Sunday, February 22, 2009

Adolescent "Hamlet" at Wash. U.

I guess the best you can say of any new production of a familiar play is that it taught you something new about the text, and the Washington University Performing Arts Department Production of Hamlet made me consider, for the first time, what an adolescent the play's hero is.

Director Henry Schvey makes the point convincingly in his notes to the production. The evidence is everywhere in Shakespeare's text - Hamlet is a youth, a student, an adolescent. It's wrong to think of him as a man or stage him that way. I believe this is true and had not considered the point before.

Of course, this approach to the play also makes the most of a challenging situation: that the only players Schvey had at his disposal were undergraduates at an expensive private university where almost all of the undergraduates are "traditional students" - i.e., adolescents. However Schvey staged Hamlet, the actor playing him was bound to be a kid, because kids were all he had to work with.

I wouldn't envy anybody the task of playing Hamlet, let alone a college senior like St. Louis' own Sathya Sridharan. This kid had his moments last night, but Schvey evidently failed to teach him how to enact intensity by doing anything other than raising his voice. When Hamlet is quiet or devious, Sridharan is pretty good (sometimes, very good); when he is intense or agonized, the actor invariably shouts and screams and blows the role.

I blame the director for this, not the actor - I can't imagine why this couldn't have been caught and fixed in rehearsal. Granted, throwing a tantrum is a very adolescent thing to do, which fits the direction, but anyone can see it makes for annoying theater when nearly constant tantrum is matched with one of the longest and wordiest roles in theatrical history.

The actor I want to see more of, after seeing half of this production, is Iain Prendergast, who played Polonious with a dry and pompous wit that belied the youth of the actor. Prendergast is majoring in Religious Studies, according to the program notes. Maybe he'll grow up to be a pastor and lead a church through some lively community theater.

Speaking of the program notes, they bustle with the students' affection and respect for Henry Schvey. To say that the man couldn't coach a college kid to successfully play Hamlet is to say that he tried to teach a college kid to play Hamlet. There is no succeeding in that task, though it shows how much Schvey respects his young talent that he gave it a try.

Not that anyone knew me to notice, but I apologize to all of these young strivers and their teacher for bolting at intermission. I was falling asleep, Hamlet tantrums and all, after a week of guitar circles, gigs, and other forms of sleep deprivation. Though I would like to have stayed to applaud at the end, I am afraid I would have snored before then.


The bad sketch of Sathya Sridharan as Hamlet is mine.


Anonymous said...

I always blame the director.

Anonymous said...

You heard the loudness but missed the power and ability move the heart and soul.You should stayed and seen the whole play, above all you should have steeped yourself in the spirit of Hamlet, the play and actor, then you would see what most of us saw ---the heart wringing human plight and the inevitable and inexorable end.

Confluence City said...

I'm glad Anonynous II got more out of the performance than I did. I am pretty Hamlet-steeped - been living with the play pretty closely for about 24 years - but I don't begrudge anyone the pleasure they take in a performance. However, I do hope the young actor hears some of the criticism. I attended the play with an elder, and he very much shared my feelings on the performance. Criticism is good for growth, though growing involves pains.