Dane to be Different

Apr 14, 1999 at 4:00 am
Rachel Tiemann admits she's more the Ophelia type. Tiemann is tall, slender, long limbed, with wide brown eyes and a round face that, when she smiles, reveals two adorable dimples. Her hair is cropped short these days, because she's not playing the supporting role of the sad, mad girl who drowns in the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville production of Hamlet. She's got the lead.

"People are calling me Hamlet," she says, "and the character is beginning to affect my life: I can't decide; I wear black all the time; I mock other people."

No, she'd never thought of playing the prince before this opportunity came, but there was a rumor going around the performing-arts department last year that director W. Craven Mackie, already notorious for taking an experimental approach to the classics, was thinking about casting a woman as Hamlet.

The rumor proved true when auditions this spring were opened to both women and men. When Tiemann was called back for a second audition, she tried to influence the director with a more androgynous look, pulling her (then) long hair back and wearing pinstriped trousers.

According to Mackie, she didn't need the costume. In auditions, he says, "There was nobody even close."

If you're casting what many consider the greatest part in the English language, it makes sense to cast your best actor. If, through the accident of gender, that actor happens to be a woman, there is tradition to fall back on.

There were a number of "Hamlet ladies" in the 19th century, Mackie notes, the most famous being Sarah Bernhardt, playing the role in Paris with her wooden leg (perhaps tapping out the iambic pentameter) in 1899. The 20th century has seen a number of Hamlet women, with Sybil Thorndike playing the role before the war. Since the 1960s, any number of avant-garde companies, such as Mabou Mines, have gender-bent Shakespeare.

Besides, as anyone who has seen Shakespeare in Love knows, the gender issue was much simpler in Elizabethan times -- the actors were all male. So it's taken the slow-moving Western world about 400 years to do some minor reversals of that custom.

But, as Tiemann offers as understatement, "Casting a woman is different." But is it so incongruous as seeing "Hamlet played by 35-year-old burly guys," the very nonburly Tiemann asks rhetorically, referring to recent film versions with Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh, "with an 18-year-old Ophelia?" (Actually, Hollywood is full of 35-year-old burly guys with 18-year-old starlets, but that doesn't make it Shakespearean either.)

With a librarian for a mother, Tiemann was aware of Hamlet as early as grade school. She first read the play during her senior year of high school: "I loved it, loved it, loved it. I loved his alienation. You both want to shake him and be there for him. He has to make choices that he cannot make. Hamlet is one of the first real characters in a character-driven play. Spiritually, he asks the questions 'What are we? Where are we going?' I always saw Hamlet as a 22-year-old home from school. It makes sense to have a younger Hamlet."

Tiemann plays Hamlet as a student prince (and not a princess; Hamlet is a young man played by a young woman) who would rather be back at Wittenberg U. than dealing with the rotten world of dreary Denmark. She obviously has direct experience as a student ("I'm so far behind in two English classes!"), but she has had to receive some training in Hamlet's manlier acts. "I wasn't proficient with rapier and sword, and I must be, or against Laertes I'll get pummeled."

But then, most guys aren't proficient with rapier and sword these days. "I go to it as Hamlet the prince," Tiemann says. "If I play age or sexuality, it's too much. I do kiss Ophelia, but people shouldn't be thinking about lesbianism -- there's already too much going on. I find myself sitting with my legs open more often. I keep my back straighter. Actually, I like the testosterone trip I go on."

Nothing will be standard in this production of Hamlet. Mackie has done significant cutting, trying to get the running time down to two hours -- quite a feat, considering that Branagh's film version, which presented the full text, ran four hours. The play will begin with Hamlet's first soliloquy, "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt," rather than at the ramparts of Elsinore Castle with a nervous sentinel crying, "Who's there?"

Nor will Tiemann be playing the "melancholy Dane." She describes the prince as "a dark comedian. He's more mocking. If you have an injury, he'll keep poking. He can be a little snotty, self-centered. The world revolves around him. He's very sensitive, beyond any other character, but insensitive to others -- especially Ophelia. He doesn't take into account what's in her head."

In regards to the question of Hamlet's madness, whether it is purely feigned or partly real, Tiemann answers, "I don't think he's very mad, although he suffers from a condition of depression -- his father has died. I'm playing him very noble and sincere at the end. You could play Hamlet as very funny, which makes it better when he turns and becomes intense. Dr. Mackie has me playing with bones and skulls in the graveyard scene. If there's anything funny, we try to find it."

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.