Interview with Hamlet Director Austin Pendleton

You’ve acted in two productions of HAMLET. What roles did you play?

Austin Pendleton: In one I played Hamlet and in the other I played Claudius.


And what was the difference in those experiences?

AP: The difference between playing Hamlet and Claudius? They’re two equally wonderful roles, but they’re very different. Actually, I don’t think the two men are as different as they would like to think, or at least as Hamlet would like to think they are.


Can you talk about your theory that HAMLET was written over a weekend?

AP: Well, the play has spontaneity about it in the language. I mean, the language seems so unworked-on, it seems like it just came out. Whereas in some of the other Shakespeare plays, the language, which is thrilling, has a very densely crafted feeling and that has its own power. I think that’s part of the reason people like HAMLET so much: you can understand the language. It has a spontaneous, free-flowing, off-the-cuff feeling. All the characters are clearly brilliant people, but it just seems like what’s coming out of their mouth. The scenes have very odd structures that kind of go all over the map, and the structure of the overall play really feels like it’s making itself up as it goes along, more so than any other play. So let’s say two weekends…


You said that in most productions of HAMLET we see the play and the other characters through the point of view of Hamlet, but in this production you want to see the character of Hamlet through the point of view of those around him. Can you talk about what such an approach means?

AP: Hamlet is very opinionated about everyone else in the play. Hamlet himself has very fixed opinions about everybody, therefore it becomes tempting for the audience to say, “Well, that’s who that person is,” about Claudius, Gertrude, or Polonius. Those are the obvious examples, and even with Ophelia. But the writing seems to me to indicate that there’s a lot more going on with these people than Hamlet acknowledges. Hamlet is a very brilliant person. He also appears to have some sort of a mood disorder, which is not a tragic flaw. Hamlet doesn’t have a tragic flaw the way that in the other title characters of Shakespearean tragedies have an identifiable tragic flaw that brings them down. Hamlet is just in circumstances that would be hard for anybody, and it’s particularly hard for somebody like him. Hamlet’s been in Wittenberg all this time. He’s not that into politics. Only this extreme circumstance has brought him home. At the beginning, he wants to go back to Wittenberg. They have to talk him into staying. So he doesn’t swim in the world that this play is in and now he’s called upon to do this. He’s called to murder somebody without having any conclusive proof that the person he’s supposed to murder actually did something wrong. That would be hard on anybody, any person other than a hit man. That would be hard. He doesn’t like Claudius, but you don’t go around killing somebody on the word of some ghost who comes in the middle of the night. But, like a lot of high-strung, really brilliant people who are not politicians, he just has quick, intuitive responses to people. I don’t think the play means for us to think that that’s the whole person, that that’s all there is to that person. I’m anxious that everybody gets to be seen in some kind of dimension.


Is this why you’ve dealt with Hamlet’s ghost in a somewhat different fashion?

AP: Yes.


You mentioned that HAMLET was the most “controversial” of Shakespeare’s plays. Can you talk about what that means?

AP: By controversial, I don’t mean that some people think it’s great and others don’t like it – everybody seems to like it. But controversial in the sense that everybody seems to have a different opinion what it’s about. There’s a whole book, a very interesting book that came out many years ago called What Happens in Hamlet. You can’t imagine having a title like that about any other play. You couldn’t have What Happens in King Lear because it’s absolutely clear what happens in King Lear. It’s really in all Shakespeare’s plays, even the romances, which are highly fanciful. But people are still arguing about what goes on in HAMLET. On the surface it’s absolutely clear, and yet, as my friend Frank Langella says, it’s full of what he calls “the refrigerator door moments,” where you see a show or movie and you have a response and you go home to get a snack before you go to bed and you open the refrigerator door and you say, “Wait a minute…what actually was going on there?” HAMLET is a whole play of that and by the time the revenge that is asked for at the beginning actually happens, everybody seems to have forgotten what is actually being avenged. So many other reasons have been added in. The play is adapted famously from an old revenge story, but it also turns that genre inside out. It’s about a lot of people who talk a lot and at the end they’re all dead. They sort of talk themselves into it and it’s not really a tragedy, except that people die who shouldn’t die. Nobody in this play should die, even Claudius. They’re all interesting people. It’s not, in the classical sense, a tragedy. There’s no play that’s like it in all Shakespeare’s plays. You can’t put it in a category. It’s about not knowing what you’re doing, and that’s not just for Hamlet, that’s for everybody.


One would think that directing HAMLET is very much about collaborating with the actor playing Hamlet, in this case Peter Sarsgaard, who you’ve worked with successfully in Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters. Can you talk about how you two have worked together in the past and how that dialogue has grown into this third collaboration?

AP: We’ve had a lot of dialogue about HAMLET over the past year; it was almost a year ago when I got an email from Brian Kulick saying, “Peter wants to do HAMLET, would you like to direct it?” It was the fastest response I’ve ever made to anything in my life. I said, “Yes.”  Even though we’ve talked a lot, the kind of collaboration that happens once you start rehearsing is a whole different moment. In Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, we worked slightly differently those two times, but one thing that those two did have in common was the working relationship between Peter and me. It’s a very inquisitive process. It’s full of, “What about this?” or “What about that?” Peter is always evolving; Peter doesn’t like to set things.  And then you begin to find out very early on in the process of working with him that you don’t want him to set things because his acting temperament is such that he’s always changing. As a director, you keep laying down points about the story, even if the story is unclear as it is here, just a point to start from about the story. It’s like working with a jazz artist. Then he does endless variations on that, but they more and more refine themselves into their own, into a thing that in one way or another somehow occurs every time he does it. And that’s the way he works. There are other actors, equally good who like to set things and just refine those. So you have to stay open to the way that people work, certainly if they’re as good as Peter, but even if they’re just good actors. If an actor has a process that works for them of how to develop a role, you want to honor that process so that they can. Or, if you’ve worked with an actor a number of times, perhaps in one show you want to say, “Let’s work a whole other way on this just to see what happens,” but for that it would have to be someone you’ve worked with a lot. If you violate an actor’s process—it can be done and some directors do it brilliantly—you do it at your own peril. You’re at risk of losing a lot of stuff from that actor. If you tear the bag, all the groceries are going to fall out. There are people who are like that. They’re questers, they are on quests all the time, trying to find out what’s going on. They’re restless people. You think of a lot of the great performances that Peter’s given and that quality, that feeling, that musicality, manifests itself in the terms of each specific character in all kinds of ways through all his work. That’s a great horse to ride on for a part like Hamlet.


Do you approach a text like HAMLET differently than say Three Sisters or a contemporary play? Does your process change?

AP: No. This will be the fourth Shakespeare play I’ve directed and I’ve acted in a number of them, primarily in showcases here in New York, which is ironic. It’s wonderful to act in Shakespeare in a showcase in New York because you don’t have all that pressure. You have only the pressure of the play itself and the pressure of the good director. I’ve worked with wonderful directors, acted in Shakespearean productions in church lofts in New York, where the director is wonderful. It’s just about the work because it’s not a career move, and so you learn a lot about these plays. These plays anticipated every modern playwright; he does things that are Chekhovian, things that are like Samuel Beckett. He anticipates Phaedo, Tennessee Williams. He’s all of the sudden invented a whole new kind of playwriting, kind of covered the waterfront.