Heartwood Regional Theater Co.’s upcoming production of “Hamlet” has all the ingredients found in great entertainment: ghosts, swordplay, romance, betrayal, madness, and revenge. It also has philosophy, poetry, and the catharsis of tragedy.
All of these elements collide in a play widely considered to be one of the greatest ever written. It has been performed countless times over the course of four centuries. It has been interpreted, reinterpreted, modernized, and lionized. Hundreds of pages of scholarly articles have been written dissecting every line. Hamlet is a play that transcends its time. Heartwood’s version explores why.
“Most people will come into the show knowing the story,” said Honora Boothby, who plays Ophelia. She sees the production as an opportunity for the audience to re-engage with a cultural touchstone, to consider how the play manages to reflect experiences and emotions that remain relevant, even in a more modern world.
Griff Braley, executive director of the Heartwood Regional Theater Co., has a more than passing familiarity with William Shakespeare. He’s already produced “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Tempest” and he taught “Hamlet” for years at Wiscasset Middle High School. He has seen the play performed in any number of iterations on both stage and screen.
Finding someone to play the lead role was a daunting task, Braley said. More than 300 actors applied for the part, but he needed an actor who had played the role before, who had proven he could handle learning and expressing 40% of the words in the entire text. He found one in Thomas Daniels, who took on Hamlet in 2019 for the Camden Shakespeare Festival.
“These iconic characters — they’re really tough because everybody’s got their opinions,” Braley said. “You just have to find your own way and I think he’s very confident and very, very smart.”
Braley and Daniels both wanted to push past the scholarship around “Hamlet,” which Braley called extensive and intimidating, to focus on what made the play stand the test of time and relevance: the relationships between its characters and the beautiful language.
Braley considers Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 feature film, which covers the complete text of the play with a four-hour runtime, to be one of the gold standards, but given the constraints of time, space, and budget, he turned to the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Co.’s stage performance with David Tennant in the lead role as a model.
“I kind of leaned on that idea that we could be in this small space and do this epic piece,” Braley said.
That small space, the stage at the Parker B. Poe Theater, gives the actors an intimacy with the audience that helps them convey the meaning behind Shakespeare’s words.
Language, Braley said, is one of the challenges to navigate. Shakespeare often subverted the definitions of common words, even invented words when nothing in the English lexicon suited his purpose.
“There’s this whole etymological kind of hide-and-seek game you have to play with Shakespeare where what he’s saying is not what we understand it to mean,” Braley said. “That’s where the actors come in. Their expressiveness, both facial and physical, help the audience come to grips with the meaning … I believe that you should be able to shut off the voices and watch the play and understand everything that’s happening.”
The cast has risen to that challenge in multiple ways. The expression of tension, of internal strife, comes out in a clenched hand, a twist of the head, in the way every gesture is conceived and presented.
Scenes between Hamlet and the queen, his mother, played by Nanette Hennig Fraser, are fraught with Hamlet’s conflicting emotions and the queen’s confusion and dismay. For Daniels that mother-son relationship is the most crucial relationship in the play.
“The only thing that’s going to ground you in some sort of truth is taking in and responding with your scene partner,” Daniels said. “It sounds very easy when you say it but it’s so hard to do.”
The two actors more than succeed. The chemistry between them becomes, at times, electric as Hamlet attempts to redeem her from the crimes he believes she has committed.
As the doomed Ophelia, Boothby captures the fracturing of her character’s mind without compromising Ophelia’s intellect. Her Ophelia is more than a frail flower. She is in many ways the most tragic character — her father murdered, her brother absent, and her beloved behaving cruelly and irrationally toward her. She is completely alone, and it shows.
Hamlet at least has Horatio, played by Nick Miaoulisone, as an unfailing friend to confide in, to rely on and, in the end, to trust his legacy to. Horatio is a character of few words, but Daniels said he and Miaoulisone sought out every opportunity to demonstrate the depth of affection between the two friends, such as an arm across a shoulder, a glance of shared understanding, or a hard and heartfelt hug.
“That’s a deep, deep love right there,” Daniels said.
The physicality of the play is another highlight, particularly the swordplay, choreographed by Stephen Shore and masterfully executed in scenes between Daniels and Raymond Huth as Laertes, the play’s other vengeance-seeking son. The last act leads to a finale that will have audience members on the edge of their seats as the fate of every character plays out and the stage is strewn with bodies.
Understanding Shakespeare’s intentions around “Hamlet” can be tricky. According to Braley, the playwright never published an authorized text of the play — all of the known versions, or quartos, were published later, pulled from the memories of actors who played the roles and Shakespeare’s handwritten pages.
Braley cut nearly half the text basing his take on a 2009 Arden edition of the second quarto. He removed most of the political context regarding the invasion of Denmark to focus on the relationships.
“I don’t think a modern audience that’s not scholarly or doesn’t have a pre-knowledge misses anything,” Braley said. “It’s a layer that’s almost incomprehensible to the modern world. I mean who knows the politics between Denmark and Norway in whatever imaginary year it is in Shakespeare’s mind?
“I think it refocuses the play onto the inner workings of the relationships … the part that I think makes the play lasting — just this brilliant mind that Shakespeare created in Hamlet,” Braley said. “There’s more in Hamlet than any human being could actually contain.”
Tickets for “Hamlet” at the Parker B. Poe Theater are available for performances at 7:30 p.m. July 28-29 and Aug. 2-5. Tickets are $30 for adults and $5 for students through college. To make a reservation, call 563-1373 or email at email@example.com. For more information, go to heartwoodtheater.org.
The Parker B. Poe Theater is on the Lincoln Academy campus at 81 Academy Hill Road in Newcastle.