Sam Wiebe


Radio Free Hamlet

My brother Josh and I plan to film an adaptation of Hamlet. It may come as a crushing shock that neither Hollywood nor the Canada Council of the Arts has much interest in ransacking their piggy banks to finance an already-over-filmed Shakespearean drama spearheaded by two unknowns whose only qualification is a dissatisfaction with previous Hamlets. Yet the project rolls forward. I’ve written a screenplay adaptation we’re happy with. What’s more, over the summer of 2011 Josh and I undertook an audio production of this script. The goal was to test-drive our Hamlet as a one-hour radio play. This is the story of that adaptation, along with an overview of the ideas and influences behind the production.


It starts with Orson Welles. Before Citizen Kane, Welles directed and starred in a series of radio adaptations of literary works, usually for his repertory company The Mercury Theatre. Welles’s Hamlet, done in two thirty-minute installments, is vintage Welles--audacious, flawed, and brilliant.


Another important influence was an early student film adaptation of MacBeth done by Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr. Tarr’s film is also about an hour, done on a nothing budget with long takes on a gray soundstage. Both Tarr and Welles made great Shakespeare adaptations by playing to the strengths of independent filmmaking--namely, cutting out everything superfluous and sticking to the script. Kenneth Branagh’s five hour full-text Hamlet, which I admire as a Shakespeare scholar, doesn’t contain a scene as riveting as Welles’s reading of  the “‘Tis now the very witching time of night” speech.


To Welles and Tarr I must add the theories of David Mamet, who advocates minimalism and a strong adherence to plot and motivation. Mamet is fond of Hemingway’s adage, “Take out all the good parts and see what’s left.” He also frequently quotes Stanislavsky’s assertion that a stage director who “does something interesting” with a play (setting Hamlet in the Old West, for instance, or having Ophelia murdered by the secret police, both of which I’ve seen) is a director who doesn’t understand the play. I believe this wholeheartedly, and I think it explains why most productions of Shakespeare are mediocre. Directors lose sight of the story and characters as they try to manipulate the play in order to Say Something Important about colonialism or Third World debt or the rights of the fetus. To paraphrase the reviled Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom, most directors think they know more than the author does. 


Listen. Hamlet is not about surveillance, the politics of the Danish nation state, hidden Catholicism or the evils of Elizabethan statesmanship. It’s about the intersection of family and revenge.


To write the script, I followed Hemingway and Mamet and cut cut cut. My goal was to remove everything not essential to telling the story. This meant eliminating all redundancies. All redundancies. No matter how much it hurt. Horatio’s description of the morning sun, “in russet mantle clad,” is one of the most beautiful descriptive passages in all of literature, but a single camera shot of a sunrise or the sound of a rooster’s crow makes it unnecessary to carry the story along. Film and drama have their own languages, and adapting a play to a film involves jettisoning the extraneous. What’s left? The story of Hamlet.


With script in hand Josh cast the play. We recorded the dialogue through a Zoom digital recorder. Unlike Welles’s version, we used no narration. We did a full read-through and then recorded each scene separately. If the production has a weakness, it’s the quality of the recording, but it’s not enough to detract from the superb performances.


All the actors acquitted themselves nicely. Special attention should be paid to Jonathan Glaab, who had the bulk of the play’s lines. Jonathan worked his ass off. Even though he’s an amateur thespian--or maybe because of it--his Hamlet lives and breathes. Too many actors, even great ones like Jacobi and Tennant, take the first mention of madness in Hamlet as a cue to go full-out Jim Carrey. Jonathan’s Hamlet is a confused, crafty, moody young man, rather than a stodgy orator, a neurotic mess, or a nutcase. No mean feat, especially when taking into consideration that the role of Gertude, Hamlet’s mother, was played by Jonathan’s ex-wife, and Ophelia was played by his sister! It wouldn’t be Canadian if we didn’t manage to work a little incest in, would it?


As Gertude, Sandra Stuart delivers an emotionally honest performance. She came to the project with a knowledge of Shakespearean dialogue that helped to elevate the rest of the cast. Rachel Glaab’s Ophelia is vulnerable and touching; her singing of Ophelia’s songs strikes just the right note of pity and awe, and is one of my favorite parts. Alex Kennedy played Claudius and the Ghost and did a bang-up job of both. His Claudius exudes just the right amount of dickishness, self-satisfaction, and cunning. Josh’s Polonius is without caricature. Bruce Lord, Sean Casey, Michael Stachura, Gillian Blore, Jaclynn Pehota, and Shannon Payie all brought their formidable talents to their respective roles, and the production is better for it. 


I edited the scenes together in Pro Tools and used a combination of public domain and homemade sound effects. Andrew Nicholls helped me mix and master the sessions at Permanent Records Studio in Nanaimo. Andrew also contributed two original songs, performed on mandolin and guitar.


A note on the versions: after the credits, our Hamlet has a few profanity-laced outtakes. A ‘clean’ version will be available in the following weeks. 


I have some goals for ‘Radio Free Hamlet.’ I want it played on the CBC, I want it available on iTunes, and I’d like to play it at the university radio stations of my alma mater, Simon Fraser University, and Josh’s current school, the University of Manitoba. Mostly I want people to hear and enjoy it, the way Josh and I enjoyed Welles’s version.


We’ll see how it goes with the film. If nothing more happens, I’m content. We had a great time putting this together and can’t wait for the next one.