Hamlet meets 007 in BYU spring production

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Dani Jardine
Hamlet, left, played by Andrew Smith, acts mad while with Polonius, right, played by Ben Phelan, in BYU’s production of “Hamlet” with a James Bond twist. (Danielle Jardine)

William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” becomes a spy thriller in the spring production by BYU’s Department of Theatre and Media Arts.

The production mimics a James Bond film with action, intrigue, mystery and a Bond girl. The set even looks like MI6 security headquarters.

“Hamlet” is directed by graduate student Chris Hults and includes students and non-student actors. The show runs June 8-10 and 15-17 in the Nelke Experimental Theatre in the Harris Fine Arts Center.

Hults first got the idea of a spy-themed “Hamlet” after reading David Ball’s book “Backwards and Forwards.” In the book, Ball analyzes “Hamlet” and points out a lot of the action in “Hamlet” is spying. Hults took the idea and paired it with the Bond world saying when he went to the text, the connection was there.

Dramaturg Steven Dowdle said he cut the script down to lines that focused on espionage and spying. Dowdle said in his Dramaturg Notes in the program, “One of the requirements of both Prince Hamlet and James Bond is to act a particular way in order to get close to their targets, who are observing them — and vice versa.”

The production makes use of TV and computer screens on stage to display live security camera footage of what’s taking place as well as using the screens to project Hamlet’s dead father making his ghostly appearances.

“Hamlet” includes the familiar classic literature characters, but some actors differ from the usual portrayals of their characters.

Adjunct professor Ben Phelan, who anticipates graduation in August from Louisana State University with a Ph.D. in theatre history, plays Polonius, father of Laertes and Ophelia and counselor to Hamlet’s uncle, the King. Phelan takes a comedic approach to Polonius particularly receiving laughs when he exclaims, “O, I am slain!”

Hults said Phelan worked well for the part of Polonius, calling Phelan a “committed comedic actor.” Phelan said he’d never died on stage before but that it was one of his favorite parts.

“Well that ‘O, I am slain!’ is hard to do seriously so I try to get a laugh out of it,” Phelan said. “I feel like if you play it straight you’re going to overact it.”

Dani Jardine
Polonius, played by Ben Phelan, gives instruction to Ophelia, played by Erin Ellis in BYU’s production of “Hamlet.” (Danielle Jardine)

Ophelia was also portrayed differently. Hults worked with actor and BYU theater student Erin Ellis to portray Ophelia as capable and confident, someone who was Hamlet’s match. Hults said she wasn’t an Ophelia waiting to go crazy.

Ellis said she had a hard time with Ophelia until Theatre and Media Arts Professor Rodger Sorensen came and watched the show and helped Hults and Ellis revisit the text.

“We sat down and talked through it and we figured out all these things that were in the text that had been there the whole time that we had never noticed before,” Ellis said. “Suddenly it all just clicked into place and I was like ‘okay, I’m excited about this.'”

Dani Jardine
From left: Cooper Hopkin (Osric), Chris Hults (director), Stephen Moore (Rosencrantz), Abbie Craig (Guildenstern), Kris Wing Jennings (Gertrude), Erin Ellis (Ophelia), Emily Barker (Horatio), Sarah Ziegler (1st Player), Ben Phelan (Polonius), and M. Chase Grant (Claudius). The cast of BYU’s production of “Hamlet” participate in a post-performance discussion with the audience on June 8. (Danielle Jardine)

The cast only had four weeks of rehearsal to put together the production, though they said they enjoyed the fast process. Alta High School teacher Emily Barker, who plays Horatio, said she enjoys when the lines come to life and interactions become “real.”

“This show has been really fun because everyone on stage is so phenomenal that I can trust that they’ll react off of me and they can trust me to react off of them,” Barker said.

Hults said things didn’t turn out like he’d expected. He got more “grown-ups” then he thought he would, and the casting turned out different than what he planned. Originally he had wanted a female Hamlet and had not expected a female Horatio. He said he enjoyed the collaboration and the end result.

“I love that I can bring something and put it on a table with a bunch of other people and they add to it and we create something that is so far beyond whatever I thought of,” Hults said. “It always changes, drastically, and it’s always better.”

For more information about the performances of “Hamlet” visit arts.byu.edu.

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