Think of a play that has a character who always dresses in black; a child disinherited because of a parent’s remarriage; a young man with an Oedipal complex; meditations on the nature of writing and art; and a play-within-a-play.
If you guessed Hamlet, you’d be right. But you’d also be right if you guessed The Seagull. The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., has programmed both plays this season, using the same cast, and audiences who saw Hamlet, which closed in January, will get to see Chekhov’s play beginning Feb. 14.
The idea for the double dose of melancholy came from ART artistic director Robert Brustein, who suggested it to guest director Ron Daniels. Although Daniels is directing both plays, he says he’s “of two minds” about promoting the parallels.
“A play has got to stand on its own and reach its audience as a live piece of theatre, without extraneous references,” he says. “That being said, then you start investigating certain connections between the two plays, and interesting things begin to emerge.
“Chekhov’s characters are continually quoting Hamlet,” Daniels points out. “Obviously the central relationship between Treplev and his mother is very Hamlet-like. Then there is the dead father and the usurper Trigorin. And finally Nina, like Ophelia, undergoes a great emotional stress.”
But such parallels, says Daniels, are “mechanical.” What interests him is Chekhov’s attitude toward his characters, which, unlike Shakespeare’s, is profoundly ambivalent. “Chekhov was exasperated by the Russian intelligentsia, who had potential for good—for reform—but was incapable of action,” he explains. “The Russian Hamlet is a superfluous figure, and therefore he is swept aside. Or, actually, Treplev sweeps himself aside.”
In Daniels’s view, it’s Chekhov’s women who are heroic: Arkadina, “a voracious survivor,” Masha, who has “grit and a determination to endure”; and particularly Nina. “It is Nina who escapes the entombment of this world, and survives and endures and changes,” he says, “whereas in Hamlet, the Nina character—Ophelia—is destroyed. She refuses to fight for her life in the river.”
The productions are cross-cast, so that Mark Rylance, who played Hamlet, will play Treplev; the actress who played Ophelia will be Nina; Gertrude will be Arkadina; Claudius will be Trigorin; and other Danes will become Russians.
Daniels originally directed Hamlet in 1989 at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he spent the past 14 years as an associate director. For its remounting at ART, a coproduction with the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Daniels brought with him lead actor Rylance, composer and musician Claire van Kampen, and designer Antony McDonald.
The director credits McDonald with nudging him away from “location Shakespeare” over the past four or five years. “The moment you say, ‘I’m going to set Pericles in modern Palestine,’ a set of inevitable solutions arises. I think it’s very easy to do productions of that nature, but it’s more interesting to try to find an inner logic, an inner coherence.”
McDonald’s set for Hamlet is dominated by an immense window in the upstage wall, sharply tilted onto a corner, through which the audience sees painted gray breakers mounting to the top. When the back wall opens for outdoor scenes, like Fortinbras’s march and Ophelia’s funeral, the turbulent ocean threatens to engulf the stage.
McDonald’s costumes suggest various periods of the early 20th century. The women’s dresses look vaguely Edwardian (although Ophelia enters in a satin gown she might have borrowed from Jean Harlow), while male courtiers wear maroon-and-gray uniforms, jackboot and Sam Browne Belts, implying a fascist 1930s Denmark. Perhaps the most arresting image was Rylance’s teary-eyed Hamlet wandering through Elsinore in dirty, rumpled pajamas, like a lost child. Daniels says the idea arose because of Rylance’s youthful looks. “Through the play it was possible to investigate the whole trauma of adolescence—adolescent breakdown, schizophrenia, suicide, despair,” says the director, who is a father himself. (A son, 23, has just joined the RSC; his daughter is 19.)
The idea of a “modern man reduced to a figure in pajamas” has obsessed Daniels recently: his Richard II in 1990 wore “the pajamas of a concentration camp,” and he says the image may resurface in The Seagull.
For the latter play, McDonald has created a visual parallel to the wild ocean: Chekhov’s lake dominates the background. “The design is vast,” says Daniels. “It starts off with huge landscapes, and gradually reduces, so the final scene is set in a minuscule, tomblike space. Nina emerges from this tomb and ventures through the storm toward a new life, leaving the rest to disappear into history.”
Daniels says he and McDonald intend to uproot Chekhov “out of the sepias and the linden trees and the long, flowing Victorian gowns,” setting the play considerably later. “I’m anxious to explore color. It’s not necessarily a play about sepia nostalgia: it’s vibrant,” says Daniels. Apparently Matisse was a great favorite in Russia at the time the play was written, so McDonald has incorporated colors from the painter’s palette into the design.
Daniel’s arrival at ART renews an old friendship with Brustein and other company members from Brustein’s tenure at Yale Repertory Theatre, where Daniels directed plays by Brecht, Bond and Rudkin in the 1970s.
The director, who is 49, was born and raised in Niteroi, a city across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, but established himself in England after a coup that toppled the Brazilian government in the 1960s. He became a free agent earlier this year when Adrian Noble reorganized the RSC, using freelance directors rather than house directors.
ART, meanwhile, has asked him to stay in Cambridge as associate artistic director, a prospect which excites him. “I’m very interested in doing more than ad hoc productions,” Daniels says. “I like the sense of continuity at ART.
“The third stage of my life, which is going to happen in America, will tap both my early days—the colors, smells, abandon and chaos of South America—and my European years—the discipline and rigors of the Old World. In America, I look forward to bringing those two things together.”
Edward Karam is a freelance theatre writer living in Boston.
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