When Honest Pint Theatre Company of Raleigh, NC, announced its plan to stage an uncut version of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I immediately felt a sense of excitement and skepticism. Excited that I would get to see it. Skeptical that anyone else would want to.
Many know the basics of Hamlet: son of slain king seeks revenge on the murderer, his own uncle. In a months-long rampage through Elsinore Castle, Hamlet brings murder, madness, and mayhem upon those that cross his path.
You’ve no doubt seen the image of an actor reciting Shakespeare, skull in hand. You likely know the phrases “To be or not to be,” “To thine own self be true,” and “get thee to a nunnery.” Hamlet’s effect on English (and non-English) speaking culture cannot be understated. Even The Lion King is a loose adaptation of the story. It’s widely believed to be the most challenging role an actor can undertake in his career. It is the Holy Grail.
Many film versions exist, most notably those starring Sir Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, and Ethan Hawke as the Prince of Denmark. What does it mean that Hamlet is uncut? By line count (approximately 4,000 of them), it is the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. It is extremely rare for modern productions to produce uncut versions of any of the Bard’s plays. They are of great length, often contain seemingly extraneous material, and can be confusing to modern audiences if edits are not made. This is commonly practiced and accepted in the modern theater.
It is not as simple a process as picking up any edition of Hamlet at Barnes & Noble. There are many versions that have been printed over the centuries, with subtle differences in spelling and wording, but also larger additions and omissions of lines and speeches. The order of events is often mixed up between the versions. Honest Pint chose to combine the most material possible and create a “director’s cut” of Hamlet. This is a version that has never been performed anywhere else. Its rarity and novelty, however, is not reason enough to see it.
The reason to see this production is that it’s damn good theater. In order to support an audience’s attention span for a four-hour evening of Shakespeare, special care must be taken to ensure engagement and understanding. Ensuring that an audience understands the Bard’s language is the responsibility of the director and actors: using design, movement, and inflection to highlight the important elements in the language and to allow the audience to gather general meaning, unless they happen to have an ear for Shakespeare’s words already.
Director Jeremy Fiebig takes good care of his audience. There is no fourth wall in this production. In fact, there aren’t even second or third walls. Fiebig has included some moments so surprising and shocking that I gasped audibly in several spots.
Shannon Clark’s deceptively simple, but functional set stays out of the actor’s way while still providing the mood, place, and time necessary to ground us in the Danish castle and environs, supported by Jack Lewis’ beautiful and haunting lighting. Lewis is not afraid to play with shadows, and it adds great atmosphere to the piece.
Clark’s costumes ground us in modern day but emphasize the royalty of the characters. They are contemporary, but not casual. It is only the dramatic manner in which characters are killed that sometimes seems like, well, overkill.
Part of taking care of the audience includes a great deal of music in the production. The cast performs modern songs live during the pre-show and both intermissions. The songs are not overly recognizable radio standards. Rather, they are lesser-known songs by folk-style groups, such as The Decemberists, Mumford & Sons, Fun., and local group The Avett Brothers. In Shakespearean tradition, these ballads entertain the audience, welcome them to the show, cleanse the palate between acts, and set the tone for the next act.
Director Jeremy Fiebig’s greatest gift to his audience is the interaction provided by the actors. Some audience members sit on stage, while others sit on chairs much closer than the rest of the seating in William Peace University’s Leggett Theater. The actors play very directly to the audience on and near the stage. It can be challenging for audiences when this happens. When Hamlet looks you right in the eyes and says “To be or not to be,” you may feel squeamish. You may look away or laugh or close your eyes. Fiebig’s cast did a masterful job of finding out which audience members will connect with them and allow themselves to be pulled into the story.
I myself sat on the stage. There were dozens of moments that an actor delivered a line or several lines to me. Not only that, but many also made eye contact with me as we both observed a scene going on.
It often happens that actors will look into the audience, but never before have I experienced an actor looking at me, sharing a glance, while another actor was speaking. A shared moment. It was exciting, involving, and kept me with the show from start to finish.
I never quite knew when I’d be looked to for understanding, to listen to a plea, or to share a private joke with a character. The more I made eye contact with actors and the more I provided them with energy, the better they got. It was this strategy, more than any other, that kept the show alive for me.
In addition to interactions during the play itself, the cast socialize with the audience in costume (but out of character) before the show, during the intermissions, and after the show. They would walk right off of the stage into the house and out into the lobby, chatting with friends or interacting with new visitors. This helped solidify director Jeremy Fiebig’s focus on engagement with the audience.
Two other factors that kept the show moving along: pacing and humor. Pauses between lines were hard-earned and came only when something was really worth savoring. Otherwise, the actors plowed through the show like a freight train, delivering lines with a perfect frenetic energy. Scene changes were seamless, with shifts of lighting indicating major adjustments to time and place and scenes coming one on top of the other. No delay here. Pauses will kill this thing dead in its tracks. Other directors should take note.
Director Jeremy Fiebig and the amazing cast managed to find every possible opportunity for humor in Hamlet. This is rarely done with this piece and further helped to make the show enjoyable for the audience.
The source of much of the production’s humor comes from Mike Raab’s delightfully likable Horatio, Aaron Alderman’s dual work as the energetic and dandy Osric and one of the two Gravediggers. Chris Milner earns laughs as the other clownish Gravedigger and as the wonderfully foolish Guildenstern.
No Guildenstern would be complete without his Rosencrantz, given to us with great wit and masterful timing by Brook North, who also plays the infinitely more serious Fortinbras with equal effect. Humor is mined, polished, and delivered by George Jack in a number of supporting roles, each played with great specificity and distinction.
No Shakespearean tragedy could be effectively performed without actors of excellent dramatic skill. This production certainly has no shortage of talent on the stage. Wade Newhouse’s Laertes is heartbreaking and honest; Mark Phialas’ Polonius is at once charming and mildly sinister; and Tamara Farias’ Gertrude is one of the most understated performances of the show, showing tremendous grace and restraint.
This Gertrude does not wear her heart on her sleeve or tip her hand. Farias plays her with a sense of mystery, and it cannot be determined how much Gertrude actually knows. This is highly effective and forces the audience to lean in to learn more.
Claudius is not always a showy role; but with the full text reinstated, Simon Kaplan has opportunities to play a dozen shades of gray. This Claudius is not a figure of Pure Evil. Kaplan makes him human. He gives the new King a vulnerability that I have never seen from this character. His charm, grace, and wit lead to a true belief that Claudius has no trouble convincing the entire court of his innocence.
There are two performers to whom the show belongs. The first is Vera Varlamov as Hamlet’s traumatized ex-lover Ophelia. Verlamov gives us many Ophelias, gliding with ease between flirtatious, sweet, sexy, sassy, furious, and hurt. Ophelia’s madness is a daunting task for any actress. Varlamov grabbed this role by the horns and wrestled in into submission. Her mad Ophelia is at once pitiful and terrifying. There is not only a fear for Ophelia here, but certainly a fear of Ophelia. If you want to analyze the development of a character over the course of a play, come see the master class that Varlamov is giving in this production.
While you’re there, I suggest taking another master class — from David Henderson, in his role as Hamlet. I was initially skeptical, since Henderson is a great deal older than the typical college-aged prince, but he is far from being the first actor to be so.
Henderson and director Jeremy Fiebig make no apologies for Prince Hamlet. The question of whether he is truly mad or merely playing so is answered more clearly in this production than in any other version I have encountered.
I encourage you to come see how a makeup effect can help explain one of the most complex characters in the history of literature. David Henderson’s Hamlet is intelligent, energetic, playful, and extremely funny. He takes the nearly 1,500 lines given him and makes them fly by — the meaning of each is communicated very clearly to the audience and a unique lack of confusion is present in the crowd.
Every Hamlet is unique. Henderson avoids many of Olivier’s clichés and Branagh’s nauseating sense of self-importance. This Hamlet is a real guy. He is at once likable and infuriatingly immature. His naiveté is his downfall.
This is a production that must be seen by any fans of Shakespeare, especially those of Hamlet. The show does not feel anywhere near four hours in length. If you are not a fan of Shakespeare or of this play, I hope that you’ll see this production and become one. This production is a privilege to see and is one that I will not soon forget.
Last Saturday night, in the penultimate scene, the Main Building’s fire alarms went off. An audible “No!” came from the audience. We weren’t going anywhere. It was just too good. The cast plowed through and finished the show. The alarms sounded again, and still we stayed. This production is so engaging that even fear of third-degree burns can’t drag the audience out.
I put Honest Print Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet in the PG-13 zone for some violence, intensely emotional content, and some sexual material.
SECOND OPINION: July 21st Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article90798612.html; July 20th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Brian Howe: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/hamlet/Event?oid=5048324; and July 14th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 interview with director Jeremy Fiebig and actors David Henderson, Tamara Farias, and Simon Kaplan, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/many-interpretations-hamlet#stream/0.
Honest Pint Theatre Company presents HAMLET (uncut) at 7 p.m. July 22 and 23, 1 p.m. July 24, 7 p.m. July 29 and 30, and 1 p.m. July 31 in the Leggett Theater on the second floor of Main Building at William Peace University, 15 E. Peace St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.
TICKETS: $22 ($13.60 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: https://honest-pint-theatre-company.ticketleap.com/hamlet/.
SHOW: http://www.honestpinttheatre.org/#!hamlet-ensemble/lgdpy and https://www.facebook.com/events/485683504961176/.
PRESENTER: http://www.honestpinttheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/honestpinttheatrecompany, and https://twitter.com/honestpintthe8r.
VENUE/DIRECTIONS: http://www.peace.edu/files/shared/peace_virtual_tour/main.htm and http://www.visitraleigh.com/listings/Leggett-Theatre-at-William-Peace-University/59630/?maxshow=10.
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1599-1602 play): https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hamlet-by-Shakespeare (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and http://web.archive.org/web/20081013145206/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ShaHamF.html (First Folio version, courtesy University of Virginia).
Study Guide: http://www.bard.org/study-guides/hamlet-study-guide (Utah Shakespeare Festival).
William Shakespeare (English playwright and poet, 1564-1616): https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Shakespeare (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare (Wikipedia).
Jeremy Fiebig (director and Assistant Professor of Theatre at Fayetteville State University): http://www.uncfsu.edu/arts/faculty-and-staff/jeremy-fiebig (FSU bio).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.