In the HRDC’s production “The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark,” the cast and crew dare to tamper with the sacred texts of Shakespeare. “Hamlet is this worshipped thing. A lot of Shakespeare’s works are. It’s really quite sad, I think,” says director Jason R. Vartikar ’11.
“The Tragedy of Hamlet”—not to be confused with the more traditional version being staged this weekend in Leverett House’s Old Library—will show in the New College Theatre through Sunday, and it makes significant changes to the Bard’s original manuscript. “We are judging Shakespeare in a way that Shakespeare isn’t judged,” Vartikar says. “[Shakespeare] is almost a religion. It’s almost blasphemous to say that this is written poorly, and we’re going to cut it out, and we’ve definitely done that many times. We’ve cut up whole scenes; we’ve moved some things around that we think are better aesthetic choices.”
The edits were made to the original text not with the intention of changing “Hamlet,” but rather to intensify and distill its spirit. “Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ to me is more of a schematic of a certain part of the human condition, rather than a very specific outline of something that he thought up,” says Vartikar, defending his decision to rework the script. “There are some changes that I wouldn’t want to reveal, which are surprising and will be recognizable but will still feel Shakespearean and still feel beautiful.”
On top of changes to the script, the number of characters has been reduced and lines have been shifted from one character to another. For example, the roles of Gertrude and Ophelia have been greatly expanded. “They’re less soft,” Vartikar says. “More hard, easier to read, more surreal, raw.”
Vartikar’s changes to the text were informed by the philosophies of Heiner Müller and James Joyce. “Some scholars would definitely disagree, but we think it’s an interesting interpretation,” Vartikar says. “The tragedy of Hamlet is not delay. Our interpretation is that Hamlet is crushed to the ground by his inexorable fate, by the weight of the world, the weight of his scenario. That interpretation is very Joycean, because Ulysses is about this complex thing, which is a very crushing atmosphere.”
Joyce’s references to Hamlet in his own works also had concrete influences on the play. “There are some surprises I want to keep for the show, but basically, Joyce has a discussion in ‘Ulysses’ that is very subtle about Hamlet being a woman. That was huge,” says executive producer Rachel D. Libeskind ’11. “To me it’s always been this interesting idea, of Hamlet as a feminine character. I think ‘Ulysses’ has an inexorable link to Hamlet that I can talk about for hours upon hours.”
Vartikar’s iconoclasm extends not only towards the works of Shakespeare but also towards theatrical conventions in general. For example, he decided against a soundtrack. “I hate theatery things, things that look and feel so theatery, these really cheesy soundtracks, piano music, highlighting moments by having tracks under it. It’s very trying to be cinema, trying to be movie,” Vartikar says. “Theater’s more alive with a heartbeat. It’s more about people interacting in front of us. It’s about the schematic coming to life.”
“The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark” attempts to bring Shakespeare’s schema to life in an authentic way through the changes it makes to the original text and its artistic decisions. “It’s completely Shakespeare,” Vartikar says. “I think Shakespeare would have been very proud of what this is.”