To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Whenever I catch Shakespeare, the question of fidelity comes to mind. Most of the audience already knows what is going to happen; some of them might even have memorised the script, watched important versions of the work in question whether in real life or online or at the movies, be skeptical of the smallest costume changes and nuances of accent. At the same time, it seems I come to Shakespeare also for differences, the varieties of Lear or Shylock or Bottom, the adaptability of a work that is great because it is, as they say, for all time.

I’ve enjoyed being an audience member in two very different ways over this weekend. Today, I was at the Globe Theatre’s Hamlet, which is in Singapore on an exhilarating every-country-in-the-world tour. Four years ago, I arrived in London on exchange. Winter was surprisingly warm, and I never needed to wear more than a T-shirt and a faux leather jacket. Nonetheless, I was too late to catch anything on site. It was frustrating—here I was, in a Shakespeare class too, and although through it I was sent backstage to look at costumes and old musical instruments I felt like somehow I missed out on the real thing.

Because I was abroad, I also missed the 2011 presidential elections. Forgetful as always, I never reinstated myself and didn’t realise this until last week, when my mother told me my name wasn’t on the household poll cards. Yesterday, I found myself a political observer, my civic responsibility temporarily suspended. Some say politics is like theatre, but in most cases they really mean forum theatre, which probably derives from the ancient Greek notion of politics, anyhow. A vast majority of the time nobody enjoys audience interference during a show. Even as I was frustrated, again, I found some peace in my relative detachment.

My favourite part of Hamlet is the play-within-a-play. In an old undergraduate course on tragedy I learned to use mise-en-abyme to describe the scene where Shakespeare mirrors the Globe on stage, establishing two psychic mirrors that reflect the play-ness of the play back and forth, forever and ever, until the reflections form a dark abyss of meaning into which we, I suppose, would have to fall. The Globe team staged it excellently, with a red curtain cutting the stage in two, its drawing and undrawing signaling a filmic cross-cut between the play-in-a-play and the reactions of the wicked King-uncle-father and his Mother-aunt-Queen. As Hamlet warns us, “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

This remains possibly the truest thing about Hamlet. Because we all know the plot, how we enjoy its various iterations really reflects more on ourselves rather than anything else, our proclivities, tastes, passions. The addition of a slight rash of Singlish played to an appreciative crowd. If they had cut out the “poor Yorick” scene, however, Hamlet would have been disfigured.

Some assume that politics has a trajectory, a telos, and somehow we will either end up in Utopia or Greece. A few thousand years ago Greece produced a culture that informs our politics and our theatre to this very moment. But what if our politics has somehow reached canonical status, and we cannot bear to see a work of art twisted beyond recognition? We tolerate, even desire a fresh take, but deeper is the pleasure of mouthing the same words over and over and over, feeling the frisson of excitement as our self-important protagonist, for the ten thousandth time, says To be or not to be, that is the question…

Even after tonight, and last night, even after studying the bard in his native land, I still cannot get a grip on whatever it is in him and his work that represents the real thing. Studying can only take me so far. So many have lit up social media, itself another mise-en-abyme, asking why real life somehow didn’t reflect real life. At the end of my three hours in Elsinore I couldn’t have answered the question. What I did know was that, despite me not giving a standing ovation, despite my students’ confused glances, despite all the changes—here Hamlet was.

Finally, Fortinbras calls for the bodies to be removed. In a move that Shakespeare would not have predicted drowned mad Ophelia enters, arms crossed, makes her way to the Queen, stoops like a mother to a child, snaps her fingers. Gertrude stirs, stands, the resurrected pair raise their arms over their heads and dance to the fiddle and the drum. In the same manner the King and Laertes are awakened. Finally, as the music swells, Ophelia revives Hamlet, helps him to his feet. Circling each other, reunited, they laugh with recognition at a play well played.

Hao Guang Tse