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Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a cornerstone of English-language culture. It is likely the most quoted work of literature in the English language and one of Shakespeare’s most-performed works. It is required reading at many high schools, and even for some Humanities courses here at the University of Chicago. And who could forget that it provided inspiration for the classic film The Lion King?
Now, some four hundred years after the work was written, the story of Hamlet and his “antic disposition,” of his father’s ghost’s demand for revenge, as well as the tragedy of the climactic bloodbath, are still pertinent. The play has become so embedded in pop culture that nearly anyone could cite that infamous line “To be or not to be.” Some of the play’s famed soliloquies have even found their way into children’s shows.
The familiarity of Hamlet will undoubtedly lead many to University Theater’s production of one of William Shakespeare’s most noted works, as it should. The work itself is iconic and profound in the variety of themes it covers. UT’s production of Hamlet, directed by Ellenor Riley-Condit, stays true to the text of Shakespeare’s original, save for the omission of Fortinbras—a minor character to begin with.
The scenery of UT’s Hamlet is unassuming in comparison to some of the more dramatic productions of the play, like Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film adaption. This allows the audience to focus primarily on the dialogue, especially since the lighting reflects the intense emotional shifts that the characters undergo in each scene.
This is not to say that University Theater’s production is not without a hint of modernity. Well, more modern than 400 years ago. UT’s production is set in the ‘90s. Hamlet dons a shirt with Kurt Cobain’s face printed on it. Perhaps the grief-stricken prince of Denmark has a bit more in common with the Seattle grunge king than one might initially believe. Additionally, the gravediggers are clad in plaid. Claudius is dressed dapper for his role as king of Denmark in a suit and tie.
There is also the intriguing addition of music at various portions throughout the production. Though it’s never so audible as to be detracting, it certainly provides an interestingly modern aural perspective on the dramatic work. In the scene in which Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are conversing, one of the characters turns on a stereo, and Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song)” plays.
What’s best about these touches are that they keep the work refreshing without infusing something entirely bizarre. Whereas the 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke made the story something entirely different (Claudius becomes CEO of the Denmark Corporation and Hamlet is a film student), this Hamlet is produced with equal parts reverence for the play itself and interest in what the audience viewing the play today brings. University Theater takes to heart one of the play’s more iconic quotes: “to thine own self be true.”