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Huntington Highlight: Hamlet at The Huntington

Join the Independent Shakespeare Company at The Huntington on June 4 for a live performance of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

Murder, a ghost, madness, death—all these play a part in the Tragedy of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s endlessly fascinating glimpse into the darker facets of the human condition. Next month, culture lovers can experience a live performance of this renowned work at , presented by the acclaimed Independent Shakespeare Company (ISC).

Never before has The Huntington hosted a theater-length production of this classic tale of treachery and revenge. But it’s not the first time The Huntington has partnered with the ISC to help bring great art and literature to life for visitors. Other events in the past have included a program of sonnets and scenes related to artworks in the gallery, a production of A Christmas Carol and, last year, a presentation of Two Gentlemen of Verona on the south terrace of the Art Gallery, which is where Hamlet will be staged. This summer, the ISC is also scheduled to lead a class for kids during The Huntington's popular .

“It's a great partnership for us,” said David Melville, the ISC’s Managing Director and co-founder. 

The ISC is best known for its free, outdoor summer Shakespeare festival, which began in Barnsdall Park in 2003 and eventually grew to attract nearly 12,000 people in its 2009 season. Last year, the company moved its summer festival location to Griffith Park, where performances take place in the natural amphitheater of the Old Zoo. (For more information about the ISC and this year’s festival, which will run from June 30 to August 28, check out their Web site.)

Melville will be playing Hamlet at The Huntington performance, a role that makes great demands on actors.

“The biggest challenge is learning all the lines. He speaks a lot,” Melville said with a laugh.

On the other hand, with so much happening in the play, Melville finds plenty of opportunities to explore the interpretation of this highly complex character.

“The great joy of playing Hamlet is you can do something different every night, you can find something new [in every line, each time],” Melville said. “In that respect it’s a very rewarding part to play.”

The Huntington may not be the Globe Theatre (even the Globe Theatre isn’t really the Globe Theatre) or, for that matter, the Old Zoo, but in its own way it's a perfect location to host a Shakespeare performance. Aside from its Shakespeare Garden, featuring plants and flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, the institution is also home to an extraordinary collection of early editions of the Bard’s plays; in fact, it’s one of the four largest in the world. And that collection includes several rare quarto editions of Hamlet.

According to Stephen Tabor, The Huntington’s Curator of Early Printed Books, “We’re the only place in the world that has both the first and the second [quarto], and the only one that has the first with the title page.” (The second quarto provides the definitive text for the play as we know it today.) The core of The Huntington’s Shakespeare treasures were acquired in the early part of the twentieth century by Henry E. Huntington, including the Hamlet quartos, which were part of a larger collection that belonged to the Duke of Devonshire.

These exceedingly rare books are no longer displayed due to the fragile condition of the paper, but images of them can be seen online at quartos.org, “a digital collection of pre-1642 editions of William Shakespeare's plays.” However, visitors to The Huntington can see several other items from the Shakespeare collection in the Library’s Main Hall, including a prized first folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays published in 1623, seven years after his death. (The difference between a quarto and a folio is the leaf size; a quarto is half the size of the folio.) When I stopped by The Huntington on Saturday to check it out, the folio was opened to the first page of King Lear, but there on the left was the last page of Hamlet.

 Which brings me to the last word about next month’s ISC performance at The Huntington. To be there or not to be there shouldn’t even be a question. Instead, ask yourself if you really want to miss the chance to enjoy one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, performed outdoors amidst one of Southern California’s most beautiful garden settings. 

Shakespeare at Sunset: Hamlet will take place on June 4 at 6:30 p.m. on the south terrace of The Huntington Art Gallery. Wine and cheese will be served at intermission (no picnics allowed). Tickets are $35 each. Call (800) 838-3006 or make reservations online at www.BrownPaperTickets.com.

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