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Hamlet: The First Quarto

Making It Good with the Bad

Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, May 6, 2015, second row, left side of studio theater
Directed by Joel David Santner

"To be, or not to be; aye, there's the point. To die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all: No, to sleep, to dream, aye, marry, there it goes."

We look over the shoulder of the gravedigger wearing a hood and holding Yorick's skull up clost to his face, as Hamlet knees to the left and Horatio stands in the background
The Gravedigger (Jim Jorgensen) holds Yorick's skull as Hamlet (Marcus Kyd, squatting) and Horatio (Esther Williamson) watch in Taffety Punk's production of Hamlet: The First Quarto at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Below, Hamlet pauses in his desire to kill the king (Daniel Flint), who is at prayer trying to absolve himself of his many sins. Photos by C. Stanley Photography, Taffety Punk.

Really? Did Marcus Kyd playing Hamlet in this Taffety Punk production of William Shakespeare's play actually forget the lines to the most famous speech in mankind? No, Kyd got it right; instead, another actor long, long ago might have screwed up these lines and most of the rest of Shakespeare's play resulting in the 1603 publication of the First Quarto version of Hamlet, commonly called "the Bad Quarto." A second version of Shakespeare's play—one that scholars have determined was based on the playwright's manuscript—would be published one year later, and then a revised version of that appears in the First Folio. Most productions use the latter version, some use the "second quarto," some flip a coin to find out which of the two versions to play for that particular presentation. Hardly anybody performs the First Quarto.

Taffety Punk is not "anybody." The D.C.–based theater company known for exploring Shakespeare without a safety net decided to use the First Quarto text when it presented the play as its Bootleg Shakespeare offering in 2012. That experience convinced the company to revive the play for a run in its current season. "The brevity and peculiar language of this version jar both actors and audience from the comfort of the play they know so well, which means it's the perfect opportunity to reconsider what Hamlet is," says publicity material for the production. Director Joel David Santner, noting that many may refer to the First Quarto as the Bad Quarto, said he treated it as the "ultimate text." He writes: "This gives us a chance to present a different angle on a well-known story to the audience and perhaps encourage them to reconsider what Hamlet is about." This production certainly accomplishes that goal.

Nevertheless, during the intermission, I was moved to recall a conversation I had with a friend of mine several years ago that has nothing to do with Shakespeare but everything to do with this production. I've long been a fan of the rock band Jethro Tull, and I've purchased each one of its albums regardless of critical notices. In 2004 the live recording of Jethro Tull's 1970 Isle of Wight Festival performance was released, and I snapped it up. This particular concert was of great historical interest because Jethro Tull was top of the bill along with Jimi Hendrix (his last public performance), and the band appeared on the last day of a festival that had devolved into a free-for-all. After listening to the CD, I was remarking to my friend about how interesting it was, even though you could hear a lot of mistakes in the playing and the sound quality was mediocre at best. "If it's that bad, why listen to it?" he asked, catching me off guard. Well, I replied, because of the performance's place in rock 'n' roll lore and the Jethro Tull canon.

So it is with Hamlet: The First Quarto. I hear lots of mistakes and the verse quality is mediocre at best, but we watch it because of the text's place in theater lore and the Shakespeare canon.

Shakespeare scholars have been debating the First Quarto's place in the Shakespeare canon for as long as there have been Shakespeare scholars. Exacerbating the debate is that a play about Hamlet existed before 1590. The play, of which no copy is known, is referred to as the Ur-Hamlet. The first mention of Shakespeare's Hamlet is a 1602 entry by printer James Roberts in the Stationers' Register, but the First Quarto that came out a year later was published by a different printer. The First Quarto's title page says the play "hath been diverse times acted by his Highness servants in the City of London as also in the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford and elsewhere," clues to its use by a touring company. What's now known as the Second Quarto was printed by Roberts in 1604 with this equally instructive title page: "Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy." This version is longer (Taffety Punk's Q1 production clocks in at 2:30, including a 10-minute intermission), some of the character names are different, and Gertrude's role has significantly altered. The First Folio version generally confirms the authenticity of the Second Quarto text, making the First Quarto the odd one out.

Theories abound. One is that the First Quarto is Shakespeare's first revision of the Ur-Hamlet or maybe the Ur-Hamlet itself. Another sees it as a pirated version made by a transcriptionist at a performance of the play, the 1602 equivalent of recording modern plays on cell phones and then posting them on You Tube, with quality just as bad. Others believe it to be an edited script for a touring company, which could explain the cuts but not the alterations of lines, character names, and the character of Gertrude herself. Harold Jenkins in the 1982 Arden edition of Hamlet details the studies that have concluded that the likely source of the First Quarto text was the actor who played Marcellus, Lucianus, and Voltemand—and also had recently acted in The Spanish Tragedy, as some lines from that play show up—transcribing a touring version of Shakespeare's Hamlet. The actor would have memorized his parts but only heard the other parts (actors in those days used cue scripts), explaining how some parts match those in the Second Quarto and First Folio while other parts are wildly divergent. The restrictions of producing a play on tour would explain the abbreviated nature of the script, and the actor would only be certain of the characters he interacted with (if their names are even used in dialogue and not just speech headings).

Yes, but then there's Gertrude, actually called Gertred in the text. For the first half of the play, she's the doting mother and wife we all know. In the closet scene, after Hamlet kills Polonius (Corambis in this text), he clearly tells his mother that Claudius murdered the elder Hamlet—something not quite so explicitly laid out in the Second Quarto and First Folio texts. Gertred is about to believe him when the Ghost reappears to Hamlet, but not to Gertred. So, both the Ghost and Hamlet's talk of murder become "the weakness of thy brain," she says, "Which makes thy tongue to blazon thy heart's grief. But as I have a soul, I swear by heaven, I never knew of this most horrid murder: But Hamlet, this is only fantasy, and for my love forget these idle fits." Hamlet, using lines similar to those of Shakespeare's, assures her he is not mad, and she seems to believe him in this scene.

We become certain that she believes him in a subsequent scene in which Horatio delivers to her the news that Hamlet had discovered the king's plot to have him killed upon arriving in England and is returning to Denmark (the whole matter of rescue by pirates is missing). "Then I perceive there's treason in his looks that seem'd to sugar o'er his villainy," Gertred says of the king. "But I will soothe and please him for a time, for murderous minds are always jealous." Everything about this scene makes clear that Gertred is on the same page as Hamlet and acknowledges Horatio as an important ally. Nothing in or about this scene shows up in the other authorized versions of the play. Could the actor playing Marcellus have really made up this scene or interpolated something he recalled from another play? Or was this a conflation of scenes for the touring version, thereby reflecting how Gertrude and even Horatio should be played in Hamlet?

Despite this fascinating insight and some dynamic performances from the actors, the Taffety Punk production of Hamlet: The First Quarto as a whole comes up short as fulfilling theater, and that fault lies almost entirely in the script itself. Hamlet's first soliloquy does not open with "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew, or that the Everlasting had not fix'd his canon 'gainst self-slaughter." Instead, we get this: "O that this too much griev'd and sullied flesh would melt to nothing, or that the universal globe of heaven would turn all to a chaos!" Even worse, "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" becomes "Why, what a dunghill idiot slave am I?" Yeah, such textual differences jar, but it's more than getting us out of our comfort zone; it jars because the verse is pretty bad. Kyd, playing Hamlet, has solid acting chops, but in this production, his introspective Hamlet does not get in a groove because the verse won't let him. The revenge-seeking Hamlet, on the other hand, moves along smartly, whether he's toying with Corambis, managing the Mousetrap, confronting his mother, or maneuvering around the king. The production's highlight comes when the king tries to pray and Hamlet forestalls killing him; rather than the iconic pose of upraised sword behind the king, Kyd's Hamlet stands in front of the kneeling, praying king and yells his lines. It's the point in the play at which this Hamlet is confronting both his inner and outer demons.

Santner's directorial touch is so deft that we can't be sure what's inspired by the text and what's merely inspired. For example, in the nunnery scene, Kyd's Hamlet seems to be not merely railing at Ofelia (Esther Williamson) but earnestly warning her to take safety. In the graveyard scene, Hamlet delivers his soliloquy on poor Yorick, "A fellow of infinite mirth," as much to the Gravedigger as to Horatio (played by Williamson as a woman). Jim Jorgensen playing the Gravedigger listens with an expression of appreciative nostalgia, and we get the impression that he recognizes Hamlet. And why not? Hamlet remembers riding on the back of the jester who once poured a flagon of Rhenish on the Gravedigger's head, so they have lived in the same circles.

Jorgensen also plays Corambis (aka Polonius, the most jarring of the First Quarto's altered nomenclature), and in the modern/timeless dress of Costume Designer Tessa Lew, the black-leather-jacket-clad, bald-head, towering Jorgensen appears almost thug-like: the king's henchman as much as his counselor. When Ofelia speaks of the "tenders" of Hamlet's love, Jorgensen's Corambis sternly snaps his fingers at his daughter, who pulls out a letter and hands it to him—the letter he later reads to the king and queen. However, in Ofelia's mad scenes, Corambis enters as a vision (not in the text), and gives her the gentlest look we've seen from him all play. When she sings of Valentine's Day, Hamlet is the vision who enters and dances with her (again, nontextual), but eventually switches out to the real Laertes (Dan Crane), whom she guides to a bench, sits him down, then mounts him and plants a kiss on him. It's the most dramatic representation of Ophelia's (Ofelia's) sex-centric madness I've seen.

Two other directorial interpretations also piqued my interest. In the first court scene, the whole cast is dressed in black, except Hamlet wearing a gray sweater. This might represent his world view at the moment. When Hamlet enters with the actors before the Mousetrap, the First Player (Crane) is saying, "Full 40 years are past," which, we soon learn, is the first line of his speech in the upcoming play. Hamlet cuts him off and goes into his director's spiel: "Pronounce me this speech trippingly on the tongue, as I taught thee." With each of Hamlet's pointers, Crane's Player tries again, only to incur further direction from the Prince. While the First Player's line is an interpolation at this particular point in the dialogue, the First Quarto text clearly indicates Hamlet is coaching the player on how to speak the "some dozen or 16 lines" he set down to insert in their play. That would mean his contribution to the play is the scene in which the lady doth protest too much. Also in the First Quarto version of this scene, Hamlet goes on ad nauseam about reining in the improvisational antics of the clown: It makes one wonder if Shakespeare the playwright wasn't alone in considering the company's recently departed Will Kempe too excessive in his extempore playing.

Hamlet stands with his knife pointed at the throat of the King who is kneeling, hands outstretched and laurel wreath in his left hand, his head tilted back as he prays to heaven. Both are cast in a red light on a dark background.This being Taffety Punk, the production incorporates various extra-textual music and movement theater pieces. An ensemble dance (choreography by Paulina Guerrero) at the beginning, repeated a couple of times during the performance, seems superfluous to me, but there's much dramatic resonance in the Ghost being accompanied by two hooded characters attached to the dead king with bungee cords. While speaking with Hamlet, the Ghost and his companion phantoms create stage-size string figures that eventually entwine Hamlet. Less effective is the use of the theater's wall as a giant chalkboard. On it, Hamlet writes "To be" as he launches into that soliloquy and "words" in answer to Corambis's question, and he draws out the description of old men by the "Satyricall Satyre." Ophelia scribbles on the wall as she describes her flowers, Laertes writes his father's name on the wall, and the king draws a diagram for the fencing scheme that later becomes the bout's scoreboard. (Ofelia's grave is also marked out in chalk on the floor.)

Frankly, with the acting talent in this company, no such visual aids are necessary. Two performances stand out as exceptional. Jessica Lefkow plays Gertred as a smart, powerful woman. At the opening of the closet scene, when Hamlet asks, "How is't with you, Mother?" Gertred replies with, "How is't with you?" which Lefkow issues in the stern tones of a thoroughly peeved mother. Daniel Flint plays both kings, the dead Hamlet in goggles and a nose guard, and the current king, Claudius, with a black metal laurel wreath as a crown. Confident, commanding, charming, his Claudius is every bit a good-character king, and we get no clue that he is what the Ghost says he is until the Mousetrap. After we know for sure he murdered his brother, married his sister-in-law, usurped the throne, and is plotting to kill Hamlet, Flint accomplishes the incredible, keeping us engaged with this tyrant by opening to us the wounds of his soul, even if those wounds come from his own murderous ambition.

Lefkow and Flint are fine actors, but it's also worth noting that the First Quarto version of the play gives her character more solid footing and his character more dramatic tension. Both take full advantage of it, giving us further reason to see this production beyond the text's place in theater lore and the Shakespeare canon.

Eric Minton
May 14, 2015

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