Check it out
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Where: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: $35-$58 general, $17.50-$29 students
Info: www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787
“Hamlet” is a famous, famous play. Just about everybody knows the line “To be, or not to be…” And when you see a picture of a moody young man holding a skull in his hand, pondering the fleeting nature of life, the association with this most prominent of Shakespeare’s tragedies is instantaneous — even for folk who’ve never actually seen the play.
But widely held audience preconceptions can cut both ways. And director Dominic Dromgoole realized this full well when he put together a production for the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London last year. That production is now on tour, and visits the Mondavi Center on Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. in Jackson Hall.
Dromgoole told the Boston Globe that his goal was to somehow get around the “colossal juggernaut of baggage” that this landmark script carries, after 400 years of productions.
“We try to make everything we do at the Globe as fresh as possible and to escape the straitjacket of preconceptions for whatever play we’re doing. That’s a hard job with any play, but it’s an immensely difficult job with ‘Hamlet,’ ” he said.
The result is what has been described as “a fleet-footed, stripped-down production that features a compact, two-tiered wooden stage and just eight performers playing more than two dozen roles. The actors bang drums, strum guitars and clang on bells onstage and off, creating all of the sound effects.
Clocking in at about 2 hours, 40 minutes, it’s a brisk staging of a play that routinely runs three hours or more. But it maintains key material that shorter versions often excise, according to the Boston Globe. Several actors take multiple roles, and a few minor characters fall by the wayside.
Drumgoole described it as “a way of being able to do ‘Hamlet’ without all of the pomp and the seriousness and the rather excessive faux gravity that it usually carries around beside it. I wanted it to be staged with the freshness and enthusiasm that I imagine (existed when) it was first done.”
The Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London is open to the sky — plays are done there during daylight hours, as was the custom in Shakespeare’s time. Typically, when this touring production of “Hamlet” visits an indoor venue like the Mondavi Center, the house lights are left on during the performance, in an effort to replicate natural light. As a result, the actors can see the audience, and “that is a massive transformative element, in that you can look into the audience’s eyes,” Dromgoole said.
The director also offered some advice to the boyish-looking actor Michael Benz, who plays the title role.
“You don’t have to play Hamlet as sad,” Dromgoole said. “That is the single most famous fact in Western culture: that Hamlet is sad. So if you come off and try and look sad, it’s always going to be a disappointment, or it’s just going to conform to a stereotype. It’s understood that he’s sad. Just explore other sides of him.”
Hamlet has plenty to be sad about. His father, the king, has died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. His uncle Claudius swiftly ascended the throne, and married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude in what Hamlet regards as unseemly haste. But actor Benz said he’s tried not to present the moody young prince (still a university student) as “petulant and moody, like a pissed-off teenage boy. If Hamlet is too melancholy and too full of angst, I think the audience tires of it a little bit. You’ve got to play with his flips of emotions. Moments of humor and lightness come out of the most tragic, horrible things.”
One other thing about this production — at a moment when you may not be expecting it, the actors execute a jig. Boston’s public radio station WBUR ran a webpage headline saying “Hey, Hamlet, Let’s Dance.” The New York Times reviewer remarked on Hamlet “cutting a rug.”
This is not the first time that a touring Shakespeare’s Globe production has come to the Mondavi Center. In November 2009, its touring production of the comedy “Love’s Labours Lost” played to a sold-out audience in Jackson Hall. Consequently, there are two evening performances of “Hamlet” this time around (tickets are still available for both), as well as a sold-out student matinee.
UC Davis and Shakespeare’s Globe also have an ongoing relationship that has seen local high school and junior high school teachers go to London to study the most effective ways of teaching Shakespeare to teenage students.
Tickets for “Hamlet” are $35-$58 general, $17.50-$29 students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at email@example.com or 530-747-8055.