Shake It Up

Reflections from the Director of “Hamlet”…

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by Stephen Muterspaugh

This note appears in the printed program for the 2017 San Francisco Shakespeare Festival production of “Hamlet.” In the note, Stephen discusses some of the decisions that informed our production.

“The time is out of joint…” – Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5

I sit down to write this note — hopefully to prepare you in some manner for the play you
are about to see, maybe to enlighten you regarding a few choices or moments you will encounter shortly — on day three of rehearsal. It’s our first day on our feet, exploring the physical world of Hamlet. Which is to say, I’m writing this account at the beginning of our process as a company – trying in vain to project all the discoveries we’ll make along the way that will lead us to this moment you find yourself in, sitting in the park, reading my words, awaiting the start of Shakespeare’s great work. For me, the beauty of Hamlet exists between the action, in the intimate moments shared between audience and title character — the intricate journey of the mind and soul that takes a nonlinear path to a conclusion that could technically be reached within the first 30 minutes. This is the beauty of Hamlet.

Shakespeare is so audacious in revealing the inherent truths of the human condition, the frailty of our individual lives and the fear of what comes next that impedes our ability to act. It is at once a work of massive scope and intimate detail.

“If it be not now…” – Hamlet Act 5, Scene 2

The world of Hamlet is in upheaval: a questionable transition of power has occurred
and Denmark is in a place of uncertainty. It is a world that is eerily familiar to the current landscape of our country and the world at large. As such, I’ve decided our Hamlet is a Hamlet of now, set in a contemporary world, dealing with issues of political and personal unrest all too resonant regarding our current events.

“…the whips and scorns of time…” – Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1 (or Act 2, Scene 2)

I’ve cut the roughly 29,762 words that make up First Folio copy of Hamlet — making it Shakespeare’s longest play — in half, using the First Quarto as a guide. This lean cutting seeks to propel the action and heighten the tension, while remaining true to the journey.

Other changes I’ve made are to place the “To be, or not to be” speech in its First Quarto position (two scenes earlier than the usual position). I find the placement of this speech in various modern productions infinitely fascinating. The First Quarto position helps enhance the pressure and keep our hero in a dubious state of mind while striving for the impossible answers to his quest, and provides a ripple effect that is felt by all who interact with him.

“To hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature…” – Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2

Another change you’ll be sure to notice is that of gender and its place within our world. Shakespeare wrote two female characters; we have seven. It is important to me that our
cast not only be 50% women, but that the characters they play also be women — pronouns and titles have been altered to accommodate this evolution. Another step towards greater representation takes us beyond the binary — in this production of Hamlet, the character of Ophelia is gender fluid — referred to as a woman, sometimes presenting as a man, not adhering to the binary. How she fits into the court of Denmark and is treated by the various characters that populate it is still very much in the discovery phase as I write this, but daily discoveries and how this new given circumstance shines new light on the text and our characters is a gift to behold.

“We know what we are, but not what we may be.” – Hamlet Act 4, Scene 5

All of this is well and good, but the real goal is to successfully tell the story of
Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re doing:
breathing new life into a 400-year-old text. Having spent the better part of the last year
looking through this text, reading the various criticism available, watching the famous performances, I now find myself in a room with an amazing group of actors all breathing life into this wonderful work. Back to the rehearsal room… back to discovery… back to the journey… see you in the park!

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