A few things can be said for certain about “Hamlet”: It’s a work of almost incalculable influence, the lodestone of Western literature.
It has served — for centuries now — as a gold standard against which theater artists measure themselves.
And it’s a saga steeped in grief and loss and a preoccupation with the “undiscover’d country” (to borrow from the play’s most famous speech) of death.
What else defines Shakespeare’s 400-year-old masterwork is what makes the play “Hamlet” — which is to say, its status as a magnificent enigma, a piece that can be endlessly interpreted and investigated and second-guessed but never really pinned down.
Old Globe Theatre artistic director Barry Edelstein points out that Hamlet himself even seems to reference the story’s bottomless well of unanswered questions when the Danish prince talks of a quest to “pluck out the heart of my mystery.”
And yet “that’s what keeps the play enduring,” says Edelstein, a lifelong Shakespeare director and devotee who is about to stage the great tragedy for the first time in his career.
“There are Shakespeare plays where everything is explained, and they have not become the totems, the icons of human literary achievement that ‘Hamlet’ has.
“The stuff that’s mysterious about it is the best stuff in it.”
When: Previews begin Aug. 6. Opens Aug. 12. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (7 p.m. Sept. 5, 6 and 10). Through Sept. 10
Where: Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Because the play “can be so many things to so many people,” Edelstein adds, one concern was that his cast — led by the young television and stage actor Grantham Coleman as Hamlet — might be daunted by all the possibilities.
“I told the company on the first day, we can’t make a perfect production,” Edelstein says. “And so let’s absolve ourselves of the burden of trying. All we can do is the one that we can do.
“Year in and year out, there are other companies of artists getting together and trying to unravel this thing and make sense of it.
“So here’s ours.”
Of all the thematic threads running through “Hamlet,” though, there is one in particular that has been on the director’s mind of late, and understandably so.
In fact, it’s the key reason Edelstein decided finally to take on the play in the first place.
The story of “Hamlet” is sparked by the death of the title character’s father, and the piece meditates on the depth of a son’s love and grief for his dad.
As Edelstein talks about the production on a mid-July afternoon in the Globe’s rehearsal halls, it happens to have been one year to the day since his own father, Stanley S. Edelstein, died at age 86.
At the time the Globe production of “Hamlet” was announced last October, Edelstein said that lines from the play “were ricocheting around in my head. I thought, this is telling me something, and I think I should try it.”
Now, as he works on the show, Edelstein says thoughts of his dad have “been going through my head every single day.”
“He was a good man,” Edelstein says of his father, a Korean War veteran and community leader who was an owner of a New Jersey office-furniture company for more than 50 years. “And he has felt very present to me — very, very present in the room.
“The whole thing is about Hamlet and his father and how to measure up — what to do when his father asks him to do this thing, and the pain and the grief. It’s very powerful.
“So yeah, the relationship of Hamlet to his father, and Hamlet’s father to Hamlet, is sort of the doorway through which I’ve stepped. But then you’re in this universe that is so rich and complicated that you start to look down all sorts of other avenues as well.
“It’s frightfully hard to talk about this play,” Edelstein finally says with an exasperated laugh. “It really is. Because I don’t want to say: ‘Well, it’s about revenge’” (for the murder of Hamlet’s father).
“Of course it’s about revenge, that’s true. And it’s about justice, and it’s about leadership, and it’s about family, and it’s about love.
“I mean, what isn’t it about?”
One thing even those who’ve never read or seen “Hamlet” probably know about it is that the young prince at the play’s center is a haunted figure — and not just in terms of his clearly tortured psyche.
Near the play’s outset, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, the former king, who reveals to the son that he was slain by his own brother, Claudius — now married to Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude.
The supernatural aspect, combined with the scope and demands of the role, have led some actors to struggle with portraying Hamlet in past productions.
Edelstein references the story of how the actor Daniel Day-Lewis quit a 1989 British production in midperformance, saying afterward that he had glimpsed the ghost of his own father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, who died when the actor was 15. (Years later, Daniel Day-Lewis said he hadn’t meant it literally and had simply been exhausted by the role.)
Edelstein himself was helping out on a college production as a Rhodes scholar in England in the 1980s when the lead actor suddenly uttered the word “No” in the middle of Act 1, and promptly fled the stage.
“I found him cowering in a shower in a dormitory bathroom,” says Edelstein, who eventually was able to coax the errant actor back onstage.
“It’ll get under your skin in a strange way.”
Edelstein’s most significant previous experience on “Hamlet” came when he assisted actor and director Kevin Kline on a 1990 production at New York’s Public Theater.
“It was an amazing experience,” Edelstein says. “And as Grantham (Coleman) will tell you, I talk about (Kline) a lot.”
Coleman, Edelstein’s chosen Hamlet, is new to the Globe, and new to the play — at least in terms of acting in a professional production.
But the L.A.-based actor says he has loved “Hamlet” since high school, when a particularly influential teacher began the first session of an advanced-placement English class by performing a scene from the play in character.
Coleman soon learned several monologues from the piece, and dreamed of taking on the lead role someday.
“It’s one of those actor things: ‘Do you want to play Hamlet, or do you not want to play Hamlet,’” Coleman says, echoing the phrasing of Hamlet’s most famous speech. “Because there’s a lot of people who don’t.
“I don’t know why. I’ve always wanted to.”
Coleman and Edelstein crossed paths briefly five years ago when the actor was at the Juilliard School and the director taught a master class there. (Coleman’s theater credits include the Public Theater’s “As You Like It” and “Buzzer”; he also has appeared on television in “11.22.63,” “NCIS” and “The Americans,” among other shows.)
The two spent a day together talking about the play when Coleman came to the Globe to audition. And now that rehearsals have brought a deep dive into “Hamlet,” Coleman — like Edelstein — has been struck by the work’s seemingly endless layers.
“I’ve just been asking myself, what did I think it was?,” he says. “Because it’s so much more than whatever I thought it was. You can just open up (the play) and say, there’s a big defining moment on this page, but I thought the big defining moment was two acts before.
“How could I possibly have thought that when the rest of the play has to happen?”
Edelstein specifically wanted a young man to play Hamlet (which is not always the way the role is cast), and Coleman was, “simply put, the most exciting young actor I could find,” Edelstein says.
“He’s got the training and the chops and the imagination. He’s a wonderful, wonderful young actor.
“There’s something about him saying, ‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right,’ ” Edelstein adds, citing Hamlet’s line about a nation in deep turmoil.
“You look at a young African-American actor saying that, and it just resonates in a very provocative way right now.”
But making a particular point about politics or society is not really the aim of the production, Edelstein notes. What matters is trying to meet “Hamlet” on its own terms, and expressing what comes of that encounter in as authentic a way as possible.
“I hope what people will come and see is entertaining and moving and fun and smart,” he says.
“And very much a reflection of an idiosyncratic group of artists, spending a few months together fighting with this thing.”
Denmark in the park
Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein’s production of “Hamlet” will be just the eighth in the Balboa Park theater’s 82-year history. A list of the others, with their directors:
1935: Thomas Wood Stevens (as part of the theater’s first season, staged for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition).
1955: Allen Fletcher
1960: Allen Fletcher
1968: Ellis Rabb
1977: Jack O’Brien
1990: Jack O’Brien
2006: Darko Tresnjak