An All Too Clever Hamlet

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Somewhere scrawled on a blackboard in a Shakespeare seminar is that perennial essay question "chart Hamlet's journey through his four soliloquies." Like "to be or not to be," the professor's question would be an annoying cliche if it weren't so good. Hamlet is practically built around these monologues. Spread out neatly in four acts, they give the audience a private moment to check in with our hero, to hear him grapple with his thoughts, to figure out how crazy and/or determined he is, to figure out will he really avenge his father's death.

I couldn't help but watch the Independent Shakespeare Company's Hamlet in Griffith Park with these soliloquies in mind, perhaps because I've sat in on one too many of those seminars and seen more than my fair share of Hamlets.

And I'm not alone. At intermission, the guy in the lawn chair next to mine was reciting from memory Hamlet's next soliloquy. That's either an actor's favorite audience or a nightmare -- which is what makes Hamlet such a gutsy choice for any company. Unlike the Independent Shakespeare Company's other offerings this summer, Love's Labour's Lost and Merry Wives of Windsor, most audiences walk into Hamlet with an expectation.

Actor David Melville, the production's Hamlet, seems to know this all too well as he slinks downstage looking like he's just come from a nearby hipster coffee shop -- black jeans, matching t-shirt, moleskin notebook in hand. He begins scribbling "O that this too too solid flesh would melt" and then he pauses and in a wink to English professors everywhere ponders out loud "solid or sullied...solid is better." With this all too witty play on the different versions of this famous line, Melville's Hamlet captures both the production's greatest strength and sadly its fundamental weakness.

What's wonderful about Melville's Hamlet, and indeed the whole cast, is they know what they're saying and they let us hear it. That may sound simple but it's all too rare to hear a company of actors make sense of Shakespeare's words -- especially outdoors. I don't think helicopters ever flew over the Globe. This is, after all, a free production in Griffith Park and a wonderful excuse to spread out a picnic blanket, wear a warm sweater, open a bottle of wine and hear the Bard. Happily, I can say I heard and understood every word of this brilliant text.

But the trouble with this Hamlet is everyone has an idea about what they're saying. Like Melville's clever ad-lib, the production gets trapped in playing the idea of Hamlet rather than the "Tragedy of Hamlet." Melville is busy scribbling the lines in his moleskin signaling that Hamlet would be so much more comfortable with a life of the mind rather than all this messiness of usurped kingdoms. It's clever...but it's not nearly as moving as a Hamlet who -- without a wink and a nod -- really wishes "that this too too solid flesh would melt."

The Independent Shakespeare Company's free production of Hamlet plays through August 28 in Griffith Park.

For info on the show text the word "Curtain" to 69866. "Solid" or "Sullied?" join the conversation at

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image: Independent Shakespeare Company's Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet. Photo © Erwin Tuazon