The American Shakespeare Center has taken the unusual step of performing the 1603 version of Hamlet, also known as the First Quarto. I’d never seen it or read it before, so I was pleased with this choice—I think they’ve done the Second Quarto twice in the five years they’ve been in the Blackfriars Playhouse—and saw the production last night.
Here’s a snippet from the program:
“The 1603 Hamlet, the first in print, is supposedly the “bad” quarto. If “bad” means that the text is full of lines that are not like the Hamlet we know from the second quarto (1604) or the Folio (1623), then, yes, this is a bad version. Or if “bad” means that a number of lines are—for lack of a better word—clunkers, then the first quarter is, yes, a bad version.”
But Ralph Cohen, the ASC’s Executive Director, goes on to suggest that this version actually has more vivid characters and hangs together better than the more familiar text. It’s also funnier, he says, and considerably shorter (at 2800 lines instead of 4200).
All of which I agree with. It was a bit jarring to come to a familiar line and have it come out differently (To be or not to be, aye there’s the point), and one wonders how the actors can remember to say Corambis for Polonius and Rossencraft and Gilderstone for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But the play does move faster, and this production is excellent in every regard. Benjamin Curns as Hamlet is outstanding. He’s believably unbalanced, yet convincing when wooing Ofelia (not Ophelia) and hilarious when baiting Corambis. Susan Heyward—who is probably tired of hearing that she looks 12—is spooky after the death of her father, when she goes truly nuts; it’s wonderfully done. James Keegan is both the King and the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, and is excellent. Because the theater was packed—I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so crowded—there was a lot of energy, and that was reflected in the audience response: a standing ovation that was richly deserved.