How Not to Make "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.
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.
While Shakespeare's plays speak to all time periods, attempts to make them explicitly address contemporary issues often fall flat. Here the Wall Street Journal critic discusses how NOT to adapt "Hamlet."
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