As a teenager in shades of black, thoughts as dark as my dress, I rivaled even the famously complicated Hamlet in displays of antic disposition. Was I truly crazy when I very flagrantly egged that cop car or was I just playing the part? Were the (awful) paintings I made exceptionally abstract or just the veneer of what I thought inner turmoil looked like? Older now, I'm still not sure. Youth is a special time of profound confusion. In my 11th grade English class I was introduced to, and saw myself reflected in the character of Hamlet, the 17th century prince of Denmark. Princely and charismatic I was not, but as David Richard Jones, director of The Vortex Theatre's latest production of Hamlet explained, “nobody's more mixed up than Hamlet.” The poetry at line-level of the play, the close examination of self and the increasing tumult resonated. I memorized the eminent “To Be or Not To Be” speech (ask me to recite it next time you see me) and I still get a shiver up my spine when I hear an actor utter “if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.”
Jones, however, does not feel this way. “I've never felt like Hamlet,” he told me the dreary Tuesday morning after the show's opening night. “I've never felt any kinship … In fact, I'm not sure that I identify with any of Shakespeare's major tragic characters. I'm old enough to sympathize with King Leer, but I never have trouble with my children. I was ambitious enough in my youth, but never like Macbeth. I fell in love enough times but Romeo ... I never was.” What Jones, a formidable English and Shakespearean scholar with impressive theater credentials, does find powerful about Hamlet is the vast field of emotion evident throughout the cast. “The older I get the more I care about emotion [and] what I care about in a production is whether anybody's feeling anything. These young people [in Hamlet] are brimming with emotions.” With great depth and understanding of the nuance of the play—a product of having studied and directed it many times throughout his life—Jones goes on, his own voice brimming with that same abundance of emotion, “This is a story about people destroyed by the things that happen. They suffer,” and after a brief pause he continues quietly, “Suffering … is what tragic heroes do.”
I asked Jones if there was a commentary there, if using technology changed the meaning of the play at all. “Presenting the world the way it is is a commentary,” he answered obscurely.
The suffering that Shakespeare presents in Hamlet was unprecedented at its time in that it shows those weighty thoughts in motion. Hamlet doesn't just speak what's on his mind—the audience sees him vacillate. In fact, the original manuscript for the play marks the first use of “hmm” in literature—“the actual sound of a man thinking,” as Jones describes it. And no wonder Hamlet is so thoughtful, there's a lot at stake. “These are characters in action … prepared to act, prepared to kill!” The words rattle the coffee shop with their gravity where Jones and I sit.
These characters in all their complexity are rendered beautifully by the cast of The Vortex's production. Grey Blanco carries the bulk of the play as Hamlet with the charisma and bravado essential to engage the audience—an absolute necessity when one character speaks 40% of the lines. Other standouts include Peter Shea Kierst's Polonius, whose daft self-righteousness is delivered with humor and nuance that I've never seen in a production of Hamlet before. And Caroline Graham's Ophelia is performed with dimension and a youthful malleability that is relatable—from her mocking gestures to the delivery of stirring key lines. The actors illuminate the story of Hamlet, a troubled mind whose actions precipitate real consequences. Just so, Jones's stylistic choices do the same.
Jones's production incorporates modern props and dress in order to “eliminate a layer of interference between the audience and the play” and this is done holistically. Cell phones, for example, are incorporated not as an afterthought, but as an essential vehicle to pushing the plot forward, potentially rife with meaning. I asked Jones if there was a commentary there, if using technology changed the meaning of the play at all. “Presenting the world the way it is is a commentary,” he answered obscurely. His cryptic answer suited the conversation, suited the subject.
Haunted by my many encounters with Hamlet, with the often so oppressive weight of history, I was once again struck by the importance of this play as I sat in the audience on opening night. The story is about intensity itself, “the head stuff and heart stuff and tears and laughter and … humanity,” as Jones puts it. Hamlet's incipient yearning—yes, paired with intrigue and bloody vengeance, too—is exactly what you make of it, and so many of us find deep resonance, or at least the memory of it, in the weight shouldered by the title character.
As Jones said, “Theater only happens when an audience is there” so make your way to The Vortex Theatre now through Feb. 7 to resurrect the ill-fated prince once more and those feelings of erstwhile confusion.