Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Martello Tower Hamlet
by William Shakespeare (sort of)

Shakespeare By the Sea
August 2003

[from an email report to the family]

OK, let me get back to the promised description of Shakespeare in the Park, at Point Pleasant Park. (Actually, I should say that we had stopped beforehand, after the last buskers, to make sure there were tickets and that there were provisions in case of rain, and we were assured there were, and there were. There were, but there weren't, I'm certain, and a damn good thing it didn't rain.

So we picked up tickets and drifted over to the Granite Brewery (actually, now -- again -- the Henry House; the Brewery itself has moved up Barrington, but they still serve their bitter) for some sustenance. Nice occasion (Marsha had said earlier she thought this was, so far, the only time she's ever been to the fax and not been to the Granite, so we fixed that).

At 6:25 we pulled into the Tower Road parking lot, and made the hike up to the Martello Tower. Nobody there, or hardly anybody. Oh, said someone, the production starts down at the main parking lot (down where Ard & Jif played for the Tall Ships, and where we'd checked on tickets). So we hustled down -- I think it must be at least a couple of K, past various members of the cast hustling along the road or off in the woods -- and arrived as the director, Christopher Murphy, was finishing his marching orders. And they were real marching orders: we were to go right back up the road toward the tower, and move it, eh? So we did.

A few hundred meters up the road there were a dozen people in black holding up 10' pikes and blocking the road. After we'd all arrived, they let us through so we could see a strange scene with a couple necking in the woods (turned out to be Ophelia & Hamlet, natch), and then another hundred meters or so we all stopped to watch a scene in the woods in which a guy with a crown and a woman in a red dress appeared in a clearing. He lay down, she went off, another guy in a hood (along with some compatriots in hoods) came in, poured poison in his ear, and then held him down (with help from the others) while he died. The director then told us to go on up to the road to Elsinore.

Then it was on up the road again, only now alongside the road people were appearing from behind trees, telling us to go back, warning us that Elsinore was cursed, or being tortured and killed as we passed by.

We came to a cross road, where there were another set of pikes, I think, and were arranged along one side of the road for what turned out to be the opening scene (you remember, the two guards tell Horatio about the ghost, and then . . . it appears (wonderful effect with a bunch of folks under a drop cloth).

On again, up toward the tower. I lose the chronology a bit here -- I can't remember which scenes were where -- but many of the rest of the scenes in the first act were in the tower itself, some in the basement (pitch dark, low ceilings, circular space) and some were on the second floor (the same, but painted white, so not quite so dark). When we moved to the second floor we took our seats with us up the stairs. The director was very obvious through the whole production, shouting "Scene!" when the action was to start, and instructing the audience as to where to go and how fast to get there, and when to watch your head because the ceiling was low.

A couple of wonderful things: the ghost appeared to Hamlet in the basement, as a glowing ball about two feet across, and a series of glowing masks bobbing and coming toward us along the curve of the dark tower (to coin a phrase). It was actually scary. And the second appearance, when Hamlet sees it and Gertrude doesn't, was upstairs, and involved a grotesque masked figure who seemed to be entangled in a web of white strands, controlled, or pulled on, anyway, by black-suited demons. Amazing ensemble acting -- especially because it became clear that they hadn't planned to do it there, but had made changes because there were way more people than they had planned on, and it took much longer to move us than they'd allowed for. So throughout the main section of the play the director was changing the blocking right in front of us, and telling people about changes ("Alex! You should be on the flashlight, right here!" etc.) It was as violent a demonstration as I've ever seen of how live drama switches back and forth between artifice and belief. The Hamlet, I thought, was particularly good at just diving in: there'd be a blocking issue, and he'd just start. The Claudius got stopped once -- they did the scene where he's at prayer and Hamlet has to decide whether or not to kill him, and the director stopped him after his first line and told him to move across the space to an alcove (so that folks seated around the curve of the tower could see him). What he did was get up and walk away, compose himself, and come back and start the scene over. Tough work, but I was amazed at how much they managed to pull off.

OK, so after the players and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive (R & G hooded and handcuffed, obviously brought there by Claudius' orders) and after Hamlet kills Polonius and there's the scene with Gertrude and the ghost, we all go outside again. Now it's pitch dark in the park, and we walk down to the shore -- half a mile, I bet, downhill and some of it single file hanging on to a guide rope, with actors along the way with flashlights sort of lighting the path) to see Ophelia's body and someone singing over it. I actually didn't see it, nor did I meet anybody who did -- if I were going to cut something, that'd be it, for sure, because it soaked up a good half hour of strenuous hiking in the dark. I would expect they'd average one broken leg and three sprained ankles a week if they keep that scene in.

Then it's back up along the road to the Tower. Halfway up we had the graveyard scene, which worked wonderfully, with the gravediggers in the ditch alongside the road, and the procession with Ophelia's body coming from way off in the woods. Then at a crossroads we had the Claudius and Laertes scene in which it's explained about the poisoned sword, but as far as I could see no one could hear what they were saying -- or see much of it, because by this time the company was conserving light (a van pulled up at a couple of points so as to use the headlights for lighting).

Then it was back up to the tower, where someone had brought the seats out (many of them were those plastic milk cartons: this was, um, basic theatre, eh?) and ranged them across the front of the tower. Once we were all seated Osric announced from the top of the tower that the King & Queen had arranged a duel (think John Cleese up there: "I fart in your general direction, English pig dog"). The last scene of the play -- the whole duel thing -- occurred out there. It was actually engaging: they'd done their homework on dueling, and the ensemble acting was wonderful.

It was an odd Hamlet, though: I'd love to have a chance to go through their script and look for the choices they made. Hamlet is the strangest of Shakespeare's plays, I think, in that there are two or two and a half very different versions, published in different forms (I think there's a quarto version, published around the time of performance, a "bad quarto" which was probably published from actors' memories, and the folio version that Hemmings and Condell published after WS was dead. The lines everybody remembers from Hamlet appear in various ones, and none of them appear in all. There are two totally different death scenes, for instance: in one Hamlet tells Horatio not to kill himself as well, but, "Absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story." In another, I think, he goes straight to, "The rest is silence," and dies. We got the second one. We also didn't get any mention of Fortinbras (whom, you might remember, he sees on the way to England, and who -- in the folio version -- arrives at the end to pronounce that Hamlet, "was likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royal," or words to that effect. In this production, that's said, but by some obscure servant.

Osric was pretty well eliminated, too, except for the scene from the top of the tower. And yet, all things considered, it was a pretty damn compelling Hamlet, not least because we kept having to lurch instantly from Point Pleasant Park and the director dealing desperately with potential disaster and the court of Elsinore. The actors were mostly just fine (and coped remarkably well with the, um, challenges). I'd love to see it again once they've got the, well, bugs worked out.

There's a Web site on it, here:

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