There’s an actor drowning upstairs in my bathtub again. In my rumpus room, a glittering puppeteer makes magic for a young charge. And in my bed, two damsels canoodle and pine for one another. Outside, a madman films a play to catch a king, while a rainstorm flirts with destroying his lighting. Just a typical Sunday morning in suburbia.
The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre is preparing their production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and while I’m not directly involved, my home is featured in several cinematic vignettes scattered throughout the stage play. Full disclosure here: my home has gone into acting. I’d have preferred it go into law or medicine, but children, even inanimate ones, seldom do as their elders wish.
Which brings us back to Hamlet, an oft-told tale, told this time with the assistance of playwright and director Mathew Green. His “somewhat adaptation” has been a labor of love for the director and he’s excited to produce his work for the public. “I’m always looking for the next challenge,” Green offers. “And this is a big one. And, although I’ve mostly directed newer plays or less well-known pieces, I’ve always loved Shakespeare, and Hamlet in particular. So, in an effort to push myself…” the talented Mr. Green assembled a cast to tell this frequently-staged classic in a new and exciting manner:
I haven’t changed the text. I’ve cut the text to bring the story down to its essential elements and make it move a bit faster, but this will still be a faithful rendition. We’re sort of trimming it down to a leaner, more muscular core.
While his text remains faithful, his staging contains a surprise or two:
I’ve always been a minimalist in terms of staging, but this show requires that I stretch a bit. So, to that end, we’ll be using some interesting sound effects, some modern music (much of it composed by local music genius Larry Gates), and modern dress.
As for the set itself, I’m still hoping to do a lot with a little. Obviously we don’t have much space, but by building spare, utilitarian structures that can transform into various places, we can present all the various places of the play without confusing the audience or cluttering the stage. Of course, at the end of the day, all the lights and music in the world can’t make a play good. It’s important that the story is the centerpiece, and we’ve held to that belief. Shakespeare is universal, and Hamlet is very much a modern story. Like I keep telling my actors, These Are Not Old Words.
Green noted the timeless attraction of the text, stating:
As for relevance, it would appear that revenge never goes out of fashion. The top-rated films and TV shows still feature murder and deception. And there are still plenty of powerful people with secrets in the news. My adaptation places these familiar characters in a world that resembles our own age, with constant surveillance and media coverage and politics as a kind of celebrity wrestling match.
One surprise is Green’s choice of actor to play the titular character. Lindsey Gates-Markle, a regular performer at the Station, will portray the tortured youth at the center of the conflict. On casting a woman in the role, Green states:
There has been no alteration of the character Hamlet from male to female, as far as the play is concerned. We’re not switching any pronouns. Hamlet is still a man, but the actor happens to be a woman. The hope is that the audience will forget about gender and just see the character, but if it creates another layer for the audience to watch a woman in the role, so be it.
With pronouns intact, Green notes the possible audience interpretation of a feminist or LGBT slant stating:
Shakespeare is a live microphone — it picks up all sorts of things and blasts them back at you. The feminist angle, honestly, comes mostly from our presentation of Gertrude and Ophelia. I’m sick of productions that make these women fickle, overly weepy little marzipan flowers. Our ladies have backbone.
Ultimately, Green has always viewed Gates-Markle as his Hamlet:
There was never any other actor for the part, in my mind. I decided to direct this play because I wanted to see her play it. I discovered, of course, that there have been lots of female Hamlets throughout history, and I think that makes sense. Hamlet has a sensitivity that Lindsey conveys brilliantly, in addition to great intellect and command of language.
With modern attire, some moments of artistic embellishments, and an androgynous Dane, this promises to be a very interesting journey for all involved.
Smile Politely: You told Thom that this production will have some modern elements, but the script will stay the same. Can you talk more about what you mean by “modern?”
Mathew Green: We’re starting with Shakespeare’s original text, and I am cutting it for length so that it’s not three or four hours long, which — as great a play as it is — that length can be intimidating to an audience. So we wanted a production that moves quickly and has some momentum to it. So we did trim it down a bit, but we kept everything. I didn’t add any words of my own; all of the words are Shakespeare’s.
We are including a number of modern elements. We’ll have some video projection. We’re obviously using modern light and sound equipment. And because we are setting it in a contemporary setting, we are also updating clothing, props, people will have cell phones.
SP: Cell phones! So by “updated,” you mean 2012?
Green: Yes. I’m a big fan of Shakespeare being done in whatever the setting happens to be. I love hearing Shakespeare done by companies from the south where it’s being pronounced with a southern accent. I love seeing clips of productions of Hamlet or other Shakespeare plays in which the actors are from different countries, and they all bring their own accent, and all the accents of the cast are mingled together. Shakespeare is universal in many ways. It’s taught nearly everywhere; it’s respected nearly everywhere. And it’s become a sort of universal language.
When you say ‘Shakespeare’ to people, they have a certain expectation, and that creates its own problem of course, because then people come expecting one thing and maybe they see another. But it’s important to me that even as we say Shakespeare’s words, that our tone and our context is very modern. That we find a contemporary way to say these things, which puts our responsibility on the actors to understand what they’re saying at all times.
SP: Speaking of Shakespeare’s universality, you told Thom that these characters will be placed in a world similar to our own. Does that go beyond just a modern setting?
Green: We’re using modern politics and celebrity as a kind of a backdrop. My Hamlet takes place in its own world, but it’s very much influenced by modern day celebrity culture, political culture. There’s something about the way that Claudius wheels and deals throughout the play that’s very contemporary politics.
SP: How you’re staging this reminds me of the kids in Romeo and Juliet — the family parties and the trouble that Romeo and his friends would get into. Or the popularity of these two families and the power that their money brought to them. If paparazzi had existed back then, their images would have been all over the place. And when it was discovered that Romeo and Juliet had died … today, cameras would be all over the place, in the parents’ faces, and the pictures would turn up on TMZ.
Green: We have paparazzi in this play. Our Hamlet and Ophelia are, at one point, surrounded by paparazzi. And my model for their relationship mirrors the ‘William and Kate Royal Wedding’ sort of look. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the reports about Prince Harry partying in Vegas and the topless pictures of Kate Middleton. It was perfect timing because one of the angles that we’re going for here is that someone is always watching and there’s no such thing as a secret, and that these young people, especially, exist in a world of celebutante culture where they are famous for being what they are. They haven’t really accomplished anything; they’re just famous because they exist. And also the pressures that come with that.
Hamlet, historically, is a brooding, sulky character, but there is good reason for that in a modern context if he’s constantly being scrutinized, especially with all of the other emotional things that have happened.
SP: You mentioned that you cut some of the original text. Again, going back to Romeo and Juliet, the scene that most filmmakers, including Zeffirelli and Luhrmann, choose to cut is Romeo’s murder of Paris.
SP: And to me that’s dishonest. This goes beyond simply cutting for length. By cutting the scene in which Romeo chooses to kill Paris, they change who Romeo is.
Green: They do.
SP: It changes our entire understanding of Romeo, particularly for those who’ve never read the play and are new to the story. It’s obvious that they want Romeo to be more sympathetic. And it’s not honest.
SP: In your editing, did you run into that kind of conflict? Where cutting, or even trimming a scene would influence how we see a character? And if so, what did you do? Please answer this without giving away spoilers.
Green [laughing]: I made some cuts that may confound certain people who have a thorough knowledge of Hamlet and come expecting certain things. So, yes, I have made some cuts, some of them relatively significant. But we found a way to work around those moments so that none of the story is lost. And we made sure that anything about the characters that you should know because of a moment that had to be cut is still folded into the narrative in terms of attitude without the exposition.
I like the mental exercise of, ‘If I cut this, what does that mean? What does it say about this? Does it change the context?’ Going back to your point about Romeo and the cutting of the murder of Paris, Shakespeare was brilliant in the way that very few of his main characters … I almost said ‘heroes,’ and they’re not straight ahead heroes; they’re not without their flaws, especially in the tragedies. One of the hallmarks of Shakespearian tragedy is that every protagonist has to have a fatal flaw. And Hamlet certainly has his. I keep reminding people that Hamlet is not a ‘good guy.’ Just because the play is named after him, that doesn’t make him the good guy. It just makes him interesting. It means that it was worth telling his story.
So we look for those moments when he’s being a jerk. We look for those moments when he’s just being an emo brat. And there are plenty of them. There’s something mysterious about that brooding, isolated character. And that’s fine, and that’s been done to death. I’m really not interested in presenting a Hamlet who is overly likable. It’s hard not to come into the play pulling for the main character or rooting for that relationship or for that journey. But at the same time it’s so much more interesting if you see the person’s flaws and you still relate to him.
SP: That’s the only way I can relate, now that I’m a grown up. Is this why you picked Hamlet? Were you thinking that you wanted to do a Shakespeare play and you chose this one? Or did Hamlet choose you?
Green: I have to be completely honest. I wanted to direct Hamlet because years ago, while I was working on a different play with Lindsey Gates-Markle, it occurred to me during a rehearsal that she would make an excellent Hamlet. We were rehearsing Rabbit Hole. It was about six years ago, and we were acting together for the first time. Lindsey has her own mythology at the Station. She’s incredibly gifted and she’s incredibly intelligent, in general. But there’s something about someone who is intelligent on stage. It’s one thing to have talent; it’s another to have instinct. And there is this third category where the person on stage is alert and capable and also constantly thinking. It’s not just rote memory.
SP: I know what you’re talking about. She never drops character. Everything going on around her could have nothing to do with her, but she doesn’t drop it. She doesn’t get lazy up there.
Green: No, she doesn’t. So I had that thought. And the thought stuck with me and I would continue to see her in things. I acted with her; I directed with her. I watched her in other plays and I kept thinking what an interesting idea it was, and wondering whether or not it would work.
So yes, I was very interested in doing Shakespeare, because it’s been done over the years at the Station, but it hasn’t been done in, I think, ten years. And they’ve never done Hamlet, and it had been long enough since there had been a production of Hamlet in town that I thought the audience would be interested in seeing this again. Over the years I nurtured this idea and I, mostly in my head, went over and over the possibilities — who do I put around Lindsey? What sort of person do I want her to play? What am I trying to say with this? Because I had this idea and it felt like a good idea, but ultimately what am I trying to say?
SP: So imposing a feminist or queer interpretation would be off-base then? Your choice of Lindsey is about her talent, not any agenda you may have.
Green: I don’t have a particular agenda with this play.
SP: Except that Lindsey rocks.
Green [laughing]: Except that Lindsey is great and I want to see her play Hamlet. She’s so talented and I’m so happy with what she’s been doing.
SP: So she’s fulfilled all of your expectations?
Green: Absolutely. But, if anything, what I’m attempting, as far as my ‘agenda,’ is kind of an intellectual exercise. I want the audience to come in, absorb the fact that Hamlet’s being played by a woman, and to see over the course of the play, when they can’t help but notice it’s a woman, whether it’s a particular line or action that she’s performed where it’s obvious when it’s a woman, and other times when all they see is Hamlet. Which is what I’m hoping for.
SP: I loved your description of past portrayals of Ophelia and Gertrude as “overly weepy little marzipan flowers.” It’s frustrating how Shakespeare’s women are so often interpreted as doormats. I’ve never read them that way. Not even Desdemona. When this happens, I don’t blame Shakespeare, but instead the director.
Green: Gertrude and Ophelia do not appear that often on stage. And their scenes are not that long. They each get basically one really good scene. And otherwise they walk on, and they speak, or they are spoken to more often, and they leave. I think there is a tendency, both with the audiences and directors and actors to view these women as somehow weak or passive. But they’re not doormats; and they shouldn’t be.
And when they come off that way, then I think something has been missed in the translation from page to stage. If Ophelia’s only job in the play is to go crazy, there’s not much of a character there. All that’s required is that before she goes crazy, she not be crazy. When we play the ‘Nunnery’ scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, it’s a breakup. It’s not just: Hamlet’s angry and so Ophelia cries. It’s a breakup.
SP: Tell us about the rest of your cast.
Green: This is an incredibly solid cast.
SP: Who is playing Gertrude?
Green: Gertrude is being played by Carolyn Kodes-Atkinson, who I have wanted to work with for a very long time, and this is my first opportunity and I’m thrilled because she’s wonderful.
SP: And Katie Baldwin is playing Ophelia, correct?
Green: Katie Baldwin is playing Ophelia.
SP: This will be my first time seeing Katie on stage.
Green: I’ve worked with Katie more often than anyone. I frequently direct her and we wind up acting opposite each other a lot. We are contemporaries and we like the same kind of plays.
I also have Mike Prosise as Horatio.
[I actually cheered in delight here.]
Green: I think that Horatio is a very important character to cast well because, usually, if there is a character that…
Green: …who blends into the wallpaper, it’s Horatio.
SP: And I don’t know why! He’s practically the freaking Chorus.
Green: And he’s also the audience’s surrogate. He’s not quite a narrator, but he is almost a journalist. He’s the chronicler of the story because he’s the one left the task of telling the story.
SP: He begins the story and he ends the story.
Green: Yes, he’s in the first scene and the last scene, and he’s really the only one you can say that about. And Mike is able to so easily portray empathy and intelligence, and both of those things are incredibly important. He has to be likable and he has to have the ability to step into the background and observe. And Mike’s been doing that extraordinarily well.
Our Polonius is David Barkley. David is probably the best utility actor that the Station has. I’ve seen him do so many different things and he does them all well. He can sing; he can do comedy; he can be intimidating. It’s fascinating. And his Polonius is fantastic. His Polonius is not just a clown; he’s not just comic relief. Remember, he’s a very accomplished man who is losing his children, and is also having trouble hanging onto his memory, and I think that makes him a very sympathetic character. And David is playing him extremely well.
My Claudius is Lincoln Machula.
SP: That is some perfect casting right there.
Green: When it came time to cast, it wasn’t a matter of ‘Is Lincoln right for this,’ because I’ve seen Lincoln and I know he’s right for it. I think I emailed him and I said, ‘I’m doing Hamlet. Are you in?’ and he emailed back, ‘Yes!’
Lincoln brings a very interesting quality to Claudius in that, rather than just being the villain of the piece, or the heavy, Claudius is a fully-formed human being with admirable qualities and abilities, and also his demons.
This play could just as easily have been about Claudius, because his story is just as interesting. To have been in the shadow of your much more impressive and accomplished brother all of your life, to find yourself falling in love with your brother’s wife, to decide that the only way to have your own happiness — truly, for once — is to commit a terrible, terrible crime, and then having committed that crime, having ascended to the throne, having married the woman with whom you are in love, to have it unravel because of this impertinent child…
SP: A child that he’s trying to be a father to, if he means what he says.
Green: And Gertrude wasn’t duped. She fell in love with this man. And there’s a reason for that.
SP: Do you think that we’re supposed to trust everything that Hamlet’s father says?
Green: Well, there is the way that I’ve more often seen it portrayed, which is ‘Poor ghost. Poor ghost. Victim of crime. Cuckold.’
SP: And yet he’s telling his son…
Green: And yet, telling his son to commit murder. So, we went a slightly different direction. I think that the relationship between Hamlet and his father is very complicated, even in death. And that’s the kind of ghost that I want to see.
I keep reminding my cast that everything has more than one meaning. When people talk about their ghosts, when people talk about being haunted, there is the supernatural interpretation of that, but there’s also those people who are haunted by their past. We’re presenting a Hamlet who is a very conflicted individual, not the stereotypical ‘I can’t make up my mind,’ Hamlet. This is serious confusion about his own place in the Kingdom. He’s questioning every relationship he’s ever had. He can’t trust how he feels about anyone, so all of his relationships suffer.
SP: And he doesn’t turn to anybody. It never occurs to him to go to anyone for help. Not even Horatio.
Green: I think it speaks to his character, or lack thereof, that what’s happened is such a seismic shift in his world that he begins to conspire against these people.
SP: You mentioned that the Station hasn’t produced a Shakespeare play in over a decade. Why is that?
Green: Well, I think it has something to do with the fact that up until this theatre season there was always Shakespeare being done somewhere else.
SP: Yes, every season the Department of Theatre does at least two. On average.
Green: And this year, no Shakespeare. So, I thought ‘There’s my window. Finally, there’s my window.’ And honestly it’s the only play I really wanted to do. A play really has to speak to me. It has to pull me toward it.
SP: How does Hamlet speak to you?
Green: I am fascinated by stories in which sons struggle to live up to the expectations or mythic figure of their fathers. And I happen to have always had a wonderful relationship with my father, who is nonetheless a wonderful, strong, caring, capable man.
SP: Then you’re the right kind of person to do it. In my experience, people who don’t have strong, healthy relationships with their fathers don’t do this kind of subject well.
Green: I suppose they probably bring a little too much of their own baggage to it. I’ve always been fascinated with that. I find family struggles, family complications to be the most compelling topics because they are the only things that are truly universal. You can write a play in almost any language, in almost any place, about a family that is in crisis, and the audience will be able to see itself reflected in that. I think Shakespeare had to know that.
SP: Have you ever performed in a Shakespeare play?
Green: I started theatre with Shakespeare. The first play I was ever in was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so my first acting was Shakespeare. The only acting class I ever took, the only scene I remember, is doing the scene in Hamlet’s Mother’s chambers, where he accuses her and confronts her. And I got to play Hamlet, and it was the first time I was ever on stage, and in the course of acting, suddenly I felt an emotional response. It wasn’t just saying lines, and it wasn’t just remembering blocking. I was a little overwhelmed by it. And I thought, ‘OK, there’s something to this; it’s very important.’ So then I became a huge fan of Shakespeare.
And the idea of putting Shakespeare in a little room, on a small stage … because you think of Shakespeare as being big. I think a lot of people put Shakespeare in the same category as a Broadway musical. It has to be big. But it’s so fascinating to take a play that one would assume is big and make it intimate, not to have to worry about projecting to the back row or the balcony. Knowing that everyone in the room is going to hear everything you say. Letting those characters really live in the moment…
I’ve directed a little, as far as Shakespeare goes, but doing it at the Station has been a dream of mine since I got there because I love that space. I love that little room.
Hamlet opens tonight at the Station Theatre. Future shows: November 2–4, 7–11, 14–17. Shows are at 8:00 p.m. Reserve your ticket here. Go here for more information, and listen to the cast discuss the play on Smile Politely Radio.
Interview conducted by Tracy Nectoux
Photos by Chris Davies
Video by Sam Ambler