Nashville Shakespeare Festival kicks off 30th anniversary season with 'Hamlet'

Sam Ashdown as Hamlet and Chelsea Bell as Ophelia in Nashville Shakespeare Festival‘s production of “Hamlet.”(Photo: Rick Malkin)


The Nashville Shakespeare Festival opens its 30th anniversary season this week with an intriguing new production of “Hamlet.” The classic tragedy — widely considered to be the Bard’s most famous and influential work — offers a haunting exploration of human frailty and revenge.

“It’s a story of morality,” says artistic director Denice Hicks. “Prince Hamlet faces this terrible choice — to either live with his father’s murderer or to commit murder himself. At a time when so many of us are thinking about what’s right and true in the world, this story just feels so relevant.

“We actually performed ‘Hamlet’ in 2008, with our first Winter Shakespeare production. But so much has changed in the last 10 years — for me personally, for our company and for our country — it seemed a good time to reexamine this challenging piece with older and wiser eyes.”

But in staging the tragic tale of Denmark’s royal family, Hicks says she actually looked to American royalty for inspiration.

“It’s really important to humanize Hamlet, so we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the Kennedys — a family that enjoyed extreme privilege, but also experienced extreme tragedy. It’s not a literal translation, of course. Our production doesn’t fall into any particular time period. But it’s been very helpful in terms of grounding the story.” 

Once again, Natalie Bell and Jack Kingsley have composed an original score to support the play’s action and “emotional atmosphere.” And Hicks says Sam Lowry’s set design will draw audiences in with the use of projections.

“We wanted to keep it very simple, very intimate, keeping the focus on this young man’s grief and this impossible decision he must make. The projections allow us to move easily from the graveyard to the castle battlements to the great hall without big, bulky set pieces. It’s been very exciting to see it all come together.”

Hicks is just as enthusiastic about the cast, which includes a great mix of new and familiar faces, calling it “the strongest ensemble we’ve ever assembled.”

Foreground: Sam Ashdown as Hamlet; background: Roger Csaki as Claudius and Cheryl White as Gertrude in Nashville Shakespeare Festival's production of "Hamlet." (Photo: Rick Malkin)

“We’re so thrilled to have Sam Ashdown making his Nashville theater debut in the title role,” she says. “He has an incredible resume and is very well respected among Shakespeare companies around the country. There’s just a wonderful energy about him — both physically and intellectually. I can’t wait to see what he brings to the role.”

For Ashdown, who recently tackled the coveted roles of Prince Hal and Henry V with the Utah Shakespeare Festival, “Hamlet” offers a welcome challenge.

“Those roles certainly help prepare you,” the Oregon native says. “You learn a lot about yourself as an actor. But it’s always about the process for me. ‘Hamlet’ is such a beautiful, strong play — just the words on the page are incredibly moving to me. But then to jump into it with the other actors, I find that I’m always learning and discovering something new. 

“One of the things that really strikes me about Hamlet is that he feels so vibrant and alive,” Ashdown adds. “There’s a real sense of play about him. But he’s struggling with life’s big questions, just as we all do. I guess that’s what makes it so exciting to dig into these characters — those very human elements that connect us. I’m really happy to be working with Denice and this cast, it’s such a collaborative process. We all come in with our own experiences and ideas, but what we find together is greater than anything we could bring to the piece individually.”

If you go

What: The Nashville Shakespeare Festival presents “Hamlet”
When: Jan. 4-28. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sundays. (The production then tours to MTSU’s Tucker Theatre in Murfreesboro Jan. 31-Feb. 3, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.) 
Where: Belmont University’s Troutt Theater, 2112 Belmont Blvd. (MTSU’s Tucker Theatre is at 615 Champion Way, Murfreesboro.) 
Tickets: $29 in advance/$32 at the door (a limited number of “Royal” seating packages available, including premium seating, reserved parking, pre-show reception and backstage tour.)
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