Between reading “Hamlet” in school, endless adaptations and its compulsively quotable lines, most people are familiar with William Shakespeare’s tortured prince haunted by his own mortality.
But knowing what to expect is exactly the problem with the play, says New York Shakespeare Exchange’s Ross Williams.
“There’s no reason Hamlet has to be any one thing,” says Williams, the director of Hamlet10, a new production opening tonight at the Flamboyan Theater that splits the title role between 10 actors. “It does tie into our political moment right now of, ‘Why would we ever need to say that Hamlet is a dashing, heroic, princely leading man type? Or white? Why can’t he be a wispy little Asian guy, or a fat guy?”
In fact, Williams’ casting for the role intentionally went as far outside of expectations as possible. He chose five men and five women of varying ethnicities and sexualities to portray a Hamlet who will range in age from a teenage girl to a 50-year-old man.
The physical attributes of each actor are meant to tell a slightly different story with each scene — as Williams points out, “There is a big difference between seeing a young woman saying, ‘Get thee to a nunnery,’ versus a young man saying, ‘Get thee to a nunnery.’” It's all to show how a bit of the character is recognizable in all of us.
To keep a consistent tone, the role of Hamlet became a collaborative process, with each actor offering their takes on the role and then melding those into a performance that’s intended to be emotionally true to the character. Sometimes, that means one person’s performance is enough to carry a scene; in others, all 10 will be speaking in unison or trading off lines.
When not playing Hamlet, the actors take on the other roles in the play, which poses its own challenge. They not only have to stay in the head of their character in the scene but also anticipate where the mercurial Hamlet will be when it’s their turn to step in.
But there’s some fun to be had with it, too: “For instance, the Hamlet that leaps into the grave of Ophelia is portrayed by the woman who plays Ophelia, so we can have a little bit of dramatic irony and tension of Ophelia jumping into her own grave.”
Though Williams didn’t set out to make any particular political statement with his casting, he does hope it breathes fresh air into his favorite playwright. Besides staging the Bard’s plays, the New York Shakespeare Exchange runs pub crawl-style performances and is producing a short film series of his sonnets. For “Hamlet10,” Williams kept the set minimal and is staging it in the round, bringing the audience into the production.
“A lot of people have grown to have preconceived notions of what Shakespeare can offer them, and we have to shake that up,” he says. “We have to get out in front of that and say, ‘Look at it this way. Bring yourself up to a different experience of it and we will show you something powerful.’”
March 23-April 9
Flamboyan Theater at The Clemente
107 Suffolk St.,917-428-0065