Over the last ten years Independent Shakespeare Co. has grown in popularity to become one of L.A.'s best-loved summer events. Thousands of children and adults attended their 2011 summer of Free Shakespeare in Griffith Park, which included a HAMLET that had audiences raving. That production is now playing in ISC's Atwater Studio starring the company's managing director, David Melville. David and I sat down to discuss how playing Hamlet has changed for him over the years, as well as what the future holds, and how he learned to play the ukulele. And that's a story that will surprise you.
BWW: What is the appeal of taking HAMLET and moving it from Griffith Park to an intimate space like your studio for another run?
DM: It's really rewarding to play. The last time we did HAMLET in the park we had 1750 people in the audience and then when we did it last weekend we had 40. When we do it outdoors we don't have microphones so it's big. We're a very dramatic company and we don't shy away from that, but in the studio you can whisper and be heard. It really makes us explore the nuance and subtlety, which will hopefully inform what we do next summer too.
BWW: Why choose HAMLET?
DM: It's a play that we've visited many times and this is our fifth rendition. We've been working on it for about seven years now and it's really exciting for us because it's such a deep play. We're finding things now that we can't believe we missed before.
BWW: Do you view the play differently today than you did when you worked on it the first time?
DM: HAMLET can take a different journey every night because one thought will change and that opens up a whole new world. I think we've always managed to successfully create a HAMLET that's dynamic and moves with a lot of action. It can very easily become a passive play because there's so much introspection in it. From our very first production we were conscious that we wanted to make the monologues and the philosophical parts of the play active and dramatic. I think that's something that was intentional by Shakespeare.
BWW: Intentional in what way?
DM: The play really exists on the brink of a moment, and how Shakespeare draws that out over a number of acts. From the ghost telling Hamlet he has to take revenge, to the revenge happening, he goes through a whole process and, in that process, explores the nature of life and all those big questions. Madness is a subject that really fascinated the Elizabethans. This time we're really noticing how Hamlet's faking the madness really resonates around the court and how some people don't believe him. We're catching lines that make the motivation of the other characters so much more interesting and we're getting to know Gertrude and Claudius and Ophelia better.
BWW: When I saw HAMLET this summer I was struck by how much humor there was in it. Did you intentionally try to make it funny or was the humor in the text?
DM: Shakespeare has a sense of humor. I know that's shocking to some people but Shakespeare was very interested in how tragedy and comedy worked together. That's one of the things that he explored in the second half of his career more than anything else and it actually upsets some people that Hamlet is funny.
BWW: Do you think they consider it irreverent?
DM: Yes, but that's really an 18th century notion. After the Restoration Shakespeare's plays were re-examined and performed and became this noble work of this great playwright and they had this great worthiness attached to them. They would cut out a lot of the humor, like the Porter in MACBETH or the bawdier parts of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, but the Elizabethans were actually much more earthy and well-rounded. I think our company really tries to connect with its rough edges. It's wonderful stuff.
BWW: How does that lead you back to Hamlet being funny?
DM: He's a very witty and ironic person. The play is about his self-examination and he's quite merciless. If you play the irony in those situations it ends up being funny. Even a line like in the middle of the closet scene - the imagery of him describing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his two school fellows whom he trusts as he does adder's fanged - that image is beautiful and perfect, but it's also funny. I don't think it's wrong for an audience to see the image, connect that with the treachery of these two people, and laugh. I think that's entirely appropriate