Falling in love with Hamlet: Q&A with director Eugene Raggio

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Promising to be apocalyptic, religious and political, the new Artes Christi production of Hamlet will be anything but conventional when it’s performed next week, exchanging tired Freudian interpretations for something much closer to William Shakespeare’s likely intentions.

Eugene Raggio is directing the special anniversary production, marking 400 years since the Bard’s death, with a strictly limited number of performances on the 14-15 October at the Seymour Centre in Chippendale.

Eugene is an opera singer with Opera Australia and a long-time actor, singer and director for Artes Christi, including in previous productions MacKillop, Joseph and Fiddler on the Roof.

He spoke to The Catholic Weekly’s Robert Hiini about what sets this new production apart.

 

It’s been 400 years since his death, why is Shakespeare still so important?

He is arguably the greatest and most influential wordsmith of all time. His contribution to the reform of the English language and his mastery of story and character are a gift to all actors to this day. His body of work remains the primary hinge of the theatrical repertoire. For these reasons, William Shakespeare remains unparalleled as the master of English literature.

What is Hamlet about, in a nutshell?

Hamlet: you name it. It does depend on who you ask; the scholarly jury is still out. On the face of it, it is about Hamlet the Danish prince grieving the sudden death of his kingly father. He receives an apparition from his father’s ghost who enjoins him to seek revenge on his uncle Claudius who is now newly married to his mother Gertrude. Hamlet assumes the trappings of madness as a smokescreen for his plot to revenge.

In the course of proceedings, he evades spies – most of whom he kills – and he humiliates his beloved Ophelia, whose father Polonius he also kills, and Gertrude and Claudius. Hamlet is banished to England, Ophelia goes mad, her brother Laertes returns from France begging revenge. Ophelia drowns in a river under suspicious circumstances.

Hamlet returns and is engaged by Claudius to compete with Laertes in sword play, little knowing that the game has been contrived by Laertes and Claudius to end in bloodshed. Everyone dies. The kingdom is taken over by Norwegian forces. The end.

Depending on your time in history and your place in the world, Hamlet has been viewed through various lenses. The perplexing story about a prince who kills others and questions himself; questions his resolve and his morality; takes the moral high ground, takes the law into his own hands, justifies his actions, takes greater risks, makes greater moral compromises and yet still puts off the murder that he wishes to execute until everything goes wrong and he is made to pay a high price, and still manages to gain the audience’s profound sorrow and sympathy.

It is a play that provokes and captivates. Most strikingly, the more keenly the reader tries to reconcile and answer its interminable paradoxes, the more evasive the task becomes.

Why, in your view, is this play still relevant?

Hamlet is the most complex character in the theatre repertoire and the most enigmatic play. It has captured the imaginations of generations. It manages to engage our emotions on a universal level. It is still regarded as Shakespeare’s most engaging work in the theatre and one of Shakespeare’s most perfect dramatic compositions.

The mercurial and brooding Dane has not lost his appeal. Whether you take a cynical or romantic view on the work, you can never come away from Hamlet without knowing that the Bard has scratched at the most delicate and fragile strands of the worst and best in human nature.

What’s more, it is a play that binds so many thematic elements together, that history has favoured differing viewpoints on it in different times and places, thus producing a kaleidoscope of various and richly layered interpretations. As though it were a sacred text, generations in times and cultures have created their own traditions, disciplines and dogmas surrounding its meaning. This can be said of many other works in the Shakespeare canon.

Less sanctimoniously, we might call these “trends”. Presently trends are changing again as performances of Hamlet are being influenced by new research and I’m quite excited about this.

What makes your production of Hamlet different from other productions?

When I was brought on to direct the production, our producer Anthony McCarthy and I spoke at some length about Shakespeare and the Catholic religion. I’d performed in Hamlet before, seen a handful of productions of it over the years and it was my first encounter with Shakespeare as a child. All of these encounters with Hamlet had left me struck by the violence and the melancholy of its central character. Something had always struck me as being odd about the callousness of Hamlet’s murders juxtaposed with his brilliance and wit. I knew that there was in Hamlet a rather large and unmissable endorsement of the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory played out in the character of the ghost.

A second reading of the unabridged text revealed a number of references to the apocalypse and doomsday, these jumped off the page for the first time to me. Anthony and I had talked at length about including the character of Fortinbras, a character who since the 18th century has been conventionally cut (at least in the West) as he is a minor character who appears late in the play and seems to come across as something of an afterthought. Fortinbras’ name is in fact mentioned as many as 12 times in the play and even before the name of Hamlet is mentioned.

I had adopted the view many years before, that Fortinbras was an external threat who was, as such, supposed to be perceived as pivotal to a thorough understanding of the drama, a lens, as it were, through which the story could be refracted. I’ve sought to highlight these political and religious aspects. In Eastern Europe and Asia, Hamlet has remained a political drama and less of a domestic drama as has been the trend in the West.

The full play is more than hours long and is usually cut for stage performances. How long will your production of Hamlet be?

Artes Christi’s production will be under three hours. It is a difficult play to cut, as its unity, rhythm and pace are so well served at full length. But cut it we must. We have attempted to make sure the drama has an appropriate pace and rhythm and that the scenes retain a unity and structure. This was a difficult process but it was an aid to my preparation and helped me understand more deeply how I wanted to present the play.

I understand the play was probably cut even in its original production at the Globe. Can you tell us what the process generally looks like for editing such a famous a play? What is included and what is left out in your version?

The play was first published in a three hour version; the first quarto was published in Shakespeare’s lifetime by actors who knew the play. There is new interest in the first published text and a wave of new scholarship surrounding it as it differs in a few significant respects from the second quarto, published shortly after the first, and the ‘First Folio’ [a posthumously published compilation from Shakespeare’s manuscripts]. The latter two publications have been amalgamated so as to represent the whole text of Hamlet.

I think it’s safe to say that I have shaken the dust from some parts of the play that I felt will give a fresh tone to the drama and will help to present the story anew. We have left nearly all the scenes in and cut the lines to underline the religious, apocalyptic and political elements more acutely. So often these elements are themselves cut in favour of the domestic “plot”. I am guessing that for an audience who is familiar with the play, this will be one of the few or only occasions where they’ll hear some of these lines spoken.

There’s much scholarship to suggest Shakespeare was a Catholic and that this impacted his writing of his plays. What’s your take on the question of Shakespeare’s Catholicism?   

I don’t question it. Shakespeare very accurately portrays Catholicism in his plays and very often presents Catholicism in a favourable light. This was not the official attitude of his day. In the perplexing and often paradoxical case of Hamlet, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory is found in the mouth of the ghost who is later proved “an honest ghost”, while the Protestant doctrines of predestination is found in the mouth of the villainous King Claudius. There is a level of care in Shakespeare’s treatment of Catholicism that presupposes intimate knowledge of it. Also, it is widely accepted that his parents were Catholic based on their will and other facts known about them. Whether or not one takes Catholicism as Shakespeare’s religion (and perhaps his convictions went under various guises in his writing so as to escape detection, as he lived in times of intense persecution), it is a rather obvious fact that he takes a keen interest in religion, the Catholic religion dominantly and the religious sensibilities of the time in general. Scholarship about the religious themes in Shakespeare is not limited to Catholic scholars. Shakespeare was a Catholic is a view held by many non-Catholic scholars also.

What are some of the other Catholic elements in Hamlet?

There are others keenly posed about predestination and eschatology. To an Elizabethan audience many of these themes would have been patent and would have struck the audience in a way that would be less keenly felt now. Hamlet’s violent actions, for instance, are excused by Hamlet. Claudius prays for forgiveness and gives up on the idea. Hamlet chooses to wait for a chance to kill Claudius in the middle of a sinful act so as to maximise the potential of him dying without repentance. These may be shrugged off by a contemporary audience but such actions would have rung alarm bells in the minds of the Elizabethan/Jacobean patrons at the Globe who lived in an era of greater religious attunement.

So who are the main actors in this production of Hamlet?

Even the smaller characters get pretty decent stage time in this production. We have a large cast and have in general avoided doubling roles. We have a certain advantage being able to cast more people in a production like this. Our Hamlet is Dr Jeremy Bell, who lectures at Campion College and is a philosopher and a brilliant musician to boot. Most of the principal actors have had a long association with Artes Christi. Prudence Foxe is Ophelia, Paul Kennedy is Claudius, Kate Parker Frost is Gertrude, Johnny Apotsis is Laertes, Paul McLeod has the roles of the Player and the Gravedigger, Jeremy Ambrose is Horatio, Anthony Mason is Guildenstern, and Thomas Woods, Gordon Costello and Alana Rafter are performing with us for the first time in the roles of Rosencrantz, Polonius and the Player Queen respectively.

We also have given the opportunity to two very talented young actors Andrew Cougle and Alethea Jackson to present the roles of Hamlet and Ophelia for the Saturday Matinee performance on  15 October.

Have you got a favourite line or phrase in the play?

The play is full of memorable and quotable lines. “I will speak daggers and use none” is one that I remember responding to as a child.

Do you have a favourite speech?

My favourite speech is the Player King’s poem about the Rugged Pyrrhus which speaks of Old Priam’s slaughter at the fall of Troy. We’ve made quite a feature of this in our production. It is a beautiful poem and in it Shakespeare is cleverly referencing and interweaving other literary sources, something he always did with masterful nuance. The speech speaks to many themes in the play while motivating Hamlet to forge more keenly towards his vengeful goal by the apparent conviction of the Player’s performance. Hamlet overflows with full-fisted thematic developments of this kind.

What’s your favourite Shakespeare? Do you think the average person getting enough Shakespeare in their diet? Are school students? What would you recommend to get people started?

For some time I’ve longed to tackle King Lear again as it is probably still my favourite Shakespeare. This process with Hamlet has made me fall in love with it again and I find myself wishing we had more time, if not more opportunities, to keep exploring it. If I had a chance to do an uncut version next time, I’d be thrilled.

I strongly suggest that Shakespeare could be introduced to audiences younger than those in later high school years. Shakespeare deals with mature subject matter but I think younger audiences can and do fall in love with the muscular poetry, characters and drama. I also think that young audiences will only take in that which they can.

Romeo and Juliet is a great one to start with, or one of the comedies.

Artes Christi will stage Shakespeare’s Hamlet, produced by Anthony McCarthy, at the Seymour Centre from 14-15 October. Tickets from $35 ($30 concession). Family and group discounts also available. Book online at theword.org.au.

Win a double pass to see Hamlet

The Catholic Weekly, in partnership with Artes Christi, is offering readers the chance to win one of 10 double passes toThe Tragedy of HAMLET, Prince of Denmark. The lucky winners will attend the 2pm matinee performance at the Seymour Centre on Saturday, October 15, starring Andrew Cougle as Hamlet. To enter phone (02) 9390 5413 and leave a message with your name and phone number, or email your details to [email protected]Entries close 5pm, Friday, 7 October. Winners will be drawn on Monday, 10 October and can collect double passes (valued at $70 each) from the box office.

Related: 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, but was he Catholic? That’s the question