Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"That Same Skull, Sir."

Bad Quarto's production of Hamlet. Featuring
Alex Dabertin as Hamlet. Directed by Tony Tambasco.
Rehearsals are well underway for our current production of Hamlet, and I couldn't be more excited. I've been wanting to direct Hamlet for some time, and I couldn't be more pleased to be working with this most excellent company on this most excellent play.

Something I've wrestled with in preparing this production was finding a unifying image that really stuck out to me. I tend to find that my best work as a director comes when I've got a clear image in my head that captures the essence of what the play is about: like the thesis of an essay, it helps keep you focused on the story you're trying to tell and faithful in the way you're telling it. And, conveniently, it tends to make for a good poster.

Hamlet was a challenge, though, because one of the most prominent images to me has always been of the world, and Denmark specifically, as " an unweeded garden // That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature // Possess it merely." I picture the Denmark of the beginning of the play as a the garden that old King Hamlet died in, left untended by King Claudius, and the implements for cleaning it grown rusty and dull with age. Hamlet spends the entire play sharpening his metaphorical machete until he is ready to clean house.

Clearly, I didn't go with that concept.

First and foremost, those lines I quoted above don't appear in the first quarto of Hamlet, so it wouldn't have been appropriate to use them. But beyond that, the image of the skull is so intimately connected to Hamlet, and to Shakespeare in general, that I felt like I couldn't ignore it. The image of Hamlet holding a skull and reciting his "To be or not to be" speech, a-textual as it is, has endured as an image of the master Shakespearean tragedian confronting Shakespeare's most difficult role.

John Gielgud as Hamlet
Of course, as we've already discussed, the "To be or not to be" speech is different in the first quarto, and no version of the text asks for Hamlet to be holding a skull in that moment. And, maybe most significantly of all, when Hamlet does confront Yorrick's skull, and his own mortality in a concrete way, he is in the company of Horatio, by then his only friend, and the gravedigger, who gives him practical lessons in the materiality of death, which is what ultimately prepares him to accept the "special providence in the fall of a sparrow," and that "the readiness is all."

When Hamlet looks at Yorrick's skull, he knows he's looking at himself, and that understanding of death allow him to become the angel of death, and complete the vengeance that his father commanded him to. Which reminded me of a Hobein painting from the early modern period....

Holbein's The Ambassadors. 1533
Holbein's The Ambassadors is probably familiar to anyone who took an art history class for that anamorphic skull sitting in the bottom of the painting. Death is always present, despite all the other accomplishments and honors that we see depicted in the painting, our own deaths are always with us, but we can only see our deaths from a certain point of view, which makes everything else in our lives fall out of focus. This is what Hamlet ultimately wrestles with when he confronts Yorrick's skull, and learns to understand death as the gravedigger does: not as something to be wondered at, but, as Horatio says, "custom hath made it in him seem nothing." Whilst everyone else in the court, especially the King, fixates on the temporal trappings of life, Hamlet sees our temporal life for what it is, and more than a mere memnto mori, becomes death itself.

Bad Quarto Productions is dedicated to performances of Shakespearean plays that honor Shakespeare's original staging conditions, and Hamlet has given us an opportunity to explore that as regards the imagery of Hamlet.

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