Where There's a Will
Why a Shakespeare Festival doesn't always translate into much Shakespeare
By Lou Harry

From Gadfly March 1999


One of my favorite books on the world of theater is Five & Eighty Hamlets (New Amsterdam Books), an obsessive volume by J. C. Trewin. This English critic has been Dane‑watching since 1922, catching a staggering four score and five productions of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark.

Documenting a lifetime of Elsinore haunting, Ophelia maddening, Polonius jabbing and To‑Be‑Or‑Not‑To‑Be reciting, Trewin offers a virtual who's who of twentieth‑century British theater history. Among the Danes he has witnessed are Jonathan Pryce, Richard Chamberlain, Roger Rees, Laurence Olivier, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Maurice Evans, Albert Finney, John Gielgud, Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Raymond Massey, Peter O'Toole, Michael Redgrave and Paul Scofield. And those are just some of the more recognizable names.

Frankly, I'm pissed.

Actually, it's jealousy more than pissiness. Even after a couple of decades of aggressive theatergoing, I'm still two and eighty Hamlets behind Trewin. Even if my pace increases a bit, it's still likely that I'll only see another half dozen or so before I shuffle off this mortal coil. Why do I care? Because Hamlet is a damn good play, that's why—possibly the best that ever was (yeah, I know, I'm really going out on a limb here). It is also both familiar and elusive—and has steadfastly avoided being defined by one production.

I blame the gap between Trewin and myself in large part on the conditions of my birth: That is, I was born American. We get surprisingly few homegrown Hamlets on these shores, given how actors claim to covet the part. New Yorkers have it a little better, and there are isolated pockets around the country with significant Shakespeare festivals or theater (Ashland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; Montgomery, Alabama), but for the majority of us, the chance to see a Shakespeare production worth watching is dictated by the whims of a few regional professional theaters. These regionals sometimes throw one classic work into their mix to legitimize themselves and attract lucrative school groups. But that slot can be filled by Shakespeare, Moliere, Shaw or even Arthur Miller. In Indianapolis, there hasn't been a mainstage Shakespeare production for three seasons, not since the Indiana Repertory Theatre's artistic director Libby Appel put up a strong version of The Tempest before leaving town to run the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Since then, there's been a targeted‑to‑teens truncated Midsummer Night's Dream, a couple of collegiate Twelfth Nights and little else.

Those of us Midwesterners lucky enough to get an occasional Midsummer Night are still unlikely ever to see a professional company of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Coriolanus, Pericles, All's Well That Ends Well or, my personal favorite, Love's Labours Lost. And though a city may claim to hold a "Shakespeare Festival," that doesn't automatically translate into a heavy dose of Shakespeare for patrons. The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, for instance, stages one show a year (this year, it's The Taming of the Shrew). The Texas Shakespeare Festival in East Texas has a schedule of five shows but only two of them are by Shakespeare (this year, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Antony and Cleopatra). The Florida Shakespeare Theatre doesn't have any of its titular playwright's works on the schedule, unless you count the satiric Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged). Funny stuff, but not the real deal.

A quick check of some educated, occasionally theatergoing peers revealed that none had seen more than three Shakespeare plays since high school—and many didn't see any then. It's a situation difficult for me to fathom, since I caught the Shakespeare bug early. An English teacher, Ms. Struble, had us read Hamlet aloud, taking parts, so that we could at least hear the play. From my boyhood home at the tip of south Jersey, there was little chance to encounter Shakespeare. Hell, we didn't even have a McDonald's until I was in seventh grade. To compensate, I weaseled into school trips to a Taming of the Shrew at McCarter Theatre in Princeton and a landmark Othello in New York.

Since then, I have yet to live in a city with a significant output of Shakespeare, so I've had to play catch as catch can, catching some pretty terrific stuff along the way. Among it has been James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer in the aforementioned Othello, Kevin Kline doing Hamlet in New York, a magical Love's Labours Lost at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. and The Tempest at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. I also frequented the once‑a‑season Shakespeare pick by Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company and the similar occasional offering by the now‑defunct Philadelphia Drama Guild and the still lively People's Light & Theatre Company.

The above productions and troupes were performed by Americans. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course; an English pedigree is by no means mandatory in making the words of Shakespeare come alive. Nor is it really an option for most people. As much as we hear of the National Theatre and the Old Vic, there are only very rare chances on these shores to see anything in the canon voiced by Shakespeare's countrymen.

On film, of course, the Brits rule, with Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier dominating. Many libraries have rarely checked-out copies of the productions created for the BBC series The Shakespeare Plays, which is the way to go if you absolutely must see Cymbeline. But I've found televised Shakespeare to be nearly impossible to sit through because of the myriad distractions and small scale. Although I taped it during the recent public television broadcast, I have yet to commit to a full screening of Twelfth Night, starring Helen Hunt. Shakespeare books‑on‑tape are even more difficult to extract pleasure from (although I've enjoyed hearing people like John Gielgud talk about Shakespeare on tape).

Even less effective—if I dare pissing off every English teacher within sight of these pages—is reading Shakespeare. My personal, slightly arrogant rule is never to set eye on Shakespeare's words unless I've already seen the play staged. For all its extrapolation from a few shaky facts, if the film Shakespeare in Love teaches us anything, it's that these plays were not written to be read silently. They were, for the most part, amazingly complex and beautiful creations that needed life breathed into them. Be honest—have you ever tried to read a Shakespeare play that you haven't seen? It just doesn't work. Characters are known by three different names. Ranks are impossible to sort out. You flip to the footnotes and lose the rhythms. The jokes die.

That's not to say that the plays can't be understood. Shakespeare hand-delivers compelling plots and interesting characters to his interpreters. But he does demand interpreters. He requires skilled artists to make the poetry, the drama and the pageantry have an impact on an audience. In the right hands, the glorious, intricate language does not need to be understood line‑by‑line to hold the audience at attention. That's what novice audiences need to be told. When my then-seven-year-old daughter and I went to see The Tempest, I gave her a pre‑show rundown on the Act I action, let her know that it's perfectly okay not to understand most of the dialogue, and told her to have a good time. She ended up enjoying the play far more than the middle‑aged couples behind us who couldn't get past the wordplay.

It was, in hindsight, the perfect first exposure to Shakespeare for her. There was the text, of course, but there were also a director who knew what she was doing, a cast that could handle it and designers who knew how to capture all the world on a stage. Good Shakespeare, like the better barbecued potato chips, should make you crave more, whether the same piece or something else from the Folios.

I've seen Hamlet more than the others, but, like Trewin, I don't feel I'm nearly done with him. Each time I've been in Hamlet's presence, I've felt the rush of theater history. Each time, I've felt the greatness of the play. Each time, I've been pulled into the drama. Each time, I've felt the vast space that Shakespeare has left to his interpreters—the room to create, to make inferences, to spotlight, to twist. Each time I've been pissed that there's not more at my disposal.

Late in Trewin's book, he quotes a bit of light verse by P .G. Wodehouse:

It's Hamlet here and Hamlet there
And Hamlet on next week.
An actor not in Hamlet is regarded as a freak.

In America, an actor undertaking Hamlet is regarded more as a fool than as a freak. Which of our "name" actors have given it a shot on these shores lately? Ralph Fiennes gave it a go on Broadway, more power to him. Kevin Kline made a run at it twice at the Public Theatre (I caught the first show, widely considered the inferior, and was still enthralled). The media mocked Keanu Reeves when he dared to try Hamlet in Canada a few seasons back. I say, bravo. If actors in America had any spine, doing Hamlet would be a requisite. Plenty of regional theaters around the country would welcome Eric Stoltz, Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Depp or Will Smith. I'd even tolerate Leonardo DiCaprio if it meant that American actors were willing to put a single film deal aside and risk falling flat on their faces. And if it meant I'd have more of a chance of being in the audience.