It feels like the literate world began with the plays of Shakespeare–but we forget that half the beauty of the plays is in their interpretation. And Hamlet, of course, is the centennial favorite–the weirdest, and perhaps the least consciously dated of all. Whether it be as Ethan Hawke‘s sniveling film student, Mel Gibson‘s oedipal he-man, Kenneth Branagh’s neo-Victorian blonde, Hamlet has gone through a myriad of interpretations in the past two decades alone, all of them varying in costume but seldom in substance. Such a loquacious character, one would think, forbids it. Indeed, if there’s one thing you can be sure of walking out of any production of Hamlet, it’s where he stands on just about every social institution, biblical teaching, gender role and military phenomenon. In the case of Hamlet’s opinions, no stone is really left unturned.
But if the plays of Shakespeare prove one thing conclusively in this age, it’s that English has had its day. It’s never more clear when you attend Hamyul, a Korean adaptation of the Shakespeare play, now being revived at LaMama. The play, condensed from it’s daunting length of 5 or so hours, suffers little from cutting. In fact it excels–dramas of operatic proportion always do, it seems, being given more breathing room. The English language, having twice the amount of words as any of the romantic languages, somehow never gets criticized for this same fault, but instead inspires legions of people to defend its lengthiness and tendency to outdate. Hamyul is, with its distillation of the big words and winding plot of the original, a strangely organic retelling, a production which seems to have distilled the wisdom of the story without getting rid of all that much excess. More art, less matter. In Hamyul there is no searing temptation to scream at Hamlet to shut the fuck up for awhile or to stop talking so goddamn fast.
The most recent filmed interpretation set Hamlet in the world of corporate America, and found a world of visual metaphors in the parallel between the prince of Denmark’s crisis and the crisis of the digital age. Hamyul, however, is older and more traditional than the productions of Hamlet we’re usually forced to see, only the sense of tradition is entirely different. When it comes to making an adaptation, it seems the only change we can really think to make is to modernize the setting in some way–to change the costumes, the set. Hamyul is different. Conceptualized in 1977 by Byunkoo Ahn, changes only the culture–and it’s enough of a change to actually contextualize the play in all it’s emotional radiance.
Hamyul’s ‘mouse-trap’ scene–usually the most annoying part of the performance–is transformed into a dance interlude, where three women mime the prologue of the tragedy and we actually get back a fragment of what’s been lost in the years from Hamlet’s original production until now: a sense of dramatic escalation. My guess is that it’s the movement that does this, and the ability to speak slowly and deliberately, and to howl. Often the most frustrating thing about Hamlet is the lack of elaboration about his relationships. In Hamyul, the emotions are clear, and surprisingly normal. With his ghost-father onstage, Hamlet acts like a mourning son. In his climactic scene with Gertrude, he acts like a troubled child. He doesn’t pummel her with the reminder of her ‘incestuous sheets’ without crying in her arms afterward. And Gertrude herself demands respect–she’s hardly as shrinking as some actresses make her, who seem to sit in conference beforehand with every other actress who has played her and decide not to swaver from the path of ‘bitch-mother-goddess-whore’. Gertrude–and to some extent Ophelia–often end up as blankly uncomplex as the lyrics of a Katy Perry song. In this production, they are easily the most interesting characters in the play. Ophelia, whose soliloquy is turned into a dance in which is shown her disillusion (‘oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown’) followed by her madness and finally her drowning, all in the course of one prolonged interpretive movement whose meaning, though wordless, is unmistakable.
But maybe the best part of Hamlet is, unsurprisingly, Hamlet himself, as played by Young Kun Song, who allows the character to be human and soundless and, unexpectedly, equal parts masculine and feminine. It’s an innovation which actors of Hamlet should have picked up on long ago, but haven’t seem to, and one which seems to prove the entire point of the play (if there is one): that ‘thinking’ is no more a feminine act that ‘acting’ is a masculine one–and even if we believed it were, we should not have believed it, because nothing is either one thing or the other, but thinking makes it so.
Hamyul is playing at LaMama until the 10th of July