SOFTBALL, SHAKESPEARE, AND SHINERS
In 2017, I write a blog post about the first time I saw Hamlet or a reasonable facsimile of the play, since called "The Naked Hamlet". I figured it might be a good idea to write about some of the other times I have seen Hamlet, this one with my students in tow.
The great British actor Simon Russell Beale is largely unknown in this country but I'm pretty sure I have seen him more often on the stage than any other performer. In 2000, he decided it was time for him to tackle the greatest role of all--the melancholy Dane, Hamlet. Russell Beale had waited nearly two decades for his chance at the role, hoping to be guided by his close friend, director Sam Mendes. But that project fell through and Sam encouraged him to try a different director. Many thought that, at age 39, Russell Beale was a little late to do so, especially since he was a short and pudgy 39 and not someone who could pull off the virile, heroic profile many saw as necessary for a reasonable portrayal. He considered that himself. "I seriously think that this is my last chance of doing Hamlet," he said. "I'm 39. I'm not a dashing Alan Rickman figure who can do Hamlet at 45 and get away with it." But if Beale looked the least like Hamlet is "supposed" to look of any actor I have seen essay the role, he more than made up for this deficiency with his intelligence and insight. I have often told my students that I have never seen a great production of Hamlet. I think it unlikely that I ever will given my firmly established views of how the play should be staged. But if there has been any actor who has better understood how Hamlet's lines should be spoken than Simon Russell Beale, I have yet to see him.
This production, directed by John Caird, opened in London in 2000 and then proceeded most appropriately to Elsinore Castle in Denmark--Hamlet's castle. It moved throughout a few European cities before coming to America, where I saw it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the summer of 2001. But before I knew it was coming to Brooklyn, I found out that it would be playing briefly at the old Wilbur Theatre in Boston. I asked my AP students if they were interested in making the trip to Boston, and they gave the idea two big "thumbs up". The show was scheduled for Sunday afternoon, so we decided to travel to Boston on Saturday via Amtrak. I asked Mrs. Cheryl Rosania, my colleague who taught AP Language, to chaperone and she gladly signed on. I think there were about ten or twelve students in total. In fact, it was unusual for me to even have them as students. Back in early October of that school year, their actual AP Lit teacher was incapacitated by a serious medical dilemma. Rather than stick the kids with a long-term substitute, I took over that one section of her schedule for the remainder of the year. It was one of the best groups of students I have ever taught, and I think they might have finished with the highest average AP Exam score of any of my classes in five decades of teaching AP Lit.
Ali Grill, one of my best students, asked if we could take an afternoon train instead of the one on Saturday morning because she had a softball playoff game posted for that time. Since she was the team's star second baseperson, I agreed and bought afternoon tickets. Unfortunately, during the game a hard ground ball took a bad hop and came up sharply, hitting Ali in the left eye. She had an ice pack applied, and we all knew she'd have a nice shiner the next day, but she was still game for the excursion to Boston. We all met at Metropark in Edison and boarded an early afternoon train. We all went out to dinner on Saturday night, but I began to get a little worried about Ali's eye, which was purple and yellow and a few other unidentifiable shades as well as completely shut now. I encouraged her to go the the ER to have it checked, but she said it would be better in the morning and that she would just keep applying ice packs.
Sunday morning came. A number of parents had said their kids could go on the trip only if they attended mass on Sunday morning. I promised the parents I would see to it, and we planned to visit one of Boston's oldest churches. I was really worried about Ali on Sunday morning. Her eye looked so grotesque that I was afraid she might lose her sight. But she stayed in the hotel and started the icepack regimen again while I trotted the rest of the group to, as I recall, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a shrine to the Blessed Mother built in 1874. Things looked a little better for Ali when we returned and after lunch we headed to the Wilbur Theatre, one of the oldest theatres in the country.
It was a darker production of Hamlet than I was accustomed to--literally darker. The stage was often in shadows. It was cluttered with large shipping shipping trunks and boxes that became props of one sort or another throughout the play and took on a metaphorical resonance as well--this was a voyage we were all on. Longtime New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote: "Mr. Russell Beale became as close to a definitive Hamlet as I’m ever likely to see. (First runner-up: Mark Rylance, another less-than-obvious candidate.) That’s because he registers thought more transparently and intricately than any actor of his generation [my boldfacing]. And every one of those “words, words, words” that Hamlet speaks are visibly connected to not just an idea but also to an instinctive emotion in this prince’s mind. For once, I was able to follow Hamlet all the way through his long journey of vacillations and convolutions of character. By the end, he had achieved a marveling but credible acceptance of who he was and how he had gotten there. I wept for him not because he was a classic tragic paradigm, but because he had become something like a close friend. Or maybe even closer. I don’t think I was the only person who left that performance thinking, 'Hamlet, c’est moi'." The production was both sadder and more profound than I had previously seen. It actually was a personal tragedy to lose so sensitive a soul at the end of Act V. Perhaps it was so poignant and moving because Simon Russell Beale's mother had recently died, and the play is nothing if not a disquisition on the relationship between a child and his parents. Below is an audio clip of one of Hamlet's most famous speeches, his instructions to the acting troupe, by Simon Russell Beale.
I especially like the window card for this production because the mirror reflection of Hamlet is his skull, a literal memento mori. Unlike most productions I see, I never thought that a particular moment failed miserably or was ill-conceived. I do remember wishing that the quality of the performances of the other actors in the production was at a level to truly complement Russell Beale's skills, but so few actors can work at that level that I wasn't surprised, just disappointed. I thought my students very fortunate to see this, and we talked a lot about it the next day on the way home.
After the show, we had dinner, all sitting around a long table that the waitstaff had created from a collection of smaller tables. I sat at one end of the table and Mrs. Rosania on the other with half a dozen students on each side. As I recall, I came up with the idea to try to alleviate Ali of some of her feelings of awkwardness about her many-hued shiner. The swelling had finally come down, but it was ugly. Perhaps someone else generated the idea and I've just ascribed it to myself from ego. At any rate, I asked Mrs. Rosania if she had any make up in her bag, and she pulled out a rouge (blush) case in some reddish tint. Each of us went up to Mrs. Rosania and she applied the rouge as a streak under the left eye of everyone in the group. We all looked like we had been in a fight and been left with an ugly welt under one eye! Ali laughed. We then took the T to Harvard Square to walk around the campus and its environs.
When we were all sitting on one of the subway cars headed north on the Red Line, a woman and a little girl sat in a nearby seat. She looked us up and down. Finally she spoke to our collected group, "I guess I can see how you might all have black eyes...but the SAME eye?!" We all laughed. And as we walked single-file on the old streets of Cambridge, past the Brattle Theatre and the newspaper kiosk and oyster houses and taverns, we accepted the amused glances and head-turns of the citizens of Boston with pride. The next morning we headed back to New Jersey. What a memorable experience it had been!