Just about everyone has encountered one or more famous lines from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in everyday conversation, and most of us have struggled in English class with the Elizabethan-era language, written in lively blank verse (10 syllables per line, with an alternating short-long rhythm).
Often called the greatest of Shakespeare’s works and frequently listed among the most important works of literature in the English language, Hamlet is still popular more than 400 years after its first performance. Successful film versions have starred everyone from Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh to Mel Gibson and Ethan Hawke, and even The Lion King draws much of its storyline from the tragedy.
Scott Blanks, who teaches theatre at Benedict College and played Laertes in a production of Hamlet at the University of South Carolina in the 1980s, feels that “the complexity of all the characters, the range of human emotion, and the beauty of the language” are among the many reasons for the work’s enduring popularity among audiences, scholars and actors.
“The play asks difficult questions,” adds second-year MFA student James Costello, who plays the title role in the upcoming production by Theatre South Carolina, which runs April 18-26 at USC’s Drayton Hall. “It confronts the audience about life and death and those private thoughts that have crossed everyone’s mind at one point in their life.”
The play’s surface plot is deceptively simple. The grieving prince of Denmark is told by his father’s ghost to avenge his death at the hands of the usurping Claudius; Hamlet feigns madness to cover his plans, but he is crippled by doubt and indecision. With his alternating moods of depression and manic energy, and outbursts of anger and violence coupled with thoughts of suicide, Hamlet seems to be a case study in bipolar disorder. Yet as one character observes, “though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”
This pervasive theme of madness has inspired some inventive staging by director and USC professor Robert Richmond. While remaining faithful to the original text, the castle Elsinore is now depicted as an asylum for the mentally ill, where inmates embody the classic characters, acting out the familiar tragic chain of events. Richmond hopes that this reimagined setting will help make the story more accessible and relevant to modern audiences.
Adds Costello: “With our concept, the audience will question: ‘What is madness? What makes one mad?’ Is one institutionalized because he is mad or mad because he is institutionalized?”
The role of Hamlet has more lines than any other Shakespearean character, and is on most actors’ bucket list of dream roles to play. Costello is up for the challenge, having spent most of his time since being cast last November “reading up on the play and learning from Hamlet’s past,” he says.
Costello has played diverse roles in his time at USC, ranging from the grizzled warrior Kent in King Lear to a droll and rakish scholar in Arcadia and a series of broadly comic clowns in the recent 39 Steps.
Fellow MFA students in the cast include Melissa Reed as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude; Laurie Roberts and Cory Lipman as doomed siblings Ophelia and Laertes; Trey Hobbs as their father, royal counselor Polonius; and Kate Dzvonik, Leeanna Rubin, and Josiah Laubenstein as Hamlet’s friends.
Guest artist Richard Sheridan Willis will portray the villain Claudius. A former child actor on stage and television in England, Willis has collaborated with Richmond many times previously over the last 25 years, including shows with the Aquila Theatre Company (where Richmond was associate artistic director) and at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Revenge, insanity, intrigue, deception and meaning in life (or lack thereof) are among the universal themes that will be explored in Shakespeare’s timeless tale as it comes to life this Friday.
Hamlet runs April 18-26 at USC’s Drayton Hall. Show times are 8 p.m. Wed-Sat [online copy corrected], with an additional late-night performance on Saturday, April 26. Tickets are $18; $16 for USC faculty/staff, military and seniors; and $12 for students. Call 777-2551 to order or visit the Longstreet Theatre box office at 1300 Greene St.
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