Dead Playwrights Society, my now-weekly, now-Zooming classics reading series, finally tackled Hamlet yesterday. The whole darn thing. Four hours of reading the uncut text. Ordinarily, since it is a reading series, that’s all we do. The text is the important thing, after all, the sacred thing, so we sit around a table with that, speaking it, dissecting it. But there are no communal tables now – just constant screen displays of all our faces, each face representing an individual, trapped in his home, slowly going around the bend from the isolation, and ready to grasp onto any sort of creative outlet as a proverbial drowning man clutches a proverbial rope.
And so, the reading became something just a tad more.
It started simply enough. The actor playing Hamlet wore a black T-shirt, because of course he did, he was playing Hamlet. And when the Ghost commanded him to swear vengeance, and swear his companions to silence, by his sword, there was a handy letter opener on his desk to serve the purpose.
And things progressed from there.
There were improvised prop thrones, and prop weapons, and prop books and prop bouquets, all random objects taken from our desks and our bookshelves and our basements. (We’re theater people, so our apartments and our basements all seem to have prop thrones already somehow.) The apotheosis of all this came during the gravedigger scene, when Yorick’s proverbial skull was bandied about. Somehow, neither Hamlet nor the gravedigger had a skull lying around their apartment (a shameful oversight), so the gravedigger wound up brandishing a Stormtrooper helmet mug in his zoom frame, and passed it off to Hamlet, who wound up brandishing in his zoom frame the head of a figurine of Disney’s Mad Hatter.
It’s the best version of the gravedigger scene I’ve ever witnessed.
And this has become another unique hallmark of the Zoom performance genre – an embracing of the fact that in place of a set, or costumes, or any of the other design elements we expect from theater, we have to make do with the random detritus strewn about our apartments. We’re repurposing anything and everything we can get our hands on – every outfit we were going to throw out, every trinket from our childhood, every novelty gift we’ve ever received – in a wild mix of creativity and punch-drunk boredom.
In doing so, we’ve rediscovered the joys of Poor Theatre. In his seminal work The Empty Stage, Peter Brooks describes staging a production of Love’s Labor’s Lost at the Royal Shakespeare Company in which the cast was allowed to create their own costumes, without regard to period setting or any coherent mise-en-scene, but simply based on how they saw their characters. He describes it as the most vital production of the play he’d ever staged – and that’s what all of us are staging every time we break out our spare New Year’s Hats and feathered boas in these strange, zooming times. And we’re all in this together – the Saturday Night Live cast members and furloughed Broadway performers we watch on what’s left of prime time television are dealing with the same limitations as the rest of us. It’s a democratization of the arts, which is most welcome in these stratified times.
So that’s the silver lining to this unthinkably dark storm cloud. Hopefully, we’ll have retained some of these lessons once the storm finally passes. (And I mean a real passing of the storm – not an illusion created by moving cotton or a pillow or something across the laptop screen.)