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‘Hamlet’ Preview: Psychology and Tragedy

By Giselle P. Acosta, Contributing Writer

Most people wouldn’t try to explore the hidden depths of a crazed killer. That, however, is exactly what Harvard’s most recent production of “Hamlet” tries to do with its eponymous character. Directed by Lucas J. Walsh ’24, Hyperion Shakespeare Company’s take on the Shakespearean classic will run at the Loeb Experimental Theater from Nov. 2 through Nov. 5. The artists aim to emphasize the characters’ interpersonal relationships and subsequent mental health problems. In so doing, the production attempts to ground one of the most famous, larger-than-life narratives in theater.

Walsh approached the play with a psychological focus because he finds the topic relevant to college students. Many young people, Harvard students included, are suffering from a mental health crisis reflected in the pages of “Hamlet.” Walsh says the team behind “Hamlet” illustrates this crisis by establishing a juxtaposition between characters’ “interior worlds” and “exterior worlds.”

“I think that’s what helps make ‘Hamlet’ feel relevant for many people today,” Walsh said of the play’s psychological and emotional conflicts. “It allows us to drive very nuanced characterization, and I think it can make for a dramatic piece that feels dramatic with a purpose.”

The play’s visual choices strive to consistently depict mental health struggles with Walsh’s overall vision. The production’s aesthetic is influenced by Gothic art and the quirks of each character. The darkly colored costumes, which Walsh describes as “standard medieval fare,” aim to emphasize the often tragic nature of the characters’ mental health struggles.

The play uses Hamlet as the primary illustration of the mind’s toxicity. Hamlet (Saswato Ray ’25) is depicted as someone who alternates between quiet grief around others and furious, violent pain when alone. During performances, Ray aims to express this agitation via intense physical actions like stomping his feet and slapping his hand against nearby objects.

“The pensiveness, the thoughtfulness, but at the same time the loudness of it is kind of trying to show his two sides, and also trying to signify his feelings, which he had been keeping buried inside for so long, kind of explode in a singular moment,” Ray said.

The production’s attempt at humanizing Shakespearean characters extends to Hamlet’s love interest and her brother: Ophelia (Eliza R. Zangerl ’26) and Laertes (Vander O. B. Ritchie ’26), respectively.

“I see them as people who respect each other, who listen to each other, and I think that’s especially important in contrasting Ophelia's relationship with her brother and her relationship with Hamlet,” Ritchie said.

The production takes the traditional route of portraying Ophelia as quiet and long-suffering. Still, Zangerl tries to subvert this gentle image to some extent. She explained that she interpreted some of Ophelia’s politeness as passive aggressiveness, which she uses as Ophelia’s way of “telling the truth and being frank about something she doesn’t like.” Considering the play’s historical context, Zangerl conceives of Ophelia’s passive aggression as “a way that many women combat the patriarchy.”

As Laertes, Ritchie emphasizes that his character and Hamlet had a “relationship almost akin to best friends, two brothers” before the events of the play.

“I think one of the important things about the relationship between Hamlet and Laertes — that is hard to communicate because they have really no time interacting before the end of the show — is that Hamlet and Laertes are friends, they have a relationship prior to them fighting,” Ritchie said.

In the final scene of “Hamlet,” the mental struggles of all the characters culminate in a series of deaths. Walsh made an artistic decision that involved slightly altering a dramatic part of the conclusion to further explore the topic of mental health. Without spoiling the choice in advance, it is best described as Hyperion’s attempt to leave the audience in a state of emotional reflection.

“It’s very dark once we come to the end, both figuratively and literally,” Walsh said.

Audiences wishing to explore that dark climax should head to the Loeb Ex later this week. There, the cast and crew of “Hamlet” will present their take on a convoluted labyrinth of the mind.

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