Brief Review of NOTE’s Production of Q1 Hamlet for Anne Thompson
by Kathleen Irace
September, 2003

With a cast of intelligent and inventive professional actors led by director Andrew Borba and producer Tim Sheridan, Theater of NOTE’s 2003 production of Q1 Hamlet was first rate. NOTE is a small, highly respected theater company in the heart of Hollywood, usually specializing in new or avant-garde plays, with an intimate rectangular theater space that seats around 50. The set for Q1, which was altered by lighting and sound effects, was a palace library with bookshelves on one side, a raised area against the wall in the center of the playing area, and the audience on the side opposite the bookshelves. Completing the set were a small sofa and other moveable props, a high platform above one bookshelf (accessible by a library ladder), and a small trap for the graveyard scene. Costumes were vaguely Victorian: long dresses for the ladies, long pants and coats for the men.

The script was virtually identical to the Cambridge edition of Q1 Hamlet, with no substitutions or additions from Q2 or F—and no apologies from the actors, who played it as if it were the only available version of the play. Their perceptive interpretations transformed even the lapses in syntax of Q1 into playable features. Because of the length and scene order of Q1, the continuous performance moved very quickly, lasting only two hours plus a short intermission; minor alterations in the set were made by the actors, gracefully integrated into the action. For most playgoers I talked to, the plot was easy to follow and the language as clear as in other productions of Hamlet with, of course, a few surprises in the most familiar lines of the play. Most comments focused on casting and staging choices, not on the text, as audience members noticed the passionate and witty Hamlet of Alina Phelan, the complex Corambis of Ezra Buzzington (and his delightful Gravedigger), the spunky and heartbreaking Ofelia of Kathryn Stockwood, the unusually appealing Horatio of Tim Sheridan, and others in the fine twelve-member cast.

My own interest centered on the unique features of Q1, especially Ofelia’s presence on stage when her father reads her letter from Hamlet to the King and Queen; the scene between Horatio and the Queen found only in Q1; and two of Hamlet’s comic speeches, one concerning the proper behavior of clowns, and the other, the sponge/ape insults directed at Rossencraft and Gilderstone, transplanted from a scene otherwise missing in Q1.

In the First Quarto, Corambis and Ofelia move directly from her description of Hamlet’s visit to her closet, to the court scene in which Voltemar and Cornelia report their successful mission. In NOTE’s production, Ofelia stood quietly near her father while the ambassadors delivered their news. Ofelia curtsied politely when Corambis mentioned her, then looked increasingly uncomfortable as he read the letter from Hamlet. In spite of her discomfort, Ofelia’s silent presence here seemed natural enough, for she was also present in the first court scene in this production. In addition, Gertred (played by Carolyn Hennesy) has very few lines in this scene, so that Ofelia’s silence here was hardly noticeable, for most of the dialogue is between Corambis and the King (played by Stewart Skelton). And, of course, Ofelia needs to be on stage because Q1 moves immediately to the “To be or not to be”/Nunnery sequence, so in terms of the plot, her presence on stage here seemed completely reasonable.

Another segment of special interest is the unique scene between Gertred and Horatio, neatly summarizing sections in Q2 and F late in the play, sections otherwise missing in Q1. In NOTE’s production, Horatio called to Gertred from the shadows as she crossed the playing area, with lighting and sound effects that suggested a garden. Speaking with quiet intensity, Horatio read Hamlet’s explanatory letter to the Queen, quickly drawing Gertred further from the King and firmly allying her to Hamlet, her brief concern for the fates of Rossencraft and Gilderstone making her even more sympathetic. Because of its position between two sequences in which the King and Leartes plan Hamlet’s death, Q1’s unique scene emphasizes the growing rift between Gertred and the King, along with supplying essential details about Hamlet’s return to Denmark, all seamlessly woven into this short scene.

Two other much shorter sequences illustrate the larger proportion of humor in Q1 compared with Q2 and F, for Q1 includes several lines concerning clowns (not in the longer versions) in Hamlet’s advice to the players and retains two darkly humorous insults of Rossencraft and Gilderstone from a scene otherwise missing in Q1. In NOTE’s production, the Player Clown (Christopher Neiman) nearly upstaged the other Players (Alan Loayza, Elizabeth Liang, and Justin Brinsfield), as he carried a huge bag when they all entered, noisily setting it down while Hamlet greeted them--as if Hamlet’s later advice was directed at this particular rather distracting Clown. In his advice in all three texts, Hamlet explains to the First Player that the Clown’s antics need to be controlled so that the essential action of the play can move forward. Elaborating in Q1 only, Hamlet then illustrates the sort of jokes a Clown might insert. In NOTE’s production these lines allowed Alina Phelan as Hamlet a sequence of comic physical acting not in the longer texts. They also inspired an enhanced role for the Player Clown, who took the advice as a personal insult, speaking the Prologue’s lines as an irritable singsong in response to Hamlet’s advice.

Hamlet’s insults directed to Rossencraft and Gilderstone in which he taunts them with a recorder are found in all three texts just after the play within the play. In Q1, Hamlet next compares the two with a sponge, then to nuts in an ape’s mouth—insults that appear later in Q2 and F in a scene not found in Q1. In NOTE’s production, Hamlet threatened the two with the recorder then moved into the sponge and ape insults, as Rossencraft (Spencer Robinson) and Gilderstone (Dan Wingard) became increasingly worried, even frightened by the change in Hamlet. Later, after the King sent the two to find the body of Corambis, NOTE’s Hamlet mimed the squeezing of a sponge as they hurried off on their errand for the King, vividly recalling the earlier insult. Both the added advice to the Players and the transposed sponge/ape insults allowed NOTE’s actors to add effective stage business not available in the longer texts.

Throughout the play, NOTE’s actors enhanced the production—and our understanding of the text—with details of stagecraft that made the short version of Hamlet an exciting, moving, and often funny play—just as skilled actors can take a more polished text of the play and make it, too, live in our memories.