It is a brave company which takes on Hamlet, the most difficult play in the Bard’s canon and one of the most difficult plays in the English language. When done correctly, it yields not only great dramatic rewards but deep insights into the human character. When done badly, it is not only excruciating but three hours worth of excruciating.
So how do the great companies which specialize in Shakespeare, such as Shakespeare Theatre Company and Folger Theatre, approach Hamlet? Boldly, and with a point of view. And how does the tiny Compass Rose Theater, nestled in a small space on Spa Road in Annapolis, approach Hamlet? Boldly, and with a point of view.
That is not to say the production is flawless. It isn’t. But before I get to all that, I want to tell you what makes this production of Hamlet exciting, dynamic and worth your while.
Everyone has had a pre-Hamlet period in her life, so Hamlet veterans will forgive me as I sketch an outline of the plot. Hamlet (Phil Gillen) has returned home to Denmark from Wittenberg because his father the king has died, and also because his father’s brother Claudius (Galen Murphy-Hoffman) has succeeded his father on the throne and as husband to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Mary Lauren). Hamlet feels steeped in corruption and despair; his feelings are given shape when the ghost of his father (Steve Lebens) appears to reveal that Claudius has killed him and that Hamlet must avenge his death.
Hamlet resolves and hesitates, resolves and hesitates; his dithering is mistaken for a neurosis which the pompous courtier Polonius (Lebens) further mistakes for unrequited love directed as Polonius’s daughter Ophelia (Ali Evarts). In fact, Hamlet at this point is in doubt of his own perception of reality, and wonders if his visit from his father is instead a visitation from Satan, who seeks to mislead him. He resolves to stage a theatrical version of his father’s death, as he understands it to have taken place, and to watch the new King’s reaction to see if it hits home. When Claudius gives himself away, though, Hamlet still acts hesitantly, and impulsively, with chaotic and catastrophic result.
So what matter of man is Hamlet? In STC’s production, Jeffrey Carlson was Hamlet the Kid, entitled, demanding, and a little whiny. Folger’s Michael Benz was an engine of fury; the death of this Hamlet’s father opened up the gates of Hell, and it came roaring out through his performance. And who is Gillen’s Hamlet? He is truly the melancholy Dane, twitching with sorrow and defeat, so sad from the first moment that he seems clinically depressed. And this is absolutely in keeping with the text: it’s easy to forget that Hamlet’s first meditation on suicide is not the iconic “To be or not to be” speech, but in his very first scene. (“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt/Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!/Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!”)
A first-rate actor can deliver his character’s subtext in the way he handles these lines, and Gillen is a first-rate actor. We get, from Gillen’s pained and dewy-eyed delivery, not only Hamlet’s world-sickness but also his impotence, and his feeling of self-disgust over that impotence. There are many things that Hamlet dreams of doing — that Hamlet would do — if only he could. By the time he comes to the most famous speech in all Shakespeare, we know that he is not contemplating suicide but raging against himself for not doing it.
This interpretation, which Gillen and director Lucinda Merry-Browne deliver with satisfying consistency, illuminates whole sections of the play which otherwise might be obscure. In particular, the bizarre dialogue which Hamlet directs at Ophelia (“Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once.”) becomes clearer. He is taking his leave of her, and means to offend her, so that she will not miss him.
closes November 20, 2016
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This is a behavior common among those approaching death, including suicides. And why does Hamlet take his leave of Ophelia? Because he knows that he will be undertaking a course which will result in his death. You’ve heard of suicide by cop? This Hamlet is committing suicide by King.
Speaking of King, Merry-Browne and her actors throw a different light on the new royal family. Murphy-Hoffman’s Claudius is not the hyper-political “smiling villain” he is often portrayed as being. He is instead a very serious man intent on maintaining hold on the power he has recently acquired. Thus, for example, his delivery of his initial speech to Hamlet, in which he advises the young Prince to overcome his grief at his father’s death, is not soft and wheedling as it often is, but clipped and somewhat impatient. This Claudius is acutely aware of every threat to his reign, and will be ruthless in burning it down.
Here, Claudius and Gertrude are so affectionate with each other — touching, holding hands, kissing impulsively — that it is impossible not to imagine that they have been longtime lovers. Had they discovered their affection for each other only after the old King’s death, it would be unlikely that they would be as besotted with each other as they are here. Again, there’s nothing in the text which opposes such an interpretation, and many people have imagined the relationship that way. (If you’re curious, you might enjoy John Updike’s excellent novel, “Gertrude and Claudius “.)
Merry-Browne drives her interpretation home with diligent consistency, but the production is never overbearing. It is observant to details; I was delighted to see that the characters shook hands in the way they did at the time — by grasping each other by the elbow, and moving down the arm until they clasped hands. (They did this to search for concealed weapons; an early version of “trust but verify”).
The three leads are brilliant and the supporting actors — especially Quincy Vicks as the Player King — do generally good work. The uncredited fight choreography, especially in the final scene where Hamlet fights a duel with Laertes (Joseph Dalfonso), is excellent. Joseph Leitess as Hamlet’s steadfast friend Horatio has great stage presence, although I had some difficulty catching all the words. (All the actors speak quickly, as this play requires).
On the night I saw the production, Lebens as Polonius was struggling with some of his lines and was a little too expressive with his hands (remember what Hamlet tells the Player King: “do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently”), but he is superb as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, his voice all gravelly and sooty with the misery of Purgatory. Joyce Liao’s lighting design is good but when I was there whoever operated the light board missed some cues, thus disturbing the fictive dream. Even more annoyingly, the (very cool) music consistently cut off mid-note whenever action was about to resume, without a resolution or even a fade.
But don’t let these unfortunate deficiencies prevent you from seeing one of the world’s great plays get a satisfying and intelligent production in a venue sufficiently intimate that you will think you are a visitor at Elsinore, and not just a paying guest at the theater.
Hamlet by Williams Shakespeare . Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne . Featuring Phil Gillen, Ali Evarts, Joseph Dalfonso, Joseph Lietess, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, Mary Lauren, Steve Lebens, Quincy Vicks, Colton Needles, Grant Scherini, and Isabel Messina . Lighting designer Joyce Liao . Costume designer Lizzy Chapman . Stage Manager Mary Ruth Cowgill . , produced by Compass Rose Theater. Reviewed by Tim Treanor.