Don’t take this the wrong way, but Hamlet has always been difficult for me. Yeah, there are more than a few who say it’s Shakespeare’s greatest play (though the older you get, the more you appreciate King Lear). But, to me, the Danish Play is too ponderous for its own good. George Bernard Shaw — in praising Ibsen’s bringing realism to the stage—once remarked that very few people have had an uncle murder their father, then marry their mother. Well, maybe not very few. Less than half, though, right?
So we can safely assume Hamlet is a play of great pith (and moment?), with dilemma’s that might…I don’t know, make us jump into a pond? Shakespeare’s weighty dialogue doesn’t help either. I mean, who can fardels bear, in the real world, such lugubrious musings as issued forth by Mr. Hamlet? And in a place so antiquarian and claustrophobic as Elsinore? Their world is depressing, indeed. Hard to keep a bodkin bare in these circumstances.
Yes, Hamlet is a hard character to mess up (unless you are Ethan Hawke) because his humanity and torturous indecision seems to be so much the story of our lives. But Hamlet the play is becoming increasingly difficult, in my opinion, to stage satisfactorily. Most efforts are either humorless, melodramatic, or just plain pretentious.
Well, I’m happy to say, at least one company out there knows how to put Hamlet in its proper place. The company is Faction of Fools, and they’ve been doing just this sort of thing for a few years now.
Ever hear of a character named Arlecchino? Well, until the other day I hadn’t, either (go ahead and gloat commedia dell’arte fans). Now, he’s going to be on my mind a while. So that we’re all on the same page: Arlecchino was a bumbling servant, the foil of many jokes, and an inspiration for countless comedic types: The Tramp, Mr. Hulot etc.
Now Arlecchino is also the prince of Denmark. His uncle—Claudius—has taken the throne after pouring poison down the King’s ear canal. Before he can arrive home, his mother has taken up with the new king. Oh, you know the story? Well, I guarantee how you see the Dane will change after you’ve seen Faction of Fools’ Hamlecchino.
Think of every performance of Hamlet you can remember. Now add a laugh track. Jarring, isn’t it? Don’t worry, you’ll quickly grow comfortable with the concept; this company’s actors are so good at what they do that you will feel the drama of Shakespeare’s narrative, while still being carried away by their slapstick.
Some of the physical comedy might be misplaced; some of the pratfalls and acrobatics come during scenes that are too slow for slapstick. But when the pace is just right, the effect is double dynamite. I believe the two funniest scenes in the whole play are also the most tragic: the death of Polonius, and the duel between Hamlet and Laertes.
Matthew R. Wilson (Hamlet) and Toby Mulford (Polonius) are the creative forces behind this production; Wilson as director and choreographer, Mulford as assistant director. They are also the stand out performers. Mulford plays Polonius as he normally is, just a few measures more absurd. He was always a buffoon who thought he was smarter than he was, and always comedic at the core, but now he is the slapstick, commedia dell’arte Polonius, exaggerated motions and all. In Hamlecchino his death in Queen Gertrude’s boudoir is not merely the result of a mistaken act of vengeance, but preceded by a comedic cat and mouse chase that by accident ends badly for Polonius. This has the effect of not only entertaining the audience, but restores much of Hamlet’s remorse that has been missing from other productions.
The duel at the end is equally hilarious. Seeing these familiar characters in grotesque masks the entire play is surreal enough, but the whirlwind that is this final scene is purely phantastic. In probably the best fight choreography I have yet seen on stage, Wilson and John V. Bellomo whirl around like tornadoes, their flashing blades coming scarily close to wounding other cast members. At one moment Hamlet is piggybacked by Horatio (Rachel Spicknall) and Laertes by Claudius (Billy Finn). Or is it the other way around? It was so fast and so fluid you couldn’t tell. And they continue their combat, nevermind that a stray blade could bring this play to a premature conclusion. Claudius’ demise is comedic, punctuated by some understated non-Shakespeare dialogue (guess what?).
Most of Shakespeare’s actual dialogue remains intact, as does the plot. There is one exception I will not mention (in fear of losing my head), because it would be nitpicking. The plays many oft-quoted lines are well-delivered, and classically so. Don’t fret that, Shakespeare purists. But like in good comedy, there are always surprises.
Hamlecchino: Clown Prince of Denmark
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Faction of Fools
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew R. Wilson
Produced by Faction of Fools
Reviewed by Steve Hallex
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission