From audiences walking up on stage to charge their cell phones on the set of the Public Theater’s current Oscar Isaac-fronted production of Hamlet to a recent Elle article titled, “All Your Internet Boyfriends Are Obsessed With Playing Hamlet,” it’s clear the William Shakespeare tragedy, first published four centuries ago, is having a moment in 2017.
The latest, and perhaps most titillating example: what’s being billed as a “nude, all-male, body-positive” outdoor production of the play being put on in Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, courtesy of Torn Out Theater, the same people who made headlines for last summer’s nude, all-female production of The Tempest.
Why Hamlet? “I have been asking myself that question for a month,” director Pitr Strait said in an interview. “We wanted to follow up The Tempest with something that addressed body image and body positivity for men. The first time Hamlet came up as a possibility I said, ‘No, no, it’s too big. It’s the most famous play in the English language. Let’s not.’ But then we started thinking let’s not look for a specific play but for what kind of story we want to tell, and is there a play out there that’s already telling that story. We wanted to tell a story about being yourself even when everyone in the world is telling you not to. And once we realized that, like it or not, Hamlet tells that story.”
As for the nudity, there is some precedent extending back a decade ago to the Washington Shakespeare Company’s 2007 production of an all-nude Macbeth. So why a nude Hamlet — and why now? “After The Tempest, there was this huge internet reaction and so much of it was from people, mostly men but not exclusively, talking about how it would be impossible to do this with men, how nobody wants to see naked men on stage, it’s disgusting, it’s perverse, it’s obscene, they said. To us, the right to be at one with your body and unashamed of your body is one that belongs to everyone. Everyone should get that chance. So faced with so much noise saying you can’t tell a story with naked men, we just said, ‘Watch us.’”
The result, a cast of 13 actors, all of whom will appear in varying states of undress. But why all-male? “I think body positivity is something that affects people of all genders, but certainly it is a different story and a different set of struggles for people of varying gender,” Strait explained. “Male body image is complicated and tangled. We explored the female body in all its complexities with The Tempest and now we wanted to isolate the focus to be about men and men’s bodies.”
Any nerves from cast members about going full monty on opening this Thursday — the first time they will have done it outside, in light of New York law only allowing nudity in public if it’s part of a performance, hence rehearsals being held indoors? “If I’m honest, that’s on the lower end of what I’m nervous about,” the show’s leading actor Jake Austin Robertson, said in an interview. “Taking off my clothes is a lot easier than memorizing the longest character in Shakespearean text. The nudity is just another checked box on this litany of things that I need to be prepared for opening night.”
Can we expect another all-nude production next summer? “Certainly,” Strait said, promising it will feature more than one gender.
You can catch the production during one of its six performances, Aug. 10 through 13 in the Music Pagoda in Prospect Park and Sept. 7 and 8 at King Jagiello Statue in Central Park. The production offers free admission, with no advanced reservations. Seating is available on a first-come-first-served basis. For more information, check out the production website.