Q1: The Bad Hamlet
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
June 15, 2007
Here's what's great about seeing theatre in New York City: you innocently pick a title out of a lineup like Q1: The Bad Hamlet and figure, "Hey, that should be fun, a spoof or comic adaptation of Hamlet." Then you get there, and you find out that you're 100% wrong, that it's actually the rarely produced First Quarto of Hamlet, and that it is uncut and pure drama. And then the kicker is that after about 15 seconds you realize you are watching an utterly terrific ensemble perform (ably directed and co-produced by Cynthia Dillon), and settle back to enjoy a great production of an obscure version of a classic.
Q1: The Bad Hamlet is regarded as either an early draft or a pirated script of arguably Shakespeare's most famous work. This quarto, unlike the most well-known version which is the folio, is stuffed with printing errors and omissions and is far less poetic than the traditionally produced Hamlet. It's also a heck of a lot shorter, and some historians go so far as to suggest that the First Quarto was meant to be a tab version or a touring version of the play.
If you are a serious Shakespeare buff, I would imagine that while watching this alternative script you would identify a plethora of differences. But as a more casual Hamlet fan, I only noticed the most obvious variations in the text. When "To be or not to be, that is the question" is morphed into "To be or not to be, there's the point," you know you are in the alternate Hamlet universe. Polonius is "Corambis," Ophelia is "Ofelia," and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't dead, but rather "Rossencraft and Gilderstone" are.
The major plot points remain the same. The verse clearly does not flow as freely as in the well-known folio version, but it is a testament to the ensemble and the direction that the pacing of Q1: The Bad Hamlet whisks the audience along without dwelling on the lack of rhyme (a trim two-hour run time). The actors don't let you feel like you're watching a substandard take on Hamlet, they simply perform what's written and let the mistakes flow. It's almost like listening to a classic album on vinyl—there are skips and audio cracks, maybe even a few scratches that omit parts of the songs, but there's a value to hearing an album through this medium, the original way it was recorded. Similarly, it's interesting to see what Shakespeare may (or may not) have begun with, before refining the play to the poetic heights that it eventually achieved. True Shakespeare fanatics will also relish an additional scene between Queen Gertrude and Horatio, and debate its inclusion in the extra footage section of the DVD. Kidding aside, the new scene does add an interesting wrinkle and a host of what-ifs.
In lesser hands, Q1: The Bad Hamlet could easily fail, but Dillon has done some exceptional casting and the ensemble of seven give us a case study in team acting. First among equals is the melancholy prince himself, Jason Liebman (also a co-producer), who gives us a kooky, Zach Braff-inspired take on the great Dane. Kevin Lind is outstanding as both Corambis and the Gravedigger (terrific work on the alternate monologue there). Gabriele Schafer (another co-producer) is phenomenal as both Gertrude and the Ghost, whose facial contortions are truly disturbing and somewhat shocking. The remainder of the cast, with Robert Josef as Horatio/First Player, Anthony Bagnetto as Laertes, Thomas Poarch as "King" [aka Claudius], and Alyssa Mann as Ofelia/Rossencraft. Excellent fight choreography from Al Foote III rounds out this terrific production of Q1: The Bad Hamlet.