Making “Hamlet” New

Terry Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic for Commentary magazine. His writings on theater, music, and the arts have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and National Review. His most recent book, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was published in December 2009. Teachout is also the librettist for The Letter (composer Paul Moravec), an operatic version of Somerset Maugham's 1927 play, which was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in 2006 and premiered there in 2009.

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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What would you like to see in a “Hamlet” production that you’ve never seen before?

Terry Teachout: If I knew that, I'd go out and direct it.  The wonderful thing about theater as an art form is it's a purely empirical art form.  It's all about what works.  And every show, every production is created anew right from the moment you go into the rehearsal hall.  So, I wouldn't sit here and say to you, I'd like to see a “Hamlet” in which, I don't know, in which Hamlet is a dragon.  I'm just riffing here.  I wouldn't think of it in conceptual terms.

What I want though, is to go to the theater and see something that I'm not expecting to see.  And that doesn't mean that it has to be transgressive.  It doesn't mean that it has to be unusual.  It could just be perfect.  It's actually now, more common to see conceptual productions of Shakespearian, which Hamlet is played as a Nazi, or a homosexual, or whatever concept is being laid over the play, then it is to see a production of Shakespeare in which there is no conceptual overlay and the play is simply being presented on its own terms.  This is something that I've been noticing in writing about actually in the last year or so, that conceptual theater is not the new normal.  It's the thing that we rebel against, and so now, I'm really surprised to see a production that doesn't have this kind of overlay.  And I might add that the “Hamlet” on Broadway that Jude Law doesn't have an overlay at all.  Not like say, the “Macbeth” with Patrick Stewart that was done last season in which it's set in some place, more or less, like Soviet Russia. 

The problem with the Jude Law “Hamlet” was simply that it wasn't unpredictable, that it was a very down-the-center modern production.  I mean, we sometimes forget that we live in modernity and therefore modernism is normal.  You wouldn't go to the theater expecting to see an old-fashioned “Hamlet” where everybody wears an old fashioned costume.  You don't get points, to me, now, for putting on a “Hamlet” where everybody dresses in black.  I've seen that one.  I've seen that one several times.

But again, it's not that it has to be new, it simply that it has to be different, fresh, that it doesn't bore, that it doesn't make me -- I don't feel as I'm watching it that I know where it's going to go.  I want to be surprised, especially by a familiar play.

Question: What particularly irks you as a drama critic?

Terry Teachout: Well, if I ever see another Shakespeare production where somebody drives a Jeep on stage, I'm going to run screaming up the aisle.  These tend to be matters of design.  I mean, we're seeing a lot of -- it's very common to see Shakespeare with automatic weapons, things like that.  They are clichés.  They're new clichés, but they are clichés.  And they're provincial.  It’s not clever to do Henry V, and have everybody dressed in United Nations soldier’s costumes anymore.  I've seen that one too.  That kind of thing irritates me.  I really get irritated when a classic play is hijacked for political purposes where somebody has some sort of political agenda that they want to use the play to advance, which, again, is fairly common with Shakespeare. 

But the wonderful thing about theater is that anything, no matter how tendentious, no matter how stupid it sounds at first glance, can be made to work if it is charged with freshness and originality.  You can have an entirely political Shakespeare production and I'll be sitting on the edge of my seat as long as it's surprising, as long as it's not just the standard, "out of the box" pseudo-transgressive production that we just see too much of nowadays.

Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen


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