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‘Absolute textual clarity: An Inside Look into Hamlet with Director Elizabeth Swain

We spoke with acclaimed actor, director, and educator Elizabeth Swain, who is directing our 2022 production of Hamlet, opening this May. Read on for an exclusive interview!

You’ve been involved in several productions of Hamlet in the past — twice as the director and twice as a cast member. How have these experiences informed your directorial concept?

My most recent experience with Hamlet was playing the Ghost with the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, and a lot of the research I did for that role has colored my current approach.

I discovered that the Ghost is cruel to Hamlet, does not mention God or heaven — as an honest ghost should, according to Elizabethan beliefs — and describes his murder in gruesome detail. He has no words of love for Hamlet, reveals that his mother was unfaithful to his father, and tells him to “leave her to heaven/ And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge/ To prick and sting her.” This is not a pretty picture. So who, or what is this ghost? Hamlet’s task is to find out if the Ghost is honest and so blessed by heaven, or “a goblin damned” — in fact the devil, trying to trap another human soul into hell. 

Another complication was that revenge was illegal under both civil and church law, although it was frequently pursued in the name of honor. Hamlet must be sure, and he feigns madness to bide his time until he has the perfect opportunity with the arrival of the players. 

I played Ophelia as a young ingénue so I can’t remember much, but in directing two Ophelias I realized that the trap is victimhood. We will fight that, as it is more likely that a strong young woman, fighting against horrible odds, would go mad. 

Every time I come to this play, I am amazed at the revelations, things I had missed before. I keep finding new things all the time.

What are you most excited about as you prepare for Hamlet rehearsals?

I am most excited to get all the actors in the room and to hear what they bring to the table. I have met with the designers, and when they show the actors their plans at the first rehearsal, it will be a fabulous show and tell. I have not acted or directed in the space [in two years] so I am looking forward to exploring that.

It’s been exciting but also surreal to return to the theater. After the past two years, the world of theater has drastically changed. As an actor, director, and educator, how do you find yourself adapting to these changes?

I have become something of a Zoom queen, which is not necessarily a happy place, but without Zoom, I could not have taught my classes or coached actors. I could not have been in any plays, but managed to do a few, and I directed a full taped production of The Comedy of Errors. Not breathing the same air as my students or actors was hard, and I can’t wait to get back to it. I have been going to the theater in my mask and hope that many will be doing the same in order to see Hamlet.

What do you hope will set Antaeus’s production apart from the ones that came before it?

I hope our production will have absolute textual clarity. We have able, classical actors who will bring this brilliant text to vivid life. Some productions have suggested that Hamlet can’t make up his mind, others that he is really mad, some that he contemplates suicide, then there was the Oedipal version. We will be doing none of that.

Our Hamlet is an intelligent young man on whom “the whips and scorns of time” are inflicting enormous woes, but who takes up the challenge the Ghost sets him and eventually grows in moral stature after a couple of unfortunate slip ups. He is passionate, sometimes dangerously so, but his rational side always returns and sets things back on track. He seeks human authenticity in what has become an utterly corrupt world. His soliloquies help the audience experience his journey with him. 

Why do you believe it is important to support live theater today?

When you see and hear a play, you are participants. The actors feed off the energies and responses of the audience, and the audience is affected by the actors. In a cinema, the audience is more passive, eats popcorn, goes to the bathroom in the middle. At a concert there is an experience more akin to the theater. But the big difference is that in the theater, human stories are being told by live humans to live humans. That is powerful and moving. 

If you remember the first time you went to the theater, you may remember the wonder of it, the magic of what is happening on stage and how excited you were by it. We may pretend we don’t get that way so much any more, but actually we do when the show is working. I recently saw The Lehman Trilogy, and was totally blown away by it in a way that only live theater with its stage magic can do. Yes, we must support live theater lest it be eaten by Zoom!

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