If a play is not about “right now,” there is no reason to do it. Why must we stage four particular 400-year-old plays at this present point in time? What hit us about these plays? What is their ‘feel’? How do we respond emotionally to them? What tempts us to read on? And crucially, why do we have to tell this drama to our audiences right now? The production of a play must always serve as a mirror to our own time in history.
Eleven years ago, Columbia professor and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro published his extraordinary book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, a provocative analysis of how the historical events, living conditions and literary advances in England, in that year, sparked an incredible outpouring of creativity from the playwright. Four plays poured forth in 1599: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and a draft of Hamlet. Nearly a year ago, New York’s Irondale Ensemble Theatre presented all four plays as an evening of lean, intimate, immersive theater that transported the audience to four separate locations within our building in Brooklyn in one four-and-a-half-hour performance — complete with a Forest of Arden picnic break.
As Shapiro tells us, 1599 indeed proved significant to English history. The nation attempted to crush a rebellion in Ireland that was rapidly turning into a quagmire; it weathered a threat from Spain, an expanding superpower; it worked to maintain its status as a world economic leader; and it waited to see who would succeed the aging and increasingly unpopular Queen Elizabeth I. Shapiro makes the case that each of these historical events are reflected in the four plays — proving that Shakespeare was not only a man for all seasons, but one very much influenced by, and reflecting, one particular year.
…complete with a Forest of Arden picnic break
This was the “story” we chose to tell nine months ago. The “mirror held up to nature” reflected an increasingly dangerous world, the death of innocence and a warning that a new leader must rise to face seemingly unfathomable challenges.
This is especially true in the telling of the Hamlet story. The text is the same, but the story so different, with the character of Claudius moving front and center. It’s not that the actor playing Claudius has vastly altered his interpretation since last year, making only subtle new distinctions. It’s much more about how we, in the audience, see him; what reflects back in our mirror; what filter we apply to our understanding of this man. All sympathy for him has been stripped away. From his first appearance, when Claudius attempts to cozy up to Hamlet and dispenses minor favors to members of his court, we know he is a dangerous man, one as easily flattered as insulted. In place of a somewhat tragic figure who, under different circumstances, might have been a successful ruler, one more able and modern in his governance than the “warrior king” Old Hamlet, we are confronted with an obvious bully, a man driven by vanity and a quest for absolute power. He is crude in his social graces; he throws away decorum; he resurrects bawdy court traditions that, as Hamlet reminds us, have become “more honored in the breach than the observance.” He is a rash and insecure leader seen lashing out at lesser characters, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while repeatedly approving of and engaging in his first minister’s bizarre schemes to identify the source of Hamlet’s madness. (Why must these schemes always involve some form of hiding? They also involve the abusive and unfeeling use of innocent Ophelia in the “sting operation” of the nunnery scene.)
The overall balance of the play seems to have shifted from a quest by Hamlet to establish the guilt of his father’s murderer to the story of a king obsessively and unreasonably determined to remove from his nephew from his sight and then to murder him by any means necessary — even if it results in the death of his own wife and queen.
Does any of this sound familiar?