What Happens when you Cast 'Hamlet' by Pulling Names out of Yorick's Skull

(R to L) Beth Wilmurt as one of many Gertrudes and El Beh as one of many Hamlets in the Shotgun Players' production of 'Hamlet.' Photo: Pak Han.

Behind the character of Shakespeare's Hamlet is a line of thousands of actors. They have come to him over and over again, as if he were less a role to play than an artistic pilgrimage. We speak of Olivier’s Hamlet, Burton’s Hamlet, Gielgud’s Hamlet, Richardson’s, Berkoff’s, Kline’s, Hawkes’, Branagh’s, Cumberbatch’s...the list goes on. And we even speak with regret of the Hamlets that might have been: Brando's, Dean's, Welles'. We dream of them all, if only to toss them aside as likely to have come up short.

Yet Hamlet will have none of it. The most definitive character of the Western canon is also the most elusive. Every attempt seems a gloss -- an approximation of the real thing. And so Shakespeare’s Hamlet has always seemed more of an actor’s play than a director’s; more about an ambitious actor confronting an impossible role than the personal and political struggles of one royal family in Denmark. As a weeping teenager said to me after a rather pedestrian production, “we have lost a beautiful soul.” One might add, that we have lost all the souls determined to bring that soul to life. Enter the graveyard and behold the ghosts. It’s a crowded field.

Mark Jackson knows that. The director and conceptual wizard behind the Shotgun Players' uplifting and weirdly affecting Hamlet once performed a version of the play, I am Hamlet, in which Hamlet played all the roles himself.

Here, Jackson reverses the equation. Announcing before the performance begins to the audience that the actors have no idea who they’re going to play -- and in fact no one does, not even the director himself -- he invites the cast of seven on stage. The actors run out with the peppy bonhomie of game show contestants, line up in a row before us, and wait. Who will play Hamlet? And for that matter Claudius, Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes? Jackson pulls the cast list out of Yorick’s skull and assigns the parts one by one. It’s a goofy, curiously intense moment.

(From L to R) Beth Wilmurt, Cathleen Riddley, Nick Medina, El Beh, Kevin Clarke, David Sinaiko, and Megan Trout wait to be assigned their roles. Photo:
(From L to R) Beth Wilmurt, Cathleen Riddley, Nick Medina, El Beh, Kevin Clarke, David Sinaiko, and Megan Trout wait to be assigned their roles. Photo: Pak Han.

You immediately notice that there isn’t a conventional Hamlet in the cast. They are a wonderfully eclectic bunch: men and women, a smattering of ages and races, and, if you follow Bay Area performers, even different acting styles. So the first move Jackson makes in this Hamlet is both to play up and side step the drama of playing Hamlet. There will be a confrontation between actor and role, but one unknown until the very last moment. And this is the rub: what is true for Hamlet will now be true for all the other roles as well. We are plunged into a democracy of infinite possibilities.

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Is that gray-haired man capable of playing the young and tragic Ophelia? Can that young woman possibly understand what it means to be Polonius, an aging stooge to the king? What would an African-American woman bring to Hamlet or Hamlet to her? Every role becomes a question and every cast member an uncertain answer. Even talent, at least how we normally perceive it, loses meaning in this production. Instead, the question becomes one of qualities: how does this particular person, unlikely or perfectly cast, transform the character and, most importantly, the play?

Nick Medina, a revelation all three nights I saw him, opens up aspects of Hamlet that are often unrealized. I always thought of Gertrude as cold, not compassionate. Yet watch him tear up, not showily, when his character watches Ophelia go mad, or his shock when Gertrude realizes that Claudius has no feeling for her son. Here is a young man’s body, wild and forceful, giving subtle expression to the half-formed fears of a middle-aged woman.

Hamlet
(L to R) Beth Wilmurt as Gertrude and Nick Medina as Claudius. Photo: Pak Han.

And on a different night that same body takes on Ophelia, so that when she goes mad, Medina unleashes a shocking male physicality into Ophelia’s rage. It feels as if she’s being played by a wrestler and it not only works, but it also feels true. We don’t lose the fact that Ophelia’s a young woman, but instead gain the expressive force of brute male strength. I thought he would destroy her costume.

Other actors provide similar chameleon thrills. Kevin Clarke makes for a passionate and precise Hamlet. It's a thrilling performance. And the next night, he brings those same qualities to Laertes and it unleashes a crazy energy into the production. Beth Wilmurt slips so easily into Polonius that you have to keep reminding yourself that the character is not a woman. So that when he warns Ophelia of the dangers in falling in love with Hamlet, you can’t help but feel that Wilmurt is talking to a younger version of herself -- that she once was Ophelia, and ironically in this production, still might be.

The play begins with a ghost. But see the play three times in a row as I did, and it feels as if the entire cast has a touch of the dead and missing about them. Wasn’t Clarke Hamlet’s father the day before he played Hamlet? Megan Trout’s commanding Claudius has strong traces of her equally regal Gertrude. In playing Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia over successive nights, Cathleen Riddley sketches a beautiful portrait of a most unfortunate family, all victims of Hamlet’s rage. Cast her to type and she would have been the missing wife and mother that the play never mentions.

Hamlet
(L to R) Beth Wilmurt as Gertrude, Nick Medina as Claudius, Cathleen Riddley as Ophelia, and Megan Trout as Laertes. Photo: Pak Han.

There are only seven actors in this production, but they produce scores of ghosts, doppelgangers, and strange memories of themselves. It’s a beautiful effect and a unique and rich response to the play.

But given the amount of daring, skill, energy, and focus it must have taken to produce this Hamlet, it goes without saying that you should not expect a perfect production. Jackson’s cut of the play is sharp and smooth, though it sacrifices much of the political statecraft that makes Hamlet such a fascinating public figure, both for Shakespeare’s imagined Denmark and us as well. This is a Hamlet of intense personal feeling, and the production only falters when it takes on some of the play’s more public scenes. These include the opening coronation of Claudius, the staging of the play-within-the-play, and the final fight where a rethinking of the stage combat is needed.

These are all small concerns, though. Everything about this Hamlet, even the in-character calls for the odd forgotten line, is alive to one of the greatest plays in the world. We should be thankful to witness such a circus of daring.

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The initial run of Hamlet plays through Sunday, May 15 at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage in Berkeley, and it will continue to run in rep (alongside other plays in the season) through January, 2017. For tickets and information go to www.shotgunplayers.org.

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