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Jobsite Theatre: Themes in ‘Hamlet’ still resonate today

Bill DeYoung

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Giles Davies and Katrina Stevenson in Jobsite Theatre's production of "Hamlet." Photo: Ned Averill-Snell.

There’s trouble brewing at Castle Elsinore, Denmark’s royal residence. Hamlet’s father, the king, has been murdered – and the young prince is determined to expose his uncle, Claudius the newly-crowned monarch, as the perpetrator.

This dastardly deed sets in motion the events of Hamlet, perhaps the most famous of William Shakespeare’s tragedies. It is a tale of revenge, love, lust, sleuthery, sneakiness and, significantly, great poetic pontifications on the nature or life, and death, and what may lie between.

“Is grief the great human bind? I don’t know,” mulls Jobsite Theatre artistic director David M. Jenkins, who’s directing the production of Hamlet opening this week in the Straz Center’s Jaeb Theater. “And it’s amazing that Shakespeare managed it a couple hundred years before the advent of what we even understand as psychology.

“It tells you that these people still had these thoughts, even though they didn’t have the language for it. They hadn’t broken it up into the id, ego and all these things.”

Jobsite mainstay Giles Davies has the title role. Throughout his career, he’s portrayed a good number of Shakespeare’s heroes (and anti-heroes, as well as villains). But Hamlet, that’s one Great Dane that always got away – until now.

“I never thought I’d have the chance to be Hamlet,” he says. “It had pretty much become sour grapes to me. But because there was so much other tasty fruit that I just never regretted it.”

Davies, who also worked with the other members of the cast as a Shakespearean text coach, and with director Jenkins on judiciously editing the script down to two-plus hours’ performance time, reveals he discovered new depth – and new details – in the dialogue.

“‘To be or not to be,’ I had thought, was a question of ‘Do I want to live or do I not want to live?’ I don’t think it’s specifically about suicide, although it (the play) goes there. I think it’s the knowledge that he knows in order to fight against this particular wrong, ‘I’m going to jeopardize if not guarantee my own demise. So do I just swallow my pride and say no, my life is worth more, or do I say no, this affront needs to be corrected?’ Regardless of outcome?”

Shakespeare, Davies adds, “wrote it late in his career, so his artistry has really been honed by this point. And his ability to encapsulate some pretty deep ideas within the parameters of iambic pentameter and his general speech style is really very honed.

“He’s tackled some of the major universal themes that all of us go though, male or female, regardless of culture or whatever. The brutality of life, and what it asks and demands of us against the option of ending it. Or to just sit back and let it wash over you.”

Explains Katrina Stevenson, who plays Ophelia, daughter of royal advisor Pelonius and ostensibly Prince Hamlet’s great love (although it ultimately doesn’t work out that way): “It’s all done on the words. But we’re contemporary actors, so we have to put the gooey center in all of this.”

That entails imbuing each character with an emotional center. “Giles pushes me where I need to go, without being abusive,” she says. “It is in the world of the relationship of these characters.”

Stevenson, who’s also a familiar presence on the Jobsite Stage, says that “doing” Shakespeare – particularly a character like Ophelia, whose amplifier is always turned up to 11 – can be exhausting.

“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” the actress explains, “ because she really does get whipped around in the first half – by her father, by Hamlet and by herself – and she does go crazy.

“And it’s not every day that I’m asked to do a role like that; it’s flexing different muscles and really digging deep to find that. And to stay in that, which is hard with Shakespeare, which is so episodic  – you’re on for a scene, you’re off for a scene, you’re on for scene – to keep that underlying story going so as an actor you can hit the end of that emotional arc.”

Davies, too, went the extra mile to “find” his Hamlet. “He’s so bright. His witty repartee, his speed – he can take an idea or a thought, and turn it on its end. Give a double meaning to a word.

“He’s not a nice guy, I will admit – he is a bit of an ass. But he’s so smart, and his problem is so huge … he’s always talking to the audience. The audience is his best friend. He gets them on his side.”

The audience – in whatever century Hamlet is performed – needs to be able to relate to the prince’s crises of conscience and questions about mortality.

“With the grief that Hamlet is going through, and then this layer of revenge that gets added onto it, that’s just the makings of a bomb,” Jenkins offers. “When someone is full of grief, upset and then just kinda gets gasoline thrown on it … and then how that torches everybody around him.”

In the play, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father. “But the biggest ghost,” adds Jenkins, “is Hamlet himself. He’s this walking shell of who he was.

“And I feel like we all know what it’s like to lose, we all know what it’s like to be in the process of grief. And the universality of that, it’s just different from some of the other things that we talk about as universal in Shakespeare. It hits at a more visceral, gut level.”

Preview performances Jan. 11 and 12. Opening night: Friday, Jan. 13 (show runs through Feb. 5). Details and tickets are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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