I’ll be the first to admit it: I had no idea what to expect when I learned the Theater and Performance Studies Department’s production of Hamlet was taking a modern guise. I’ve seen Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet set in present day, so I know very well that Shakespearean lore is capable of transcending time and space. But to take perhaps the greatest story ever told and refashion it with iPads and grating dubstep? It’s a risk, but director Professor Derek Goldman and his cast pull it off spectacularly.
When you walk into Gonda Theater, you’re greeted by a large seminar table, complete with plush chairs, screens, and Macklemore’s “White Walls” blaring from the speakers. The stage looks more like an abandoned study session in Lau than the royal court of Elsinore. Yet despite the 16th century language, it strikes me how easy it is for Shakespeare to slide into our time period.
Suddenly, the characters of Hamlet lose their royal garb, and become, simply, college students. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for instance, prove an intriguing duo who easily leap (together, that is) onto our campus. Played by Jack Schmitt (COL’15) and Joe Napier (COL’15), the Shakespearean Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum quickly become our protagonist’s buddies, bro-tastic handshakes and all, working together to sqeeze the truth out of Hamlet.
Perhaps this is what makes Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, so perfect for today’s time period. Despite its allusions to spirits and royalty, the themes of family, friendship, and loyalty transcend time. It is out of love that Hamlet, played by Addison Williams (COL ’14), refuses to let go of his father’s memory.
“Ultimately, what is so great about Shakespeare’s writing is that it defines the human experience,” said Edward Walczak (COL’15), who plays a cunning yet sympathetic Claudius. Even rotten beings aren’t inherently evil: As Walczak explains, Claudius merely tries to better the lives of others by getting his hands dirty. “Claudius is a sin-eater… Constantly he wonders, can evil be justified if good goes out of it? He becomes less sure as time goes along.”
Goldman is deft at staging duality and contrasts—the scene with Claudius praying in the chapel perhaps shows this best. As the king prays to a God that will not answer, the audience sees the exposed underbelly of the antagonist. As Walczak put it, “If you wanted real evil, cue Richard III.”
In a way, the technology used in this performance heightens the sense of distraction in Hamlet’s world, which exists even before Goldman and his cast decided to incorporate iPads and iPhones. Throughout the play, castmember’s faces are eerily lit by their electronics, absorbed in an unreal world—all except Hamlet, who holds onto his book, a last tie to the past, and never lets go.
At points, Claudius’ monologues are interrupted by a buzzing cellphone. “It only heightens the feeling of detachment,” Williams said. “Everyone knows how it feels to be in a room, looking at your friends texting and laughing at a joke. You’re there, but you’re not really getting it. And that’s how I think Hamlet feels most of the time.”
Hamlet wildly tries to get his friends’ and family’s eyes and ears away from their screens and plugged back into the real world. Alexandra Waldon (COL’15), who plays a sensuous but oblivious Gertrude, believes the technological aspect of Hamlet helps connect it to the real world and drives the point home of how we all are, in some ways, too tuned in.
Goldman and his cast have brilliantly recreated Hamlet in a rendition that could almost take place within our campus walls. From surveillance cameras that watch the brooding Hamlet to gritty, electronic music and jolting visuals, the audience is launched into a familiar world. As Waldon notes, “Hamlet rooted in the interpretation of distraction by devices becomes an incredibly poignant and plausible translation.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this post identified the actor who plays Guildenstern as Joel Napier (COL ’15). His name is actually Joe Napier.