'Toy Be or Not Toy Be'
When you think “Hamlet,” you tend to think big. Vast historical recreations on stage and screen. Big performances. Rolling words by John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier. Rolling eyes by Mel Gibson. The play’s the thing, after all. And it’s a very big play.
But Iran’s Leev Theater Group thinks small. Their recent adaptation, “Hamlet, Prince of Grief,” now playing at the RIAF festival, features masterful direction by Mohammad Aghebati, a 40-minute script by Mohammad Charmshir and a single actor, Afshin Hashemi, in the title role. Minimal staging, too: a single table and chair with a big screen behind it. (The spoken text is Farsi; the screen offers instant English translation.) Hashemi produces a battered suitcase, removes a knapsack, and dumps it on the table. Dolls and toys spill out.
They’re his friends and family — and the other characters in the play. The tallest is 7 inches high. It really is a small cast.
Hashemi plays with the toys and tells his tale. It’s a sad tale of betrayal and murder. That was the original Hamlet’s tale, too. But this is different. It’s not just a straight adaptation, however updated and condensed. Playwright Charmshir created a parallel story, refracting Shakespeare’s original through contemporary Iranian experience. His characters diverge. His Polonius advises the big man’s brother on the art of fratricide; his Ophelia is either murdered or driven to suicide. Plot elements veer off, too. The Iranian Hamlet never gets to put on his play-within-a-play for reasons I won’t get into.
Heavy material. Hashemi performs it with the aid of a plastic elephant (who pours poison in his father’s ear from her trunk), a Barbie doll (as the poor drowned Ophelia), a squeaky toy (Polonius), and other paraphernalia. The actor tells a grand tale with silly props. The contrast is funny at first—then it’s not. You’re simply immersed in his telling of it. He does far more than tell.
This is no dry recitation. Hashemi does sound effects, bird calls, lion roars, you name it. It’s an incredibly physical performance, too. The actor leaps around in his chair, whipping his body back and forth like a kid in a tilt-a-whirl. It’s spellbinding.
But the actor’s spell always returns you to the core story. We think we know it; he plays against our expectations. Forget swordfights and speeches. It’s a young man’s coming-of-age story. But in a world where corrupt power gets its way and inconvenient young men don’t grow old.
The playwright’s eccentric adaptation universalizes that tale. His hero is more than an Iranian Hamlet; he’s an Everyman. Charmshir creates that spell by silence. The play’s dolls and toys are nameless—just “uncle,” “father,” “mother,” “lover.” The protagonist never calls himself, “Hamlet,” either. He doesn’t even call himself “I.” He tells his tale in the second person. “You go to take an exam about something you don’t care about and you waste the weekend.” Like that …
It’s your story. The hero is you.
The grief is yours.
IF YOU GO
‘Hamlet, Prince of Grief’ runs through Saturday, Oct. 12, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts. Call 360-7399 or visit ringling.org for more information.
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