It’s looking like a summer of Hamlets, both around the regions—Shakespeare fests in both Idaho and Colorado are staging the iconic tragedy, with women in the title role—and here in New York, where Oscar Isaac will take up the bare bodkin in Sam Gold’s production at the Public in July.
The first great Dane out of the gate, though, is Waterwell’s new production at the Sheen Center, running May 10-June 3. Directed by and starring Waterwell’s co-artistic directors, Tom Ridgely and Arian Moayed, respectively, this new Hamlet is set in pre-World War I Persia, with a mixed cast of Iranians, South Asians, and white people suggesting an East/West political backdrop quite different from the original’s axis of Danes, Norwegians, and Poles. The new version follows Shakespeare’s text, though roughly 30 percent is performed in Farsi, and the whole thing is accompanied by a striking live score, written and performed by Mohsen Namjoo.
I spoke to Moayed—who’s acted in such plays as Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, The Humans, and Guards at the Taj—last week, on the day of elections in Iran. Moayed was only five when his parents moved the family from Iran to the U.S., but what he lacks in firsthand memories of his birthplace he makes up for with a lifetime of thoughts and feelings about his dual immigrant identity. In his telling, Hamlet has proven to be exceptionally fertile ground to explore and dramatize them.
So why play Hamlet?
I did King Lear at the Public with Sam Waterston, and I think he was the one who said to me, “You should totally play Hamlet.” That sparked a conversation with Tom Ridgely about what it would mean for me to play Hamlet. We realized that whoever plays this part really has to bring all that he or she knows is true into it. For us it was the idea that here I am, an Iranian who has grown up in the United States, and I’m constantly wondering: What part of me is American? What part is Iranian? Balancing those two ideas is something all immigrants do: We’re both desperately trying to fit in and desperately trying to remain true to who we are. That was the spark of this Hamlet: What happens if he’s mixed, and has both Western and Eastern influences? This is a play that invites the huge existential questions, and this is mine.
There’s also a political story here too, right?
Yes, we started with the interpersonal drama, then we started to figure out the global ramifications. There are basically two time periods in Iran’s history where the influence of the West is most pronounced: One is in the 1950s, and the other is in the early 1900s. There are a lot of reasons why we chose the second option. For one, that’s when the British Empire came in, seeking—domination might be too strong a word, but seeking to expand their influence, definitely. And that’s a story that’s still going on. When you look at Syria today, the conflict there is a direct descendant of those rules, those carvings up by the British, that shifted an entire region that was tribal into borders that didn’t make sense. Just imagine that someone came to New York City and said, “We’re going to carve the city in half, make a line down Broadway, and this side is one region, the other side is another.” You’d have people who say, “But I work on the other side.” So we’re still dealing with the ramifications of those decisions. On the second day of rehearsal the U.S. dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan; the last line of the play is “Bid the soldiers shoot.”
You use the East/West divide to make a clear break: Your Hamlet first appears as a rather subdued young man in a three-piece Western suit. After he sees his father’s ghost, he changes into more traditional garb for the rest of the show.
It’s not just traditional garb; he jumps back 30 years. Imagine if a ghost visits you today, and tomorrow you dress like you would have in the 1980s. It’s a very specific thing he’s doing. And as for the Western suit, there were many kings and queens and aristocrats of that era in Persia who went off to Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard, and like many immigrants today, in a new setting they tried to make it as easy as humanly possible for others to accept them. Hamlet was sent off to Wittenberg, and we see how immediately he transformed himself into someone who belonged to that world. It’s not a coincidence that his best friend in the world is a white guy, Horatio. I mean, my best friend is Tom Ridgely. So it’s kind of super-real.
And it complicates the matters in the most healthy of ways; people don’t live in these black-and-white worlds. One of the things I really love about this is that we’re not shying away from how messy the politic and interpersonal stories are here, and I mean messiness as a positive thing. It’s so absolutely honest as to what it means to be an immigrant. There’s no way to black-and-white something like this.
Apart from the geopolitics, have you found other affinities in the play?
The Iranians in the cast have been joking, “Hamlet is so Iranian.” It’s true for us. In that first moment when Hamlet comes to talk to Claudius and Gertrude, he’s fully intending to back to Wittenberg. But after they speak to him and beg him not to go, he says to her, “I shall in all my best obey you, madam.” That idea is very Iranian. It’s a form of politeness. We call it taarof; it’s a way of respecting your elders and doing what they ask even though it’s not what you want. You always have to give way. There are many moments like that in this play where you as a Westerner may see them one way, but Iranians look at them and go, “Oh shit, that’s Iranian.”
Another thing: You have to respect your mother. Trust me, no matter who may have heard, the Iranian woman is the ruler of the household. If my mom said to me, “I need you to go pick up my laundry on 199th and Lex,” I would go and do it right now. Culturally we don’t know anything else. Bridging the gap between Western and Eastern, where both sides can see themselves—that to me is the greatest success.
I remember reading about a production of Hamlet in Tehran, and it seemed to follow a tradition of doing that play as a veiled critique of the ruling class, of the corruption and hypocrisy of the elders who run the country, like Claudius. I’m not sure I read that level in your Hamlet.
The play is so rich, it can sustain so many versions. In ours, Claudius seems to be very good at his job. He has discovered that diplomacy works, whereas the old King Hamlet fought wars to get what he wanted. We feel that Claudius, like many leaders in that time period, is trying to Westernize in a very astute, smart way that will bring in more business. We weren’t going after that angle very strongly; we took the Claudius/Hamlet sections and really made them personal.
Still, one of actresses, who’s Iranian, came up to me at one point and said she was reading Claudius’s confession about “my offense is rank,” and she told me: “I think this should be done in Farsi. Iranians need to hear this, they need to hear a leader saying, ‘I pursued my personal gain over the benefit of the country.'” For her it was deeply personal—a damning statement about how Iranian leaders destroyed the country. She was pretty jarred by that monologue. I’ve done a lot of plays I’m very proud of, but rarely have I been able to do something that stirs up so many different things in so many people. That’s really the power of the play.
I have to ask you where you stand on the madness question. Do you think Hamlet is entirely putting it on an “antic disposition,” as he says, or does he ever cross some line where he’s not in control anymore?
On a technical level, I don’t invest any time on “madness” or “not madness.” I take everything at face value. If my father, who’s still alive, came back from the dead and looked the way the ghost in the play looked, and spoke to me only in Farsi—I’m only going to take that as real, and know that I, or anyone I know that could happen to, would go a little bit mad. I invest in the truth of that thing.
Now, because he’s spoken to me in only Farsi, I think that’s a sign that I must Easternize myself to help figure out what this thing is. Iran is Westernizing, Persia is getting—in the $10 million version of this production, electricity would be turning on all over the place—and I’m repelling that. In our version, toward the end, I see the image of my cause, and I start to realize: You can be both. I have to realize what I’m doing. Again, it seems so Iranian to me that Hamlet is so apologetic to Laertes at the end. We’re not very ironic. We take everything very seriously.
On the other hand, there’s the scene where Hamlet kills Polonius by accident, then jokes pretty sharply about it. That’s always a jarring leap. What’s going on there, do you think?
I don’t know. I wish I had a distinct answer. I have to believe that both exist—the serious Hamlet and this other Hamlet. I’ve never killed anyone, so it’s hard for me to say. If I were to kill anyone, everything I know would be out the window. In the play I have to somehow live in a world where all the evidence points to: Now he’s going to be funny. It has to be real to me. If that means that he’s mad…
I was struck by how late you’ve placed the “to be” speech—essentially before the final showdown, as a last reflection on life and death.
We have moved a bunch of things around, actually. For us, in the journey of our Hamlet, where he is trying to get himself, it made sense to us that this speech would happen after the death of Ophelia. What does he have to live for then? Ophelia has died, he’s betrayed his best friend, Laertes. It was very strategic. And it seems to calm his senses down, so that he can reach out and say, “I’m sorry, Laertes, that I fucked you up.” He’s realizing who he is finally. It takes death and corruption and all that stuff to make it clear to him. You know, a few years ago Tom and I worked on the Martin Luther King operetta, and in our buckets of research we started seeing how often near the end of his life Dr. King would say, “I know I’m gonna die fairly soon, and I’m okay with that.” That’s what Hamlet does at the end of this play. “If it be not now, yet it will come.”
Were you ever intimidated by taking on this iconic role, or feel any anxiety of influence from all the actors who’ve done it before you?
I’m not too precious, so it never scared me that I was taking on this role. I don’t mean to sound cocky—the size of the role wasn’t an issue. And I’ve seen every version on video, and none of those bother me, or affect me, because the people who are playing the part have to bring themselves to the role. And I’m not Mel Gibson, thank God.
What really was unnerving, and still is, is examining what it means for myself to be Iranian and living in the U.S. I was saying some stuff out loud at the table read about me being a child, and how when I was 6, I definitely did not want to be Iranian—I wanted to run away from that as fast and as hard as I could. It’s an embarrassing idea; it was frightening to admit. But as soon as I said it, other people at the table said, “I felt the same fucking way.”
I have no idea how feeling that way must affect a six- or seven-year-old mind. It must have blown up my brain as a kid. So that exploration is the one that’s most frightening. I put it all out there. You’ve seen my work: I’m always putting out there massive amounts of insecurity and fear and vulnerability. That’s always the hardest stuff for me.