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Vancouver Theatre takes a vacation in the summer. It goes east on touring Fringe Festival shows or south to better financed American institutions. To feed the plants and water the cat, the city’s theatre is left to the guy who shows up at the beginning of June and promptly leaves at the first sign of yellow leaves. He shows up with clothes slightly newer and a tad more tailored than what’s in the closet. His Mini-Cooper’s windows are blinding in the sun compared to the equally new, but leased Toyota pulling out of the drive-way for the four-month road trip across North America. In his bag he brings a combination of the newest and most classical movies and books with a portable programmable Cuisinart tea steeper that is the Terminator to your broken laptop coffee machine. Help yourself to anything in the fridge, Bard on the Beach.
Tonight I saw Bard on the Beach’s production of Hamlet with Jonathon Young in the title role, accompanied by Bill Dow (Claudius), Richard Newman (Polonius) Rachel Cairns (Ophelia), Barbara Pollard (Claudius) and many more. This is by no means a review of the play, merely a meditation on the ideas and concepts it raised in relation to William Shakespeare’s text.
The Setting and Context
Kim Collier’s Hamlet was aesthetically set in 21st century Denmark but politically it remained loyal to the absolute monarchy of the Danish Crown. The royal white decor of the stage was modern and elegantly simple–much like the Macbooks and Ipads used throughout the show. Hamlet controlled the show’s music through his iphone, messengers would use ipads to present courtly information to Claudius, a video camera-macbook set up was used to portray the “Murder of Gonzago” and there was almost always a wide-screen television upstage with the “news-of-the-day”.
Among this titanium menagerie of devices, there was one incredibly unique prop used by only Hamlet. He was the only character to use paper and pen. Once to convince Claudius and Polonius that he is insane by obsessing over a happy face drawn with a sharpie on a notebook, and once to announce his return to Denmark from England. There were no emails, no photoshop designs, just simple notebook noodles and written letters. It signified an awareness in Hamlet for real simplicity rather than simple looking devices. It seemed to remind the audience that all that glitters is not apple products and there is still pragmatic purpose in increasingly banal writing implements.
However, Hamlet demonstrated a masterful capacity to manipulate digital objects as well. His iphone controlling the music functioned as a controller for the auditory atmosphere–he decided via music the mood of the room. Collier also staged the set-up for the “Murder of Gonzago” with Hamlet as Technical Director, still controlling music, but also manipulating lights throughout the show meant to incriminate Claudius of murder most foul. Hamlet thrived using both “new world” and “old world” technology, whereas Claudius, Polonius and Gertrude, for all their reliance on their devices (Claudius sometimes wouldn’t even interact with ANY technology, prefering drink instead), were always a step behind the protagonist.
Collier’s use of technology set the context of the play’s world, but Hamlet’s unique usage of pen-and-paper and his god-like authority over sound singled him out as the character who had a holistic understanding of his surroundings and an appreciation for past as well as the present.
Swords and Guns
Another duality of technology is seen in the presence of guns and swords. In 21st century Shakespeare, guns are our modern day swords (see the movie Romeo + Juliet) and are preferable to old world swords. Collier, however, went both ways–using swords in the duel between Hamlet and Laertes in the final scene and in the oath swearing between Hamlet and Horatio; but guns were used to threaten Claudius, kill Polonius and threaten Gertrude.
Much like Hamlet’s usage of both pen and iphone, the gun and sword represent a clash between the world of Shakespeare text and our 21st century. To us, guns are a much more violent, sensory purposeful weapon–filled with practically, pragmatism and direct decision making. Swords, on the other hand, carry a huge cultural-historic weight alongside their ceremonial perception. Fencing is an aristocratic leisure pursuit and carries zero-practicality in modern day fighting. Swords are fun. We make them out of balloons sometimes. Guns are dangerous, more common and more prone to lethal accidents. Hamlet uses a gun for all his practical killing–the death of Polonius is actually more believable from behind an anxious, itchy trigger finger because its impulsive and at a distance. A sword is close-quarters and requires some skill to wield effectively. Meanwhile, swords are kept for the duel scene at the end–a “play flight” between two rivals recently reconciled. Swords are used for “play” but are manipulated to be lethal.
By using guns throughout the play as a main weapon, the appearance of swords at the end is a novelty, especially to our 21st century eye. The idea of Hamlet and Laertes playing a rigged sport, rather than using weapons previously used for killing, increasing the dramatic tension of something going wrong–which we know it will.
The Ghost and Hamlet
Collier’s production was the first Hamlet I’d seen in many years but it reminded me of the stakes between Hamlet and Hamlet’s father’s spirt. In the script, the apparition is simply dubbed “ghost” and I had forgotten that this is no mere spirit talking to Hamlet, it is his father. Putting it into context, we see a father asking a son to kill a family member rather than a ghost demanding revenge. For some reason, this spoke to me more in this production than I had realized. Hamlet is not only revenging his father, he’s trying to live up to his beloved father’s last request. Parental pressure is something everyone has faced but few of us have been asked by our parents to kill for them.
Hamlet and his trolling madness
In high school, my English teacher told us a director has many decisions to make when directing Hamlet. Many of these decisions, fortunately, can be black and white. Does Hamlet know Claudius and Polonius are there for “To be or not to be”? Does he say to Ophelia “Get thee to a nunnery” with compassion or anger? Does the Ghost appear for the audience and not just Hamlet in the bedroom with Gertrude? Answering one way completely changes our perception of Hamlet throughout the play. Collier chose, for example, to have Hamlet shout “get thee to a nunnery’ aggressively to Ophelia feeding their continuously dissolving relationship.
One of the bigger questions a director must answer is whether Hamlet is actually mad or if he’s playing mad to fool everyone. Collier did something very interesting in that she didn’t pick one or the other, she did both. Hamlet was genuinely mad over something at certain moments in the action but there was a marked contrast between his madness towards Polonius and his madness towards Horatio. Towards Horatio, Hamlet was earnestly frustrated, but towards Polonius, we could still see his anger but it was funnelled into something that annoyed him but also signalled insanity. A popular internet term to describe this is “trolling”.
A trolling Hamlet is an interesting Hamlet. “Trolling” refers to a general “fuck you” attitude where one’s sole purpose is to simply mess around with other people as much as possible. Hamlet does this in trying to figure out how to deal with Claudius. The staging of the “Murder of Gonzago” is truly a “troll” moment where all he wants is to see Claudius react to the murder-scene but his anger doesn’t suggest he has any plans for what to do after. Hamlet demonstrates a masterful control over his emotions much like his control over the show’s music. He cannot stifle his anger but he is able to aim it at certain characters to get strong reactions.
“Trolling” replaces “madness” in this production which works extremely well with modern day internet culture. A question is begging to be answered–is Hamlet’s trolling, an internet concept, a result of the technology plague of his world or is Hamlet using trolling as a tactic he knows will work? Essentially, is Hamlet subject to his environment or is he controlling it? Is he actually mad or is he faking it?
Given Hamlet’s use of paper and pen alongside technology, I would not argue he’s a slave to his devices. His keen manipulation of his surroundings show us that Hamlet is using tools at his disposal rather than being a tool himself. But is his trolling–the projection of his anxiety over dealing with his father’s death and subsequent revenge quest–completely in his control? To that I would have to say no–Hamlet is never 100% cool, calm and collected except, arguably, in the scene prior to his duel and death. His speech “there is something provident in the fall of the sparrow” punctuated by a resounding “let be” speaks to the audience that he has finally let his demons rest, but admitting there were demons there before.
Collier’s Hamlet is so powerful, I argue, because he simultaneously is “mad” but is able to funnel it into “trolling” other characters. Such a directorial choice is supported by the text but it gives the play a beautifully modern frame from a 21st century audience.
And that is what Hamlet is–a beautiful struggle. A complete oxymoron–where is there beauty in murder, deception, betrayal and manipulation? The beauty is in Hamlet’s mind, how he deals with his problems, the anxiety he goes through.