(part 3 in a series by Debra Murphy on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2010 production of Hamlet directed by Bill Rauch and starring Dan Donohue)
One of the more discussed (at least in my hearing) choices made by Bill Rauch in the 2010 production of Hamlet has been the casting of deaf actor Howie Seago as the Ghost. Now, I’m suspecting that at some point this sort of thing will cease to be considered a Big Deal; rather like racial-blind casting, which has been the norm at the OSF for some time and now inspires remark mostly from newbies—folks who haven’t yet caught on that theatre is by nature a far more metaphorical and poetic medium than, say, the movies; that, as Henry V‘s Chorus reminds us,
’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass:
A production’s ability to call forth the desired experience from the audience—that mysterious and magical thing that people call “great theatre”—depends as much on what the audience brings with them into the auditorium as what the actors bring to the stage. In terms of what the actors bring to the stage, their effectiveness, in turn, depends more on skill and intelligence and qualities of energy and personality than whether they fit a preconceived mold in terms of how they look or sound or dress. But then there are also, probably always will be, audience members who feel that Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare unless the actors are all white, in doublet and hose, and speaking with British accents.
However, since Howie Seago’s casting as the Ghost has raised some comment in a few quarters, mostly of the “But I miss Shakespeare’s language!” variety, I would like to point out why I think this casting was particularly effective.
First, those who complain about missing the language are people who probably know it so well already they could speak it in their sleep, and have been known to do so in their seats right along with the actors. (A problem so chronic with Shakespeare in performance that Peter Brook dealt with it in his marvelous production (which we in Clan Murphy have taken to calling the “Zen Hamlet“—see John Murphy’s review here), by shifting soliloques out of their usual place, and having the Players enact the Hecuba scene in its original (source) Greek.
How wonderful and fresh, therefore, in this OSF production, to “see” Seago’s passionately expressive sign language putting a whole new spin on the Ghost’s horrific narrative of his murder at the hands of his brother.
And as for those who aren’t familiar with Shakespeare’s language, I dare say they catch the drift easily enough with Hamlet’s “translation”, and probably more easily than those hearing words such as these for the first time:
Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d…
Be all that as it may, having Hamlet and the Ghost communicating in sign language—one might describe it almost as their “private” language—also served to produce the (in my experience, unique) effect of putting the father-and-son pair in a sort of psycho-spiritual bubble, contra mundum; a bubble that excluded all others and highlighted Hamlet’s isolation. The relationship between father and son portrayed in most productions comes across as distant, severe and (on Hamlet’s part) rather worshipful, even awestruck. In this production the father/son relationship is portrayed as having been loving and paternally intimate, which makes Hamlet’s reaction to his father’s tale of murder all the more harrowing.
All this supports the later dramatic development of something like madness in the Prince of Denmark. For if the Ghost’s visit isn’t harrowing, either in the supernatural or the psychological sense, preferably both, then Hamlet’s subsequent unhinging will not be properly set up. In fact, in my viewings and re-viewings of eighteen or so Hamlet productions, I’ve only seen two others that have, in my view, fully understood and capitalized on the importance of this setup/payoff dynamic: One was at the American Players Theatre back in the mid-nineties starring Lee Ernst; it featured a chained ghost with a booming voice who seemed to be suffering all the torments of hell. The other is the famous Russian language Hamlet of Grigori Kozintsev, with a truly haunting, almost horror-movie slo-mo apparition of a Ghost, monstrous cape whipping in the wind behind him, stalking the craggy walls of castle Elsinore like a walking nightmare.
Finally, in the OSF production’s captivating use of sign language—for me it put the icing on the cake, as it were—there were several very nice bits of stage business when we see, in a couple of key scenes, Gertrude and even Claudius breaking briefly into sign language when speaking of the late King Hamlet. These fleeting moments from the ancien regime seemed to signal, as it were, breakings-in of conscience and former ties of familial love into the toxic little Gertrude/Claudius bubble—that “rotten” thing poisoning Denmark.
Alas, I can’t show a vidclip from the OSF production, but here’s one of the Ghost scene from Kozintsev’s Hamlet: