William Shakespeare penned memorable words and characters and fashioned them into some of the most renowned stage works in the Western world. The comedies still delight; the history plays continue to intrigue us. But Shakespeare’s tragedies are the bread and butter of his dramatists’ artistry.
Among the tragic plays, Hamlet casts a tall shadow. Productions, famous and infamous, fill the annals of theatre. Great actors of every generation – both male and female – take on the challenging role. It contains some of the most memorable soliloquies and quotations.
But, seeing the Globe Theatre production of Hamlet on tour at the Folger, I felt like I had seen an exciting, new play.
As performed by the eight-member acting company, the text seems newly discovered. It is fresh and crackles with wit, color and even elicits occasional gasps. This 400 year old play sounds like it was written yesterday, yet loses none of its poetic grandeur. The play is also cut down to an audience friendly, two and a half hour running time. But I never thought I was missing anything.
Here Hamlet is stripped to the most essential elements of stagecraft and the actor’s art. The Folger’s Elizabethan stage is used to great advantage by designer Jonathan Fensom, with simple curtains, a couple of wooden planks and stools employed to establish scenes and locations. Fensom’s costumes suggest a time gone by without pinpointing a specific period.
Co-directors Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst, in avoiding a high concept, glossy approach, display a well-founded trust in the material. The play impacts the audience in much the same way it must have when patrons stepped into the original Globe during Shakespeare’s time.
Described as elemental, this Hamlet keeps the actors onstage most of the time, adding to their ability to jump in on a scene as one character or the other. The entire company doubles or triples roles, in the Elizabethan tradition, except for Hamlet. We’ll cut him some slack, since it’s one of Shakespeare’s longest roles.
Don’t be shocked, but you might be surprised at how funny Hamlet can be. This rendering brims with a liberal amount of laughter, but is by no means gimmicky. This company treats the Shakespearean tragedy as a play that should entertain not a tragic museum piece that an audience has to endure.
At the end of the play, the stage is still littered with the members of the Danish royal family, including the protagonist. Tragedy is delivered as Shakespeare intended. But he also wanted audiences to enjoy themselves, just as this company implores as the show gets under way.
As a matter of fact, there is a whole period, just before the show begins, when the actors come out on stage to bring out their props, tune their instruments and even mingle with the audience. They are simply themselves.
When they gather onstage for a raucous and musical invocation, they establish the atmosphere of a joyous performance where they are happy to share the tale of Prince Hamlet’s journey of discovery and revenge.
I will refrain from a blow-by-blow run down of Hamlet’s plot, other than to say, it’s all there, even with the trimmed running time. Hamlet still returns to Elsinore after his father’s funeral to find his mother married to his uncle who is now king. The prince still encounters his father’s ghost, who reveals he was murdered by Uncle Claudius. And Hamlet still has an “it’s complicated” status with Ophelia.
As Hamlet, Michael Benz brings out a lost boy quality that is sensitive with a hint of mischief. That mere hint of a mischievous nature informs the character, especially when he interacts with his uncle or Polonius. Benz skillfully turns some of Shakespeare’s most familiar soliloquies into spontaneous conversations with the audience.
The company that surrounds Benz follows his example. They simply tell the story, with truth and emotional honesty. The seven other actors do this by taking more than 20 roles among them all. The practice works beautifully and suits the pared down production.
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Each member of the ensemble is exceptional. I would be remiss not mentioning each one of them, so here goes: Dickon Tyrrell is Claudius and his brother the late King. He is also the First Player and Player King among the traveling entertainers that arrive at court. Gertrude is played by Miranda Foster, who is also Player Queen and the second gravedigger. (She also plays the mandolin and a mean thunder stick.)
Christopher Saul is Polonius, as well as Francisco, the first gravedigger and a priest. As Hamlet’s friend Ophelia, Carlyss Peer also takes on courtier Voltemand. Tom Lawrence triples as Hamlet’s friend Horatio, Reynaldo, and a captain.
Matthew Romaine is Hamlet’s rival Laertes, Bernardo, school chum Guildenstern, and Lucianus. As Osric, Fortinbras, Marcellus, and Hamlet’s other school mate Rosencrantz, actor Peter Bray, is another busy member of the acting company.
These representatives of London’s Globe Theatre have brought their “A” game to the Folger Theatre for their first stop in a U.S. tour. The players have come, and I hope you are lucky enough to see them perform.
HAMLET, By William Shakespeare, co-directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst. Featuring Michael Benz, Peter Bray, Miranda Foster, Tom Lawrence, Carlyss Peer, Matthew Romain, Christopher Saul, and Dickon Tyrrell. Produced by Shakespeare Globe. Presented by Folger Theatre. Reviewed by Jeff Walker.