Abbreviating Shakespeare

I went to see Red Monkey Theater's excellent abridged version of Hamlet at Center Stage Playhouse's new space.  It was a fast moving 1 hour and 40 minutes (no intermission).  The cast was spectacular -- Lawrence J. Reina, Ed Friedman, Elizabeth Mialaret, Holland Renton, David Ryan, Elliott Robinson, Charles Scattamachia, Lisa Spielman, Craig Campanaro, and Gwendolyn Wiegold, all bringing something both new and familiar to these timeless characters.  Tal Aviezer was in top form in the lead role and as director, delivering some fresh and thoughtful choices to one of William Shakespeare's most popular tragedies.

Tal took the time to answer some of my questions about the abbreviated version of Hamlet.

Nick Leshi - What's the usual average running time for the unabridged version? Is Hamlet really Shakespeare's longest play?

Tal Aviezer - Unabridged performances of Hamlet typically run about 4 hours. Hamlet is indeed the longest Shakespeare play (second longest is Coriolanus). The role of Hamlet also has more lines than any character in Shakespeare (unless you count ALL of Hal’s lines from Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V).

NL - What was your criteria for what to cut/condense?

TA - In considering what to cut, I looked both at what I saw as essential to the spine of the story, and also gave consideration to the expectations of the audience. I had to carefully consider each excision. For example, I cut the whole opening scene of the play, where Horatio and the watchmen encounter the ghost on the battlements. This delays the first appearance of the ghost until Hamlet sees him. The story of Horatio’s first meeting with the ghost is recapitulated in scene 2 regardless, and since imagination is always the theater’s most powerful tool, this allows the idea of the ghost to germinate in the mind of the audience, and for tension to build in them as it does in Hamlet until we finally encounter the ghost together with him.

I cut the entirety of the Fortinbras subplot, including the ambassadors to Norway. In any production of Hamlet I have seen in which these characters were cut, I have never missed them. They do give us a sense of scope, and a larger world beyond the boundaries of the play, and also of Claudius's skill, or lack thereof, as a head of state, but on the whole I think they can be safely dispensed with without losing anything we love about this play. Notably, this included cutting one of Hamlet’s “Big 5” monologues, “How all occasions do inform against me”, which in any case I view as largely an echo of “What a rogue and peasant slave am I."

I cut Polonius’s interview with Reynaldo, which is a scene that I personally always enjoy both for its comedy and for its insight into the character of Polonius and the atmosphere of the court. In the end I felt it was disposable in the interest of moving the story forward.

A confession that may surprise some is that I considered cutting "To Be Or Not To Be." While among the most famous and beautiful speeches in the play, I also think it is both larger and somewhat outside of the play (the shoe certainly fits the character of Hamlet, but there is something so universal about the speech that it is almost impersonal). It does nothing to move the story forward at all. However, here I felt I needed to bear in mind the expectations of the audience, some of whom were coming to see perhaps their favorite play. If I go see Cats, I expect “Memories” to be sung. So "To Be Or Not To Be" stayed in, though I did place it at a different point in the play.

I also did NOT cut a few things that often do get cut. A lot of Hamlet’s interactions with the players are intact, as this for me was something very close to the heart of the play. You often see much of that material cut in productions of Hamlet.

NL - When you've edited and adapted Shakespeare plays in the past, what has some of your feedback been from both actors and audience?

TA - Regarding feedback on cuts I’ve made in the past, only once in 13 seasons have I had an audience member complain that I had cut too much out of a play. Actors of course are a different story, especially if their own lines have been taken out! I have had several occasions where actors have tried to argue their lines back into a play; I always at least listen to their concerns, and sometimes there can be a compromise.

NL - I recall one of my old high school teachers coming to one of my plays, I think it was A Midsummer Night's Dream -- he sat in the front row with BOOK IN HAND following along! I thought that was absurdity to the extreme -- I can't imagine anyone enjoying a live theatrical performance that way. I talked to him after the show and he said he liked to follow along to see what changes were made to the text.

TA - Over the years I have many times seen audience members bring copies of plays with them to the theater, especially Shakespeare. Some read along because they are hard of hearing, others consult published editions for help in unraveling some of the language (though I’m a firm believer that the latter should be unnecessary if the play’s done well). For others, bringing the full text and following along to see what the director has cut or how the actors choose to handle certain lines is just part of their enjoyment of Shakespeare.

NL - We're seing more and more live theater do away with intermissions altogether. Forget the days of Three Acts, now even Two Acts are starting to be phased out. During Shakespeare's time, how did the Five Act structure work? Were there noticable breaks between each act or did they just barrel through the whole play uninterrupted? Was the Five Act structure just for storytelling purposes like the refined Three-Act-structure? Do you think we lose any of those storytelling beats in this age of intermissionless One-Acts?

TA - Regarding the intermission: as a general rule, I hate them as a director, as an actor, and usually as an audience member, unless the play is VERY long. They basically exist to sell concessions, which is a financial necessity in some theaters. But if you went to see a two-hour-and-twenty minute movie, you would not expect an intermission; why then does a play of the same length need one? I also think it’s again a matter of knowing the expectations of your audience. I think our show, though only one hour and forty minutes, is a fully-realized, “whole” Hamlet, while at the same time suiting the needs of some of the venues on the tour that require a shorter performance.

The five-act structure of Shakespeare’s plays is an artificial imposition placed on them by his earliest publishers; there is no evidence to suggest he thought of them in five acts, and we have no idea where and how often intermissions were placed in the Elizabethan theater. We have textual evidence that suggests that even then cuts were made, for political and other reasons. The chorus of Romeo and Juliet, for example, describes the play as being “this two hour’s traffic of our stage." Even if the verse is spoken at a blistering pace, it is difficult to imagine how any company in any period could get through an uncut production of Romeo and Juliet in less than three hours. We do know that performances at the original Globe Theater had a somewhat carnival atmosphere, and included side attractions like bear-baiting in addition to the plays. But, you know, no original cast recordings exist!

In addition to the performances at Center Stage Playhouse in the French Family Auditorium of Mercy College in the Bronx, this was a touring production of Hamlet with shows at St. Paul's Church National Historic Site in Mount Vernon, Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, and coming up, Bendheim Performing Arts Center in Scarsdale, and Rochambeau School in White Plains. For more information, please visit