Hamlet was a murderer who called Denmark “a prison.”
Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare gave director James Cady the framework to set his most famous tragedy behind bars.
Opening Aug. 14 at the Musical Theatre Southwest Center for Theatre, Cady’s version of “Hamlet” transfers the tragedy into a state penitentiary with a cast of 12 actors as inmates.
Cady doesn’t know if anyone else has imprisoned the play, but he says it has been performed regularly in state penitentiaries across the country.
“There’s a lot of it going on,” he said in a telephone interview from his Rio Rancho home. “It’s an extended part of group therapy. It’s about all the things in those prisoner’s lives that got them in there – murder, arson or just ‘beating a man in Reno just to watch him die,’” (with apologies to Johnny Cash).
The experience of channeling the Bard’s most famous character becomes a form of redemption, Cady said.
“They’re letting out their anger. They can see what happens to Hamlet and what makes him do what he does.”
Cady sees the character of Hamlet as an amalgam of three personalities: there’s the emotional hothead, the intellectual/introspective Hamlet and the spiritual.
“To that end, I’m casting three Hamlets, which is a daunting choice,” he said.
Along the way, he has sprinkled in notes of popular culture, like the Merle Haggard song “Mama Tried.”
He’s also cutting the original four-hour drama to an hour and 20 minutes.
The set ambience is stark: a guard searches the prisoners before they reach the stage.
Prison uniforms replace Elizabethan finery.
“I looked at the orange and said, ‘I can’t do it,’” Cady said with a laugh. “I’ll go back to ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ where they’re blue. They come in through a chain link fence and they’re patted down.”
“Hamlet” has lived in his imagination since he was a teenager.
He grew up in Los Angeles, where he tried to audition for the role.
“Nobody would hire me,” he said. “Now that I’m old enough to play ‘King Lear,’ I’ve decided to do ‘Hamlet.’”
Cady spent two years at the Pasadena Playhouse, then worked with Lee Strasberg in New York before returning to school at the University of California/Berkeley and UCLA.
He would go on to produce “Homer and Eddie,” (1989) starring Whoopi Goldberg and Jim Belushi.
Cady cited a personal connection to his incarcerated protagonist. He once spent two days in a Los Angeles County jail.
“Never mind for what,” he said, blaming the transgression on his youth.
In some prisons, inmates undergoing therapy form a drama club to act out their issues, he said.
“They work through their emotions and they take it back to group therapy and ask, ‘How do you identify with Hamlet?’ He is a murderer; he kills nearly everybody in the show.”
Cady hopes his audience absorbs the sense of loyalty permeating the prison population.
In the penitentiaries he has researched, the inmates take their roles very seriously.
“They’ve invited their wives, they’ve invited their mothers and they all want to make them proud of themselves to show there is something decent in them,” he said. “I think that is the audience take-away.”