Last night I saw the Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet, with Josh McConville in the lead role, stealing all the thunder.
As we drove home, we rather sheepishly admitted to one another that we’d both thought at points during the performance, ah! That line would do well for Tony Abbott! And that one for Dyson Heydon! And that one for the entire Labor Party. Which is, when you think about it, a double tragedy in itself: that we are so immersed in current politics we can’t watch Hamlet without reference to them, and that those politics are of such a hysterically dramatic and comedic nature, they lend themselves to the centuries-old utterances of the imaginary inhabitants of the rotten state of a fictional Denmark.
Of course this is an aspect of Shakespeare’s genius. Capturing the timelessness of emotion and its multitude of expressions, particularly, in this play, through politics both public and private.
The production was comedic, more so than any production I’ve seen, and it worked remarkably well. Hamlet is the blackest of black comedies, with a rapid-cycling central character possessed of a sharp wit, honed by grief and rage, intent on revenge, maddened by betrayal, cruel in his torment, unspeakably savage to the hapless Ophelia, who loves him. The scenes of Hamlet’s emotional and at times physical savagery towards Ophelia are awful to watch. He raves, frothing, then grabs her crotch in a gesture drenched in both violent contempt and desperate desire, as she, poor girl, attempts to protect herself from forces beyond her comprehension. Then he kills her father. Swine.
For a modern audience, Shakespeare’s ability to leap without warning from the comedic to the tragic to the farcical is a little disconcerting: we’re used to consuming our entertainment in discrete categories and when it is dished up complex, it’s more likely to be found in lengthy television series such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, both of which, for mine, are Shakespearean in their mastery of emotional complexity. So it’s a tad challenging to cope with such variety in a period of two hours, and I admire Elizabethan audiences for their stamina.
This morning I found in my inbox the following pome from lovely M. I woke up with Ophelia on my mind, thinking she had so little voice, so little agency, and I wanted another ending for her rather than suicide in the river. While the pome doesn’t give her the outcome I’d have chosen I think it is an interesting one, and the last stanza is perfect, opening up another aspect of Hamlet’s complexity not explored in the play. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
OPHELIA’S TECHNICOLOR G-STRING: AN URBAN MYTHOLOGY
By Susan B. Anthony Somers-Willett
The air tonight is thick as curry;
like every night this summer I could cut it
with my wine glass, spray it with mace.
Over and over it would heal together
like a wound, follow my click and pace of heels
down Conti Street, St. Ann, Bourbon.
Oh Hamlet, if you could see me now
as I pump and swagger across that stage, cape dripping to the floor,
me in three-inch heels and a technicolor G-string—
you would not wish me in a convent.
They’ve made me a queen here, married me off
to a quarter bag and a pint of gin.
The old men tend bark and splatter, rabid
at each table. I think they stay up all night
just to spite the moon. They bring their diseased
mouths to the French Market in the morning,
sell Creole tomatoes to tourists who don’t know
what they are. Each bald head shines plump and red.
It seems like so long ago that I modeled
for those legs outside of Big Daddy’s—
the ones over the door that swing in, out, in, out—
the sculptor made me painted as Mardi Gras.
I thought you might recognize them if you ever passed
with the boys, parading from Abbey to Tavern,
or think them royal feet in need of slippers.
Someday I expect to find you here,
sitting at the table between the first and second rows,
fingering bones or something worse.
And in the end you will throw me a columbine,
light me a Marlboro and take me to a 24-7 where
jukebox light quivers, makes us as thin as ghosts.
But for now, I will dance for the fat man
who sits in your place and sweats his love for me at 3 a.m.,
because only he knows I am Horatio in drag.
Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, “Ophelia’s Technicolor G-String: An Urban Mythology” from Roam. Copyright © 2006 by Susan B. A. Somers-Willett.