Is gender a disguise? Are we all, in a way, transvestites? Are the sex roles assigned us by society in effect iron masks grafted onto living flesh?
Such questions seemed ever more pressing as Hamlet—performed in the style of Japanese master teacher and director Tadashi Suzuki—unfolded at StageWest in Springfield, Mass. Thirty minutes into the production, my companion turned and asked in a perplexed whisper, “Is Hamlet a man or a woman?” “What do you think?” I countered. “I’m no longer sure,” she answered. “First I saw him as a man. Now he seems to be a woman.” By casting actress Kelly Maurer in the role, director Eric Hill had ignited the anguish of Hamlet’s psychosexual crisis like a Molotov cocktail. By turns masculine, feminine, androgynous, Maurer’s great Dane, like Marcel Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa, smiled inscrutably at the audience from a no-man’s-land of sexual equivocation.
“Only a young man can play Hamlet as he was—with naivete,” actor James Dean once remarked. “Laurence Olivier played it safe. Something is lost when older men play him. They anticipate his answers.” Perhaps something is also lost when young men play him—or when women do. Certainly, in this century, actors as diverse as Sarah Bernhardt, Judith Anderson, Diane Venora and, most recently, Teresa Budziscz-Krzyzanowska (under Andrzei Wajda’s acclaimed direction) have explored the territory. But Hill says he did not cast Maurer in the role to make a sexual statement—that, given her physical and vocal range, she was the best actor in the company for the part. Still, make a sexual statement he did.
In light of her casting and the production’s physically and vocally intense style, Maurer’s reading of “To be or not to be” piled irony on irony, ambiguity on ambiguity, posing sexual as well as existential riddles. Starting the speech with a three-minute vamp of weird mechanical noises, like a computer printer run amok, she careened into each sentence with an abrupt new voice: wounded boy, confuse adolescent, angry man, flirtatious woman. Now tragic, now comic, now parodistic (more questions: Do we have to take Shakespeare seriously? In this play actually a send-up of revenge tragedies?), the shifting vocal gears denied the audience the comfort of nestling down into any simple response to Hamlet and his dilemma, any single interpretation of the famous text. This Cubistic acting style—building up a structure from startling juxtapositions of fragments, like a Picasso collage—characterizes the virtuoso acting of the resident company Hill has forged as artistic director of StageWest.
In the case of Hamlet, it drove home the point that identity and gender, rather than being simple, unified or coherent, are in fact discontinuous, multiple, contradictory. Who is speaking here, the male character or the female actress? How can a single voice represents the self when the self is spoken by a chorus of discordant, unreconciled voices? Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, French philosophers of uncertainly, might have been the dramaturgs for this production.
“The old style of stage acting, realism,” Hill says, “belongs to the age of the luxury ocean liner, sailing smoothly and leisurely across the Atlantic. Today we live in the jet age. Actors have to be top-gun pilots, flying over the Pacific, turning right angles on a dime. Now we experience enormous emotional shifts in a split second. Chaotic experiences crowd our consciousness, and our world, like Hamlet’s, is falling apart at the seams.”
The shift of metaphor from Atlantic to Pacific is particularly apt. Hill, an actor himself, has trained with Tadashi Suzuki for eight years. He is the leading apostle of the Suzuki method in America and the only artist to build a resident company around Suzuki’s theatrical principles. It was in the early 1980s that Suzuki’s productions of Greek tragedies—The Trojan Women and Clytemnestra—took the West by storm. Their physicality, expressed through powerful movement patterns and searing visual images, erupted in a flood of tragic energy on European and American stages. What Jerzy Grotowski was to the ’60s, Suzuki bodes fair to become to the ’90s—the high priest of the avant-garde who offers a method of physical discipline so rigorous only the hardy and the devoted need apply. Suzuki is not for the faint of heart or weak of limb.
Six days a week for 90 minutes the actors and interns of StageWest go through Suzuki’s paces. To the untutored eye they look like ferocious children in a playground during recess: stomping, shuffling, kicking, pounding the earth. These exercise discipline the actors’ bodies and provide a movement vocabulary for the stage.
A Suzuki actor must learn to think with his feet. For Suzuki, feet create an expressive environment; how one uses them is the basis for performing. “Modern theatre is so tedious to watch,” he writes in his book The Way of Acting (Theatre Communications Group, 1986), “because it has no feet.” Stamping the ground spreads physical energy up through the body to the radiating center of the Suzuki style, the pelvis; the center of Western acting, the face, is too high up, Suzuki believes. Concentration on the face, he says, results in the failure to tap into the actor’s total physical reservoirs. Still, the master gives equal attention to breathing and the voice, demanding that actors produce what he calls a “bodyvoice”—a richer, deeper, more intense sound than that normally used in Western theatre. Thus, after the ritualistic foot-pounding, the actors recite long and difficult tirades from The Trojan Women, creating a sound environment that might be a mix of hyena howls and a solemn liturgy.
“Suzuki’s method,” Hill suggests, “enables the animal energy of theatre to come out. Western acting stars in the head; Suzuki starts with the body. This is the secret door into the internal world of the actor. Suzuki enabled me to look at plays I always wanted to direct with new bifocals.
“Realistic acting—the Stanislavsky system filtered through American interpretations—has served its purpose, but it has become a knee-jerk reflex, another outworn tradition that enables actors to substitute fumbling with a coffee cup for the primal experience of theatre,” Hill believes. “Realistic acting should stay where it belongs—in Hollywood. Suzuki has freed me from the bad habits of Western acting. It’s enormously liberating to step outside the conventions you have inherited.”
Hill is the first to recognize, however, that “I’m American, not Japanese, and my sensibility is different from Suzuki’s. But he has given me invaluable tools to explore the heartbeat of the plays I love.” During the past two seasons, Hill has directed a trio of remarkable productions using the Suzuki system: Visions of an Ancient Dreamer (based on Euripides Iphigenia plays), Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer, and Hamlet, which debuted at Suzuki’s Toga Festival in Japan last summer, then anchored StageWest’s fall ’91 season. Spanning 2,000 years of theatre history, these productions bear powerful testimony to the viability of the Suzuki method as an approach to virtually any play.
For Hill, the method is particularly fruitful with Shakespeare. “Realism domesticates the animal power of Shakespeare,” he contends. “As a dramatist, Shakespeare thought in images and theatrical metaphors, not in terms of kitchen sinks. Realism never gets to the gut of Shakespeare.”
How do the StageWest actors feel about the Suzuki method? Maurer, who compares her nightly encounter with Hamlet to “a car crash,” sees it as an eminently effective checklist. “A pianist can practice scales to hone his craft,” she says. “By doing so he learns what’s working and what isn’t—that the fourth finger of the left hand is not as strong as the fourth finger of the right. A ballerina goes to the barre and practices her positions. Suzuki gave me a set of physical exercises against which I can check myself, like the pianist or the ballerina, to find out what needs improving, what I have to work on.”
According to Ellen Lauren, who played Gertrude, “Suzuki is high octane. It gives the body more energy, more mileage. It gave me a discipline and focus I hadn’t received in American training. And it develops the will. You force the body to do what it doesn’t want to, and by pushing the body into a vulnerable position, you open yourself up to what’s deepest inside. The training enables me to put myself on the edge physically—to taunt the void.”
Susan Hightower, the production’s Ophelia, perceives the method as “a divine struggle. You strive after physical perfection with the form, knowing you’ll never reach it, and this stretching out for perfection becomes a spiritual battle, like the quest for the Holy Grail.”
The physical demands Suzuki places on actors translate into emotional intensity on stage. The difficult and stressful body positions not only create haunting stage images, they also heat up the emotional climate—Lauren calls it the “gas pedal/brake effect.” The Suzuki technique is as much about stillness as about moving. Most often the actor moves to a position of great tension and stress, then stops to speak; energy and pain vibrate the body and fill the voice with an intensity that can’t be fabricated; language seems to explode in the face of the audience like a hand grenade. “The hardest thing to do for an actor,” Lauren says, “is to stand still on stage and mean it. But it’s in those still points of a turning world that the inner life of the character is released.” Anyone who has seen Shiraishi Kayoko, the quintessential Suzuki actress, perform Clytemnestra understands the heart-stopping power that can be set loose in a whiplash of language.
Suzuki refers to his method as “a runway.” “You don’t build a runway so the plane can taxi up and down all day long,” he says. “You build a runway for the plane to taxi down it once, and then soar. The point of the method is not the method. The point of the method is flight.”
“We don’t practice the method for its own sake,” Hill concurs. “It’s a launching pad for our explorations. What the audience sees on stage is not the method, but what has been produced as a result of each actor’s exploration of his art and craft.”
So what was accomplished at StageWest as a result of all this stamping of the feet? In the case of Hamlet, an unforgettable interpretation—bold, ferocious, angry, bawdy, comic, grotesque, sublime.
Resident scenic designer Keith Henery’s setting, as usual in a Suzuki production, is minimal. Sliding door panels in the back might grace a Japanese farmhouse, the Gothic woodwork above suggests Westminster Abbey, a pair of bronze doors stage right and left recall Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise to the Baptistry, Florence. Amid five scattered chairs (half Danish modern, half Japanese traditional) looms on ominous electric chair, where Hamlet will squat, squirm and wriggle most of the evening, as other poor players strut and fret their hour in whirlwinds of movement around him. Eclectic costumes—Renaissance, Japanese, contemporary—further emphasize that the issues raised by the play are not limited to one time or place. David Strang’s lighting seems to heighten the plasticity of movement by a chiaroscuro molding of the body.
Three scenes—Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia, Ophelia’s mad scene and Gertrude’s willow speech—illustrate the range, power and nuance embodied in the confrontation of Suzuki and Shakespeare. As Gertrude (her Nancy Reagan-red suit provocatively unbuttoned to reveal a black brassiere) speaks the lines “And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish that your good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s wildness,” she and Claudius (Mark Corkins) stalk up to the innocent virgin, glare at her menacingly, and unceremoniously hoist her legs into the air. Gertrude takes off her own scarlet stiletto high heels and forces them on Ophelia’s feet, as if a sexual fetish is the only weapon she can offer the child to make her way in a man’s world. Attempting to cross to Hamlet in his electric chair, Ophelia totters, stumbles and falls into a heap at his feet. A mechanical-doll pawn in the hands of male authority figures, Ophelia tries to please, but the costume and the role imposed upon her don’t fit. In the ensuing clash, Hamlet’s emotions veer wildly from tender to sadistic: a gesture that begins as a caress ends as a slap; a passionate kiss turns into a thrashing. This Hamlet fears his own libido, cannot accept his own ambivalent sexuality (a homosexual attachment both with Horatio and with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is suggested). He loves Ophelia, but cannot stop himself from destroying her. The fact that the confrontation is invested by the two actresses with scorching eroticism adds yet another layer of ambiguity to a scene already rich in sexual textures.
Never have I seen such a savage mad scene. Beginning with baby-doll innocence, Ophelia performs a physical and spiritual strip-tease, slowly metamorphosing into a whore, giving back to the court an image of itself. By the time she sings the ditty “Young men will do’t if they come to’t / By Cock, they are to blame,” the maiden is sprawled topsy-turvy in a chair, legs wrapped indecently around the neck of the king, who has inched his way toward her to gaze up her dress. The position might be that of a courtesan ready to entertain a lord—or a lamb waiting to have its throat slit.
When Gertrude enters to announce Ophelia’s death in the famous willow speech, a sea-change has washed over the queen. Once ribald, blowsy, wanton, swilling booze from a silver bowl to put an alcoholic fog between herself and reality, she speaks now with a new voice—deep, dark, from the other side of the tomb. As the strains of an Irish lullaby are heard, her arm rises slowly in a gesture of supplication; seeking forgiveness, she becomes an icon of dignity and sorrow bidding the world farewell. The dirge is for Gertrude as well as for Ophelia.
Hill’s Hamlet is a dream within a dream, taking place in the mind of Horatio, who has withdrawn to a monastery to ponder the meaning of the events he has witnessed and Hamlet’s charge to tell posterity his story: “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, / Absent thee from felicity awhile, / and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story.” Among other things, Hamlet is a play about narration, about the need for stories, about how stories structure our consciousness and order our world—and about that most communal mode of telling stories, the theatre. In Hill’s production, Horatio goes over and over Hamlet’s story because he doesn’t understand it, because he suspects that hidden somewhere in it is the secret of salvation.
At the play’s close, Horatio kneels on the floor in prayer as the corpses littering the stage—Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, Polonius—rise up and float off like ghosts exorcised. Hamlet, still straddling his electric chair, takes out Yorick’s skull once more and stares deeply into the void that was its eyes before kissing its mouth with longing. Giggles. Then Jimmy Durante’s wordless farewell, like false teeth clattering in the night: “Ch, ch, ch, ch, ch!” Blackout.
There have been several watershed productions of Hamlet recently, most notably Ingmar Bergman’s from the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Stockholm and Heiner Muller’s from the Deutsches Theater of Berlin. None has touched me as deeply as Eric Hill’s. His Hamlet cuts through the bone to the marrow, simultaneously rubbing balm and vitriol in the wound. It captures the despair and the laughter in this greatest farce ever written. Febrile and grotesque, physically intense and sexually aggressive, this Hamlet holds up to us the image of our own tortured faces.
Arthur Holmberg teaches at Harvard University and is writing a book about Robert Wilson for Cambridge University Press.
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