by JK Clarke
One of the most wonderful things about William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that just about every production is not merely a little bit different from another, but usually significantly so. This is a good thing. Not only does it demonstrate the complexity and depth of the play itself—which is what allows it to be interpreted with predictable variability—but it also allows opens itself up to a multitude of diverse audiences. Case in point, Waterwell’s latest production (playing through June 4 at The Sheen Center) is set in Persia (Iran today) in the late 19th century and is interspersed with speeches in Farsi, showing once again how absolutely universal this greatest-of-all-plays really is.
Not surprisingly, this Hamlet returns some focus on the political components of the play which are, for the most part, excised from contemporary productions in the interest of both clarity and time (an unabridged version of Hamlet can easily breach four hours!), which fits quite well with the political climate of the place and time used here, in which power was frequently changing hands. Often characters, like the Ghost of King Hamlet (hauntingly and menacingly played with a fierce glare and sporting long, jeweled fingernail covers, by Barzin Akhavan) speak Farsi, delineating the “old world” and modernity. And in Ophelia’s descent into madness, in which she offers symbolic flowers to those assembled (“there’s fennel for you . . .”) she speaks her lines in Farsi which, for Anglophone audiences already familiar with her words, and adds a haunting and more ominous tone to her words.
Hamlet (subtly played by Arian Moayed), interestingly, reverts from the modern world (in which he sports a very western three-piece, tweedy suit and and an affected air) to the traditional (wearing loose, flowing regional outfits and a more passionate manner) after seeing his father’s ghost and hearing of his (modernist) uncle’s role in his father’s “murder most foul.”
While this version of the play, based on the definitive Farsi version by Mahmoud Etemadzadeh (aka “Behazin”) makes some unusual moves, such as shifting the famous “To be or not to be” speech to very late in the play, right before Hamlet’s crucial duel with Laertes (Amir Arison), from early in Act III, when he’s still contemplating the point of living in a world full of such corruption. This Hamlet is hell-bent on revenge from the very first word from his ghostly father (whom he probably fears disappointing . . . and should by the looks of him).
Apart from those rather significant dramaturgical choices, it is a very recognizable production, with certain actors and roles standing out: Polonius, the king’s assistant and Ophelia and Laertes’ father, is delightfully played as both a buffoon and an earnest father by Ajay Naidu (who also plays a very funny gravedigger), whom many will recognize from Mike Judge’s cinematic cult favorite satire Office Space; Sherie Rene Scott is a very complex Queen Gertrude, who not only stands out as very blond (as was the wont of the wealthy men of many Middle Eastern kingdoms, to have western wives) in the Persian environs, but also complicit in her new husband’s regicide; Micah Stock is the good, earnest friend that Horatio should be; and Sheila Vand’s Ophelia is not the usual naïf, but an emotional lover of Hamlet, whose exclamation, “What noble mind is here o’erthrown?!” upon seeing him unravel is heartfelt and painful. We truly feel her pain.
Set in the round, with staircases that stand in for castle walls during the ghost scenes, extraordinary costumes (Nina Vartanian), both Persian and Empire-styled and live, impressively mood-setting middle-eastern music by Mohsen Namjoo, director Tom Ridgely has created a Hamlet that both reaches out to a community (Iranian-American) and offers a new perspective on Shakespeare that likely has not been seen before (stateside, anyhow), and may not again for some time. It proves once again the diversity and accessibility of the material and provides to those familiar yet another (of the infinite) way to examine this remarkable play.
Waterwell’s Hamlet. Through June 3 at The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture (18 Bleecker Street, between Elizabeth and Mott Streets). www.sheencenter.org
Photos: Eric Michael Pearson