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Keith Baxter is back at STC after directing The Importance of Being Earnest (2014). He hasn’t acted on STC stages since Henry IV (2004). He returns as the Ghost, Gravedigger and First Player in Hamlet. We recently spoke to him about his special relationship with STC, his initial thoughts on the production and more.
Tell us your thoughts about acting in Michael’s very last Shakespeare.
I first came here in 1982 to be in Measure for Measure. That’s when Michael found me in Glasgow and asked me to come. I was doing a television play with Brian Cox, who is father of Alan Cox (Claudius in Hamlet). He telephoned me in my hotel room is Glasgow, miles away, and his voice says, “This is Michael Kahn and you’ve never met me, but I run a theatre called The Shakespeare Theatre and I want you to come do a play and play The Duke in Measure for Measure.” He can talk anybody into doing anything!
So I came. It was very different. This building didn’t exist. We rehearsed, I don’t know if it was 8th Street, but it was behind an antique shop. Kelly McGillis and I had a flat in Eastern Market. It was wonderful. I enjoyed working with Michael very much. Actors, on the whole, can be very suspicious of directors because an awful lot of them aren’t very good, frankly. So, when you are working with a director who is very good, it’s very stimulating. And then he asked me to come back and play Antonio in The Merchant of Venice with Hal Holbrook and that was wonderful. Then he said, “Would you like to direct?” in the year 2000.
Would you direct again here?
Oh yes! I wanted to direct The School for Scandal here. I had a wonderful company all longing to be in it comprised of Nancy Robinette, Elizabeth Ashley, Greg Wooddell and Floyd King. Michael sent me an email about six months ago. He said, “This is not the email you would want, I know, but will you come and play the Ghost and the Player King because we can’t really afford to do The School for Scandal. I’m sorry about that.” Anyway, I came.
Is there anything particularly surprising that audiences will find in this production of Hamlet?
Yes! I said, “How are you going to do it, Michael?” He said, “You’re going to hate this because we’re going to do it in modern dress.” Sometimes I feel directors do plays in modern dress because they don’t really care about anything aside from their own innovation, but I trust Michael. He had said to me that the Denmark that the play takes place in was developing into a fascist, brutal state under Claudius. That’s what he wanted to capture. So, I asked him, “How am I going to be dressed?” We hit on something that is not militaristic. I didn’t want to wear khakis.
Hamlet says to the Ghost, “We saw you buried.” In a way, I wanted to appear in what I’d been buried in. Removing the militaristic thing, the armor and all that, I then discovered that it makes the scene with his son entirely different because it’s only about love. Usually you have the scene with him marching around in armor and they’re talking about Fortinbras, but in this scene, he never talks about Fortinbras, he only talks about love: “If thou didst ever thy dear father love.” It’s just about love for his son. It puts off a totally different sound.
You have three roles in Hamlet. Tell us about how you balance these distinct roles.
It’s fun! It’d be boring to just go and play the Ghost. It’s a jolly good part, but it disappears. The First Player is wonderful. There is a wonderful scene where he shows off a bit. He does the speech for Hamlet and they talk about Hecuba. Then the Players do the actual play-within-the-play. I emailed Michael and I said, “I don’t understand what they’re saying!” My opening line in the play-within-the-play is:
Full thirty times hath Phoebus’ cart gone round
Neptune’s salt wash and Tellus’ orbèd ground,
And thirty dozen moons with borrowed sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been
I said, “What does that mean?” He said it means that they’ve been married for thirty years and it also means that he is very ill. The Player King in this scene is very ill. I said, “That’s extraordinary.” That gives me another part to play. First of all, there is the Ghost, then there is the First Player, who does a bit of grandiose acting and a bit of emotional acting, then there is the play-within-the-play which is a whole different character, so there is another thing to play. That was very nice. Then, course, there’s the old Gravedigger, which is fun too.
Anything else you’d like to share with STC audiences?
It’s nice to be back in D.C. It’s lovely. I can’t imagine who will take over for Michael. This little theatre that it was in the beginning, as I said, we rehearsed in the back of an antique shop on the Hill, I had a basement flat… And gradually it grew. People come to this theatre because they know they are going to get their money’s worth, which is what it’s all about. I believe in pleasing an audience. They come, and maybe they’ve found out their wife is having an affair, or their dog has been run over, or their children failed their grades. They don’t want to sit there and be miserable. They don’t want to see an Oscar Wilde play necessarily, but they do want to be stimulated and to feel when they come out that that was worth their money.
Hamlet begins performances on January 16 at Sidney Harman Hall. For more information and tickets, click here.