Dane to be Different

Tiemann says there's been a "few mild breakdowns" as she's worked to learn her part. She's a senior, and between classes and working at Borders Books & Music in Fairview Heights, Hamlet is a back-breaker. She's avoided studying other Hamlets, though she did peek at a scene of Branagh's and was happy to find that his interpretation of a line was the same as her own.

There remains the woman thing. "People are always shocked" when they learn the role she's playing, she says. "Then they want to know why."

To answer that, it's best to turn to the director who came up with the concept. Mackie looks like a director in the midst of Hamlet. He rushes out of his office to have a look at how the set is coming along before finally settling in at his desk for an interview. A poster of Bernhardt as the sweet prince hangs in one corner of the room. Mackie emits nervous laughter when asked about the challenge of doing such a weighty work of art.

He describes how, a number of years ago, he had been in London and saw the National Theater production of the play and a Royal Shakespeare Company production. "At the time I thought, 'We never can do this.' But students need the experience of working in Shakespeare. We're not competing with the Royal Shakespeare Company, or even the Rep. It's a student production."

Shakespeare is important for studentactors because "they've studied it in English class but haven't learned it as theater," he explains. "Shakespeare is filled with choicescontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pagethat have to be made, and students need to learn that artists have to make those choices."

Not to mention the choices a director must make, especially one who believes in experimentation, and in getting Hamlet completed in two hours. Mackie feels this production is cut "not nearly so severely as Olivier's film," which dispensed with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; or the Zeffirelli/Gibson version, which cut Fortinbras.

Mackie's reasons for cutting Hamlet are largely practical. Students have yet to acquire the ability to hold an audience for a long duration, he says: "Professional actors can hold an audience's attention for four hours with wonderful stage language and speech, and even for them that's a great challenge."

To Mackie, Hamlet is already an experimental work, "almost absurdist. Shakespeare brings in the grave diggers. This low-comic routine (comes) immediately after the most beautiful speech in the play, in which the queen comes forward and describes Ophelia's drowning. One beat after, the graves fly open -- at least that's how we're doing it -- and it looks like The Muppet Show. It's diametrically opposed to the moment before."

So, why a woman? Mackie says, "In part, to be different. I think it gives it an edge. It brings interesting implications when Hamlet refers to 'womanly behavior' in a very male-chauvinistic way." Also, for a speech as familiar as "To be or not to be," he hopes that "a woman saying the lines will set it apart, make it bizarre enough to get the audience to listen."

A female prince of Denmark might be the least experimental aspect of this production. Mackie has rearranged the sequence of scenes, cut soliloquies so that some begin in one section of the play but end in another. "At the beginning of the play there's a suitcase on the stage with clothes hanging out of it, as if Hamlet is preparing to go back to the university before his parents persuade him to stay," Mackie explains. There is "no attempt to root the play in Elizabethan times or Danish times of the sixth century A.D., when the real Hamlet lived." Costumes combine medieval and modern dress. A 1920s tailcoat appears in one scene.

In a play that has been so weighted with interpretation and theory, one of the most studied passages -- at least for those working in the theater -- is Hamlet's direction to the players, which many consider to be Shakespeare's own acting theory. Mackie says he assigns it to his theater-history students. "It's very helpful. It urges the actors to pay attention to the lines. It urges capitalizing on the speech." Shakespeare calls for the artist to put a mirror to nature, and Mackie agrees: "No matter how experimental or bizarre the production is, it must have something truthful and probable in it. It doesn't have to be lifelike in the sense of realism, but it certainly needs to have some sense to it."

Then Mackie catches himself, "I cut that speech.
"It's wonderful that Shakespeare put that in there for us all to read as his acting theory years later, but it's not theater-history class out there."

Hamlet is presented April 16-17 and 23-25 at the SIU-Edwardsville Communications Building Theater. Call 618-692-1777 for reservations.

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