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Dan Donohue on Playing Hamlet for the First Time Hot

Denise Battista
Written by Denise Battista     March 03, 2010    
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Dan Donohue on Playing Hamlet for the First Time

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is celebrating their 75th anniversary season, and it’s the morning after opening night of Hamlet. Dan Donohue, who plays the troubled Prince of Denmark, says he got a good night’s sleep. Before dashing off to see “Maggie the Cat” sizzling away on a Hot Tin Roof (not to be missed), Donohue sat down with me to discuss the illuminations involved in playing Hamlet for the very first time.

DB: I’m just going to say something and I want you to say the very first thing that comes into your head.


DD: Fear

DB: Why?

DD: I think the core of (Hamlet’s) dilemma is a fear of death, and the core of my dilemma in playing the role is fear of failure. But in both situations, it’s absolutely inevitable that death is coming no matter what you do, and in some form failure has got to be the outcome of doing a play that’s this complex. There will be some success in illuminating the character, but it’s just one of those roles that you never get right. The role illuminates the inadequacies you have as an actor, and that’s a good thing because it’s important to be able to look really close and say, “That’s the kind of actor I want to be.”

DB: I saw you play Iago in OSF’s 2008 production of Othello and I loved your performance. Looking back now, what do you see as your failure there? What do you see as the things you could not quite reach as an actor then?

DD: The most general thing that I could say is that if I were a better actor, I would be a better Iago, and for me my mantra playing that role was “Iago is a better actor that you are; you need to bridge the gap in order to get closer to what he really is.” No matter how good an actor you are, Iago will probably always be a better actor than the actor who is playing the role. I know if I was to play it now I would be a better Iago because I’m a slightly better actor now than I was then. With any role, there’s a sort of timeline that happens, and you can’t play most roles for a lifetime. I’m lucky that I’m forty-three years old now and playing Hamlet, who’s supposed to be thirty years old, and I think, “Gosh, what kind of Hamlet would my thirty year old Hamlet be?” But my age and experience have to compensate for the fact that I’m not nearly as smart as Hamlet; I’m not nearly as insightful, but I’m happy to touch base with this role and have the experience.

DB: It’s always interesting to ask, “How much insight does Hamlet have into the plots against him?” What does Gertrude know? What does Ophelia know? This production includes some bold twists in the bedroom scene and in the nunnery scene. And your director, Bill Rauch, makes another bold decision with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Can you talk about that?

DD: In this production, it was important that this soliloquy is something that is not overheard by Ophelia or by Polonius or Claudius. Depending on which early edition of the play you’re dealing with, be it the First Quarto, Second Quarto, or the First Folio, “To be or not to be” falls in a different place. But to me, (the soliloquy) is so complex and deep, and the ideas and thoughts and feelings are so complex, they don’t feel like antic anything. So we wanted to find a way to make it clear that the soliloquy wasn’t meant for anyone else but himself and the audience.

DB: What are the implications of playing it this way—as a true soliloquy, not overhead by anyone but the audience? What insight into Hamlet does this give the audience?

DD: One of things you get is he’s shifting gears again. The last time you saw him he was saying, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” And instead of going right into it, we leave him for a second and he’s talking about losing the name of action and wondering if it’s worth all the pain. His mind is taking him on a sort of mental trip, which it often does in the play. What the audience gets is that he’s unsure of how to best live his life. He’s considering all the implications of killing a human being. He’s talking about fear again. The reason we don’t do these things is because we’re afraid of what comes afterwards, and to me I kept thinking, “Why does this fall here? It feels like we leave you alone for two seconds and you’re thinking again.”

DB: What does it mean, “To be or not to be?”

DD: In our production, it starts out as a sort of response to Ophelia’s “How does your honor for this many day?” How have I been? And I started to connect to that question that Ophelia asks me. The real question that I can give you a real answer to is about living or dying. To live or to die. All these things, the pressure, the expectation and shame and disgust and pain and fear—that’s the question I can get into an illuminating philosophical discussion about, and he gets into that exploration of the weariness of life and how every second of the day there’s that question, “Is it worth it?” Why do we live as opposed to taking the reins and leading ourselves in a different direction?

DB: Would you say that your Hamlet is just volleying around this philosophical concept of why, versus the actual act of living or dying? Is suicide an issue here?

DD: From my point of view, it’s not a speech strictly about suicide. It’s asking, “Why do we walk around with all this pain when we can just end it now?” The answer is because we are afraid. It’s that fear again that makes cowards of us all.

DB: Women play a very important role in Hamlet, and Hamlet’s ideal woman is represented in plays within the play via Hecuba and the Player Queen. I feel this production downplays these visions of Hamlet’s ideal woman/wife. For you, how do the women in this production influence Hamlet’s actions and reactions?

DD: Hamlet’s view of women in the play all hinges around his mother. Even before the play begins, her husband has died and she seemingly immediately shifts gears, which makes him question everything that he ever believed about love, about loyalty, about family, who she was with her husband—Hamlet’s father—and who she is with me (Hamlet) now. Was it all an illusion for the first thirty years of my life and how do I relate to that? How can I be the son that I thought I was if you’re not the mother I thought you were.

In relation to Ophelia, he distrusts all relationships, so he can’t look at Ophelia without seeing, in my opinion, the great love he has for her, which I believe he does, as there’s nothing I see in the text to suggest otherwise, but I also see my mother and the potential of absolute betrayal. I think he’s so deeply hurt by how quickly she (Gertrude) does, as he says, “leap with such dexterity to incestuous sheets.” From my point of view, he hasn’t had this conversation with her until they walk into the bedroom, and by now it’s completely out of control. And he puts on that antic disposition so that he can say things like the licensed fool, in the guise of madness, however coded and sometimes not coded at all. But it’s not exactly direct. It’s not like he says, “Mom, we need to have a talk…” Just like in Act 1, scene two (the post-wedding/coronation of Claudius), Hamlet slips in all of these comments. He has a sharp idea of what’s going on, but he’s not directly saying it to anyone. “Break my heart for I must hold my tongue.” So I think everything stems from his mother and the relationship between what seems and what is. I think he can’t look at Gertrude or Ophelia without thinking, “I don’t see it; I don’t see the deception in your face.” and that makes him distrust it even more because he knows it’s there.

DB: Howie Seago, an acclaimed deaf actor and director, plays the Ghost in this production. Hamlet has a lot to do with the senses. There’s much talk of ears and eyes; hearing and seeing; speaking and not speaking. With the Ghost, we tap into a sixth sense—the supernatural—but you’re also playing with a deaf father, losing a sense in a literal way. It’s not all too questionable to have a female Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as you do in this production, but what are the implications of having the Ghost as a deaf father?

DD: The reason Howie is playing the role is that he’s a great actor and somebody I’ve admired from afar for years and years. From there, it was a sort of tracking of how does that resonate with the play and the story? Is he a deaf king, or do we buy the convention that he’s not a deaf king and it is merely the actor who is expressing the language in this way (sign language)? We tracked it all the way through and we found that there was something beautiful about sharing that particular scene in the first Act between the Ghost and Hamlet. It has an intimacy to it, even through a sort of rigid distance between a military father and an intellectual, philosophical son. I don’t know exactly how it resonates with the audience. At first, we thought we wanted to do most of that initial scene (between Hamlet and the Ghost) in silence, except for me occasionally speaking something, but most of the time me signing to him and having it subtitled. We started that way, having tech rehearsals, dress rehearsals, and eventually before previews we decided to scrap the subtitles because it’s just so much language, and the beauty of ASL’s (American Sign Language) physical language was sort of lost because it was hard to read all that and take in the other, so I picked up some of Howie’s lines and translated as we went along. The theatricality and the physicality of it is beautiful and appropriate

DB: In the 2010 edition of Illuminations, OSF’s “Guide to the Plays,” there’s an interesting lineage of the Hamlets of times past, from the first Hamlet in 1938 to the last Hamlet, played by Marco Barricelli in 2000. It offers maybe two sentences that encapsulate how each actor portrayed his Hamlet. Was he mad, melancholic, likable and full of wit, or bleak…? In two sentences, who do you think your Hamlet is?

DD: (laughs) I have no idea, but I might have more of an idea at the end of the run because I feel like seeds are planted now. It has a shape and a form and there’s life to it now, but we run until the end of October; we have 115 more performances of the show, and I know, for myself, that I don’t feel like I’m really in it till June. The great thing about being here is that you’re continually inspired by the work around you. I got up this morning and I immediately pulled out a book on Hamlet. I was thumbing through stuff and thumbing through words and that’s going to happen all summer long, and I’m going to be so much better equipped by June. I don’t know what my Hamlet will be by then. I don’t know how it would be qualified. I hope they would have to use three sentences by then. Right now, maybe it’s only a sentence, but by then it might be three. I’m excited about finding out more about what this Hamlet is. Right now I only see the parts—one moment at a time—and if I think about it as a whole at this stage, I feel consumed with fear because if I think ahead, “Oh I’ve got that nunnery scene coming up…” I’m like “Ohhhhhh! Don’t think about that!” It has to be moment by moment by moment, otherwise I sort of go mad, and that’s an indication to me that I’m looking at it really closely, and I think as the season goes on I’ll be able to step back and see it and say, “This is what this Hamlet is.” For now, the audience gets to do the math.

Hamlet runs February 26 (opening night) – October 30, 2010 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland, Oregon. For more information, visit

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