“Denmark’s a prison.”
“To be or not to be/that is the question.”
Do you recognize these quotes from Hamlet? Probably. I’ve known them intimately since I was a teenager. But I’ve never encountered them as profoundly as I did watching the play performed recently by inmates at San Quentin State Prison.
You’ve heard of poor theatre — no sets? no costumes? no lights? no props? It doesn’t get poorer than this. We visiting audience consist mostly of critics and professors, plus a couple of reporters and a few inmate family members. We wait nearly an hour to be stamped, examined, vetted, then herded through narrow doors to be seated in the non-denominational Christian chapel built of cinder blocks. There are a few high windows decorated with transparencies to look like stained glass. A couple of paintings depict a muscular Christ, beaten and bloody. There is no set. There is no curtain. The space is lit by institutional strips of fluorescent tubing and the lights remain undimmed for the performance. There is no snack bar, and the excessively polite ushers in prison blues are not typical docent volunteers. The program notes include none of the usual acting credits. There aren’t any. If the program had included biographical notes, we would have learned that Hamlet has been incarcerated at San Quentin for 18 years on a murder rap. Horatio made some bad decisions, many years ago, after his mother was killed by gang members. The player king was a seriously successful drug dealer for a while, a quarter century ago, before getting caught. None of them has an MFA.
Obviously, this would be an interesting Hamlet. But would it be any good, objectively? Oh, yes.
This was clear from the beginning, when the 22 cast members swirled about the stage creating a stormy night on the battlements of Elsinore using their bodies to suggest the sea billowing far below. A couple of guards see the ghost of the dead king walking at midnight, and we are off!
Hamlet appears. A tall man, over six feet, dreads, night black, Caribbean features, cantaloupe eyes, velvet voice, astonishing. Claudius, every inch the powerful king, soft spoken, gentle, witty, absolutely assured of his authority, smiling like the successful pimp that he is. Polonius, a marvel of pomposity, but not really anyone’s fool.
It’s Shakespeare, alright.
The traveling players arrive. The Player King, a man close to 50, forgoes the Hecuba speech and, in the only non-Shakespearean text in this production, delivers a highly personal, moving and original rap. Then he break dances.
This is a Hamlet that would qualify as distinguished work at any Shakespeare festival in the United States. Really.
While most of us aren’t locked up behind barbed wire, we are all of us imprisoned by time and mortality, family, job, bad dreams, frustrated ambition. Sometimes, creation seems hopeless. Do you ever feel like that?
Take a moment, please, to reflect on the creation of art by the men of San Quentin and ask yourself, “How am I imprisoned? Am I allowing those limitations to keep me from my art? What am I going to do about it?”
And, by the way, the San Quentin production of Hamlet is a program of the Prison Arts Project, sponsored by the William James Association. They accept donations. Think about it.
And whatever it takes, my friend, don’t be afraid to break out in your art. Anything’s possible. Punk it!
– Charles Kruger
The Storming Bohemian