Friday, November 06, 2009

On the benefits of seeing live productions of Shakespeare's plays

Rather than (merely) taunting all of you with my having seen Hamlet on Broadway last night starring the lovely and talented Jude Law in the title role, with Kevin R. McNally ("Mr. Gibbs", first mate to Johnny Depp's "Captain Jack Sparrow") as Claudius, I thought I'd also generalize a bit about the benefits of seeing live theatre. My celebration (I shall try to refrain from out-and-out crowing) over my attendance at the play last night will be mixed in with some general points. But first, a few facts about my trip:

1. I purchased the tickets over a month ago. At the time, I was seriously hoping that Jude Law would be healthy and in attendance at the performance, which he was (not positive about healthy, but he looked mighty fine and turned in an excellent performance, so I shall assume that he was okay). It did not occur to me to wish that my girls and I would all be totally healthy. I remain itchy, but worse yet, poor S came down with the flu on Tuesday. Thank heavens for those -Quil products, which got her into okay enough shape to keep us company after all.

2. At the time I purchased the tickets, I believed we'd be in the third row from the stage on the outside aisle to the right (as you face the stage, aka "stage left" for you theatre folk). Turns out I was misinformed, and we were, in fact, in the SECOND row from the stage to the far right. S, who was on the outside aisle seat, couldn't see people if they were upstage stage left, but nobody really delivered any lines while there, so she only missed seeing the occasional courtier or whatever who was lingering in a "big cast" scene. The vast majority of the action was center stage. None of the main players were ever on stage where S couldn't see them.

3. Our seats were so close that we could see lots of things. Like the tears dropping from Ophelia's face onto the stage after Polonius's death. Or the sweat that spattered everywhere when Hamlet smacked himself in the head (hard enough to snap his head back) at one point. Or the spittle that went flying from, well, almost everybody's mouths on occasion depending on what they were saying - F, P, K, and T were the grossest (and I kinda mean that) offenders. Most prodigious spittle-producer was Peter Eyre, Hamlet's ghost father/the player king (a dual role), although "most flying spittle total" undoubtedly goes to Jude Law. Then again, he has the vast majority of lines in the play, so that's to be expected. Thankfully, he delivered all of his monologues from center stage (including a few so far downstage that I'm pretty sure the folks in the first two rows got hit now and again). Not sure if this particular point counts as gloating or complaining. Believe me when I say that I totally meant to gloat.

4. Jude Law was AMAZING as Hamlet. He played the role in a very physical manner - lots of energy, lots of struggle (with other characters) and lots of tightly wound movements throughout - even in repose, he didn't seem relaxed. It was fascinating to watch. He also cried actual tears, screamed so loud that the cords in his neck were probably visible from the balcony, and more. And he completely hoisted Polonius up to "lug the guts into the neighbor room", with only a brief assist from Ron Cook (who played both Polonius and the more chatty of the grave diggers), who planted his heels only momentarily as Law pulled him from flat-on-the-ground to lifted-up-from-under-the-arms. And then Law carried/dragged him off the stage in a hybrid sort of move. Im.press.ive.

The range of emotions displayed was excellent. He was decidedly a more serious Hamlet than some I've seen, but by no means dour. And some of his comical bits - his humping of Polonius whilst calling him a "fishmonger" or his mimicking of an ape come to mind - were flat-out funny. The tortured nature of his soul and his willingness (and/or desire) to embrace death came across clearly. It was a brilliant turn.

5. Plays are, of course, rely on an ensemble, in the same way that an orchestra does. One truly excellent star is not enough to elevate a mediocre cast. This particular cast did not have mediocre components. Heck, even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were great.

Kevin McNally was wonderful as Claudius - he seemed more affable and less menacing at first than did some of the screen performances I've seen (such as Derek Jacobi's, for instance), yet his manipulative nature fueled by his own selfish motives unfurled quite naturally over the course of the play. Horatio, played by Matt Ryan, was (a) dead sexy, especially in his black leather jacket and black leather boots, (b) the perfect foil for Hamlet and (c) completely foxy. Two of those points may overlap. Did I mention that he was beautiful and talented? Then my work is done.

Also dead sexy and talented? Gwilym Lee, who played Laertes, on whom M is now crushing. Hard. Not just for his beauty and talent, but also because she likes his first name so well. Gwilym, not Laertes, in case you were wondering. Also terrific? The aforementioned Ron Cook, who played Polonius (and got HUGE laughs for his advice to Laertes and his speech to Gertrude and Claudius about being brief and Hamlet being mad - don't know what I'm talking about? You can always read my summary of the play or my essay on why Polonius is a bad guy from Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month). Also smoking hot? (Sensing a theme here yet? Sorry. But truly, it was an awfully pretty cast.) Alan Turkington, who played three different roles: Francisco (a Danish guard), one of the players, and Fortinbras (of Norway). And I really thought that Henry Pettigrew, who played Marcellus (a Danish guard), a player, and the second gravedigger, was both cute and extremely talented.

Speaking of actors, Geraldine James was eventually great as Gertrude. It was hard to get a read on her during the first two acts, but her character decidedly came alive once the players did their thing and Hamlet came to her bedroom and killed Polonius and stuff. And Gugu Mbatha-Raw did a good, but not great, job as Ophelia. I have, I confess, been spoiled by some on-screen performances, including Kate Winslet's marvelous turn in Branagh's Hamlet and Rachel McAdams's performance (brief though it was) as Ophelia in the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. Both were so exemplary in their ways that I set the bar pretty high for Ophelia, which is undoubtedly unfair to Ms Mbatha-Raw, who was beautiful, but seemed undecided as to whether she was defiant or compliant as relates to Polonius, and didn't seem truly into Hamlet, although his grave-side performance and tears-in-eyes delivery of the lines about her (below) gave me to understand more clearly than any screen performance I've seen that Hamlet really truly did love her:

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?

. . .

'Swounds, show me what thou'lt do:
Woo't weep? woo't fight? woo't fast? woo't tear thyself?
Woo't drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou'lt mouth,
I'll rant as well as thou.

Hamlet, Act V, sc. 1.


6. My girls have both read a bit of Shakespeare. For school, S read Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, and M read A Midsummer Night's Dream in 8th grade (she'll get to R&J later this school year). M also read Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing because she wanted to (yes, she is in some respects her mother's daughter, and being an avid reader is one of them). Neither of them had read or seen Hamlet before, although M saw the last 1/2 hour or so of the Branagh film when I watched it in May or June. Still, seeing the play live, they understood most - if not all - of what was going on (there was the occasional bit that sailed over their heads, but they even understood why Polonius's going on about "brevity is the soul of wit" was funny, so they did pretty well). That we were seated in the second row probably helped them to pay attention - I'm sure they'd have wandered a bit more if we'd been in, say, the middle of the balcony, which was significantly removed from the stage (although still with a good view, from what I could work out). Where we were, however, there was no way for them to look at anything other than the stage, because they'd have had to turn around in their seats to do it. Both of the girls (ages 16-1/2 and nearly 15) LOVED it. Wholeheartedly. Which was cool, and made me happy. Especially since I became a bit concerned as the play opened with the guards - and, in a wee bit, Horatio - yakking about the state of the State of Denmark in Elizabethan English that perhaps the entire notion of bringing them along had been a mistake. But lo, it was a triumph.

7. The take-home messages are, I believe, that when seen live, you can really judge how the characters are interacting in a way that you cannot always do in a movie version. And it's actually easier to find your way inside the language of the play live than it is on-screen. And finally, it's truly easier to follow the play if you've done a wee bit of homework ahead of time, and have either (a) read the play itself, (b)seen another version of the play, or (c) at least read a summary of the play. Like, say, the one I wrote.

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