Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

#18. The Worst Production I’ve Ever Seen (An Interlude)

Well, dear readers, your rogue has been delinquent these last few weeks, while he was in the throes of preparation for Litlando, which was I daresay a smash. Part of the problem with my next post is that I reached a pique of condemnatory rhetoric last time, and it felt so deliciously cathartic, and I doubt I shall see any Shakespeare film quite so bad ever again.

And yet I was not quite prepared to change modes, and see something good, and then say something positive. So this week, I will tell you the story of the worst stage production of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen.

In September of 2005, I attended a college production of Hamlet at my alma mater, Florida Atlantic University, directed by someone named Desmond Gallant. Now university theatrical productions can be unpredictable in quality, a bit like college football, actually, and normally I wouldn’t hold a university production to the light of criticism, for the kids are still learning, and so why select such a target? But this show was farcically wretched, and could only be a success as a parody of Hamlet.

That tic of some gushing new actors to Shakespeare, that self-satisfied glee that seems to announce the awesomeness of the actor totally doing the shit out of Shakespeare, was all over the actor playing the Danish prince. He is the worst actor I have ever seen. If you have ever seen William Shatner perform the “to be or not be” soliloquy, and if you had also seen this other fellow in 2005, you would say that Shatner is clearly the more refined talent. If you compare the most histrionically overwrought performance of Shatner chewing up the cheap scenery of Star Trek, you would also still say that Shatner was easily the more refined actor. This actor seemed to be doing a parody of Shatner, yet without any satirical intention.

One wonders why this untalented fellow was cast as Hamlet, when the finest actor of the troupe played the buffoonish Polonius, in this case a Polonius with a cockney accent and a lisp. He was a joy to watch, which made it all the more difficult after the third act. Half the audience failed to return after intermission. One of my friends was really digging the performance, though, as if it was a twisted John Waters experience. The show was almost more camp than could be endured.

The actress playing Ophelia was a much better actor than he-who-butchered-Hamlet. She was articulate, and exquisitely beautiful, and full-figured, what people in the Enlightenment might have called of glorious embonpoint. Botticelli-esque. I felt embarrassed for her having to share the stage with that prancing goofball. But I was even more embarrassed when, because of the placing of a zig-zaggy bridge on the German expressionistic set, Ophelia had to walk at her own funeral.

At the end of the play, when the actors emerge from the piles of bodies in order to take their bows, one was disappointed by this resurrection.

That December, the altogether amazing Estelle Kohler of the Royal Shakespeare Company performed her one woman show at Florida Atlantic University, and I was doing my best to let this sublime show counteract the toxic absurdity of the Hamlet that had been perpetrated on that very same stage.

And then I noticed knowing, wry laughter behind me at some of Kohler’s comments about performing Shakespeare. “That’s so true,” chortled the abominable Hamlet behind me, “I know exactly what that is like.”

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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