Shakespeare Favorite Undergoes Another Adaptation Shakespeare's Hamlet is among his most well-known and oft-performed plays. Every director has his or her version of Hamlet - host Liane Hansen speaks with Michael Kahn, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and actor Jeffrey Carlson, who plays the title role, in this most recent adaptation of the Bard's work.
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Shakespeare Favorite Undergoes Another Adaptation

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Shakespeare Favorite Undergoes Another Adaptation

Shakespeare Favorite Undergoes Another Adaptation

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In the 400-some years since William Shakespeare's play "Hamlet" was first performed, many of his characters' lines have found permanent homes in the English language. Polonius' proverb, neither a borrower nor a lender be, Hamlet's question, to be or not to be. There are as many ways to deliver the prince of Denmark's famous soliloquy, as there are actors who played Hamlet.

(Soundbite of play "Hamlet")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): To be or not to be, that is the question.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?

HANSEN: Through the end of July, actor Jeffrey Carlson is playing the part at the Washington Shakespeare Theater.

(Soundbite of play "Hamlet")

Mr. JEFFREY CARLSON (Actor): (As Hamlet) To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…

HANSEN: This production of "Hamlet" is directed by the Shakespeare Theater's artistic director Michael Kahn. He and actor Jeffrey Carlson are in the studio. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. CARLSON: Hello.

Mr. MICHAEL KAHN (Artistic Director, Washington Shakespeare Theater): Glad to be here.

HANSEN: Jeffrey, describe this process for you. First of all, how long have you known the to-be-or-not-to-be speech by heart?

Mr. CARLSON: Oh, I guess I learned it probably about six months ago. But actually, that wasn't the first soliloquy that I started with. That was one of the last ones that I learned. Just because of the stigma of getting to those words, I wanted them to be fresh and come out of the moment as opposed to hear - now, we're going to do a famous speech.

HANSEN: Is the part intimidating?

Mr. CARLSON: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLSON: Well, it's a play that many, many people that have any knowledge of dramatic literature know about. And it's - so many great number of actors want to play or think that they can play. And there's so much scholarship and criticism written about it. There's a - this character is held up a great deal - exalted in a way. And you have to push all that out of your mind and just go back to what Shakespeare wrote and start there and know that this is my "Hamlet" as Michael has guided me, and pushed me, and challenged me.

HANSEN: Michael, in all the years that you've been directing and watching "Hamlet," was there one missing, an interpretation that hadn't been done?

Mr. KAHN: I've seen a lot of "Hamlets." I was supposed to do it many times in my life and never did it until 15 years ago with Tom Hulce. And I had a very good time doing it, but I feel very, very strongly that the play only made sense if Hamlet is very young.

His responses to everything are so - of someone who has never had these — any of these experiences before. He's betrayed by everyone he knows. He doesn't -he thinks about it, he talks about it, he reacts in many, many different ways.

And so I only - I can only understand him as a human being if I see that he's somebody who's going through everything for the very first time and not necessarily with the equipment to handle it, to start with.

So the play made sense to me when they were all young, actually all young because everything happens to Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes and Ophelia, people who think happened to them and they don't know what to do about. And they struggle, and they get mired in problems, and, you know, and can't handle it, and go crazy or behave overly emotionally or all the things young people do.

HANSEN: What's the most important speech in the play?

Mr. KAHN: Oh, I think for Jeffrey, it maybe: How all occasions do inform…

Mr. CARLSON: …against me. I still - I just love it so much and…

HANSEN: Which one is it?

Mr. KAHN: How all occasions do inform against me.

Mr. CARLSON: Then I was going to cut it, so not cutting it was my present to Jeffrey.

HANSEN: And we find this where that speech happens in the play?

Mr. KAHN: It happens right — it's the last thing he says before he's sent off to England. And he's a young man who's not a murderer, has just killed Polonius. He's about to make a decision to have two of his old high school chums executed. And it's - his time, I got to stop talking about this and do it. All of the inaction comes to a head right there.

HANSEN: Why did you want to cut the speech?

Mr. KAHN: Oh, every once in a while I think Hamlet talks too much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLSON: Every once in a while, I think he does talk to much. Listening to my voice I sound a little (unintelligible).

Mr. KAHN: But actually it's pretty crucial to the play. I'm very glad it's in now and I — it's very important to the play, but…

HANSEN: How was this vision of the prince being received?

Mr. KAHN: Well, we're doing really wonderfully (unintelligible), there are a lot of standing ovations. And like all productions of "Hamlet," it's controversial. Everybody's got their "Hamlet." "Hamlet" (unintelligible) like what Flaubert said about "Madame Bovary," and so some people think Hamlet should be 30. Some people think Hamlet should be royal. Some people think Hamlet is a boy. And we're going to give…

Mr. CARLSON: Or maybe Hamlet should hold still.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAHN: Right. Some think Hamlet should be played by a girl. I mean, there's all kinds of people's Hamlets in their heads. But I think this - I think when people come to me and say that this is the clearest "Hamlet" that they understand more about the play from this production than others I feel that maybe we've done the work we wanted to do.

HANSEN: So ultimately, what do you want the audience to remember after their three-hour trip to Elsinore.

Mr. KAHN: I want them to have felt something. I want them to - I want them not to have felt that they had to say cultural evening that they can go home in order to think about what they saw. And that's, you know, that's why I get up in the morning and do these plays.

HANSEN: Jeffrey Carlson plays Hamlet in the Shakespeare's Theater Company production. Directed by the theater's artistic director Michael Kahn. The play runs in Washington through July 29th. Thank you both for coming in.

Mr. CARLSON: Thank you very much.

Mr. KAHN: It was a pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

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