Rotten in the state of Denmark:"Hamlet" and its state of decay

Apr 27, 2012

William Shakespeare's famous tragedy "Hamlet" is one of the Bard's most-performed plays and features one of the best-known characters in all of literature. Hamlet's famous question, "To be, or not to be," has been posed in a variety of cultural eras, settings and time zones—from Disney to spaghetti westerns.

Now, MU's theater department is placing Shakespeare's classic drama in a dark, dystopian future. KBIA's Wendy Mader talked with Kevin Brown, an assistant professor of theater at MU, about the vision behind the show.

Why did you decide to take on Hamlet from a futuristic point of view?

Well you know, part of the fact that Hamlet is such a popular play means that it’s been done thousands upon thousands of times before. And so the question at first for me was, how do you make it fresh? How do you make it new? How do you make it speak to a contemporary audience?

It really actually has the feel of that you could be in the middle ages or you could be somewhere in the future, in this version of the future. It’s a devolved future where society has certainly taken some steps backward. I looked at this as an analogy to, you know, what is going to happen hundreds of years ago from now after our current civilization is in decline. I think this idea of a dystopic future that is in decay really works out well to resonate and bring out themes that are in the play.

I know, having seen the show, that there’s a point in the play where a ghost is projected on a screen instead of played by a live actor. Are multimedia effects like that starting to make their way into the theater?

You do more and more often see multimedia, digital video, various effects starting to come into what’s traditionally a live theater space. And certainly that is controversial on a lot of levels. You know, a lot of people would like to keep their media and live theater in separate spaces. I still believe in the power of the live actor absolutely. But it is also fun occasionally to bring in a multimedia element and when it’s warranted. And I think that was a really fun way to put the ghost on stage.

What would you say to someone who is hesitant about seeing the show? Maybe doesn’t like Shakespeare. What would you say? Why should they come to the show?

I think people get all sorts of preconceptions about, especially with Shakespeare. There’s so much baggage that goes along with producing Shakespeare that people either love it or hate it. First of all, I would just say to set aside those preconceptions. The core of this production and what’s really made it a really really an excellent show is the acting. And I have to say that the actors here at Mizzou that came forward and auditioned for this play are the very best actors that the theater department has to offer. Even if you don’t understand old English, you can understand what’s going on because the actors know what’s going on. And just through their very body, and gesture, and the way that they act of stage, the meaning comes across.

William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" plays through April 29 at MU's Rhynsburger Theatre.