Olivier, Branagh, Gibson, Fiennes, Law.
On Saturday, the fraternity of actors to play Hamlet grows, as Matthew Amendt takes on the melancholy Dane at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival under a tent at the Boscobel Restoration in Garrison.
This is the first time the 25-year-old festival has presented “Hamlet,” but the 29-year-old Amendt isn’t interested in having his name etched in stone anywhere.
He wants to talk about how collaborative this process is, how he and director Terry O’Brien have pored over quartos good and bad and talked about how to approach the story of when things were rotten in Denmark.
“The thing I love about this art form is that it’s about a bunch of people in a room together,” says Amendt, who grew up near Pittsburgh. “I don’t ever want to lose sight of that with this play. I don’t ever want it to become ‘Oh, let’s go see Matt’s Hamlet.’ That’s such a danger of it. ‘Hmmm, what’s he doing there? That’s interesting. I wonder why he did that. He’s not as good as Jude Law.’ That’s so uninteresting to me.
“A lot of times when you approach a play, it’s ‘I’m going to find the key that unlocks this thing, and I’ll do “The Hamlet.”’ But what we’re finding is that there are a million ‘Hamlets.’ That’s why people have been doing it so many times. It’s fun to think of it less as ‘my Hamlet’ and think of it more as ‘our Hamlet’ — this group of people — and let go of any ideas of how to do it and just find it in the room, or under the tent.”
Call it Team Hamlet.
Amendt, O’Brien & Co. have been looking at the three separate versions of the play, hoping to deliver a “Hamlet” that’s true to the text.
“We’re not trying to defy tradition, but we’re going back to the script to see if the things that we’ve taken for granted about how it’s generally been interpreted are actually in the script,” says O’Brien, who is also the festival’s artistic director. “Many times there are assumptions that are made that aren’t in the text.”
“That Hamlet is perpetually depressed,” O’Brien says. “I don’t think the text supports that. He clearly has a lot on his mind, and he’s going through a lot, but that he’s constantly depressed and angry just doesn’t feel like it’s in the script.”
“That Polonius is an aging boob. I think he’s much too sharp, much too perceptive, much too self-aware of what he says to have him really characterized that way. There’s another reason that he talks a lot when people are telling him to pick it up, pick it up.”
O’Brien knows he’s tilting at windmills taking a fresh look at a play that is a fixture in high schools everywhere.
“The guy who changes the oil in your car has an opinion about Ophelia’s mad scene,” he says with a smile.
Amendt, the man who will play the role generally seen as the Everest for young actors, says if it’s his job to get inside Hamlet’s head, he’ll have company.
“Someone told me to think of the tent, the theater space, as Hamlet’s mind. His mind has to be as big as the tent. It’s not that his mind is on stage speaking to the audience. The audience is inside his mind, so the problems have to be actively figured out and discovered and struggled through.”
The team approach — Amendt buoyed by his fellow actors — comes from the text, he says.
“There’s no soliloquy without Claudius and Gertrude and Ophelia and Laertes and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” he says. “They drive the thing and I’m not really on stage alone. Practically, I will be, of course, but in the sense that this is coming from such a strong ensemble place. I live in that energy, with the audience as my soul, and just figure out these problems.”
One of the hurdles, Amendt says, was how to point those six crucial soliloquies.
“I’m drawn to the idea of talking with the audience,” he says. “I thinking talking to the audience is not the same as living the play. I could sit and treat the audience like a therapist and tell the audience my problems, versus being home at three in the morning and going through my problem with them there.”
Having waited 25 years to direct “Hamlet” hasn’t diminished O’Brien’s appreciation for the work.
“There’s really no way to overstate what it does to you when you start looking at it every day,” O’Brien says. “It’s so endless. There’s no way you can completely understand any moment of it. As soon as you do, you don’t understand something else. I just love that he keeps the uncertainty of it.”
Is Hamlet mad?
“He’s mad, but he’s also acting crazier than he is,” O’Brien says. “That’s the conundrum of the play. He’s not just faking it. But the way it’s typically portrayed is that he acts much crazier than the script supports. I think it’s more crazy if he says these really absurd things in a way that seems absolutely straight. Then you begin to think you’re the crazy one. Not him.”
Amendt puts it another way.
“One of the things that’s interesting about this play is that there is no grief without joy. I think Hamlet feels like he’s a fish out of water. If you take a fish out of water, the fish doesn’t complain about how much it stinks that he’s not in the water anymore. He tries to breathe. I’m trying find a way to move through the play that’s just about listening and just about trying to be happy again, to find the thing that can fix this.”
No small task, that.
“It’s big, it’s big, it’s big,” he says with a broad smile.
He’s been getting his share of advice from fellow actors.
“An older actress, who’s in her 60’s, told me, ‘You’ll get some of it. And some of it you won’t. And that’ll be that. And that’s all anyone has ever done with it.’”
Lest he be overwhelmed by the size of the task at hand, Mother Nature might just lend a hand to ease the tension, Amendt says.
“At the tent, the beautiful thing is that there’s the possibility of a skunk or a turkey coming into the scene at any moment.”
“Hamlet” opens July 2, runs in repertory with “The Comedy of Errors” and “Around the World in 80 Days.” Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Route 9D, Garrison. $21 to $60. 845-265-9575. www.hvshakespeare.org