There was time enough during Andrei Serban’s ludicrous 3-hour, 40-minute production of Hamlet at the Public Theater to wonder why nobody ever boos anymore.
It goes like this: ” Boooooo! Boooooo! Get it off!” Or, as Shakespeare himself put it: “Pish! Pish for thee! O poverty in wit! Go mend, go mend! Froth and scum! By cock and pie! Peace your tattlings!”
My friends, never have I witnessed such pishy tattlings as Mr. Serban’s lunatic display of directorial folly with Hamlet . As the Bard said elsewhere: “I have seen drunkards do more than this in sport.”
Though it gives me no pleasure, I can boo in print, if I must. But I see you slumped in numbing disbelief at what you’re witnessing, and do you utter a peep in protest? Do you dare? I’ve wondered before why audiences at the theater are so docile. Why should passionate disapproval from the paying customer be considered shocking?
The last lonely boo I heard at the theater was several seasons ago at the end of John Guare’s unfortunate Four Baboons Adoring the Sun . Music to the ears! That boo, pish, raspberry, bird, heckle, protest vote and finger pointed at the Emperor’s suit of clothes was brave in its way, discerning, and certainly of an independent mind. I am for uproar in the theater. I am for the boo. I am for all audiences who put drama critics out of business.
Of course, your impolite boo might be my enthusiastic cheer-and where will that get us? With luck, it will get us booing at each other as the bewildered cast looks on. Rival factions at the ballet have been known to boo each other. Hysteria and outbreaks of hand-to-hand combat are nothing new at the opera, even on stage. But what acquiescent wimps we’ve all become at the theater! We wouldn’t boo a goose, let alone Hamlet .
Is such salutary judgment-derisive zingers, audience revolt, boos and hisses-fair to the performer? Not entirely. But passion is preferable to passivity, and zeal works nicely both ways. If we can cheer, why can’t we pish?
Besides, it takes wit to be heckled memorably. Sir Donald Wolfit, a great ham of the English stage, one night stepped forward during his curtain call to announce his next great production, having given a suitably awesome rendition of Othello . “Next week, we shall be performing Hamlet ,” he announced, anticipating rapturous applause. “I myself will take the part of the Dane, and my dear wife will be playing Ophelia.”
” Booooo! ” came a voice from the gods. “Your wife’s an old rat bag!”
“Nevertheless,” Wolfit replied without skipping a beat, “she will still be playing Ophelia …”
Which brings us back to Andrei Serban’s gumbo Hamlet . Everything is in it, except Hamlet . The more he throws into the pot, the less he understands. Instead of Shakespeare’s ghost of the King, for example, Mr. Serban thinks, and he thinks, and he cries: “Eureka! Why not three ghosts of the King?” And as no one inquires, “Why?” three ghosts it is. Lamentably arty, most unghostly ghosts, even so. But so it is from beginning to end. One Fortinbras would be the norm. But Mr. Serban is defiantly not the norm. He puts his thinking cap on again, as his poor company of actors quietly groans. “Got it!” he cries. “We’ll have two Fortinbrases! And they shall be androgynous twins speaking in high-pitched voices!”
What in heaven or on earth does he think he’s doing?
Why is the gravedigger dressed in a T-shirt with the word “Clown” written on it? I have the answer to that one. Because he’s a clown! He doesn’t make any of us laugh, but that’s what he is. He’s also a ventriloquist. He performs a ventriloquist act with poor Yorick, alas. He knew him well over a gig gottle of geer. Mr. Serban would have written “Ventriloquist” on the T-shirt too, but there wasn’t room.
Why does Polonius record his own words on a miniature tape recorder? I’m uncertain. For the record, I imagine. Though this be madness, there must be method in it. Why is the courtier Osric flown in like Peter Pan? Pass. Ophelia’s clumsy mime as a marionette? Because she’s everyone’s puppet, you see. Her Javanese-style dance? Because she’s nuts. The Moroccan skirts on the cliché cartoon nerds Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Because all the world’s a stage?
Not all of Mr. Serban’s ideas are so tantalizing, however. His courtiers spy through binoculars and take notes, for one can never trust power in high places. On the other hand, Claudius seems peculiarly lighthearted. (“One may smile and smile and be a villain.”) Then again, Hamlet vomits on a polystyrene rock before his opening soliloquy, having drunk too much after seeing three ghosts of his father clanking about together in suits of armor and tulle. Hamlet appears later in a bloody butcher’s apron as he does a funny walk, and checks Ophelia’s pulse-she’s fainted-during “To be or not to be.” Is Hamlet mad? Or is the director? That is the question.
But nowhere in this mindless mess masquerading as experimental theater was I more astonished than during the Players scene. The Player-King appeared to have a coughing fit behind his mask as he tried to speak the speech trippingly on the tongue. I was worried for the actor for several agonized moments as the key scene seemed badly stalled. But the Player King exited coughing, and King Claudius took over the role of the coughing Player King! It was deliberate! It was another of Mr. Serban’s inspired ideas.
I ask you: Who else but this dimwit director would trouble to inquire, “What if the Player King collapses coughing during his speech to the King?” And as his beaten cast tried not to look downcast, he exclaimed: “Got it!” And so it came to pass that the real King was word-perfect in his new role as the Player King, but only the director knows why.
This was also the staggering scene when our hero, Mr. Serban, brought on many posters of Hamlets past (including Kevin Kline and Laurence Olivier) with the biggest poster of all going to his own Hamlet, the talented Liev Schreiber whom we exonerate from the entire, lamentable proceedings along with every other actor in the cast. “O, there be players that I have seen,” says Hamlet witheringly about bad actors. (Hamlet is a secret drama critic.) And what does Mr. Serban do? He brings on the gimmicky posters with Hamlet’s line, “They imitated humanity so abominably.”
Who is the joke on? Is it on his own Hamlet? But let’s say it’s a merry little jest by Mr. Serban that somehow passed some of us by. What point is the poster moment really trying to make? The director explained to The New York Times : “When the posters arrive, the audience may say: ‘Where are we? Are we in Elsinore?’ I say, ‘Listen, we are not in Elsinore, guys, we are in the theater.'”
So now you know, guys. We’re in a theater, after all! And me? I say it’s spinach, and the hell with it. Mr. Serban has clamped Shakespeare in foolishness from start to finish. It would have been the healthiest thing had the dispirited, tired audience of the Public sent this juvenile production on its way with a rousing chorus of lusty boos. To pish or not to pish? There’s no question about it.