Pith and Moment: Why Hamlet? Why now?

‘Twas 37 years ago when I was smitten by the BBC production of Hamlet starring Derek Jacobi as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius. I was only a high-school sophomore. With time on my hands – several hours after school each day waiting for my father to pick me up at the end of his work day – I began to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquies. By the time I was a senior, I was determined to produce the play and with the support of the English department, I cast the major players and we began rehearsals. Then, Ophelia broke her leg quite badly. While we gave up the production, the attempt was immortalized in our yearbook.

For some time afterward, I fantasized playing that role. Alas, time got the better of me. In my mind, the character of Hamlet should be around 25 years old, give or take. Depending on youthful exuberance, the actual actor’s age could range perhaps between 20-35 years. I don’t want to see a 40-year old prince pining for young Ophelia. Those two characters, especially, should be young, naive, and inexperienced to be countered by the sagacity of older parental influences such as Polonius, Gertrude and, dare I include him (yes), Claudius. All the more their youth makes their untimely ends even more tragic. And now, as I, 52 years old, look in the mirror at my balding head and gray hair, I realize that I will never, never be Hamlet.

Another thing I now realize is that I had not only wanted to be Hamlet, but I had wanted to share my vision of the play as a director. And just as I founded the Orcas Island Shakespeare Society at the beginning of this year, it came to me: the inaugural play we produce will be Hamlet. “Wait,” I thought. “There is something better than a production of Hamletan all-female production of Hamlet!”

In Shakespeare’s times and for years after his death, all of the roles in his plays were performed by men. Female characters were often played by younger male actors. Let us recall some of the acting companies of the period. As Peter Akroyd writes in his biography, Shakespeare, “In the seasons from 1583-1586, at least eight sets of players performed in the guildhall at Stratford – among them the Earl of Oxford’s Men, Lord Berkely’s Men, Lord Chando’s Men, the Earl of Worcester’s Men, and the Earls of Essex’s Men.” The boldface is my emphasis and it should be evident why. Much of the world today remains patriarchal. However, in more than 400 years since those days of all-male players, the intelligent people of the world have awakened to the notion that one’s power and abilities lie not in the sex of the individual, but in the will to bring an internal passion to the external world. (The modern term “gender equality” just doesn’t sit well with me semantically. I prefer an “egalitarian society” in which chromosome composition does not present a bias. Of course, men and women are different biologically, chemically, and emotionally; male and female genders are not equal, but both sexes do have (should have) equality in opportunity. ) I can only imagine what is was like to watch all men, in play after play, portray both sexes. Surely the story, Shakespeare’s poetry and prose, may be conveyed in earnest and received by a captive audience. What was the synergy of an all-male cast performing Shakespeare? Enough. I’m directing an all-female cast not to counter the sexism of the past or present, but for the singularly amazing opportunity to see what the synergy of an all-female cast can bring to the dark and tragic tale of the Prince of Denmark as told by William Shakespeare. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I resonate more with women than men. If anything, it should make directing it easier. (PS: The prop skull of “poor Yorick” will, alas, be modeled from a female human skull! )

In embarking on this journey, I have had a resounding personal breakthrough. The reality that I have been living as Hamlet for over 37 years has crystallized. We share the same fatal flaw: inaction, or more accurately, thinking to the detriment of resolution. I overthink everything, examining both pros and cons. This is a good attribute when there is a high risk of value loss, say life or limb. However, over-thinking and, even worse, anticipatory anxiety that results from mulling over the possible negative results and subsequent reactions, can just suck the marrow out of life. It leads to depression.

“And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”
– Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

“Well,” I say, “I am Hamlet no more! “ With this enterprise of directing an all-female Hamlet, I am shattering that crystal and finding catharsis. The currents of my pith and moment will not turn awry. Nothing will diminish my internal passion. This product of unabated alchemy will be an epic experience for Orcas Island and the Orcas Island Shakespeare Society.

It is often said: don’t think, just do!

Let us commence!

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