William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which many consider the greatest play in the English language, of course focuses on the title character. Hamlet returns from university after the sudden death of his father, the King of Denmark, to find his uncle now on the throne married to his mother – and encounters his father’s ghost who reveals he was murdered and urges Hamlet to take revenge.
But the play is rich in other complex characters, including Polonius. Adviser to the current king, as he was to the late monarch, Polonius is also the father of Ophelia, Hamlet’s erstwhile love interest, and Laertes, who was Hamlet’s friend.
Polonius gives us a famous speech, which appears fatuous on the surface, yet offers such wisdom as: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
Robert Joy, who plays Polonius in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s upcoming production of “Hamlet,” is intrigued by the character’s multiple layers.
“Shakespeare gives us so many different choices,” Joy said. “Claudius (the King) considers him essential for his power and intellect. Elsewhere he’s called a ‘kindly good old man,’ but Hamlet considers him a ‘fool.’”
Of course, Joy hastened to add, Hamlet’s caustic remark “doesn’t make it so. With the Prince of Denmark’s elevated sense of intellect, it’s easy to call anyone a fool. With any parental figure who’s interfering, it’s easy for the younger generation to call that person a fool.”
This is especially true when Polonius interferes with Hamlet’s love life, he added.
When Michael Kahn, STC’s artistic director and director of the production, offered Joy the role, he provided an additional dimension to consider.
“First Michael asked me to go for coffee to make sure I could be on board with his concept – which is so radical,” the actor said.
The concept was that the King’s adviser is also a spymaster.
“Polonius does so much spying in the play,” Joy said. “He’s like the head of the FBI, CIA, Secretary of State, and greeter of ambassadors combined. He sets someone to spy on his own son, and there is the scene where he hides in the Queen’s closet to spy on her conversation with Hamlet. And of course, he sets his daughter to spy on Hamlet.”
Focusing on these darker aspects of the character have helped Joy “strip away” the buffoonery that actors portraying Polonius have often brought to the role.
“He’s not warm and cuddly, for sure,” the actor commented. “But the way he deals with his family may come from his workplace, which doesn’t stop for him when he comes home for dinner.”
Polonius’ need to stay in Claudius’ good graces may account for his revealing to the King what he considers the source of Hamlet’s madness – his love for Ophelia.
Aside from the play’s lofty language, Joy came to appreciate through this and earlier productions of “Hamlet” that the play “keeps you on the edge of your seat, that the stakes are so hard in every arena.”
The actor has appeared in many movies and TV programs, including “The Blacklist,” “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “CSI: NY,” but Joy also has an extensive theater background, including other Shakespearean productions like “The Tempest,” “Henry IV,” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Going from page to stage with Shakespeare is a revelation,” he said.
Joy was in a revival of “Side Show” on Broadway and played the lead in “King Charles III” at STC and other venues.
Michael Urie stars in the title role in “Hamlet.” Also in the cast are Alan Cox as Claudius; Madeleine Potter as Gertrude; Federico Rodriguez as Horatio; Oyin Oladejo as Ophelia; and Paul Cooper as Laertes.
Also on the theater’s agenda (Feb. 6 through March 14) is “Noura,” by Heather Raffo. The play, about Iraqi immigrants who welcome an Iraqi refugee home for Christmas, is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
“Hamlet” runs Jan. 16 through March 4 through at STC’s Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets and information, call 202-547-1122, or visit: www.shakespearetheatre.org.
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