I Hate Hamlet (2014)
- Presented by: Colorado Shakespeare Festival
- Venue: Roe Green Theatre (Indoors)
- University Theatre Building, 261 University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80302
“Wait, let me get this. It’s Shakespeare, right, it’s like algebra on stage… why are you doing this? Are you broke… is there a bet involved?” So says Gary, Andrew Rally’s Hollywood manager in Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, when told that Andrew has accepted the role of the Prince of Denmark performed onstage.
The question of why we still perform, read, and watch Shakespeare is a question I get asked constantly. And strangely, I’m rarely satisfied with my answer. I guess I don’t know where to begin. I realize the listener doesn’t have an hour to hear my answer and so it’s hard to answer in 10-second sound bites. But in our modern world of unlimited free entertainment brought directly to your living room, in an age where we don’t have to create our own entertainment—ever—I know my answer had better be good.
That’s what I love about this play and why Colorado Shakespeare Festival decided to produce it this season. I Hate Hamlet is a hilarious romp in the tradition of Broadway “boulevard comedies,” but there is also a larger conversation threading through the play: Why should we still perform Shakespeare? On one side, Gary is giving us the frightening reality of trivial, profitable entertainment; on the other is the great Shakespearean actor, John Barrymore, generously explaining why we still do it. Caught in the middle, and struggling mightily with his decision (just like Hamlet), is Andrew. I love how the play tackles the discussion of Shakespeare, talks about Shakespeare, and all during a madcap comedy with genuine heart.
So let me tackle the question again. Why do we perform Shakespeare today? Because it’s huge. Shakespeare’s ideas, stories, topics, characters, conflicts—they’re enormous and resonate not only in our everyday lives, but in lives we can’t imagine. Couldn’t imagine. So much contemporary theater has such low stakes when compared to Shakespeare. How many plays have we seen exploring two people’s problems stuck in an apartment? (OK, so that’s also the plot of I Hate Hamlet; at least on of them is a ghost). But in Shakespeare, we have plays like The Tempest in which a god-like power banished to an island with his baby daughter tries to destroy his enemies in a storm but instead finds forgiveness, and his own redemption, by watching his daughter fall in love. In Shakespeare’s world, the stage can hold entire battlefields, castles, islands, gods, monsters, kings, queens, clowns, and lovers. And what’s at stake for many of these characters? Consequences so grave they’re unimaginable in our daily lives, as well as those we can all relate to.
So now, let’s see what decision Andrew makes. Will it be television or Shakespeare? Will it be fame, or glory? Let’s also see if this theater can contain the great John Barrymore.
—Timothy Orr, director
Andrew Rally is a television actor with relative commercial prominence who has recently been cast as Hamlet in New York’s Shakespeare Festival—a role he is reluctant to play, at best. With his virginal, heroine girlfriend in tow, Andrew moves into an apartment once owned by the iconic Shakespearean actor John Barrymore, whose Hamlet is still heralded to this day to be one of the most compelling performances in contemporary theater.
As Andrew struggles with the hefty task that is playing Hamlet, his friends and associates suggest a seance so that he can receive advice from the once-great John Barrymore. Thus begins the haunting of Andrew by Barrymore’s ghost. Only Andrew can hear or see him, and try as he might, he cannot get the ghost to leave or shut up. Barrymore is determined to help Andrew play the best Hamlet he can, while Andrew grapples with whether he should even be struggling to play Hamlet, or whether he should go back to the familiar comforts of Hollywood.
Throughout their time together, Barrymore mentors Andrew on everything from sword fighting to bowing. Eventually it becomes clear that the point of Barrymore’s haunting is perhaps not to make Andrew the best Hamlet, but for Hamlet to make the best Andrew.
—Roxxy Duda, dramaturg
When I was hired as the dramaturg for I Hate Hamlet, I had no idea what an enriching experience it would become. In my initial research stage, I set about discovering all I could about the life of John Barrymore, one of the most significant American actors of the last century, whose Shakespearean roles became the stuff of legends.
I soon found a sea of contrasting stories, secrecy, and misinformation; naturally those sorts of disjointed findings can be very discouraging for a dramaturg. Then I happened upon an article that referred in passing to an archive of Barrymore’s belongings bequeathed by the family of Gene Fowler (one of Barrymore’s closest friends and his biographer) to the University of Colorado Boulder. In the Special Collections section of our very own Norlin Library, I rediscovered a treasure chest of primary sources that brought Barrymore to life. Box after box contained everything from correspondence with such famous people as Zane Grey and George Bernard Shaw, to blank documents, the contents of his wallet at the time of his death, and much, much more.
In some cases it was the first time documents had been touched by someone other than the archivists since their donation. Wearing white cotton gloves and delicately paging through the seemingly endless piles of documents, I found that the life of John Barrymore began to jump of the pages. I saw him as he presented himself to the world: a haughty, philandering man capable of nothing less than complete bravura in every performance. I also saw the man behind the persona—the one who drank and smoked to excess, the one who went through marriage after marriage looking for love and only finding lust, and the who felt lost without the stage.
With the help of Special Collections, CSF has created a public display of some of the fascinating documents at the CU Heritage Center in Old Main on the CU-Boulder campus. There is also a display of the original documents at Norlin Library, and you can make an appointment with the library should you be interested in digging a little deeper.
I hope that this inside look into the life of John Barrymore will help you to contextualize some of the conversations that occur in the play between Barrymore and Andrew. I hope that by the end of the play, and after viewing these documents firsthand, you will come to have as great an appreciation for the complexity that was Barrymore as I do.
—Roxxy Duda, dramaturg
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