The Curious Case of Five Hamlets

So Saturday was the big day! I’d been training my girls on Hamlet, so that they could actually understand what was going on before seeing the play produced by the local high school (where they’ll be going in a few years, and hopefully performing).

My son has religious education practice, so he couldn’t join us. Which gave my wife this opportunity to a quick cheap shot:

Son: How come the girls don’t have to go?

Wife: The girls are going to see Hamlet.

Son: How come they get to have fun!

Wife: They’re not. They’re going to see Hamlet.

Ouch.  I’ll get you for that.

Anyway, the girls put on their Shakespeare is Universal shirts and we head to the show.

And, as always, I end up disappointed. In my brain I tell myself that I’m about to walk into a whole bunch of people of all ages who want to talk about Shakespeare, and education, and educating people about Shakespeare. I imagine people engaging my kids in conversation when they see their shirts.  I imagine seeing parents whose kids got to read Hamlet last week because of me.

None of this happens. One volunteer says, “I like your shirt” to one of my girls, and that is the entirety of discussion.  This is not a mingly crowd. This is a crowd made up entirely of parents whose kids are on stage.  I don’t know what I expected (well, that’s not true, see above) but I should have known better.

While waiting for the show to start, my girls read the program and begin asking me who “Juggler” and “Lady Nora” are.  I have no frickin idea who those people are, until we decide that they’ve given proper names to all of the Players.  Fine.

My older then notices that the character of Hamlet shows up twice in the list.  I figure that is understudy or something, but it’s not marked that way. We then realize that there are *5* Hamlets listed.  All girls.  Interesting. I assume that this is a case of the director needing to cast everybody who auditioned, or something.

The play begins, and out come … all the Hamlets?  This should be interesting.

They immediately launch into the “too too solid flesh” speech, entirely out of context.  They yell it, in sync with each other.  I guess this is supposed to give us our backstory, because it touches on the death of Hamlet’s father and the o’erhasty marriage of his mother to his uncle.  But honestly, what are you doing? If somebody came to this play actually trying to understand it for the very first time, why would you do that?  Both my girls asked me what was going on, and I just shrugged and said I’d explain later.  My expectations were all messed up now.

After the five Hamlets, then the play begins with the famous “Who’s there?” and the changing of the guard.  At least from that point on, I’m pretty sure they stuck to the script.

The five Hamlets come out at the same time.  Four hang back while one delivers lines.  They often switch. During the big speeches they interchange their lines, speak in sync, and other gimmicky things.  I’m still not sure what this is supposed to be.  I thought maybe it could be some sort of “facets of Hamlet’s personality” thing, but I don’t think that’s what the director was going for – they are all dressed identically, even during costume changes.  There is a certain progression of Hamlet’s insanity as his (her?) wardrobe unravels throughout the play, but that’s the only real development of this device I saw.

Followers on Twitter may have seen my rant about this, but THEY CUT YORICK.  We have a gravedigger’s scene, including all the gravedigger jokes, and at one point the gravedigger starts pulling skulls out of the grave in front of Hamlet and Horatio.  But, no Yorick speech.

I should mention that this performance is part of a “90 minute Shakespeare” festival.  So there’s to be cuts. Sometimes, big ones. I do not envy the director who has to decide what to cut. But I am curious whether any of you cut the Yorick speech.

Other bits that were cut include Hamlet coming across Claudius at prayer and deciding not to kill him. Also, Ophelia only got a single crazy scene (before Laertes returns home).  I think they just folded everything for her into the single scene, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what might have been cut.

What they didn’t cut? Fortinbras. All the Fortinbras scenes (including all the Cornelius and Voltimand scenes) remain.  I thought that an odd choice, if they were aggressively cutting for running time.  Take the ending, for example. Did we end on “The rest is silence”?  Nope.  Hamlet dies.  Then Fortinbras (who the audience has only seen once) enters, and Horatio actually shouts his final lines, stomping up and down the stage, and I’m like, “WTF is he doing?” Fortinbras then gets the final lines, although I should go back and check my text because I did not hear “Bid the soldiers shoot.”

Observations from my kids:

* I pointed out when “To be or not to be” was coming. My oldest held out her hand and said, “No skull?”  So she clearly was still getting the two speeches confused.  I’ve seen lots of people do that.  It doesn’t help that I have a t-shirt that shows the To Be speech drawn out in the shape of Yorick’s skull.

* My younger was mostly lost.  It didn’t help that they could barely hear what was going on, so if they didn’t have a very clear understanding of the characters and plot to follow along, I could see where it would be confusing.

* They both spotted the doubling. The actor playing the ghost showed up in some other role, which they spotted…and I’m pretty sure that dead Polonius played the priest at Ophelia’s funeral, which was really confusing.

* During Ophelia’s singing, my oldest leaned over to me and said, “I am so doing this.”  I asked, “You want to play Ophelia?”  She said, “Well, any role, but Shakespeare definitely.”

* My oldest told me that she saw at least one fellow student from her class, and wondered whether he’d been convinced to come see the play after reading my book.  I expect that the odds were more in favor of his sister being a Hamlet.

I only went to one performance of three, so I have no idea what the crowd was like at the other two. I’ve not yet received any actual feedback from the teachers who were using my text in their classes.  I’d like to think that I helped, but honestly between the way they cut this production and the fact that it was impossible to follow the text when you couldn’t hear it, I don’t know how much I helped.

8 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Five Hamlets

  1. Ahhh, the words, words, words. Did the kids have mics? Couldn't hear? Unforgivable on the part of the director of the play. Notice I didn't call them "director" proper. Pretty common, actually…very unfortunate.

    I went to a high school production of Comedy of Errors a few years back. I know the play and only understood half of what was going on. They had a great sound system–body mics yet–didn't matter. One young student leaned over to her father quite often…"What did they mean by that?" Answer: "Don't know, couldn't understand all of what they said." Sad.

    On the other hand, my 4th and fifth graders, working on a huge stage with only 3 general floor mics in a seven hundred seat SRO theatre can blow them out of the water. My *second graders*!!! proved that 3 years ago.
    At the risk of repeating myself– Ahhh, the words, words, words. What's more important? Being in a play, or putting one on for the audience? Unfortunately, the answer to that question today is not the latter it would seem.

  2. Surprisingly, JM, these folks are from Shakespeare & Company out of Lennox Mass and have been doing this festival for 25 years (my own local school, 20 of those years). So I don't think it's that they don't know what they're doing. I expect that it's more a budget thing – the pros are standing back and consulting as the kids do their own show, and working with whatever budget and stage tech they can get their hands on.

    Either that or, for some reason, for the matinee show with the smaller audience they did not fire up the tech. I can't speak to whether they packed the house later that night. Is that even an option with this sort of thing?

  3. Did you notice whether or not it was amplified? It should be easy enough to tell. The quality is unmistakable. These are high school kids. They should be taught the importance of projection and speech. After all, it is Shakespeare. Unless the tech crew was somehow really screwing up the sound–which I highly doubt, as you'd be able to tell that as well–it's not *their* fault. Anyway, the conditions should never deviate from one performance to the next. That's a given.

    But if you can't understand what's being said, amplified or not, either the students are falling down on the job really badly or they haven't been properly taught what to do in the first place. In the case I mentioned they hadn't been trained properly to do any play, let alone Shakespeare. The same school had hired me as a consultant for Midsummer–different teacher–no problem. The teacher for Comedy of Errors chose not to. No bragging–just fact.

  4. You know, the stage itself likely was. I don't want to give the impression that we couldn't understand a thing. Whatever was directed at the audience, we could hear fine. Laertes, in particular, went a little Jack Bauer and screamed everything he said.

    But when it was more conversational, where an actor had to direct lines to another actor in more rapid succession (and less "I'm doing a speech now for your benefit"), it tended to get a little lost.

  5. Oh.


    I guess I was a little 'confused' by this:

    " It didn't help that they could barely hear what was going on,"

    And this:

    "…and the fact that it was impossible to follow the text when you couldn't hear it, I don't know how much I helped.

  6. Cut me some slack, there's a few variables that are going into that equation after all. I'm going to recognize far more text than my kids are, so there are obviously going to be parts that stood out to me that were still in the "they could barely hear what was going on" zone for them. Unknown words stream easily into just plain noise. It would be unfair for me to completely blame the production just because my 9yr old was confused. I'm trying to strike a fair balance. My "I don't know how much I helped when they couldn't understand a word of it" or whatever I said was more rooted in my own feelings of "Drat, in a real setting this is even harder to understand than I may have appreciated."

    What I did do, and they did spot, was I called out several scenes beforehand with the actual quote. For instance I made a joke that, "When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, they're not twins, but they typically act so much alike that people can't tell them apart. Claudius walks over to one and says Ahh, welcome, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern, and then Gertrude walks over to the other one and corrects Claudius, saying Welcome good Guildenstern, and gentle Rosencrantz." So when that exact scene played out, they understood it.

    Likewise I've pointed out to them that "Mother you have my father much offended" is one of my favorite lines in the play, that also leapt out at them when it came up.

    And the cloud scene with Polonius. And the flute scene with Guildenstern. I only wish I'd been able to walk through the entire play with them, at that level, before they saw it. But, hey, you have to start somewhere.

  7. What you complained of is one of my focal points in teaching the Works. There should never be instances where blocks of dialogue cannot be heard…period. It's hard enough to begin with.

    The instances of high school students being taught the importance of stage presence vis a vis rhetorical conceit, vocalization, and projection of written material as it translates to understanding, classical (and modern) acting technique, and communication in every day life–never mind from the stage–are scarcer than hen's teeth. They hardly find it of any importance even in the university setting nowadays. Is it any wonder I immediately seized on it as a common experience?

    But then, you have no idea how many, many, times I've experienced the level of problems you *seemed* to initially describe so well.

    This is my pool you're swimming in now. Expect me to sift through the garbage in it with all the alacrity a professional would, where others might hesitate for reasons known only to them. I have no other motive but to keep it as clean as I possibly can. That involves telling the cold, hard truth. Otherwise, no one learns *anything*.

  8. As far as the other aspects of the performance you saw….

    I don't mind Shakespeare adapted to the presentational level in an educational setting. I do it myself quite frequently. But in my opinion, by the time the students are high school age they should be able to tackle the work as written, with judicious edits, of course.
    In a presentational piece, I try to write as many parts as possible into whatever the finished product is. I find out who is *really* interested in learning how to be on stage; ie. I won't force anyone into participating when it comes to performing in front of a huge audience.
    But even my elementary students understand, from the outset, that theatre is not a democratic institution. Whoever does the big roles the best, gets them. It's real world experience.
    But 5 Hamlets? In *high school*???? Okay…. From what you describe it doesn't seem to have reached the level of the avant garde someone may have been reaching for. And cutting the Yorick speech? With you on that… Scandalous! 🙂 But once again, all of the above not the kids' fault.

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