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This article was prepared by LucyAnn Dunlap for the May 11, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Hamlet, Newly Deconstructed
‘Well, I guess I was the little prince in our family," says director
Daniel Fish of his childhood in Tenafly, the youngest of three
children. "I was always the person in my family who stood on the side
and asked questions and tried to throw a light on what was really
going on. Sometimes being the disobedient one, the black sheep,
sitting off in the corner, saying, ‘Hey, wait, let’s see what’s really
Fish directs the new production of Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" at the
McCarter Theater’s Berlind Stage, opening Wednesday, May 11. According
to promotional material, Fish is approaching this classic play as if
it were a new play, and as a family drama. "I’ve always had a deep
attachment to very personal issues, parents and children," Fish says,
describing Hamlet’s family as "deeply entwined and deeply fraught."
As for his own family, Fish’s mother is an attorney who specializes in
mediation; his father, a retired CPA who now runs a summer camp. They
took him to the theater as a child and have been very supportive of
his dramatic path. As he lists the plays that he saw as a young man, I
note that he lists them by directors: "Peter Brook, Andre Serban…"
His course to directing for the theater may well have been set early
After high school, Fish attended Northwestern University where he
earned a degree from the department of performance studies (the same
fertile department where director/author Mary Zimmerman, who wrote and
directed "The Secret in the Wings," produced in fall, 2004, at
McCarter). Fish says that a course he took there, titled "Poetry in
Performance," taught by professor Leland Roloff, opened up the words
not only of the poets they studied, but also the poetry in
Fish calls the four years he spent as assistant to Michael Kahn at the
Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., "my grad school." Later, he
adds,"Theater is my university. It’s how I learn about people,
politics, relationships, family." He also worked as an associate
director with the noted British director Sir Peter Hall.
Fish is no stranger to McCarter, where he has previously directed
"Loot," "The Importance of Being Earnest," and "The Learned Ladies."
Serving as resident director this past year, Fish has had this
mounting of "Hamlet" in development for a year and a half; he has
gathered a "family" of actors and designers who have all contributed
to the current production. The first phase of the project began with
eight actors sitting around a table in a rehearsal room. During the
second workshop, they again began around a table, then moved to a
"We played with costumes – worked on various design concepts. We even
made a video, which we are no longer using," Fish says, during our
interview in a lobby space near the Berlind stage, where the arduous
technical rehearsal had paused for a dinner break. He says that this
generous development process allowed for in-depth investigation and
analysis. "The rehearsal process was very much about stripping away."
The Berlind Theater production has made a full circle. What the
audience will see looks a lot like eight actors around a table. "Don’t
expect battlements and elaborate period costumes," Fish says. "It’s
amazing the amount of time and energy to get to something as distilled
as we’ve gotten to. The results are spare, spontaneous, naked, almost
improvised. A huge amount of thought went into this to get to the
Another interesting aspect of this current mounting is that eight
actors play many parts. For instance, Michael Emerson, who plays
Hamlet’s stepfather, Claudius, also plays the ghost of Hamlet’s
father. During rehearsal, Fish wanted to hear Emerson read both roles.
When he did, Fish was intrigued. "The alleged murderer is also the
person who is murdered. What do the resonances of this choice make?
Theater is better at asking questions than it is at answering
questions," Fish says. "I’m not interested in justifying choices
because I know instinctively that this is a good choice. More than
instinct, I’ve watched it work practically."
Fish expects audiences to have different responses to this provocative
choice. "It’s a choice full of mystery as well," he says. In this
production, the actors playing Claudius and Gertrude also play
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet’s two chums who are sent to spy
on him are played by actors who also play the persons who have sent
them on their mission. The actors who play the two gravediggers also
play Polonius and Ophelia – "the father and daughter will be digging
her grave," Fish says, assuring me that this device of having one
actor play more than one role was certainly the way the play was done
in Shakespeare’s time. "You can hear in the lines, language that
echoes from one character to another.
With this intense focus on "Hamlet," it is amazing that Fish has had
time for other projects. Yet last summer he directed the world
premiere of "Poor Beck" by Joanna Laurens for the Royal Shakespeare
Theater in Stratford and London. He directed a new play, "The Clean
House" by Sarah Ruhl, at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia last fall,
and continues to commute to New Haven to teach his directing class at
the Yale School of Drama. This year he has also taught a class on
"Hamlet" to a group of Princeton University students.
When I suggest that so much contemporary theater points to a play’s
political relevance, Fish says he feels that "Hamlet" cannot help but
find resonances in whatever time it is produced, but he certainly is
not aiming for a polemic. If the audience, however, wants to connect
the dots, the issues are there, he says: "seemingness, truth, deceit,
what one is willing to die for, what we conceal and what we reveal,
lies that are buried, lies we believe, and the capacity to see the
truth. These are all issues that resonate strongly with us here and
The whole production has been constructed to make it accessible,
reinvented to make it seem like a new play. Says Fish: "That’s the
beauty of theater. Hopefully, it happens every night. When the play
begins and Bernardo says, `Who’s there,’ it’s as if he’s saying it for
the first time."
Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of a young man haunted by the death of
his father. Directed by Daniel Fish. Through Sunday, June 19. $33 to
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