“The Play's the Thing”: An Interview with Hamlet Director Carey Perloff

By Simon Hodgson

As a Fulbright Fellow at Oxford University, Carey Perloff saw her first performance of Hamlet and was hooked. “The draw was Shakespeare’s language,” she says. “It was unbelievably seductive.” For the next 30 years, she crossed continents to see imaginative new renditions of the classic: Peter Brook’s version in Paris starring Adrian Lester, Jonathan Goad at Stratford, Jude Law on Broadway, and Diane Venora at The Public Theater. In her final year as artistic director of A.C.T., Perloff takes on Hamlet for the first time. We sat down to get a glimpse into her process, her passion for Shakespeare, and the story of producing Hamlet at A.C.T.

Hamlet Director Carey Perloff dicussing script edits with A.C.T.
Dramaturg Michael Paller. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
Why Hamlet now?

As Jan Kott says in Shakespeare: Our Contemporary, Hamlet is a sponge that absorbs all that’s happening politically, socially, and spiritually in a culture. I read the play the morning after Trump’s election, and I could see the landscape of a prince who goes to bed in an ordered kingdom and wakes up in a world where everything is fake news and nothing is to be trusted. It feels resonant. That said, I’m not interested in easy equivalencies, in making Claudius Trump. Our challenge as artists is to keep the metaphors of the play as alive as possible within the landscape of our own experience. Hamlet asks how we understand the relationship of our inner landscape to the world around us. Our inner landscape and the external world are always at odds with each other. That collision is what makes for drama.

Some of the Geary audience will have seen multiple Hamlets and will know the play well. How do you balance that expectation against your storytelling?

How is an audience ever going to hear “To be or not to be” fresh again? You have to figure out what is the catalyst that makes this character need to say these words at this moment. What you want to do for an audience is give them a window into how capacious, enormous, complex, and extraordinary the play is. It can be paralyzing to think, “What do I have to add to this play?” until you start to work on it. And then the play is so rich, you respond to it in the only way you can as human beings living at this moment in the world today.

For some San Franciscans, this may be the first time a new generation sees Hamlet. What do you want them to take away?

First of all, we cannot overestimate what it is for this major African American actor to play Hamlet on that stage. John's as good as it gets. And for a new generation, one of the thrills is hearing things for the first time. I heard it when I saw Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park this summer. Young people don’t know that when somebody says “It’s Greek to me,” that the phrase was actually coined by a character in Shakespeare. There is nothing like Shakespeare for making those discoveries. Hamlet is full of those. That’s the thrill of it.

runs through October 15 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more of our interview with Carey Perloff, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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