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Joel Sass, the Adapter of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

LONGEST HAMLET: Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest play, with over 4000 lines, 20 scenes and 33 characters. Normally, it would take over four hours to perform.

FASTEST HAMLET: In 2008, a 15-minute version was performed by Austin Shakespeare in Texas. That production was called The World’s Fastest Hamlet; and after the show, the four-member cast then did a two-minute Hamlet, followed by a ten-second Hamlet.

PARK SQUARE’S HAMLET: This season, Park Square Theatre unveils a world premiere adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Joel Sass, who is also its director and set designer. With a performance time of two hours 20 minutes, including intermission, and a cast of nine playing multiple roles, it will be performed for general public and student audiences.

Joel Sass has done several adaptations for the stage throughout his career, including William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Pericles for the California Shakespeare Theatre as well as Pericles for the Guthrie. In 2011, he’d adapted Neil Bartlett’s stage version of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist for Park Square Theatre, following up in 2016 with his adaptation of Dicken’s Great Expectations on our Proscenium Stage. Then he successfully pitched the idea to adapt a shorter version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Park Square.

“I’ve gotten into the reflexive habit of exploring how to do big stories imaginatively and economically,” Joel said. “Hamlet at 4+ hours may be a great experience, but there are a lot of other ways to approach it by being more selective and creative on the story elements. I also wondered how I could manifest the world of Hamlet with less cast.”

The germ of Joel’s idea actually resulted from his conversation with former Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling who’d wanted to do Pericles but could only afford to hire nine actors. Having successfully explored that possibility for the Guthrie inspired Joel to consider a similar approach for Hamlet.

Joel Sass (second from right) in rehearsal with Hamlet cast members
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

“The process of adapting an existing Shakespeare play isn’t as complex as adapting a novel into a play. I already have the dialogue, and now I must decide what comes out and what to change,” Joel explained. “Hamlet is already a play that usually gets some cutting done. The play doesn’t have a definitive version either; there are three or four official versions with variations in plot, language and order of events. I feel that gives me implicit permission to continue to experiment. I needed to decide thematically and plot-wise what I wanted to do to retell the story.”

“I made some obvious cuts. For instance, I chose to lose the geopolitical element between Denmark and Norway, which is not necessary to the heart of the story. And I contemplated this one seriously but decided to take out Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I looked at how the plot flows and felt that the qualities of their relationship with Hamlet could be reiterated in exchanges with other characters. Take the richness implied in their friendship with Hamlet; that could be applied to Horatio.”

Knowing that the play would also be performed for student matinees where the audience may be studying Shakespeare’s longer version, I wondered if Joel had taken that into consideration for his adaptation.

“The value of students seeing theatre is not predicated on exact replication. Theatre is more organic of an experience and art tool than that. Using the tool of theatre is all about how stories are adapted or readapted. What meaning can you get from reinterpreted versions?” Joel pointed out. “The students will know the play enough to know what’s missing. The adaptation will make them more attentive to the material.”

Joel Sass with Kory LaQuess Pullam, who plays Hamlet
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

With a smaller cast playing fewer characters and mixed-gender casting, Joel’s version of Hamlet will also bring an additional dimension for not just student groups, but all audiences, to ponder. What does it mean, for instance, to have the traditionally male Polonius character now be the female Polonia? According to Joel, audiences will get to explore anew characters that they may have thought they knew well.

“I’ve created a very intimate, more contemporary thriller in this adaptation,” said Joel. “I’ve emphasized the psychology of the characters and intensity of their circumstances, which can be more diffused or drawn out in a longer version. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a compelling, universal story that can withstand numerous ways of distilling events and language. We should want to see different versions of Hamlet.”

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