Putting Shakespeare in his place

Viewing productions of Shakespeare in the past, I’ve often found myself distracted and unmoved, more occupied with decoding archaic metaphors than with lovers’ reunions or ghastly regicides.

I’ve left theaters wondering whether my lack of interest in the English-speaking world’s most well-established plays was due to my own terminal shallowness — or perhaps to some long-running joke perpetrated on the masses by a collection of literary illuminati bent on further diminishing their intellectual inferiors.

But experiencing the North Carolina Stage Company’s current production of Hamlet relieved me of my Shakespeare paranoia and reminded me that live theater can be every bit as engaging — if not more so — than multimillion-dollar Hollywood extravaganzas of the Bard of Avon’s work.

Hamlet, directed by Ron Bashford, with NCSC artistic director Charlie Flynn-McIver in the title role, is remarkably well-produced and acted.

The play is set in a modernized kingdom of Denmark, where the rulers wear expensive suits and the soldiers carry semi-automatic pistols. More striking still, Bashford and Flynn-McIver’s contemporary approach never distracts from the acting or the script, and the drama becomes more accessible than in more traditionally staged productions or even in the hyper-stylized films of recent times.

The acting in this Hamlet is extraordinary; these players comprehend the meaning of their lines as well as they might in a contemporary work — and their understanding is transferred to the audience.

My companion on opening night, who can claim a long history in theater, declared Flynn-McIver the best Hamlet she’d ever seen on stage.

Actor Kermit Brown was also a standout — his Polonius’ guilty conscience seemed to be slowly devouring his character from within. And Kay Galvin brought a similar brilliance to her tortured, intelligent Gertrude.

The rest of the cast, from the tragic and suicidal Ophelia to the spineless, comical Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (recast here as a pair of shallow preppies) was also very, very impressive as it tackled this tale of grisly fratricide and supernatural revenge.

“Shakespearean characters go through situations that you and [I] will never go through in our lifetime,” Flynn-McIver told me during the last week of rehearsal. Somebody “might have their father die and their [father’s brother] marry their mother,” he went on. But the ghost of that person’s father isn’t likely to “come in and say, ‘Kill your uncle.'”

However, Flynn-McIver continued, “By setting this course of events in motion, it gives [Hamlet] a platform on which to discover what it is to be human — the tremendous joys and the horrible pitfalls.”

Which plays into Bashford’s view that Shakespeare is always relevant, and always exciting

“Most of us,” contends Bashford, “have to go through [similar] situations in life with only a certain amount of expressive resources to say how we feel, and only a limited amount of people to whom to try to say that and express how we feel.

“Shakespeare does that for us,” the director continued. “To see some of those situations in front of [us] given voice and language and personal expression, in a way that very few of us are capable of, can be a kind of salve, or relief, or moment of recognition.”

But if you’re instead performing the play, it can be a source of some frustration.

Helping McIver break down and retool the play’s — and possibly theater’s — most well-known lines, “To be or not to be,” Bashford noted that “being more familiar with these words than anything else is actually a disadvantage.”

In the end, Bashford, Flynn-McIver and the rest of the NCSC cast and crew have overcome the obstacle of history and revived Hamlet with such success that it would be a true tragedy to miss it.

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