In Case You Missed It: Dogg’s Hamlet/Cahoot’s Macbeth

The first thing the audience hears is: “Brick!” The first thing they see is a blue soccer ball sailing from one wing to the other. This verbal-visual riddle sets the tone for Dogg’s Hamlet—a play in which preeminent post-World War II dramatist Tom Stoppard attempts to teach the audience the language of the play as the play unfolds. Until Easy, a deliveryman, arrives, everyone in “the world” of Act One speaks only “Dogg”, a kind of English gibberish (Stoppard is clearly referencing doggerel). Abel, Baker, and Charlie are students at a school whose headmaster is named “Dogg”; they are preparing a severely abridged—and extremely average—production of Hamlet, to be performed immediately following an awards ceremony. So, for them, Shakespeare’s English is a second language. As Easy is trying to make his delivery of “planks, slabs, cubes, and blocks,” he is gradually, and hilariously, learning the language.

Act Two (Cahoot’s Macbeth) opens in a different setting and a darker mood. Issues of the control of language, meaning, and power—treated comically in Act One—have now become politically charged. A group of dissident theatre artists, living in an unnamed dictatorship, are performing a clandestine production of Macbeth in a collaborator’s living room, with the furniture pushed to the side. The apartment is invaded mid-performance by a state police inspector who is intent on enforcing the laws of censorship that would prohibit just this kind of artistic expression and freedom of speech. Intent on defying the inspector’s threats and strong-arm tactics, the actors must find a way to save the performance by repurposing Shakespeare’s language in support of the political crisis of the moment. And then, Easy arrives (again), and it’s “Double double, toil and trouble…”. As the New York Times put it when the play opened on Broadway in 1979, “Lewis Carroll would have been at home.”

Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth were among Stoppard’s four dissident comedies of the late 1970s and written to be performed together. Stoppard dedicated the second play to dissident Czech dramatist Pavel Kohout (hence “Cahoot”).

With a cast of 23—18 R.L. boys, four girls from Winsor, and one from Dana Hall—the production drew on a lot of talent. Marge Dunn oversaw the tech crew of eight boys including Conor Downey IV as stage manager. (By showtime Director Derek Nelson, having tied one costume bow tie too many, regretted not hiring Mr. Bettendorf as bow tie strategist!) The production was performed in the Smith Theater on the evenings of 17-18 November, with support from the Hugo van Itallie Endowment.See photo gallery here.