by JK Clarke
There’s been a slaughter here. No, it’s not the bloody ending of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet, to which I’m referring. Rather, it’s the entirety of writer Boris Akunin’s nothing-to-do-with-the-original-Hamlet-whatsoever, Hamlet. A Version, which runs through May 7 at The Theater at St. Clement’s. It’s hard to know whether it’s a result of a cultural misunderstanding or pure hubris, but Akunin has committed the cardinal sin in the world of Shakespeare: he has not only significantly altered the storyline of arguably the greatest play ever written, but he has added his own words! The outrage one feels witnessing this piece isn’t merely a pedantic plaint: adding to Shakespeare’s work is simply not necessary. Not under any circumstance.
In the past four years I’ve seen over seventy different productions of Shakespeare plays at least ten of which were some variation of Hamlet: with just four actors and no set; with ten actors playing Hamlet; a version of the Bad Quarto; versions set in Shakespeare’s time and versions set in my time. I can appreciate companies that modernize or take a different approach. Austin Pendleton’s modern interpretation at Classic Stage Company last year took the bold step of having Ophelia standing at Hamlet’s side when she’s ordinarily not supposed to be in a scene (it worked!). But this is the most shocking and ill-conceived production that makes use of the hallowed name of Hamlet I hope to ever witness.
The general rule of thumb when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays is that editing for time and/or clarity is acceptable and, arguably, necessary. While unedited, four hour versions of plays like Hamlet and Richard III were the norm in the 1960s and 70s, today’s audiences lack the requisite patience. A skilled dramaturge can easily find scenes and lengthy speeches to cut in the name of brevity without damaging the integrity of the play. But few, if any, companies have the temerity to add dialog to a Shakespeare play that wasn’t, at one time or another (i.e. in one of the Quartos or Folios), there to begin with. In 2007, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival made the startling mistake of adding Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 to the middle of a production of The Tempest and were subject to intense criticism, despite the poem being Shakespeare’s actual work and not a lesser writer’s attempt at mimicry.
But what Akunin has done here is shocking. The “familiar” characters in Hamlet. A Version have been stripped of their depths and dimensions: Hamlet (Matt Weiss) himself is an idiot alcoholic with no fencing skills, which complicates the original ending, in which Hamlet poses a serious threat to Laertes in their duel, creating a very real tension for the final scene. What’s worse, he speaks the famous portions of his “To be or not to be” speech in the wrong section of the play, and repeats them, negating their weight and purpose (his contemplation of existence conflicted with his desire for revenge). He goes from being a complex, mostly sympathetic character to just a jerk. His mother, Gertrude (Joy Hermalyn) is made to be overtly complicit in her husband’s murder, thus erasing the complexity of her role in the play as well as her relationship with Hamlet. And the biggest mystery of all is Horatio’s (Khris Lewin) elevation to master manipulator (and one who repeatedly has to remind everyone that he “does not drink alcohol,” a crude, obvious and awkward mystery novel plot device in this instance) and acts as intermediary between Denmark and the invading Norway; and Claudius, the newly crowned king who has murdered his brother and married his wife is effeminate and weak-willed, rendering it impossible to understand how he could have had the temerity to commit regicide (certainly his new Queen didn’t have the requisite will). There are countless other roles, too many to explore here, which completely undermine and elide the purpose and dimension of some of the greatest characters ever created for the stage. The result is a play that feels like a Saturday Night Live skit that’s so weak it runs in the last ten minutes of the show.
Which leads to the question . . . Why? Why produce this play? True, the story of Hamlet is one that was well known long before Shakespeare’s time, so it’s open to reinterpretation. Like the tales of Ulysses, it belongs to the world at large. In that case, then, why drag Shakespeare into it? Why misuse his words in the wrong places or add inferior dialog to scenes that don’t need augmentation? Why do any of it? If Akunin wanted to tell a story of political intrigue (he’s a celebrated mystery novelist known in Russia to be critical of Vladimir Putin and a prominent celebrant of all things literary), then why not write that story and leave Shakespeare’s characters out of it? Though Russians have been known to argue that Shakespeare sounds even better in their language, even Nabokov—long recognized for an unmatchable mastery of the English language and as lover of Shakespeare—would never have stooped to attempting to improve or augment Hamlet. He would have seen such an act as utter sacrilege.
It’s too bad that Roust Theatre Company, in association with Red Lab and under the direction of Irina Gachechiladze didn’t choose to produce a creative interpretation of Hamlet instead of Akunin’s awkward pastiche of Hamlet and Not Hamlet. The staging was compelling, with lovely period costumes by Heather Klar; strong, moody lighting by Isabella Byrd; and interesting, though sometimes excessive projection designs (some of which looked like they might’ve been more at home in a classic rock laser show) by Michael Ivanishvili.
What concerns me most is that this production could ruin someone’s first exposure to Shakespeare; after seeing this, they then might choose to never see any of his other plays—an enormous loss. And I feel for ordinary Shakespeare lovers who might be tempted, by the play’s title, to see Hamlet. A Version, and then be broken-hearted, or enraged, by what they sees on stage. Although I have absolutely no objection to experimentation and modernization of Shakespeare’s plays, this is not that. This production brings new dimension to the “tragic” elements of Hamlet.
Ultimately there’s something to be learned from every artistic endeavor, whether it succeeds or not. The lesson to be taken from Hamlet. A Version? If you’re thinking of adding your own words to Shakespeare, stop immediately. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re not up to the task.
Hamlet. A Version. Through May 7 at The Theater at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). 100 minutes, no intermission. www.akuninhamlet.com
Photos: Jeremy Daniel