For many actors Hamlet is the Mt. Everest of roles: a four-hour, 3,000-line trek to be approached only at the height of one’s professional powers. As a result many productions feature leads — from Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud to Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh — who are well into middle age.
Which is a fundamental misreading of the text, argues Henry I. Schvey, Ph.D., professor of drama in the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences.
“Hamlet is as much a story of adolescence as Romeo and Juliet,” Schvey explains. “Remember, Hamlet is at university when he is suddenly called back to attend his father’s funeral, and there are numerous textual references to his youth. Indeed, many of the characters — Horatio, Laertes, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern — are university students, and Ophelia is younger still.”
This February Schvey — who founded the PAD’s Shakespeare Summer Globe Program in 1989 and who has served on The Shakespeare’s Globe Centre USA Advisory Committee — will direct a new production of Hamlet in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre. Set in the present day and using modern dress, the production is designed to showcase the prince of Denmark as “a very young man, trapped in a politically dangerous world that, despite his remarkable and profound intelligence, he is ill-equipped to handle.”
Schvey notes that the tradition of Hamlet being played by older actors may date back to Richard Burbage (1567-1619). The star of Shakespeare’s own company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Burbage would have been in his mid-30s when the play was written and first performed. “It is certainly a daunting role,” Schvey concedes. “It’s the longest play in Shakespeare, and Hamlet is onstage for all but about 20 minutes.
“But the essence of the story is youth,” Schvey continues. “Much has been made about the mystery of the character — his impulsivity, his erratic behavior and swings of emotion. And yet if we see Hamlet as a teenager rather than as a middle-aged man, things that seemed incoherent suddenly ring true.”
Take the strained relationship between Hamlet and his widowed mother, Queen Gertrude. As the play begins, Gertrude has rather hastily remarried her brother-in-law, Claudius — a decision that profoundly upsets her son and helps set the tragedy in motion. Yet no less a critic than T.S. Eliot called Hamlet “an artistic failure” on the grounds that it does not adequately explain the depth of Hamlet’s revulsion. “Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother,” Eliot noted, “but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her.”
Schvey points out that, “what caused such insurmountable problems for Eliot makes perfect sense when Hamlet is cast as a teenager. What the play illustrates, with remarkable psychological insight, is a young man’s repulsion for a parent who has suddenly and unexpectedly displayed overt sexuality.”
This emotional dynamic underscores another of the play’s central mysteries: Hamlet’s treatment of his own beloved, the young noblewoman Ophelia. “Hamlet not only feels betrayed by his mother, but he also jumps to the conclusion that all women are similarly duplicitous,” Schvey says.
“It’s a leap that may seem extreme for an adult but is entirely plausible for the mind of the adolescent.”
The cast of 27 is led by senior Sathya Sridharan as Hamlet, senior Justin Joseph as Claudius and junior Virginia Page as Gertrude. Also starring are sophomore Julia Mellon as Ophelia, junior Iain Prendergast as Polonius, sophomore Dan Tobin as Laertes and senior David Weiss as Horatio. Sophomores Jonathan Levinson and Eli Keehn play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The sleek, contemporary set design — which subtly mimics the look and flow of an Elizabethan stage — is by Angela Bengford, lecturer in the PAD. Costume design is by senior Catherine Elhoffer. Lighting is Sean Savoie, lecturer in the PAD. Sound is by senior Kevin Liu.
Performances of Hamlet take place in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 13 and 14; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 15. Performances continue the following weekend, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 20 and 21; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22. Tickets are $15 — $10 for students, senior citizens and Washington University faculty and staff — and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets.
For more information, call (314) 935-6543.
In conjunction with the performances, the PAD will host a symposium on “Hamlet and the Adolescent Mind” from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, in the Ann W. Olin Women’s Building Formal Lounge. Cosponsored by the Center for the Study of Ethics and Human Values and by the Psychology Department in Arts & Sciences, the symposium will feature half-a-dozen panelists from theater, medicine, adolescent psychology and other disciplines. The discussion will explore a variety of topics relating to the play, from suicide and depression to psychoanalysis, brain-imaging and cross-cultural behavior.
In addition, the PAD will host a staged reading of the much-debated 1603 “First Quarto” version of Hamlet at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, also in the Edison Theatre. At roughly half the length of the more familiar “Second Quarto” and “Folio” versions, this fast-paced text reorders and combines major plot points and has been variously explained as an actor’s “memorial reconstruction” of the original performance and as a touring version used by Shakespeare’s company outside of London.
Both the symposium and the “First Quarto” reading are free and open to the public. The A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre and Edison Theatre are both located in the Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. The Women’s Building is located is located on Throop Drive, just east of the intersection with Forest Park Parkway.
For more information about attendant events, call (314) 935-5858.
WHO: Performing Arts Department
WHAT: Hamlet by William Shakespeare; directed by Henry Schvey
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 13 and 14; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 15; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 20 and 21; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22.
WHERE: A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd.
COST:$15; $10 for seniors, students and Washington University faculty and staff. Available at the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets.
INFORMATION: (314) 935-6543