but to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. “I have of late,” says Hamlet, by way of explanation for his odd behaviour, “though wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.” This bland admission of melancholia swiftly soars upwards to become one of the definitive testaments to the power and beauty of both mankind and the world he inhabits:
…it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
This remarkable speech, the literary equivalent of a Da Vinci or a Michelangelo, distinguishes itself even more by being written in plain prose, not in verse; and by undercutting itself almost immediately with a mildly homophobic joke (“Man delights not me,” says Hamlet, “No, nor woman, neither, though my your smiling you seem to say so”). For those and other reasons, it shouldn’t be the success that it is–I’m not even convinced Hamlet is telling the truth (he has no reason to be honest with two men he’s just discovered to be spies)–and yet, it seems written with such clarity and conviction that, for me at least, it’s the off-beat heart of this breathing titan of a play.
I knew that Wesley could make good with the speech, but I wanted to put my own stamp on it, too. So I pulled out all the stops–moody lighting shifts, muted yet heartbreaking music underneath (Clint Mansell’s “The Last Man,” from The Fountain soundtrack), and–on the two backdrops which occasionally serve as projection screens–the most incongruous videos I could find, playing simultaneously. On one side, a time-lapse video of workers erecting an enormous statue called The Dream — a testament to humankind’s capacity for creation and achievement:
And on the other side…
What is this quintessence of dust?
Honestly, I’m not sure if it all really works. The video images are slightly washed out because of the stage lights, and there’s just so much to process all at once that, by the time the audience starts to register what they’re watching, the speech is ending. But every time I see it, I revel in it. Hopefully it’s one of the only self-indulgent moments in the play; and surely I’m allowed one or two of those, in a play like Hamlet, right?