The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
By William Shakespeare
Directed by William Conte, March 2-12, 2022
“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” So says Hamlet to his erstwhile friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, Scene 2 of one of the most famous, oft-quoted plays in the history of the theatre. The foregoing quote is not only prescient of the postmodern relativism of our own time, but also an apt descriptor of our “poor theatre” mise-en-scene, in which we attempt to compress the geographic and philosophical vastness of the play into our tiny studio theatre in Casper, Wyoming.
First performed in or around 1600 with the legendary Richard Burbage in the title role, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark continues to present theatre artists, especially actors, with a myriad of challenges. Shakespeare was probably influenced by the vogue for “revenge tragedies” during the reign of James I, The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd being among the most popular. But in his hands, this old Scandinavian tale of fratricide, treachery, and retribution became a literary and dramatic masterpiece, wildly popular in its time and a mainstay in the repertoire of countless acting troupes throughout the centuries.
Most of the major speeches are familiar to audiences and readers: from “To be or not to be” to Polonius’s advice to Laertes, the monologues and soliloquies are like gems extruding from a setting of gold, each uniquely beautiful and made more so by the loving care of skillful actors. The characters are themselves complexly motivated and endowed by Shakespeare with a substance that renders them in the mind more like the iconic statuary of Michelangelo than ephemeral dramatic figures, Hamlet being the most monumental of them all. It is small wonder that every actor aspiring to the summit of his craft since the time of Shakespeare has taken on this role. To play Hamlet memorably and well is to participate in immortality.
The Theatre of the Poor has assayed this challenging project primarily as a continuation of our exploration this season of the nuances of language, beginning with Everyman (written in Middle English verse), continuing with The Bald Soprano (written in an absurd “English” that communicates nothing), to DADA Xmas in which language is hijacked by chaos and spewed onto the stage by madmen. As with The Bald Soprano marathon, we are seeking to test the limits of ourselves as actors and human beings, as we memorize hundreds of lines of verse and discursive prose passages that must be informed by our thorough understanding. Because we are both an ensemble and a school, we choose material that will produce artistic and personal growth in those of us who undertake the work.
Though the play usually is produced with the lavish spectacle expected by audiences since the 19th century, we have undertaken a minimalist staging that draws inspiration from the practices of Shakespeare’s own theatre, and places all the aesthetic weight on the actors. The Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s King’s Men deployed a large thrust stage in front of a fixed tiring house with several doors and levels, and these two neutral structures and spaces, along with descriptive language and the imagination of the audience, were all that was necessary for the creation of “place.” As with the actors of the Theatre of the Poor, the actors of Shakespeare’s time wore mostly their own clothes, hand-me-downs, and anything that might offer a plausible suggestion of their character’s rank, station, or location in history. Then, as in our production, the focus was on the actors, their performances, and their transaction with an audience standing mere feet from the thrust on which they performed. For us and for them, the play, not the spectacle, is the thing with which we catch the hearts and minds of the audience.
We hope that we have done justice to what is among the greatest plays of all time, bounded in a nutshell of a theatre, but expansive as infinite space. Thank you for your support of our work.