During Saul Elkin’s first attempt to bring “Hamlet” to life on the Shakespeare in Delaware Park stage in 1977, the young director made some bold and bizarre choices.
He inserted a snooping Hamlet, disguised as a Puerto Rican janitor, into a scene in which the scheming King Claudius enlists two of the young prince’s college buddies to spy on him. When the time came for Hamlet to deliver Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy – “To be, or not to be ...” – he did so in a Puerto Rican accent. Ophelia’s death scene involved Hamlet raising a gun to her head while carting her off stage in a sort of wheelbarrow.
The whacked-out production was based on “Naked Hamlet,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s original by Elkin’s Ph.D. mentor, Joe Papp, who founded the Public Theatre and the New York Shakespeare Festival in the early 1950s. It included a rock band, film projections and all sorts of bells and whistles beyond even the Bard’s expansive imagination.
But when Elkin’s fifth version of “Hamlet” opens on Shakespeare Hill tonight, all audiences will see is a jet-black stage punctuated by a single painted tapestry and actors delving into the language of the play. No avant-garde interpretations. No modern-day flourishes. And no Puerto Rican accents.
“It was my notion, back then, that was the direction theater was going. I’m not sure it is anymore,” Elkin said. “Then, I thought I had to throw everything in, and I did. Now, I’m thinking that I need to trust Mr. Shakespeare. I need to trust the play a little bit more.”
Though Elkin has pared the play down from its original running time of more than four hours to around three, he has otherwise left the language untouched. The set is spare and the play’s frequent shifts from one location to the next are usually indicated by nothing more than the actors’ body language. The audience, as was the case in Shakespeare’s time, fills in the rest with their own estimable imaginations.
His take on “Hamlet” has evolved over the decades, from an all-out “total theater” interpretation to gradually more language-focused productions. This year’s show, he said, is about bringing it back to basics.
Niagara Falls native Shaun Sheley, a St. Louis-based actor and teacher who last appeared on the Shakespeare in Delaware Park stage in a 2000 production of “As You Like It,” is playing the demanding role for the first time in his career. Though at first the prospect of playing perhaps the most sought-after and challenging role in English theater weighed heavily on Sheley, he has since come to treat it as he would any other theatrical challenge.
After reading books on the role and familiarizing himself with the most notable performances of the conflicted Danish prince, from Edwin Booth and John Barrymore to Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, he has settled into a kind of confidence about the task ahead of him.
“You get sort of a wide range of interpretations of the different Hamlets,” Sheley said of his research for the role. “But having said that, it’s gotta be your own. You’ve got to just leave all that aside and get out there and dig for truth.”
“Hamlet,” like all great works of literature, strikes the reader at remarkably different angles depending on that reader’s age. A teenager reading the play for the first time might think of the 30-year-old prince as unfathomably complex and adult. It might take on more self-analytical overtones for a 30-year-old. And for those a decade older than the tortured protagonist, it takes on even deeper and more complicated shades.
For Sheley, approaching the play with 40 years of life experience behind him makes its existential themes all the more evident and poignant.
“I’m more attuned now to all the various motifs around the idea of death, life. He goes back and forth with this struggle: what is life, what is death, what comes after, what the hell are we doing in this place, what’s the point, is there a point, yes there has to be a point,” he said. “It’s just those ideas that keep popping up over and over again: What are we doing here, what are we supposed to do, how do we get through this life and not screw up too much?”
These are eternal, unanswerable questions to which anyone of almost any age can relate to, which is one essential part of the play’s appeal across the centuries.
But the play’s language – quotable and poetic as it is – has proved one of its major challenges. For Elkin, having actors on hand like Sheley, his daughter Rebecca Elkin-Young, who plays Ophelia, and SDP veteran Tim Newell as Claudius, helps to make sure none of Shakespeare’s meaning gets lost in translation.
“The quality both these gentlemen have is that they can speak the language with great clarity and they can also be very real about the action that underlies the language,” Elkin said. “There’s no doubt in my mind what’s up with Hamlet and Claudius while they’re up there.”
Elkin has decided to leave the play’s anachronistic references and outmoded words intact, challenging the actors to help the audience understand the language by highlighting its context and communicating its motivation. There’s a scene, for instance, in which Claudius says that he has “bought an unction of a mountebank” – a poisonous oil from an untrustworthy doctor – which remains unchanged.
“A what from a who?” Sheley asked, jokingly. “But we make it clear,” Elkin said. “The intention is there.”
While there are no radical interpretations at work in this production of “Hamlet,” the sixth in the company’s history, Elkin and Sheley view Hamlet as a pragmatic figure rather than as a tortured man who procrastinates and is completely unsure of himself.
In Elkin’s view and Sheley’s delivery, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy has more to do with the practical considerations of carrying out murder than with the existential poetic reverie we normally associate with the speech. To them, the question is not exactly “To be, or not to be?” but rather, “To murder, or not to murder?”
“My advice to Sean was, this is not a contemplative speech,” Elkin said. “This is not only, ‘Should I commit suicide?’ but, ‘Should I kill the king as well, and what happens if I commit murder?’ So he comes in on the run and does it.”
Sheley immediately bought into the approach, which replaces what is typically a bout of tortured poetic yearning with a straightforward internal debate. “He’s thinking on his feet all the time,” Sheley said. “He can’t be sitting there ho-hummin’. He’s got to be thinking, he’s got to be moving.”
For Newell, who has played a string of villains on the SDP stage to great acclaim – none more popular than his portrayal of Richard III last year – the opportunity to play Claudius provides a different challenge.
“He’s up there with King Richard, I think, in how deliciously charming he can be,” Newell said. “The real fire kicks in in the second half of our production, once he’s on to the fact that Hamlet is now pursuing his life.”
There are endless readings of Shakespeare’s longest tragedy and his popular protagonist, many valid and many out of left-field. For his fifth time through, Elkin and his cast have chosen to hew closely to the text and to let Shakespeare’s language speak loudly and clearly for itself.
“In the end, every actor’s task is to attach a believable intention to the words,” Elkin said, “and if the intention is believable and if it’s true to the text, then the words are understandable and we know what you’re about. We know what you’re after.”