Utah Shakespeare Festival re-examines Hamlet and Ophelia

Quinn Mattfeld has played Hamlet twice before, but the production he’s in now at the Utah Shakespeare Festival (through October 13) is special. “This is the third one that I’ve done,” Mattfeld says, “and this feels the like the one that I’ve been waiting for and building up to.” What is it that makes this Hamlet so meaningful?

Quinn Mattfeld (Hamlet) and Emma Geer (Ophelia) in “Hamlet” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Karl Hugh. ©Utah Shakespeare Festival, 2019.

“My excellent good friends”

It all started when Jerry Murdock went to talk with his neighbor about a hedge between their properties. That neighbor turned out to be Kenneth Adelman, the diplomat, writer, Shakespeare scholar, and Utah Shakespeare Festival board member. Murdock asked, “Do you know anything about Hamlet?”

Ever since Murdock first read Hamlet at 19, he had been developing a theory of how to answer the play’s many questions and how it should be staged. But Murdock is in the tech scene, not the theater world. He’s a founding partner of Insight Venture Partners, and was an early investor in Twitter, Snapchat, and other big tech companies. Being a venture capitalist requires, among other things, intuition and an eye for patterns, two qualities Murdock brings to bear when he reads Shakespeare.

Utah Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Brian Vaughn remembers, “Ken Adelman called me and said, ‘Hey, I know this guy who is a lover of Shakespeare, and especially Hamlet. He has some thoughts on it and would love to share them.’ We met and we started diving into these ideas in the play.”

Murdock would end up joining the production as Artistic Collaborator, accompanying Vaughn in auditions in New York and London and in some of the play’s rehearsals. For Vaughn, connecting Murdock’s insights into the play with the requirements of staging a production has been one of the process’s joys. “That’s been a real thrill. It’s also made me dive into the play with a new perspective… It’s been very collaborative.”

Hamlet and Ophelia embrace in the Utah Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet.
Quinn Mattfeld (Hamlet) and Emma Geer (Ophelia) in “Hamlet” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Karl Hugh. ©Utah Shakespeare Festival, 2019.

“I did love you once”

One puzzle stood out to Murdock as he first read Hamlet: What’s up with Hamlet and Ophelia? Why does he treat her this way? Why is he in love with a woman who, on the page, seems weak and passive? For Murdock, the play didn’t make any sense unless Ophelia was Hamlet’s equal. But that wasn’t what he encountered in productions he saw.

In Murdock’s mind, Ophelia is more accomplice than ex. When Hamlet puts on an “antic disposition,” pretending to be mad, Ophelia is the first person to deliver that news to Claudius and Polonius. “I think,” Murdock says, “she’s doing it on behalf of Hamlet… I’ve read every play that I could from Shakespeare, and anywhere there is a heroine who’s truly in love, she never betrays that love. It doesn’t add up to me that Ophelia betrays” Hamlet to Claudius and Polonius. And perhaps, he suggests, in her famous Act 4, scene 5 “mad scene,” she too puts on an “antic disposition,” feigning madness to speak truth to power.

Emma Geer (Ophelia) in “Hamlet” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Karl Hugh. ©Utah Shakespeare Festival, 2019.

In response, Brian Vaughn says, the Festival sought to create “a powerful Ophelia, who exhibits more agency than she usually has.” Emma Geer, who plays Ophelia, says, “Ophelia is a fighter. Because we’ve made her someone who is not going to back down without a fight, she becomes a threat.”

In other productions, Hamlet might harangue or harass Ophelia in the “nunnery” and “Mousetrap” scenes. But this production highlights the couple’s rapport. “There are a lot of [productions] when you see him really berating her and dismissing her,” says Quinn Mattfeld. “But what if I’m saying all these things and I’m holding her, loving her, and wanting to protect her?” In this production, Hamlet and Ophelia listen for double-meanings. When Hamlet tells Ophelia “Get thee to a nunnery,” Claudius and Polonius hear abuse. The lovers hear: “Save yourself.” Mattfeld says that of all his Hamlets, “This is the first time that the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia doesn’t feel like a fait accompli. There’s much more dynamism in the relationship.”

In Geer’s performance, her “madness” in Act 4, scene 5 is real. . . but “madness” may not be quite the right word. “I’m not faking madness,” Geer says, “but I also don’t really think of it as madness. She’s experiencing grief and trauma and it comes out in a really upsetting way.” Vaughn agrees, “There is a layer of truth underneath everything that she’s saying. I believe that most of Shakespeare’s characters in madness are not speaking anything mad, but a cognitive truth that is heightened, that other people claim is madness.”

Plus, Geer says, “What Brian has very smartly done is left a couple big question marks within the play, so there are a couple of moments where the audience can go, ‘Wait what’s happening? Is she in on it? Is she not? Is she with it? It’s bringing up these questions.”

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”

Quinn Mattfeld (Hamlet), Jacqueline Antaramian (Gertrude) and the cast of “Hamlet” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Karl Hugh. ©Utah Shakespeare Festival, 2019.

In Murdock’s view, in the early modern period, Shakespeare’s plays had political ramifications and, consciously or unconsciously, political perspectives. For Murdock, an effective production of Hamlet incorporates Shakespeare’s contemporary political world, one rife with religious tensions, fears of foreign incursion, and lots and lots of spying.

With that in mind, he believes Hamlet and Ophelia are meant to be role models for English rulers—as well as for modern audiences—in a fraught time. “Hamlet is about the search for truth,” he says. “When I met Brian, we both share the same fundamental beliefs about Hamlet and Ophelia as honorable people, people looking for truth” in a dictatorship built on a lie, in which agents of the state are always listening from behind an arras.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production plays up those anxieties with a setting inspired by Tsarist Russia and the court of Nicholas II. Vaughn describes it as a court of beauty and sophistication… with the “seed of corruption” underneath. The play’s modern resonance shines when set against its Tolstoyan mise en scene, Vaughn says: “You know, we live in a world right now where we don’t know what is true and what is fiction… This play is really about Hamlet turning a lens onto those people that are not speaking truth.”

Ultimately, the Festival’s partnership gave the artists an opportunity to examine the play from an outside perspective and take some big ideas—about Ophelia, politics, and the play’s ultimate moralout for a test drive.

“It was cool as an actor, to go, “Let’s test some of these ideas against the play,” says Mattfeld. “Jerry has so much energy and so much passion for the thing, and it was really very exciting to be talking about this 400 plus year old play… about a sort of new version, or a new energy, or a new vision of it. ‘Let’s try this out. Let’s see how well this works. Let’s put this up against the play and see if it rejects it or accepts it.’ And a lot of it has held… To me, that’s the most inspiring thing about working with Jerry: he is so excited to find something new and to rethink what’s been thought to death.”

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is a theater partner of the Folger Shakespeare Library. See Hamlet in their Randall L. Jones Theatre through October 13.