Ken Ludwig / photo by Leslie Cashen
Ken Ludwig is a DC local and internationally acclaimed playwright who has had numerous hits on Broadway, in London’s West End, and throughout the world. He has won two Laurence Olivier Awards (England’s highest theater honor), two Tony Award nominations, two Helen Hayes Awards, and an Edgar Award. His work has been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Bristol Old Vic, and his plays have been performed in over thirty countries in more than twenty languages. His new book is called How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.
I spoke with Ken about his love of Shakespeare, the Bard’s history in DC, and choosing to make this city his creative home.
Joanna Castle Miller: How did you first fall in love with Shakespeare?
Ian Merrill Peakes as King Henry VIII and Louis Butelli as his fool, Will Sommers, in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (photo courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library)
When I first walked into Folger Shakespeare Library I was impressed with the authentic Elizabethan performance space. I also didn’t know what to expect from Folger’s season opening production of Henry VIII. Shakespeare falls outside my wheelhouse when it comes to plays, often we associate the works of William Shakespeare with one of two things: fantastic, masterful prose or boring, hard-to-decipher material.
I know I’m not the only one who would have the same two assumptions about Shakespeare. Unless you are a theatre/Shakespeare buff, the idea of sitting through such a show might be a tough idea to stomach. I commend director Robert Richmond in doing everything possible to make the historical play of England’s Tudor Monarch accessible to the audience. He added two characters not in the original text in Will Sommers and Princess Mary, who add additional context into the historical piece. The widespread blocking of the show often places actors in the middle of center aisle, acting out to the audience who are only a mere inches away. The show can also thank The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors for bringing the story of King Henry VIII into the spotlight.
Laertes (Justin Adams) and Hamlet (Graham Michael Hamilton) in "Hamlet" at Folger Theatre. Photo credit: Carol Pratt.
For many of us, Hamlet was our first introduction to Shakespeare. We come to any performance marked by the ghosts of favorite actors and concepts, never able to fully be open to the play. Enter the clean, refined vision of director Joseph Haj to help you see the play fresh. From the very first moments, fast-paced and full of danger, to the wrenching final image, we know something is different in this state of Denmark. It’s a decidedly contemporary jewel-box of a production, and one I highly recommend.
Playing now through June 6 at the Folger Theatre, this Hamlet is highlighted by the stunning set design of James Kronzer and a heartbreaking lead performance by Graham Michael Hamilton. Your first sight of the all-white set’s striking modernity contrasted with the Elizabethean background of the Folger is a beacon of the director’s mission – let the simplicity of the text shine through. Everything is laid bare here, in grim tones of neutrals and grey, just as Hamlet bares his inner thoughts to us in the famous monologues detailing his struggle to avenge his father’s death.
And it’s fast. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a more effectively streamlined Hamlet (definitely not the four-hour Branagh version I sat through at the RSC years ago!). Purists may be upset at some of the cuts, but it serves the purpose well here to do some judicious snipping. But it’s not just the cuts that drive the action – Haj allows the ensemble few moments of rest, setting a pace that doesn’t labor but flies. Too often productions of Hamlet take the view that the prince is waffling, procrastinating – here, he’s moving briskly along on his search for truth, battering at the roadblocks in his way. Continue reading