Every comment, every review, every blurb on Shotgun Players’ Hamlet begins with a description of how this Hamlet differs from all others. Far from it my place to deny the continuation of this tradition, I will now describe what makes this Hamlet different:
The Shotgun Players’ production of Hamlet features seven actors, none of whom are assigned a role before they begin the evening’s performance. Instead, they draw their role (or roles) out of a “hat” (rather, the skull of Yorick) and are given a few minutes to change into their costumes and assemble their unique production of Hamlet. There are 5,040 possibilities of performance, so it’s unlikely that if you decide to see this Hamlet that it will be the same as the one I saw.
This is of course an immense achievement by all of the actors, who have to memorize every line in the 2 1/2-hour version of Hamlet that is being presented here. Not only that, but many of the company members are also part of other productions at Shotgun Players, which are being performed in repertory for a few months (including a fantastic production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that I reviewed here). This means that not only do they need to know all the lines to every role in Hamlet, but they need to know their parts in several other plays. Just knowing the sheer amount of work that went in to the production makes it very exciting and worthwhile viewing, but this Hamlet proves its merit on its own terms, serving up an entertaining, if rather glib, production of the greatest of all plays.
As I mentioned before, if you see this Hamlet, you will be seeing a different version than I did, so a complete breakdown of every actor in their respective roles is rather useless, though I must say that all seven actors were highly effective in their roles, each with their own take on their character that matched their own persona. Special mention must be made, however, to Beth Wilmurt, playing Claudius when I saw her, who speaks Shakespeare’s prose with startling clarity, and Cathleen Riddley, who played the Gravedigger and the Ghost, who has a presence that simply cannot be contained by the Players’ intimate theatre.
The only flaw with this production appears to be the direction, by Mark Jackson, which gives the audience a very typical Hamlet, but one without the gargantuan inwardness of the play in its best productions. This is best exemplified by the removal of Fortinbras in this production’s heavily cut text, which takes away the central counterpoint of the play between a true revenge tragedy and Hamlet, which is, in the words of the great Harold Bloom, a “revenge upon revenge tragedy”, but also is further evidenced in Jackson’s direction of the titular character. Kevin Clarke, playing the role when I saw the show, gave a roundly convincing performance in a decidedly unconvincing take on the character. What many productions frequently fail to grasp is that Hamlet is beyond Hamlet, a man literally at war with his own author, a character who, in his dissatisfaction with his world, attempts to create his own, and a man who ultimately ends in apotheosis. When this Hamlet arrives onstage, bitter and humorless, he is effective in his own way, but he is firmly within Hamlet rather than above it. This makes for an attractive evening of theatre with gorgeous prose and many wonderful moments (special notice to the too-fabulous-for-words sound design by Matt Stines), but it might make first-time viewers hesitant to call Hamlet the masterpiece to end all masterpieces.
We are lucky to live in a world where the greatest of all plays is also the most compelling of all dramas, and thus Hamlet works no matter what. This Hamlet is highly entertaining, and its central device renders it a novelty for the ages, but don’t expect to see the ultimate production of a play which, by nature, will never reach ultimacy through performance.
Hamlet continues in repertory through January 22nd in Berkeley. Tickets and information (as well as information on Shotgun Players’ other repertory shows) available here.