Monday, April 21, 2014

To Be Or Not To Be

I've just come off of reading a series of Facebook updates from a friend and former instructor of mine who recently finished a dissertation (and by the time this is published, will have given his defense, a public event of awesome that I'll be attending). His dissertation is on the culture wars and social organization and how it's really, really hard to talk about people about stuff when you disagree because we've got an "Us vs. Then" mentality and it totally sucks. There's WAY more to it than this, but this is the super, super Spark-notey version so that there's at least some reference to where my brain space is at in the moment. It ties in really well to my previous discussions about class and art and privilege and, given I can't look at Tumblr today without feeling like everyone hates everyone and no one can have a rational discussion about anything, it's a necessary reference in order to kick this post off.
Here's the deal: as you might know, if the internet tells you lots of random things about British celebrities as it does for me, that Benedict Cumberbatch will be playing the title role in Hamlet next summer in the Barbican in London. This then proceeded to kick off internet reactions to this casting. While I didn't see a lot of reactions, what I did see was really interesting.

I'll start with a blogger I more recently followed, a college student studying English who is very clever, very opinionated, and very passionate about Shakespeare. While I don't agree with everything she says, I like seeing her views. Which was essentially how I had to respond when I saw her posting about the Barbican Hamlet. It was pretty insulting to Cumberbatch, essentially describing the casting as self-indulgent for him. But when another person responded to her post, describing how productions could be more interesting if they stacked their money into a different kind of production. The blogger agreed, understanding how theaters want to draw off of big names but "at an established venue like the Barbican, why perpetuate the tiny circle-jerk that is The Great School of (White Male) British acting when... they could actually do interesting or even, y'know, relevant things." Upset about theater not taking as many risks as it could, she described how she felt "forever annoyed by complacent theatre enforcing its own complacency and then congratulating itself."

Given my last blog post, I'm inclined to agree with her a bit. Yeah, theater doesn't always take all the risks it should. Yeah, there's an issue with the fact that a lot of major popular theater actors are white. Yeah, doing a traditional interpretation of Hamlet can be kind of troublesome, especially when something a little different could be a lot more powerful. But these aren't things that can be blamed on the actors and going after Cumberbatch is rather harsh and underhanded. It gets more troublesome when in a later post the blogger discusses Tom Hiddleston's role in Only Lovers Left Alive and how he drew a great deal from Hamlet for his character of Adam. The blogger proceeded to discuss how, if the Barbican "must do a boring production of Hamlet" it would be better if Hiddleston were the lead rather than Cumberbatch because "we'd get an actor literally making fun of Hamlet while he's embodying him, and that's all I want out of normative productions of Hamlet." Leaving out the pitting actors against actors (which I'm not a fan of) and the fact that it seems like Cumberbatch gets a lot of rebuke and Hiddleston gets none (I mean, I think you'd have to try pretty hard to hate Hiddleston but I still don't get why Cumberbatch gets so much), I'm still kind of inclined to agree with the blogger here. Yeah, Hamlet's kind of a jerk and playing him with some satire makes it easier to work with. But this leaves us with two things: adaptation of plays and the prejudice of casting Cumberbatch (which is tied to subpoint one - the issue of blaming Cumberbatch for all of this in the first place).

But first, interpretation Shakespeare. I'm inclined to say that there's really no wrong way to interpret Shakespeare, because I don't want to say that anyone's view on the story is incorrect or that his very complex, multi-layered, sometimes unfinished plays cannot be read in a mass, endless variety of ways. However, I will say that there are some bad ways to interpret Shakespeare. Making Merchant of Venice extraordinarily anti-Semitic. Bad. Making Othello abundantly racist. Bad. Enjoying and reveling in the misogyny that occurs in Taming of the Shrew. Bad. That's not to say these themes don't exist in them - they most certainly do - but to stage a show that makes the players and the theater company as a whole look racist, intolerant, and generally not very good people is not good for theater-goers, business, and the culture of the world at large. In traditional stagings, this is usually dealt with in a manner that leaves the play intact, but tweaks something - adding an extra line at the end of Shrew to turn the whole tale into a representation of how misogyny is bad for everyone, or using racism as a motivation for Iago's horrid scheming in Othello. For some, this isn't enough. Sometimes, it's seen as better theater to do something far more adventurous. Why not make Othello take place in modern day Chicago and deal with racial politics there? Why not rework Twelfth Night so it's a story about gender identity and overcoming gender normativity? This is probably not all that unfamiliar - finding different, unique ways to stage Shakespeare to explore different themes.
This, however, relies on something very important - how we read and interpret Shakespeare. I believe that how we stage Shakespeare says more about the people producing the play than Shakespeare himself and it's interesting to see what people come up with, especially given the cultural context (c'mon, Coriolanus is too timely for it to have just been chosen because of reasons. It's not even that popular (which is damn shame. We should fix that)). When we chose to do stagings, regardless if they are more traditional or more contemporary versions, we regard certain interpretations over others. Perhaps we have more sympathy for Richard III because we believe that peoples hatred of him led him to be such a foul person. Maybe we think that Henry V has little too much tyrant in him to be a complete hero and we bring those instances out. Maybe we think Romeo and Juliet would be better story if the protagonists were gnomes (yes, Gnomeo and Juliet is a real film. I haven't actually seen it, but I heard it was cute? But I can harbor a guess that it has a far happier ending than the source work).

Regardless, reading Shakespeare's plays causes us to have opinions about his work because he doesn't come out and make it completely apparent what is characters are like. They are complicated and contradictory - rather like non-fictional people. And when it comes to a play like Hamlet - which is very focused on the character and his thoughts - we have to make a lot of decision on how we see him.
Hamlet, I would reckon, is Shakespeare's most popular and most performed play. I deeply believed this in high school, after reading it on my own and finding how much I related to the angsty, glum prince of Denmark. I was however furious when my AP English Literature teacher refused to teach  Hamlet because she hated the play. I was livid - how could anyone hate Hamlet? I have henceforth decided that this was a misstatement on her part. Perhaps it wasn't that she hated the play, but that she hated the character of Hamlet.

Hamlet is not exactly likeable. While he has some family issues of epic proportions, his methods for dealing with them aren't extraordinarily great. Depending on how you read his lines, he's an absolute jerk to Ophelia. I've described him as the original emo kid and I'm not taking that statement back - as a high school student surrounded by the cultural expression of emo, Hamlet definitely fit that bill.
There is, however, a lot of importance in how you read Hamlet's strange lines. He could be shunning Ophelia at some instances, or trying to protect her, or both at different times. He could be imaging his father's ghost or really seeing a spirit from another realm. He could be faking his insanity, or completely losing his mind in a world that has already gone mad. Most of the time, it's really your call as the reader/stager/audience member.

So, when it comes to saying that it won't be interesting or relevant if something different isn't done with it, I'm not sure I completely agree. While it's true that doing a conventional staging may - and I stress may, because it doesn't have to - leave out opportunities to discuss contemporary issues, I don't think that necessarily makes it not relevant or interesting. I find that Hamlet is one of the most relevant plays because it deals so much with youth, with change, with fear, and with family turmoil. These are things young people constantly struggle with. But again, this is just my reading. However, if the argument is that stagings, regardless of their style, need more representation of different people acting-wise, then I hear you loud and clear. This is a serious issue with those that think "traditional" Shakespeare is a reflection on the appearance of the actors rather than the appearance of the script. However, I hate to see the actors being blamed or pitted against one another for this when it is a casting and production issue.

Which finally bring us to the casting of Mr. Cumberbatch overall. Regardless of my fanish tenancies, as a would-be theater producer, I can't argue that Cumberbatch is an immensely talented actor and will likely perform the role very well. However, as a different blogger said on Tumblr, he won't be the Perfect Hamlet, because there is no such thing (I didn't realize this was an issue. Again - millions of interpretations. I like this concept and am going full speed ahead with it). The blogger than continued to say,
There’s no predicting what performance decisions he’ll make, but I imagine that his will be the smoldering, cerebral, angry Hamlet. The Hamlet who’s been raised all his life in preparation for kingship, and then finds that as he nears the end of his post-graduate education (so to speak), in his thirties and impatient for the crown (no matter how he loves his father), that the throne’s been snatched out from under him...This isn’t my personal headcanon Hamlet; I prefer adolescent half-formed Hamlet, teenage Hamlet back from college.This was Ben Whishaw’s Hamlet, and he said the smartest thing I’ve heard anyone say about the role: “I think out of all the parts I’ve played, that one feels the most transparent. When you go and see it, you’re seeing something of the actor…it’s not a mask you can hide behind.” The actor doesn’t become Hamlet, Hamlet becomes the actor. So I’m not going to see Benedict become Hamlet, I’m going to see Hamlet be Benedict. Which will be a very interesting—and beautiful—thing to see.
I've bored you all with a lot of text. This requires a gif.

Yes, indeed this. Even if you think that Benedict Cumberbatch is not a very good person and you wish Barbican had cast someone else, I believe that he deserves a fighting chance. I've heard that this is a role that he's wanted for a very long time - and hell, it's the Shakespeare roll that many, many actors dream of playing. There's also a personal level to theater and blaming an actor for how they choose to perform role can be unreasonably harsh. Given that we know nothing of how Cumberbatch will be performing the part, as mentioned above, and as rehearsals haven't even come close to starting, it all seems very strange to me. Why is there so much anger at Cumberbatch for this? Yes, perhaps it's a bit unfair that a big name actor got the part instead of an up and coming actor. Yes, maybe the suspicions of how casting work in the complex theater world is a bit disconcerting. Yes, maybe you don't like the direction that this staging is taking. That's fine and all are possible concerns. But why react with so much hate towards an individual who doesn't make the final call for what goes on stage, who didn't choose to play the part but was selected, who deserves a moment or two or more of admiration for his dreams being realized. I don't deny that Cumberbatch has said problematic things or that this perceived "White Male British Acting" group is an issue. But I do think it's unfair to lambaste him for a role he's yet to even perform. Pointing him out as a enemy (rather than treating the structures around us as troubling) refuses the chance to work issues through with him, point out what works and what doesn't work in productions of Hamlet, and how the theater world is flawed, things that could happen when working with him. Whose to say Cumberbatch won't take risks in his performance? Whose to say it won't be a really riveting staging? Who knows?

These are the struggles though, of being a fan of things and and being a fan of people yet still trying to recognize and work to fix the problems of culture. And so it shall continue on...

But I've arrived at another question for myself: why is it that I grapple with such issues here, anonymously pulling from other blogs, instead of actually interacting with them and working through the issues together, however mediated it might be. Am I merely throwing out issues without really addressing anything constructive about them? But this ties back to the dissertation of the century I mentioned at the beginning of this very long post, and that's the fuel for Friday. 


  1. I had no idea that BC's casting was controversial; this is a role that pretty much everyone wants to play--regardless of age/race/gender. Sometimes people just don't have enough to do . . .

  2. Yeahhh... you really do not understand the British class system (which does not remotely work the same as the US) and the dynamics at work here, and what an elitist circle jerk the acting profession in this country actually is.

    1. It's not 'white males' who are the problem. It is a privately and Oxbridge educated upper- and upper-middle CLASS.

      Please stop assuming that US experiences and dynamics of privilege and otherwise can be directly mapped onto the UK. They can't. Just because you came here on holiday once and have a fangirl crush on a lot of our media doesn't mean you have a clue.