An Unabridged Hamlet

Seeing Hamlet when you’re pushing 50 is different than when you’re in your 20s or 30s, and not just because the whole damn play is arguably about mortality, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

You can tell that every scene in Nuance Theatre’s unabridged Hamlet, which is up for one more weekend through this Saturday, has been worked on and worked on, and I suppose that’s the point of this production: to cover all the “B” scenes that usually get cut by smaller company productions.

There are solid performances all over the place, though they miss one another at times. Since they bring differing styles they rarely seem like they’re reacting to what happened in the previous scene. Each one is rather a clean slate with a well-executed dramatic moment. Consequently the gears aren’t always engaged. If there’s any flaw in the show overall, it’s in the wider direction. The yarn being spun by the playwright rarely feels suspenseful.

Kudos, nonetheless, to this small company for doing the whole play. Scenes I’d previously found filler or “mere set up,” such as Polonius’ advice to his daughter Ophelia in Act One, felt very real this time. $25 for the whole classic, just a block from Times Square.

hamlet

Young love, deadly as it can be, gets eclipsed by its elders’ problems in Hamlet.

When you’re young you read the Hamlet-Horatio or Hamlet-Ophelia scenes carefully, and regard the scenes between the prince and his elders as just that: reasoned limitations that the powers-that-be are placing on your hero’s freedom. Step-dad saying you can’t go to Lebanon for spring break.

As you age – I could say “mature,” but let’s be real – you start seeing Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his step-dad Claudius, and even clownish old Polonius, as real people with real problems. (Jurgen Jones, who plays Claudius, is a friend of mine; he is at once regal and completely Jurgen.) They are the sun and moon of this show, and arguably of the play itself.

 

 

 

John Montague, Poet from the Land of Poets

The Irish poet John Montague died last weekend, with hardly a peep around here in the place where he was born, Brooklyn. It was Montague and Seamus Heaney, specifically their selections in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, that kept the poetic flame alive inside me during a long period of estrangement.

img_1694

Glass and video have replaced “the cage” on the Clark Street 2 & 3 Train stop, formerly the I.R.T., in Brooklyn Heights, where John Montague’s father worked.

His Irish Times obituary hinted, not surprisingly, that he regarded Heaney, the more successful, Nobel Laureate face of Irish poetry, as his rival. It added, also not surprisingly, that in his final years his jealousy lifted and he quoted Heaney’s poetry with fondness.

Among his works I revisit through the years are “The Trout” (Super homoerotic! I was surprised to learn he wasn’t gay.) and “The Cage.” Though born in Brooklyn, his mother got sick when he was young, and he was raised by relatives in Northern Ireland, while his father stayed here to work.

 

The Cage

My father, the least happy

man I have known. His face

retained the pallor

of those who work underground:

the lost years in Brooklyn

listening to a subway

shudder the earth.

 

But a traditional Irishman

who (released from his grille

in the Clark St. I.R.T)

drank neat whiskey until

he reached the only element

he felt at home in

any longer: brute oblivion.

 

And he picked himself

up, most mornings,

to march down the street

extending his smile

to all sides of the good

(non-negro) neighbourhood

belled by Teresa’s church.

 

When he came back

we walked together

across fields of Garvaghey

to see hawthorn on the summer

hedges, as though

he had never left;

a bend of the road

 

which still sheltered

primroses. But we

did not smile in

the shared complicity

of a dream, for when

weary Odysseus returns

Telemachus must leave.

 

Often as I descended

into subway or underground

I see his bald head behind

the bars of the small booth;

the mark of an old car

accident beating on his

ghostly forehead.

 

I confess to ruining the mood at a dinner party one night a few years ago, when the subject of poems about fathers came up and I broke this one out and read it. I’d remembered it as a sad story of a man who’d sacrificed his happiness for a job in a literal cage. The afterthought phrase “non-negro,” to me, testified to Montague’s great love for his father, whom he accepted faults and all, with no indication that his da’ didn’t share his neighborhood’s racism. The real-life “negroes” present at this particular get-together seemed a bit like a jab to the belly had been delivered, like they might have preferred a little warning for so hurtful a subject to come up, or at least a reprieve till dessert was finished.

My own love for Irish America is complicated by this very issue, our complicity in covering up the original sin of our country. It’s very American, really, that Montague appends this phrase to his poem at all, rendered in parentheses no less, as if he needs us to know where these people stood on the epoch-making issues of their day, and to discreetly take a position himself. (He and Seamus Heaney both lived in the U.S. for decades and became celebrities here, or at least paid the bills.)

This Christmas with my family, when the beer and wine are flowing, I plan to break out another of Montague’s poems, “The Silver Flask,” a country idyll about a family passing a flask of whiskey around the car. It begins:

“Sweet, though short, our

hours as a family together.

Driving across dark mountains

to Midnight Mass in Fivemiletown,

lights coming up in the valleys

as in the days of Carleton.

 

Tussocks of heather brown

in the headlights; our mother

stowed in the back, a tartan

rug wrapped around her knees,

patiently listening as father sang,

and the silver flask went round…”

Not exactly Christmas with The Waltons, neither my family nor Montague’s. He was a poet from the land of poets. I can understand young writers feeling like Montague and Heaney are both losing their relevance, their Irish heritage a kind of thesaurus of evocative images. They’re still special to me, though, and it goes beyond their Irish-ness. Even when they’re trading in nostalgia, they keep our eyes on sad details, then hint at some universal experience, then go back to the images to let them have the final word, and that, to me is what poetry is.

The Impermanent Collection

This fall I’ve gone for a few escape days to the Medieval collections of the Metropolitan Museum. With reality TV running the planet, it felt right to connect to something permanent, to the superstitious and anarchic foundations of our culture.

“There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages,” as Mark Twain said, and there’s nothing like a visit to the reliquary collection, the bejeweled, decorative boxes used to carry the sub-divided bones of the saints, for a good laugh. At the Louvre I once saw a reliquary battle crown, so a king could ride into battle with the bones of his kingdom’s favorite saint decorating his head.

First was up at The Cloisters, which I vowed to visit again just to see the gardens in high season. Medieval art is full of trippy aesthetic surprises, easier to like, in some respects, than the graph-paper Renaissance stuff that came after it. The Rolling Stones got dressed in Medieval garb for some of their album covers, a part of a revival of Medievalism in the 60s that included Terry Gilliam’s animation, whose inspiration I see in the tapestries.

I catch myself reading too much in museums: taking a brief look at an artifact, registering that it warrants a closer look, then reading the text that goes with it before spending any quality time with it. It’s better to look first, to take an object in as a piece of art without any context to crush its capacity to excite you. Then see what the context does.

julius-caesar-1410

J.C…..but not Jesus Christ.

Admiring a tapestry at the Cloisters, I figured it was a series of events in the life of a king, or possibly a bishop, knowing that the military-religious complex would have made Eisenhower blush. Well, it turns out it was a depiction of the life of Julius Caesar, from the Netherlands around the year 1405.

Of course they dressed him like a contemporary king, the way Shakespeare pictured ancient kings in Elizabethan costumes, but what was he doing there at all? It defies what we think we know, that no one cared about classical subjects, only religious ones, until traders brought ancient texts from the East, and the Italians spontaneously fell in love with the whole Greco-Roman thing, and a wonderful feeling spread north from Fra Lippo Lippi’s paintbrush as the 1400s went on. Well, in 1405 some important or at least rich person in Holland liked Caesar enough to commission a giant tapestry about his life, and there it was.

Back at the regular Met this week, I caught the exhibit Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. Though the projected images of modern Jerusalem on the walls gave some of the rooms a propagandistic feel, the collection was mind-blowing. Everybody was there! Jews and Muslims, sure, but also Orthodox Christians, Coptic crosses from Africa, invading Catholics, and a Chinese bowl that somebody got from somebody.

There was even a decorative golden plate with the coat of arms of the House of Lusignan, a French dynasty that ruled Cyprus for 300 years. The coat of arms was tiny, and the script all around it offering good wishes was in giant Arabic characters. Did everyone who could read and write know Arabic, and maybe something else as a second language, or was it the kind of gift a conquering king gets from the locals? “Here’s a lad and a lass in the national costume presenting you with our famously refreshing cultured goat milk drink, oh, and this plate with our favorite sayings on it”?

I’ve written before about my preference for museums as repositories of artifacts rather than overly-curated shows with too much thematic baggage. The Met, I was happy to see, now has a giant room in a far-off wing devoted to visible storage, where it keeps its 19th Century chairs and tea sets that aren’t sensational enough for prime time, crowded together but behind glass. History is full of contradictions. The Medieval collections are always full of hallucinations and murder, and above all surprises, and despite the curators’ best efforts the Jerusalem show is another good example.