BWW Interviews: Classical Theatre Company's JJ Johnston Talks Edward Snowden Inspired HAMLET
Mystery, murder, espionage, blackmail, sexual scandal, madness, and a ghost are prized dramatic ingredients. Often when these elements are brought together, the world is plagued by some lowbrow, low budget B movie that airs incessantly on SyFy. However, using these elements, William Shakespeare gifted audiences with HAMLET, his keenly written revenge tragedy potboiler that premiered around the time that the House of Stuart took control from the House of Tudor in England (roughly 1598-1603). Giving what many consider the crowning jewel of drama written in the English language a modern facelift, Classical Theatre Company (CTC) is opening their season with a production of HAMLET that is informed by Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal. Taking time out of his busy schedule CTC Artistic Director and Director of HAMLET JJ Johnston chatted with me about his upcoming production of the cherished title.
BWW: HAMLET may be the most producEd English-language play in the world. What drew CTC to the title for this season?
JJ Johnston: Well, I'm kind of a believer that rather than looking to produce HAMLET, I kind of feel like HAMLET comes to you to be produced in a lot of ways. It's such a big production with so many expectations. I kind of believe (Laughs), you know, it finds you. I was watching a rehearsal of the final scene of GHOSTS [by Henrik Ibsen] - we did that back in 2010 - and I saw form in front of me the closet scene in HAMLET. I saw Matthew Kennan do his thing as Osvald and Christianne Mays who was playing Mrs. Alving. As I was watching it, I stopped taking notes on GHOSTS and started taking notes on HAMLET. It sort or just jumped out and grabbed me. I never had a burning desire to direct HAMLET in any way. It just kind of found me. I saw it, and I thought, "You know what? You need to grab those two people and build a production around that." So, that's what we did, and three years later, here we are.
BWW: This is not the first time CTC has tackled HAMLET. You did a one-man version of the show in 2008. What is like returning to the work?
JJ Johnston: I called back on some stuff that we had done the first time in the one-man adaptation. It was a learning experience for me, obviously, working on the show. I had performed with it in the Houston Shakespeare Festival several years back, and, of course, I'd read it and studied it at several different levels of education. But, I'd never actually produced the play before, nor directed it. So, I was looking back on our first experience with it, and there were aspects of that production I'd love to blow up to a full-scale size because the production we did was very scaled down. It was very minimalistic. It was only the one actor. Now, we have the opportunity to do a full production, which I'm very excited about. So, there are a couple of moments and aspects from the original piece that I thought we could play again with, but for all intents and purposes it's a very, very, very different production.
BWW: CTC is setting HAMLET in today's world with the backdrop of espionage and the Edward Snowden controversy. How did you decide to put this spin on the play?
JJ Johnston: About a year-and-a-half ago or so I started to do research on the production, and I was really drawn to - funny as it might sound - Scientology and the sort of indoctrination, spying, and blackmail that is evident within that organization. I thought, "Well, that really speaks to a production of HAMLET." So, it was at that point that I thought we should do a contemporary version of the play, and we started working with that. Then, you know, several months back when the NSA scandal broke - the Edward Snowden controversy - I was just so struck by it and how much you could draw parallels between it and Hamlet's character in the play HAMLET, again with all the spying, blackmail, and espionage that goes on within the play itself as everyone is listening and plotting against one another.
You have this person, Edward Snowden, who is distinctly a figure that is difficult to put into a particular category or box. Whether you fall on the political right or the political left, everyone seems to be really torn about this person. He is someone who some have claimed as a hero, some have claimed is a villain that should be put to death, and everything in between. He's truly neither black nor white; he's very gray. When I look at the character of Hamlet, I see so much of that within him. He is someone who is very isolated, as Snowden is isolated. Despite being considered a tragic hero, he is someone who his own personal motives - either directly or indirectly - causes the death of nearly everyone around him. He is someone who is acting presumably for righteous reasons, but winds up destroying everything around him. And although we've removed the Fortinbras aspect of the play at the end, in producing the full text, he not only destroys everything around him, he brings down his entire country, which is certainly a very interesting aspect as well. I see so many parallels between Hamlet and Snowden, so we kind of put Scientology on the back burner and really brought to the forefront this immediately topical information.