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Polonius Production Diary: The run begins

Hamlet has opened; we’ve done three of our eight performances. I haven’t written about it for quite a while, it seems, partly of course because tech week leaves me with very few spoons available for the blog, and partly I suppose because as we get closer to opening I found I had little to say. Polonius doesn’t so much have a character arc—I suppose that’s not true, but it’s a very simple one, at least the way I’m playing it: he more or less keeps his head above water until he has the bright idea to loose his daughter on Hamlet, and when that goes poorly it’s pretty much continuous panic until slain. I don’t think I’ve learned anything new about the character from doing full runs.

Anyway, we’ve opened. I’m not sure what to write about it. The first performance was a technical nightmare; the second had many technical problems; the third was more in keeping with the sort of thing I have experienced elsewhere. With luck (and more to the point, with hard work by other people in between now and Thursday) there will be no repetition for the catastrophes or even the cock-ups, and it will all become an amusing story in the telling. I’m not ready to tell it yet, though, and it wouldn’t be amusing if I did.

I will say that I’ve changed my mind a bit about the play. Not about its quality, mind you. If anything I like it even more than I did three months ago. It’s an amazing, beautiful, terrifying play. No, just as a matter of interpretation, I feel now that it’s a stronger play if it is interpreted as a battle between Hamlet and Claudius. That is, there are two major ways to look at the Elsinore of the play: either Hamlet is a lone innocent in a cesspool or Claudius is a unique villain. In the past, I’ve tended to the former, but now I think the latter makes for a better experience. Not that everybody else is pure and good, just that they are victims of Claudius’ manipulation in the service of his ambition, greed and lust. They bear no particular ill-will toward Hamlet, except when pushed to it by the King. In the end, when Hamlet kills Claudius, it is (in this view) really achieving something. Emphasizing the corruption of the rest of the court diffuses that, I think.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Does this production lean towards Hamlet as the lone innocent or Claudius as the unique villain?

I've found it easy to read too many competing interpretations of the administration as broadly corrupt and malicious vs containing uniquely corrupt or malicious individuals vs assigning all blame to a single villain. What really interests me is how we protect the vulnerable and rebuild a general opposition to corruption and malice as acceptable in governance. Can we encourage the gravediggers to go on strike, persuade Polonius to resign his post, and convince Ophelia that leading a march on Elsinore with an eye toward deposing Claudius would be a better use of her energy than mooning over a washed-up Occupy protestor who never had a clear agenda for governance even if he did somehow achieve power?

He indeed speaks to us each in our own age.

Michael—Our production leans more toward the psychological than the political. Hamlet is (I would say) being more portrayed as a sort of anti-hero than as any sort of innocent (it's more complicated than that of course, but I don't really want to speak for our lead actor) and the court of Elsinore as a hostile environment. But I think it's clear that Claudius is our villain, even if the rest of the denizens of the castle are treated with little sympathy.

Still and all—your point is a good one, I think, and if I were to direct a production at this moment, I would emphasize the extent to which Hamlet carries the hope of a generation, and has not the shoulders for them.


I hope the run is gathering momentum as it proceeds!

I think the unique villain approach makes for the better play, but the susceptibility of the denizens of the court to Claudius's manipulation also needs to be stressed. As Hamlet says of R & G after he has sent them off to die, "they did make love to this employment." Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, and Laertes--none bear Hamlet ill will as such (except for Laertes, once he has cause), but all become more or less willing tools for Claudius to use against Hamlet: he can't trust any of them. He eventually trusts Gertrude, and he should have trusted Ophelia, I think, but none of them have the integrity, on their own, to avoid being used. Hamlet may lack the shoulders to bear the hopes of a generation, but his lack of what the Anglo-Saxons called "shoulder-companions" (eaxl-gesteallan) is also a cause of inadequacy. There's only Horatio.

Incidentally, what is your production doing with Horatio? The problem I see with the anti-hero Hamlet is that Hamlet needs to be worthy of Horatio's service.

Our Horatio is terrific—small of stature, painfully sincere, and (I am reliably informed) totes adorbs. No, Hamlet isn't worthy of his devotion, but who could be? In fact, now that I think of it, our production may find a lot of resonance in undeserved devotion: Gertrude's for Claudius, Old Hamlet's for Gertrude, Hamlet for Old Hamlet, Ophelia for both Hamlet and Polonius... we are playing all of these as real and painful, with (and here I venture into speaking for other actors, with whom I have not discussed the matter) a reluctance to see—perhaps even a terrible fear of seeing—the object of their devotion in a true light.

At any rate, we aren't playing up the sexual/romantic angle of the Horatio character, or the outsider/philosopher angle either. He's a devoted friend, whose eagerness to help is taken up by Marcellus and Bernardo, who also want to be helpful, albeit in their case without taking on undue risk. I don't think he ever really understands how what Hamlet is doing is supposed to work (our Hamlet is quite antic indeed) but goes along and does what he can. In your terms, Hamlet ought to have trusted him (and Marcellus and Bernardo as well) but gets too caught up in his Plan to see.

I love the idea of "shoulder-companions" and am now wondering how often it comes into play that our tragic figures explicitly fail to trust such, alienating or banishing or evading those who ought to be in that position. Or choosing the wrong ones. Brutus takes up Cassius; Lear banishes Kent; Romeo shrugs off Mercutio until too late; Othello lets Iago shoulder aside Cassio. Prince Hal is another special case... hm, this requires thought.


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