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The Bard's back 

Shakespeare's crown jewel opens at The Rep.

click to enlarge TO BE OR NOT TO BE: Avery Clark as Hamlet in Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of Hamlet, opening Oct. 29.
  • TO BE OR NOT TO BE: Avery Clark as Hamlet in Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of Hamlet, opening Oct. 29.

It's probably the greatest singular achievement in the history of literature, the very definition of "masterwork," an unflinching stare into the cogs of the soul. And four centuries after its debut, it's still thrilling to see how Shakespeare managed to dissect the anatomy of the human experience with nothing more than a quill.

"Hamlet," with all of its richness and complexities, remains a demanding but rewarding read for the bookish; for those actors who dare spend weeks in the heavy Danish crowns and in the heads of those tortured characters, it can be a psychologically grueling battleground.

But over coffee, a few minutes before their first table reading of the play, the three stage veterans who will provide the core for The Rep's newest production are animated and amiable with a cheery glow in their game faces.

Bob Hupp, the theater's producing artistic director, takes to "Hamlet" for his fourth time; Nikki Coble, this production's Ophelia, last performed the play in London; and Avery Clark, a native Arkansan making his Rep debut, returns to the title role after garnering national accolades earlier this year for his performance of the vengeful prince in the Orlando Shakespeare Theater production.

The three concur that this type of familiarity brings its own brew of challenges to the table.

"The huge artistic footprint of 'Hamlet' demands that we approach it in new ways," said Hupp. "People are immersed in the story and characters. The language and ideas still pervade everyday life. And now, 400 years later, we have to tell [the story] again for the first time, keeping the play lively and relevant while making it intelligible and accessible for those who may not have seen it."

He's quick to admit the Elizabethan origin, garb and all, can hinder interest. But the play was written without a specific timeframe.

"So when was it really placed?" Hupp went through the list. "1601 England during the time of its writing? Thirteenth-century Scandinavia, where scholars say the story originated?"

Doubtless, Hamlet has been subjected to his fair share of time travel, to varying degrees of success. So where will Hupp's vision of the timeless play take place?

"We're putting it in 1914 Denmark" he said excitedly. "It was an era of great anxiety and inevitability. The year saw the last vestige of empire in a neutral country surrounded by the oncoming First World War."

The script, painstakingly trimmed down for a two and a half hour production, highlights the sometimes overshadowed political overtones in Shakespeare's lengthiest play.

Clark said he's looking forward to reviving his Hamlet in the new setting.

"For an actor, it's great. It gives me so many more ways to explore the many, many nuances in the character, not to mention a new context in which to study Shakespeare's themes."

"The key isn't the time period," Hupp maintained. "The key is to be moved by the story, actually seeing it performed because — and we've all heard this a million times —Shakespeare was meant to be seen."

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