Folger’s Hamlet may be modern dress, but it is old school at heart – shorn of irony, eschewing post-modern, post-Stoppardarian self-reflection, without inside jokes or other evidence of meta-theater.
Consider: Its Rosencrantz (Billy Finn) and Guildenstern (Dan Crane) are not coin-tossing hipsters or wiseacre frat boys, but Hamlet’s decent, unimaginative schoolchums who are worried about their friend. When Claudius (the excellent David Whalen) says “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern” and Gertrude (Deborah Hazlett) rejoins “Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz,” they aren’t confusing their identities. They are merely repeating them in a different order, and no one makes a fuss about it.
Polonius (Stephen Patrick Martin) is not a pompous buffoon (although the rambling prologue to his conclusion that Hamlet loves his daughter remains intact), but a simple, honest man whose ambitions overmatch his ability to help his King and Queen. When he delivers his “to thy own self be true” speech to his son (Justin Adams), Laertes and Ophelia (Lindsey Wochley) do not snigger and roll their eyes behind his back, but listen attentively, like loving children.
Claudius is no monster or a master manipulator – Iago with a crown – but an ordinary man who did a terrible thing to gain what he wanted and now finds that he needs to do another terrible thing to keep it.
Most importantly, Hamlet (Graham Michael Hamilton) is not conflicted, or indecisive, or melancholy. He’s furious – his adored father is dead and his mother is now in the bed of his despised uncle – and he’s also clueless as to what to do about it. There is not a scintilla of incestuous love when he confronts his mother in her bedroom, but only scorn and anger. And the motivation for his bizarre behavior toward and cryptic dialogue with Ophelia – frequently cited as evidence of his madness – is completely clear: she has returned his letters, as her father has commanded. In this treatment of the play, Hamlet’s seemingly insane behavior is not a grand strategy but simply an understandable reaction to extreme stress. Folger’s Hamlet is something that could have happened to you or me.
The result is one of the clearest Hamlets in years, as crisp as a mountain stream and clocking in at tidy 2.40. It is as lucid as James Kronzer’s brilliant set, which plumbs the hidden depths of Folger’s stage to turn the royal castle into a sleek institutional interior (the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center comes to mind), or as Jan Chambers’ excellent costumes, which show that like any modern nation, Denmark, whether it does good or evil, will always be impeccably dressed. Using the Folger’s unparalleled resources, director Joseph Haj reviewed the treatment of this play throughout history – what did Edmund Kean’s prompt book say about Hamlet? John Berrymore’s? – before deciding to reinterpret the play without preconceptions. “Their (his cast and designers) willingness to explore this text from zero – with no predetermined ideas of the world of the play and who those characters are – has allowed for one of the most thrilling rehearsal processes that I’ve ever been around,” he writes in his program notes. “To look on this play with fresh eyes, with as few preconceptions as possible, has allowed us a deep and wonderful exploration.”
Indeed. Haj has produced a Hamlet revealed, stripped of its mysteries. If we recognize that this is not the only way to understand the play, it is good for us to see a treatment like this, which moves Elsinore out of the exotic and into the human. Hamlet, like many young men, idealizes his father (Todd Scofield), whose death has broken his heart. He is volcanically angry that his mother has married his uncle, a mere month after her she became a widow, and their evident affection for each other infuriates him further. (Like most modern interpretations, this Hamlet assumes Claudius and Gertrude are in love; but that was not the only explanation for their marriage possible in Hamlet’s time, or in Shakespeare’s. Most audience members would have remembered that at the beginning of the century Henry VIII married his brother’s widow, principally to solidify an alliance with Spain.)
In the presence of the only man he trusts, Horatio (Lea Coco), Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, who identifies Claudius as the man who killed him and commands Hamlet to revenge. Like most young people before the age of drive-by shootings, Hamlet has no idea how to stage an act of vengeance, and so thrashes about impotently. It is no stretch to imagine that he would worry that his dead father’s appearance was not truly his spirit but an apparition sent by Satan, or that he would seek to verify what he heard by tricking Claudius into an admission of guilt. Nor is it difficult to understand that Hamlet is a young man in love with Ophelia (more so, we discover, than he is in other interpretations) and that when she, at her father’s command, returns his letters and other tokens of affection he would feel it as an act of betrayal, compounding his mother’s in marrying his uncle and God’s in taking away his father. And so on. Haj and the production do this with each of the other characters, making them human and explicable, and thus deeply tragic.
Making Hamlet human requires excellent work on stage, and Haj gets several performances that are better than that. I have already mentioned Whalen’s Claudius, but Todd Scofield is also superb in three different roles. I especially liked his sonorous-voiced Player King, who manages to be a plausible “actor” on a stage full of – as we must remind ourselves, occasionally – actors. Lindsey Wochley is a marvelous Ophelia, a child, really, brimming with love and optimism, and like Hamlet completely flummoxed by the adult world in which she finds herself. When she drowns herself it is a tragedy for us, but for her it must have been an act of blessed relief.
There is no great Hamlet without a great Hamlet, and in the title role Graham Michael Hamilton does the play fine service. He is no prancing, preening intellectual Hamlet; he is a workingman’s Hamlet, full of rage and righteousness, on a dread and holy mission, convinced of the correctness of his course even though he does not know what it is. He vamps and improvises in the name of justice, and at every moment we can see the desperate calculations in Hamilton’s face, and in the twitches of his muscular arms.
We have come to expect first-rate technical work at Folger’s, but it would be unjust not to mention the high quality of Justin Townsend’s subtle lighting design, or the wonderful way Matthew M. Neilson integrates off-stage sound with the fine near-stage performance of composer-musician Jack Herrick. Casey Kaleba’s fight scenes work well, notwithstanding the intimacy of the Folger’s space.
There is a downside to all this clarity: Hamlet no longer seems to be mad, or to be feigning madness, and the references in the text to his apparent psychosis thus tend to lose their meaning. But it is good, once in a while, to have the veil stripped away, and see Elsinore’s once-mighty royal house as they might have been, or could be still.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Joseph Haj
Produced by Folger Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Hamlet runs through June 6, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.