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Perhaps fittingly, Bottom’s Dream’s The Ghost – like the two Shakespearean tragedies of power on which it is based – feels like an at-times disjointed union of two plays: one outstanding, one still unfurnished. Indeed, watching The Ghost feels like an exercise in aesthetic whiplash: scenes that are downright brilliant followed in quick succession by scenes that are inexplicable in their direction. It’s a combination that renders The Ghost less good than it could have been – but even in its weaker moments, the play is downright fascinating: as much for its tonal variety as for the way in which it weaves together the stories of Hamlet and Macbeth.
In The Ghost, lovers Claudius Macbeth and Lady (Gertrude) Macbeth (née Macduff)conspire to kill Duncan (or was that Hamlet, senior?). But Hamlet Macduff doesn’t take too kindly to the death of his father – or his mother’s subsequent remarriage – and, with the help of his beloved Ophelia (with her brother Laertes and father Polonius, of the house Banquo) sets out to avenge his father’s death. It’s a thrilling concept: one that – when it works – works to outstanding effect. It’s Hamlet: The Untold Story – in which the machinations and tortured ambition of the elder pair of lovers, jaded in the ways of the world and the crown alike, contrasts splendidly with the naivete of Hamlet and Ophelia: who, in this version, come across as sacrificial lambs: too innocent to survive in a world of corruption. It’s a powerful set-up, and one that works best when one play gives us insight into the background action of another: Macbeth as Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead. Thus do we learn that Polonius Banquo’s death is a result of Claudius Macbeth’s scheming – and that Hamlet’s fit of “a rat! A rat!” madness is mere framing. So too Ophelia – taking on Lady Macduff’s role – is drowned by one of the murderers in her bath; her watery suicide a convenient, Gertrude-engineered political fiction. Dialogue is reassigned and re-envisioned – Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” is marvelously contrasted with Macbeth’s “to be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus” – as existential questions on the afterlife give way to meditations on the practicality of the here and now.
The cast is largely very good. As Hamlet himself, Ross Hamman is a standout – playing Hamlet as an awkwardly literal young scholar (in modern terms, somewhere on the spectrum) whose inability to process the difference between appearance and reality – he truly “knows not seems” – makes him incapable of coping with the hypocrisies of court life. Sara Fay George and Kaileela Hobby, as (female) Polonius and Laertes, respectively, exhibit fine gravitas, avoiding either playing their characters “in drag” or making too much of the gender switch. Both Joann Sacco as Gertrude and Caitlin White are strong but miscast (Gertrude looks about two years older than her son), yet somehow their chemistry ends up as some of the most electrifying in the piece: the “get thee to a nunnery” scene – mashed up with the “was my father a traitor” scene from Macbeth and recast as the older, guilt-wracked Gertrude warning Ophelia not to dig too deeply into the world of Elsinore treachery – is the strongest in the play.
Not everything works, though, and often the scenes that misfire are all the more glaring because of the cast’s obvious talent. The ghosts/witches – though highlighted in the title – feel strangely incidental to the plot; The Ghost seems to lack a sense of who, or what, these spirits are beyond expositionary agents of chaos. Some of the blocking feels awkward – there’s essentially no set beyond a rarely used bathtub – which makes larger scenes like the opening announcement of Hamlet’s engagement, or Hamlet’s confrontation with Gertrude in her boudoir, feel forced. Certain speeches feel out of place: Ophelia taking over part of “to be or not to be” does little to flesh out her character, while Claudius’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” is delivered mid fight-scene (facing away from the audience, no less), forcing everyone currently in the middle of fighting to the death to stop and wait for Claudius to finish his rhapsodizing on sound and fury. And some of the production’s insistence on “mashup” results in lines that feel like clangers, even when they shouldn’t: there’s no way “Alas, poor Duncan! I knew him” is ever going to sound anything but jarring (especially when said skull is used a scene later as a murder weapon that borders on parodic).
Still for all my reservations, The Ghost at least tries to do something new, and succeeds in shedding new light upon both plays. Despite its flaws, The Ghost is an exciting exploration of what reimagining Shakespeare can mean. At times it’s genius, at times it’s dire, but The Ghost is never, ever mediocre. And that makes it all the more worth watching.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.