I Am Hamlet

I experienced a miracle in 2009. In 2009, I played Romeo. At age 32. 

This, my friends, is WAY too old to play Romeo. True, there was a seminal movie production that starred a forty-three-year-old Leslie Howard in the role. That production could lean on the then-novelty of cinema as a medium, and its awkward phase between stage and screen. Ours was justified by 1) it being a very interpretative clown / commedia dell'arte take on the story, and 2) yours truly being in effect one of the producers.

I am nothing if not self-serving. 

With Heather Stuart as Juliet. Photo by David Zarko.

But I swear I was sold on the concept (Romeo and Juliet are red-nose / Lecoq clowns [read: very innocent and built to suffer] in a world populated by commedia dell'arte archetypes [grotesque yet sympathetic; violently flawed]) first. But I must admit that Romeo was also a role I had dreamed about playing most of my life and - up until that moment - had not. So, to me, it was a miracle to play the teenager when I was at least twice his given age. Even more surprising was how apt I found the experience. It was not forced, from my vantage at least. As I clown, I felt  in love, at sea, and fatalistic as only a teenager can.

Hamlet, however, is another matter. 

I have longed to play the benighted prince just about since I learned of him. I think I cued into "a little more than kin and less than kind" before I understood it was a line from a play, and by the time I was a teenager ... well. Though on a less life-or-death scale, twelve through sixteen were some rather Hamlet years for me, suffice it to say. It's not by any stretch an uncommon desire for an actor to want to play this character. I'll just leave well-enough alone to say - for what it's worth - I had and have a rather personal compulsion to do so.

Whereas my age at this moment is not that far off from the benighted prince, my situation is such that the opportunity is about as distant as ever is the horizon itself. Prior to my somewhat self-produced Romeo, I had never played the lead in a play of Shakespeare's. And now I am a forty-hour-workin', full-time, first-time dad, who even if he had the time to commit to a rehearsal process really doesn't have the mental space sufficient to build an Officer Krupke, let alone Hamlet. I know this. If a producer walked up to me this minute and offered to give me a year's run at it with excellent pay and benefits, I'd probably still turn him or her down.

But, y'all? The heart wants what the heart wants. 

It presents me with a dilemma. What to do? That is the question. (I could make the other question "the question," but I'm not here to shoehorn [much].) The role of Hamlet feels like one of those things that I would regret if I missed out on it, job-well-done or no. Regret is the thing in avoidance of which I have spent the better part of my adult life to date traipsing around the world's stages. Seems a pity to leave a thread unshorn in this regard. Especially such a dark and knotty thread.

A few thoughts on the Prince. Were I to play Hamlet now, I'd want to do at least three things within rehearsal:

  1. Explore the theory I've had for years that Hamlet's relationships to his father and his uncle are expressive of adolescence, of finding one's own identity amidst chaos;
  2. Explore what I'm experiencing now - as a father for the first time, and having been a son, brother, and husband - in the context of the play's familial entanglements; and
  3. Find a way to experience the story as it is happening to me. 

That's it. I have no grand concept or theory, which is regrettable to me only in that it might make for more entertaining writing here.

(I will share someone else's: My first college acting teacher's. Gary Hopper shared with me one day that he had dreamed of directing a Hamlet in which the focus was on him being in essence a frustrated actor. At the time I understood him to mean that the production would lean a little heavily on the intervention of the company of players, but since then I've ruminated on it and realized his idea has tremendous potential for interplay throughout the, er, play. The question of Hamlet's sanity of itself takes on all new dimensions when you consider him as an honest-to-God actor, never mind the supposed "inactive protagonist" problem. I wonder if Mr. Hopper ever got his idea on stage....)

Not having a significant concept is precisely how I'd love to tackle the play. I think one of its best attributes - certainly the primary reason for its longevity - is what fertile ground it is for exploration: of the moment, of the narrative, and of existential questions. Bare-bones has always appealed to me. In my first (very young) imaginative ramblings I thought it would be brilliant to do the play in a black-box theatre with everyone in some form of white dress shirt and black slacks. Brilliant? Hell no; hardly even original. But I still like the idea of economy and specific, concise choices.

But production aside, how would I feel as the great Dane? What would it mean to me, and where would it take me? Who is my Hamlet? Maybe I can explore that a little, with the understanding that anything dreamed of in a chair goes right out the window in a rehearsal room.

He would not be melancholy. Instead, he'd be grieving. There's an important distinction, I think. He'd be a student, a scholar, but not the perpetual scholar he's so often been made out to be. I think perhaps he lost any sense of ambition he had in the refuge of travel and study, which is reawakened when visited by the ghost of his father. Reawakened, but weirdly directionless and not his own.

He doesn't care if he's king. It's only when his father's life and his mother's honor are thrown into question that he is roused to purpose. He cares about family, or maybe identity. Even then, his mother's honor is not drawn into question so much as it carelessly falls into condemnation. He is so wounded by her marriage, so hounded by his father's ghost's suggestion of mortal transgression that he immediately assumes his mother's immortal soul lost. Perhaps it is - but he never questions it.

But all this is interpretation of the words on the page. Faced with the question of who my Hamlet is, in a room, yet without a room in which and people with whom to work it out? I dunno, gang. My best answers are inching guesses. He is a lover, young in his experience of such things. He's analytical. He's a believer, who doesn't know quite what to make of how stubbornly refuted his beliefs have been of late. He's superstitious. He's kind. He has avoided fighting because that's what his mother taught, but he badly wants to fill out his father's armor. He doesn't think of himself as a prince (which has gotten him and others into plenty of trouble) but he does consider himself someone with a quest, a calling. And he'd love to know what that is.

All ye who hath made it thus far - thanks, sincerely, for indulging me. I am grateful for any response or reaction, but don't ask it. I heart Hamlet, gang. But Hamlet, he never got to go home to a little girl who said "spoon" for the first time yesterday (that I heard, anyway). Poor guy.