“Hamlet” takes on 2000s pop-punk aesthetic in new student production

Poster for the student production of Hamlet
Courtesy of Haley Wildhirt

SHAKESPEARE’S “Hamlet” is coming to Lewis & Clark! The Danish prince and his quest for revenge will be showing at the Fir Acres BlackBox theater for two nights only on Nov. 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. However, this is no ordinary staging of “Hamlet.”

For Percival Walter ’25, who is both directing and acting as Hamlet, this production is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. Walter’s energy and enthusiasm for this project are evident, from his explanations of the history of black box theater, to Shakespeare’s queerness and the 2000s pop-punk scene.

Walter and Shakespeare go way back. He has been acting since a young age, and attended summer camp where he learned skills tailored specifically to performing and producing Shakespeare. As a transgender man, this experience in theater was formative to his self-discovery and identity.

“Doing Shakespeare theater at a young age, I was very often cast in male roles, because I was loud,” Walter laughed.

When he read “Hamlet” in his sophomore year of high school, he specifically remembers being struck by the depictions of struggles with gender and mental illness he saw in the text, and identifying with the titular character.

“You read something from 500 years ago and it directly describes the experience you have,” Walter said.

Through this project, Walter said he has been “able to tell a story that helped me when I was really depressed […] and tell it in a way where I get to be the person that I’ve always wanted to be.”

Over the summer, he reached out to his friend and Assistant Director Paige Cabral, asking for their help to make it happen.

To begin, Walter knew they would have to significantly cut down the play’s four-hour runtime. This is a common practice in theater, where sections of the text are removed to create a more concise story, and focus on certain elements of the plot or themes. In order to create their version of “Hamlet,” Walter and Cabral focused on using the text to create the story they wanted to tell.

Specifically, the themes Walter is choosing to emphasize are “queerness, gender roles, and internalized homophobia.” This production of “Hamlet” will portray the central characters Hamlet and Horatio, explicitly friends, as being in a romantic relationship. While this is perhaps the most prominent change, Walter said his script also focuses heavily on gender roles throughout the story, contrasting toxic masculinity and emotional repression in male characters, and the frequent association of women with weakness and emotional vulnerability. Additionally, the script emphasizes an exploration of internalized homophobia and mental illness.

One might wonder, ‘Is all that really in the text? Could Hamlet and Horatio be explicitly gay using only the original material?’ However, Walter relies on his Shakespeare and theater history background to provide evidence for these topics within the original work.

Though one might presume the play relies on physicality to add context, such as romantic feelings in a relationship, Walter was insistent that most of the work was done with verbal acting, and emphasizing the text itself through line delivery and the actors’ intentions. “The audience will get it if you (the actor) get it,” Walter said.

Horatio and Hamlet’s relationship, incidentally, does not suffer from a lack of material to work with, with such lines as “goodnight sweet prince,” “with all my love I do commend me to you” and “your love, as mine to you.”

“It doesn’t feel like I’m adding anything, it feels like I’m highlighting the story that was already there,” Walter said.

Most of the cast is queer, meaning that they bring a level of experience and authenticity to this production that makes it all the more personal and effective.

The play’s setting in the “2000s pop-punk scene” incorporates another of Walter’s obsessions. He was inspired by band dynamics of the time, where performers flaunted the aesthetic of queerness, also known as “stage gay,” while homophobia ran rampant offstage – which he thought paralleled the story he was telling. Different characters’ wardrobes are inspired by different eras and scenes within the punk movement to reflect their age and story roles, and era-appropriate music will be brought to the show by Ezri Reyes ’22, including a pre-show performance.

This is a work of passion for everyone involved, who will not receive any compensation or academic credit. The lead production team is a tight three people: Walter, Cabral and Stage Manager Ava Schmidt.

The unique use of black box theater is also a vital element of Walter’s vision. He describes the relatively small square room painted completely black as a “neutral playing space,” where actors and audience interact within a shared area.

Compared to a typical proscenium theater, black box theater is a much more intimate and personal environment. The audience surrounds the action on three sides, and the stage and audience are under neutral lighting, meaning the actors and audience can see each other up-close and interact directly. According to Walter, this is more accurate to the staging for which Shakespeare wrote his plays. Actors will prompt audience members for responses and reactions, and the audience is encouraged to jeer, cheer, laugh out loud or otherwise engage with the performance.

For example, most modern performances play the many questions in Shakespeare as rhetorical, but in this show the actors ask questions directly to audience members, and wait for a response. Walter is a strong advocate of this technique, saying that when the characters speak to the real, live people in front of them, a much more active, engaging and authentic performance results.

Through black box theater, along with the script, modern setting and punk music, Percival hopes to share his passion by getting audiences to interact with the text, and to counter Shakespeare’s reputation as pretentious, academic and difficult.

In preparation for the production, Waltertellsreadersthatthisisnotwhatyou would expect a Shakespeare production to be. He advises audience members to treat it like you would a concert: Get ready to interact, bring your energy and most importantly “rock the fuck out!”

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