HAMLET, Shakespeare's play. Staged by Joseph Papp;
settings by David Mitchell;
costumes by Theoni V, Aldredge; Lighting by Martin Aronstein; music by Galt MacDermot;
musical director John Morris; assistant director Ted Cornell; artistic director Gerald Freeman;
production stage manager Russell McGrath. Presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival
Public Theater, 425 Lafyette Street.
If Jan Kott had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him - and it would probably still have been a mistake. But my keener-minded readers will be asking who is Jan Kott, and even my keenest-minded readers will be wondering what he has to do with Joseph Papp's staging of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" at the Florence Sutro Anspacher Theater of the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater in Lafyette Street last night? The answer is everything. Or almost everything.
Mr. Kott is a Polish academic, who in many lectures and also in one famous book, "Shakespeare Our Contemporary," has been pleading that for us to understand Shakespeare today it is essential for us to relate the playwright to our won times. The idea is not so original - Brecht was of the same opinion - but Mr. Kott argued it with such persuasive panache that not only the groves of achedemia but, even more, the living theater first stirred and then sat up and took notice. Mr. Papp, who after all has done the Bard some service in this town, is apparently among those sitting and taking.
I am about to say some very nasty things about this "Hamlet", but I must stress that Mr. Papp has no reason to feel a martyr in the cause of progressive art. In a program note (his most distinguished contribution to the evening), Mr. Papp dwells on the perils of his course - "tampering with a holy cow is dangerous business and can have dire consequence, but we are prepared to take the whips and the scorns, etc., etc."
I am not attacking this "Hamlet" for "tampering with a holy cow", but for its incompetence, and I would say fundamental misunderstanding of Mr. Kott's muddled, but prophetic message. For this is not a "Hamlet" for our times; it is fundamentally an aimless "Hamlet" for Philistines who wish to be confirmed in their opinion that the Bard is for the birds. And from Mr. Papp, of all people, this is the unkindest cut of all.
Talking of cuts - this "Hamlet" is at least brief. It lasts about an hour and a half without intermission, although the Hamlet himself does obligingly come around dispensing balloons and peanuts. Other oddities abound, a few of them funny, but, and this is essential, none of them pertinent.
The play opens with Claudius and Gertrude in bed, and Hamlet, apparently naked and clearly handcuffed, trapped in a coffin at their feet. Fine, an image of the play's point of departure, splendid. But at once the three figures start squabbling over the solitary blanket - and the image subsides into slightly shocked, slightly nasty laughter. Look, teacher has drawn a mustache on that nice lady - see, teacher is showing us that art can be FUN.
It is possible to play Shakespearean tragedy for laughs, and some very great red-nosed comedians have done it with consummate skill. But they never pretended they were revealing the living, breathing heart of Shakespeare in the process.
To perpetrate, with an almost pitiful attempt at avant-garde theatrical devices, Hamlet selling peanuts, the ghost of Hamlet's father made into a Berlesque comic, or Gertrude playing the closet scene like a camp drag queen, is neither moving, relevant, theatrical, nor, in the final recourse, funny. And Mr. Papp's directorial tic of wherever possible having some lines spoken directly at individual members of the audience - done to crazy undergraduate excess - is more likely to embarrass an audience than to involve it.
Poor Mr. Papp! He is desperately trying to be daring, and most of all, provocative, yet he is doing things that undergraduates such as Tony Richardson and William Gaskill were doing at Oxford 20 years ago. Even in the first modern dress "Hamlet" at the Old Vic before the war, with Alec Guiness as Hamlet, the same play was made with flashlights searching out the faces of the audience that is one of Mr. Papp's most successful effects nearly 30 years later.
No, no, no. I think we need a new approach to Shakespeare, but this jejune nonsense is not it. One difficulty we have (unlike Brecht and Kott who always think of Shakespearean the malleable form of a translation) is that we in the English-speaking theater are virtually stuck with the text. This is a problem too deep to enter here and now, but it is vital.
At times, in fairness, Mr. Papp shows a conventional directors skill and flair. Indeed, his idea of having Claudius conned while drunk into playing the play scene himself was brilliant. But normally, his directing was too concentrated on cheap laughs - such as when Rosencraft (Mr. Papp has clearly heard that Rosencranz and Gildenstern are dead, and doesn't even use their names; its his best joke) leers at HAmlet suggestively: "You once did love me...." and draws a weak titter from the audience.
It is difficult to discuss performances in a production that I regard as so clearly misconceived. Martin Sheen, for example, was straightjacketed into playing Hamlet in one jokey tone of antic cynicism, and the "To be or not to be" soliloquy was spoken with a sham Puerto-Rican accent, which, after all, is one way to give it variety. The Ophelia was the largest bosomed Ophelia I have ever seen, but seemed otherwise less remarkable.
Most of the cast seemed less than remarkable, although
I enjoyed the bluff, happy villainy of Ralph Waite as Claudius. The
rest is silence - apart from praise for the incidental rock music of Galt
MacDermot. It has an honesty the remainder lacked. Why not
"Hamlet" as a genuine, total rock musical? At least it wouldn't be
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