PERHAPS ONE OF the hardest working men in American theater, Austin Pendleton has become a comforting and welcome presence for actors, playwrights and audiences. Constantly working, he’s an intense listener. He dishes out brilliant bon mot with a devilish grin, though never without a genuine and sincere interest in his art. But he’s not all wheels and gears. There’s a sensitivity in him, a generous love, which probably explains the droves of artists who are constantly encircling him, hopeful that they’ll be his next collaborator.
This year, the ubiquitous Pendleton, fresh off of an electric production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy, takes on Shakespeare’s most ubiquitous play, directing Peter Sarsgaard as the title role in Classic Stage Company’s production of Hamlet.
MICHAEL RAVER: How did you first get involved with Classic Stage Company?
AUSTIN PENDLETON: I was called one day and asked if I wanted to direct Uncle Vanya with Denis O’Hare in it and I said yes. And then also in that cast was Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Peter, Maggie and I were then reunited in Three Sisters, which I also directed at CSC. This became a good working relationship. I got an email from Brian Kulick almost exactly a year ago asking if I would direct Peter as Hamlet and I said yes. That’s the history.
MR: Because Peter had gone to Brian saying “I want to play Hamlet” and Brian said…
AP: Yeah. I was thrilled working with him in Vanya and Three Sisters. It was a whole new way of working with an actor that I came upon with Peter. It affected the way I directed other actors. A constantly experimental way of work where you keep discovering new things all the time. You don’t set anything too early. The standard becomes, “lets see if it sets itself.” If an actor wants to get things set, I’ll happily do that. But it just became another alternative.
MR: Do you have a preference?
AP: No. I like to find the way that’s the most productive for the individual actor, even two different actors in the same play. Even two different actors in the same scene.
MR: Because Hamlet is put on such a theatrical pedestal, how much awareness do you have of the audience’s perception of the play?
AP: You think about it a lot. Hamlet occupies a place in audience’s hearts and minds and souls that…I can’t think of any other play that does in that way. It’s almost in their subconscious. Any production you do of this play, just by being presented is very possibly a violation of the audience’s subconscious. So you just have to follow the logic of the production you’re directing. There’s no way to embrace everybody’s thoughts and feelings about this play.
Actor Peter Sarsgaard
MR: Does that scare you then? That the audience’s reaction could be volatile?
AP: I do fear that. At the Metropolitan Opera, people go nuts about certain interpretations of particular operas. They get wildly upset. There’s not even another Shakespeare play that does that to the degree that Hamlet does. I have some theories as to why that’s true. There’s so many deliberate ambiguities in the play, where you just don’t know some fundamental things. And yet its a very powerful story, so everybody comes to their own conclusion about what the motivations of the characters are. These figures become the audience’s friends or their enemies in their imagination, so when you propose a different motivation for something, the audience can get really upset.
MR: This isn’t your first rodeo with Hamlet.
AP: I’ve played Hamlet. I was almost fifty when I played it. And I played Claudius a few years later. And The Ghost. I was awful as The Ghost.
MR: (Laughs) I doubt that.
AP: (Laughs) No, no. I was. There’s almost no controversy about that.
MR: But it is your first time directing it?
AP: Yes. I started with an image and I told this to Peter at his house about a year ago. I kept thinking that everybody’s in this space together, all the characters. There’s this crisis that happens before the play even begins and everyone’s lost and bewildered together. So it’s not ‘Hamlet’ and then a group of supporting characters. It’s a group of people caught in this common crisis, all of them having different perceptions and different feelings about it. Months later when it became clear that Walt Spangler (Three Sisters, Between Riverside and Crazy) could design it, he immediately said “it’s a wedding party.” And we thought, “its an all-night wedding party!”
The time span of the play is months, but the time span of the production is one evening and the last scene is like eight in the morning. I wanted something that would hold it all together. It’s a bunch of people caught together in a single space. Then I began to read all of the different editions, the various footnotes. It was easy to pretend that I’d never had anything to do with the play because those two productions I was in were over twenty years ago. I kept trying to pretend that I didn’t know the story. What would I wonder about with every scene? What would happen next?
MR: For you, for this production, what is the play about?
AP: When I answer what a play is about, I usually try to speak about what the story is. Every theme you grab hold of would evaporate in the air. It’s about two things: it’s about how Hamlet deals with all of these other people and then how they deal with him, what a challenge he is to them. Most everybody in the play does not know Claudius murdered his brother. Claudius is the only live character in the play who knows. Hamlet never definitively learns it. Claudius reacts very violently to the play within the play and Hamlet thinks, “well that proves it.” But it doesn’t prove a fucking thing. Hamlet doesn’t really ever prove to himself that Claudius is guilty. Claudius does get upset after the play within the play because he’s just been accused of murder. His nephew puts this on as a festive occasion? No one would like that!
MR: Why do you think this is regarded as Shakespeare’s Greatest Hit?
AP: I have no idea. I think there are a few other plays that he wrote which are as good. Any of the other major tragedies. Antony and Cleopatra. If you made them all one play, Henry IV Part One and Two. In its own way, Romeo and Juliet. Part of Hamlet’s special charge is that its so mysterious. There’s no tragic flaw that brings its hero down like in the other tragedies. Hamlet is an apolitical being to begin with but then gets lost in a hopelessly and profoundly confusing situation. He’s been asked to murder someone and he doesn’t have any clear proof that the thing he’s asked to murder him for actually happened. He doesn’t like murder to begin with.
So that alone…and he’s very disoriented by the remarriage of his mother. He’s upset even before he talks to The Ghost. He’s in over his head, but that’s not a tragic flaw. In Lear or the Scottish Play or Othello, we know what the tragic flaw is that brings the hero down. It’s clearly stated. If he weren’t so ‘this’ or if he weren’t so ‘that,’ none of this would have happened. That can’t be said of Hamlet. The play is about all of the character’s relationships, not just Hamlet’s with them.
MR: As a director, when asked to helm a play, what is step one?
AP: When you see a production of a great play that is trying to tell a different story than what is accepted as the main story, it usually falls apart. Hamlet seems to accommodate a number of different possible stories, so you slowly by trial and error arrive at what yours is.
MR: How does your approach artistically differ between when you write something, when you perform in something or when you direct something?
AP: They all blend to me. I think I’m easier to direct than I used to be before I became a director. I used to be a petulant diva (Laughs). Once I started directing, I would think, “Oh my God. I’m really angry at this actor right now but I did all of that!” That’s terrible. (Laughs)
MR: Do you have a preference among the three mediums?
MR: I like that answer.
AP: I know you do. You’re a multi-hyphenate, too.
MR: How do you keep from being pigeonholed singularly as a director or just an actor?
AP: They stopped asking me to decide what I was years ago. It just got so out of control from the beginning, they couldn’t catch up with me.
Classic Stage Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet runs now through May 10th in New York. For more information, go to www.classicstage.org.
Five Questions with Austin Pendleton
Q: Rehearsal or Performance?
Q: Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill?
A: Tennessee Williams
Q: Essential first day of rehearsal accessory?
Q: Play you’ve directed that’s changed your approach to directing?
A: Three Sisters at Steppenwolf
Q: Play you haven’t directed yet that you’re champing at the bit to do?
A: I don’t have a list. I stay open and ride whatever wave comes along.
Michael Raver is an actor and playwright. He’s performed classical theatrical roles at Lincoln Center, The Pearl Theatre Company and Tony Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre, as well as regional theaters across the country. As a playwright his work has been presented by New York Theatre Workshop, TACT, The Pearl Theatre Company, Bedlam, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, The Bridge Street Theater, and Sonnet Repertory Theatre. He is a judge of the Ferro Grumley Award for LGBT fiction and regularly contributes cultural arts journalism for Classical TV.
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