Ghost in the machine: Adam Luckey as Hamlet reaches out to the ghost of his father, which is in video projections, in Actors Guild of Lexington's multimedia take on Hamlet. Photo courtesy of Actors Guild of Lexington.
Any time a Shakespeare director strays away from men in tights, he or she risks running into the piercing daggers of purists.
But part of the Bard’s enduring appeal is the elasticity of his works, which I recently saw demonstrated with possibly his most famous play, Hamlet.
At Actors Guild of Lexington, we have Richard St. Peter’s multimedia take on the tragedy of Hamlet, which wraps up its run at the Downtown Arts Center Sunday afternoon.
But I also got turned onto Ambroise Thomas’ 19th-century operatic version of the tale when I saw Natalie Dessay’s performance of Ophelia’s mad scene at an NEA Arts Journalism seminar in New York. Dessay’s version, measured to bring out the most explosive moments of Ophelia’s anguish, was so compelling that I immediately ordered the DVD of the performance at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. (Opera DVDs are becoming one of my new favorite things.) That haunting sequence, with Dessay’s dazzling coloratura ascents accompanying her cutting herself and tearing up a room where she was supposed to marry Hamlet, is the highlight of the DVD, which is well worth seeing. (Click here for a YouTube video of Dessay as Ophelia, though not from the same performance.)
But it also was interesting to see to see how Thomas and librettists Jules Barbier and Michael Carre manipulated Shakespeare’s plot for their opera. The most stunning turn is at the end, when Hamlet, sung in this version by Daniel Craig look-alike Simon Keenlyside, does not die with a few final high notes, but stands triumphant, having avenged his father’s murder and been proclaimed King Hamlet.
Methinks it doth take creative license too much.
Sure, it gives the opera a more rousing ending and solves the problem of the dud of a finale in the play, in which newcomer Fortinbras and shell-shocked Horatio are the only ones left standing. But it also reduces the tragedy, which in some ways the opera builds better than the play, into a garden-variety revenge tale. Thomas created an alternative ending for the opera’s Covent Garden premiere in 1869, apparently concerned that the happy ending wouldn’t go over well in Shakespeare’s homeland.
That controversial plot turn and the lack of any truly stunning music seem to explain why the opera has a minor role in the repertory, although it has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s production on the Barcelona DVD show that a performance of this opera can be better than its material.
And in watching the play, you certainly can’t miss operatic elements of the story. The internal drama of the tale is tailored for musical expression. Lexington actor Roger Leasor calls Hamlet’s monologues “little arias.”
But even with the words that Shakespeare wrote, there are ways to swing the drama.
What with all of the play’s in-palace spying and eavesdropping, St. Peter of Actors Guild used video and modern sets and costumes to make the play as much a commentary on post-9/11 paranoia as it is about a young man grappling with how to right a grave injustice.
Does it work, in either case? That’s up to audiences and, really, each individual viewer to decide.
There are many who think putting Shakespeare in modern dress or at least alternative settings and forms reaffirms the enduring quality of his work. Some efforts are more successful than others.
And some people just prefer seeing men in tights.