Letter to the Editors on Hamlet and Student Theater

Design by Silvia Wang

In response to: “To Watch or Not to Watch, That is Our Question” by Judah Millen and Joshua Bolchover.

It is admirable that the Yale Herald is attempting serious arts criticism for undergraduate work on this campus. Student artists and theater makers deserve to be taken seriously, to have their work seen, engaged with, and criticized. In my experience at Yale, although the undergraduate theater scene is vibrant, there is little room for people to talk openly about the successes and failures of specific productions. I think the reason for this is self-explanatory: people are worried about hurting each other’s feelings or rustling the wrong feathers. This is misguided. Fear of criticism does Yale’s artists a terrible disservice. It stands in the way of our artistic growth, our learning, our preparation for the “real world,” and our community’s ideals of open intellectual discourse.

This is all to say, I was at first thrilled to see Mr. Millen and Mr. Bolchover’s column but found myself disappointed by their recent review of last weekend’s production of Hamlet. Of course, I am not an unbiased party: I played Polonius in this production and I find some of Millen and Bolchover’s assessments, particularly their judgment about specific performances, to be off the mark. (For example, I find their absence of praise for Mia Rolland’s heart-wrenching portrayal of Gertrude to be frankly astounding.) But c’est la vie, they have a right to their opinion and me to mine. Nonetheless, I think there are some failures of judgment in this review that should have been addressed both by the writers and the editorial staff at the Herald. Here, I would like to address elements of the review that I saw as flawed and provide suggestions for reviewing undergraduate productions in the future.

At the most basic level, the review seemed to forget that this show was a student production, put together with under two thousand dollars scraped together from a College Performing Arts grant and the Elizabethan Club. The review also fails to mention that tickets were free. Expecting to see “professional quality” performances across the board is misguided. That may be a fair expectation if you were seeing a show at the Yale Repertory Theater, or perhaps even a performance put on by professional theater students at the David Geffen School of Drama. But in this Hamlet, the entire team is made up of full-time undergraduate students, many of whom are first years who have only been at Yale for a couple months. To judge performances on the same metric as those at the Yale Repertory Theater is absurd.

Instead of targeted attacks or praise of specific actors’ abilities, Millen and Bolchover should address specific choices they liked or disliked and provide reasoning for that assessment. It is very strange to me that nowhere in the review until the postscript is the director of the production, Sam Bezilla, even mentioned! Nowhere is the name of any designer mentioned, not even the lighting designer, Corinne Evans, whose work they praise for a paragraph! Perhaps the writers feel that the world doesn’t need another cut and dry production of Hamlet and that Bezilla should have taken more risks as a director? Does the conventionality of the staging put too much pressure on individual performances? What scenes don’t work and why? What about the specific portrayals weren’t working? These would be more constructive arguments than random critiques of actors and their deliveries of specific lines.

This essay fails to follow the rules of theatrical criticism. What is presented instead is a work of conjecture. There is little attempt to recreate the event through language. The review provides almost no sense of what the show looked like or how production choices served the play. For example, what did the set look like? The opening paragraph says, “the costumes are vaguely period appropriate.” What period? Elizabethan? (The costume and set design were not in fact Elizabethan, but late 19th century.) The first version of the review said the play was “nearly unabridged” even though the show ran about 2 hours and 45 minutes. The wording has been changed to “lightly abridged,” which is also untrue. An unabridged Hamlet runs 4 hours.  

The writers and editors need to clarify the purpose of this critique. When this review was published, Hamlet had already closed. It makes no sense, then, for the critical assessment to be framed in terms of recommendation, as stated in the final sentence. The goal for such a column should be to provide an analysis of the performance and to interpret and evaluate the artistic merit of the production as a whole. That would be fodder for artistic growth. 

-Leo Egger, TC ‘23.5

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