It’s been a week now since I saw the premier of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival, and I’m still buzzing about it. It’s taken me this long to write a review partly because I wrote the reviews in the order that I saw the plays, partly because work intervened, but partly because I saved the most complex for last (not to slight previous reviews of Romeo & Juliet and The Trojan Women). How, after all, does one say anything intelligent about Hamlet? And yet, how can one review Hamlet without at least trying to say something intelligent about it?
So, here goes nothing.
Before we get to the production, a few, inadequate words about the play. Hamlet is an impossible play for any production to do justice to; fortunately, it is not such a hard play to make something worthwhile of. Every scene in Hamlet is brilliantly theatrical, every character has depth, and every line resonates with the audience. It is the only major tragedy of Shakespeare’s where the play works with you. If the director and the actors have any idea at all what they are doing, they should do OK, though even if they are geniuses they will inevitably fall short.
This is, upon reflection, a bit surprising. Hamlet, after all, is Shakespeare’s longest play; it has one of the most contested texts, and the plot doesn’t make any sense. The plot of Macbeth is straightforward, and the play moves vigorously forward; the plot of Othello requires considerable suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, but it is certainly readily comprehensible. Yet these tragedies are far tricker in performance, far more likely to wilt. Why does Hamlet work so well?
I highlighted three reasons at the outset – that every scene is theatrical (certainly not true of much of the latter half of Macbeth), that every character has depth (Duncan? Macduff? Malcolm? Banquo? Cassio? Brabantio? Roderigo? Bianca? – not so much), and the resonance of the language (true of Shakespeare generally, but never more true than in Hamlet – and there’s another side to that coin, that the language might taste stale in an actor’s mouth, and incline him to spit them out rather than savor them properly). But another key reason is that Hamlet in many ways resembles a comedy rather than a tragedy. By this I don’t mean merely that it’s funny – though it is, by far, the funniest of Shakespeare’s tragedies (Lear is quite funny, too, but it takes a particular sense of humor to be willing to laugh at Lear). Nor am I alluding to the fact that the original legend ends happily (with Amleth taking revenge upon his uncle and being crowned King). I mean that Hamlet acts as if he is staging a comedy – a dark comedy, to be sure, but a comedy. He’s a playmaker, trying to engineer a tableau of justice and repentance, much as Duke Vincentio does in Measure for Measure, or Prospero in The Tempest, or Portia in The Merchant of Venice, or (in a much lighter vein) the team of Oberon and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hamlet is constantly playing, making jokes, doing bits of business, staging scenes – he is the source of much of the theatricality that makes the play so exciting to watch, and that makes it feel, well into Act V, more comical than tragical (or, perhaps I should say, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral).
Coming to a production of Hamlet, then, what I’m looking for is a director who maximizes the key strengths of the play – who takes to the theatricality and the comedy with gusto. And what I’m looking for in a Hamlet is an actor who understands that Hamlet is, and knows himself to be, the smartest man in the room, and, while he delights in making use of this talent, finds the position it puts him in extraordinarily frustrating.
Well, I’m here to tell you, Adrian Noble and Ben Carlson gave me what I was looking for – and a whole lot I didn’t know I was looking for. This is by far the best Hamlet I’ve seen on stage, and a spectacular evening of theater.
Noble’s show is, in many ways, conservative. It’s set around 1900, in late-Strindberg-era Scandinavia, by now a traditional setting for the 19th century’s favorite tragedy, one that enables the audience to connect with the characters while still allowing for (mostly ritualized) sword-play. The text is culled somewhat, but I did not notice any scenes that were cut outright, nor has there been any re-arrangement of the text. Even the placement of the intermission is traditional: in Stratford’s last Hamlet, Paul Gross’s turn from 2000, there was a single break, in the middle of a scene, right as Hamlet raised his sword to strike down Claudius a-praying (which worked wonderfully, but felt coarse somehow), but here the only innovation was to have a but a single intermission in the middle of Act IV after Hamlet’s last soliloquy (“How all occasions do inform against me”) rather than two (the other presumably placed after Act II’s climactic ending “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”) Moreover, every actor plays his or her part as if inhabiting a character, not a concept. This is, emphatically, a production that runs toward the play, not away from it – which is what I expect of Stratford, but not what one always gets from productions of Shakespeare, and particularly not from Hamlet.
But traditionalism in no way implies stodginess; this production is theatrical from the get-go. Actually, to be honest, the battlements scenes, though indeed theatrical, work less well than any other scene in the play, with the opening dialogue cut too drastically and the ghost reduced to a stagey special effect, backlit and shrouded in mist like a Spielberg poltergeist. But things improve immediately after: Hamlet’s own first scene is staged with great brio – a Christmas party, with officers all in red and their dates all in jewels; Hamlet’s entry all in black never seemed so out of season. (An example of how the production gets the little things right: Hamlet returns from his abortive trip to England clad nattily in creams and browns; his first encounter with the rest of the cast, at Ophelia’s funeral, is a perfect pendant to his first entrance in the play – now all the others are in mourning dress, and he is dressed, if not for a ball, plausibly for a luncheon. Again, traditional, but in the best way, and demonstrating a loving attention to detail.) And every subsequent scene has its own setting, fitting to it as if it were a play unto itself. Polonius gives instruction to his servant from atop a wooden ladder in his library, perfectly appointed for the home of such a courtier; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet Hamlet at a sidewalk cafe, and though they are out of doors we can see the bar upstage inside; the players enter dragging a cart that Mother Courage or Ali Hakim would have envied; the dumbshow is staged as a shadow-play behind a screen, so when the King erupts and calls for a light Hamlet may grab a spot and train it on him, bellowing his doggerel lines through the tumult; when, later, Hamlet is sought for the murder of Polonius, he hides in the dark among the audience, and must be found with flashlights and dragged back to the stage; Claudius and Laertes hatch their plot to kill Hamlet while engaged in a game of billiards at a monstrously huge table, a perfect setting to demonstrate by what means Laertes is gulled into cooperating with villainy – you could see every dollar spent on this production, and how every dollar was spent with care, and with a view to making the scene play.
The acting was equally phenomenal. Carlson’s Hamlet, of course, is, as it must be, the overwhelmingly dominant performance of the show. He plays Hamlet as a bitter genius, certainly the most intelligent Hamlet I’ve seen – and the best-spoken. Carlson’s diction was something to marvel at, so let me pause to marvel. Hamlet is a four-hour play, delivered on this stage in one hour less, without cutting any major scenes. You can cut lines here and there as you please, but in the end if you’re going to do a basically complete Hamlet in three hours your actors are going to have to speak very quickly. Which, in Hamlet’s case, is entirely appropriate to the character – smart people with a tendency to logorrhea perforce speak very quickly – but is a challenge to an actor who must be heard, particularly as nearly everything he says is a pun or a dirty joke and world-famous. Well, Carlson is somehow able to keep going a mile a minute without dropping a syllable and without ever seeming to rush. It was amazing to see, and to hear. Scott Wentworth, playing Claudius, sounded more than once like he was trying to keep up with Carlson’s verbal pace – which, again, is not inappropriate to the character, but unfortunately Wentworth, who has a voice of great range and subtlety, was not always so clear when at speed.
Returning to Carlson: the great puzzle with Hamlet is why anyone should like him. And we do: not only has the play been consistently popular for 400 years, but within the play there’s not a single character who does not profess – and, indeed, appear – to love Hamlet, including both the common multitude and young Fortinbras, who never met him living. But why? He’s a whiny, self-involved fellow, unable to take any positive action. He’s a horrible misogynist, brutal to his mother, brutal to his girlfriend. He’s constantly making jokes at other people’s expense, frequently undeserved. Most alarmingly, he seems to have no conscience at all. He is unconcerned with his murder of Polonius – not merely unconcerned with the crime, but apparently unconcerned that he just killed his girlfriend’s father. Indeed, he admits to Horatio that, meeting Laertes at Ophelia’s grave, he entirely forgot that he had killed his father, and that this was a pretty good reason for Laertes not to be pleased to see him. He arranges the deaths of his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, without a pang, and even when confronted by Horatio, is utterly dismissive, tossing off the crime with a shrug: “they did make love to this employment” of spying on him, so much for them. Why does the audience take to him? We can take to villains, of course – we take to Edmund in Lear because he is so much stronger than anyone else, so much more vital; he is like Kafka’s panther, so much more compelling than Edgar’s hunger artist. We take to Iago against our will because he drags us down to his level; he is like Milton’s Satan, able to seduce us because he has exposed God for a fool more than a tyrant. We do not take to Macbeth, but we cannot escape his mind, as the play traps us inside it. Why do we take to Hamlet?
The false but easy way to make the necessary connection with the audience is simply to make Hamlet more appealing – play him as less brutal to Ophelia than the text directs; cut lines that play up his brutality; and so forth. The more true but also too easy way to make the connection is to play up Hamlet’s weakness, his psychic vulnerability – make us believe that, on some level, he really is mad. Carlson takes the harder, truest route, and aims to win us over by sheer display of intelligence. His Hamlet is peevish and dispeptic, but he runs rings around everyone else in the play. He does not want to be alone, but he is alone, perforce, and that loneliness has made him bitter. And you can see him, over and over again, trying to find someone who will not disappoint him, and finds only Horatio. He gives Ophelia a chance to prove true, but she can’t follow him, and when he figures out she is bait, and he is being audited, he turns on her with fury (the scene is extremely well-staged, with the audience catching a glimpse of the spying King and Polonius far upstage just for an instant, the same instant that Hamlet catches). He gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a chance to be open about their being sent-for, but must drag confession out of them and never can trust them further. Denmark’s a prison because there is no escape from the King’s ears (an unnamed character in a hat and trenchcoat can be seen wandering onstage now and a again, taking notes, and is sometimes spotted by Hamlet; used as subtly as this, it greatly emphasizes the claustrophobic atmosphere of the play). But for all that he meditates on suicide, you never see Carlson’s Hamlet indulging in despair – his is a bitter, not a soggy or a quivvering melancholy, and it cuts right through us.
Virtually every supporting performance is up to snuff as well, but one stands out above the others. Adrienne Gould’s Ophelia is an absolute marvel. She is the perfect picture of an obedient girl, and yet both full of life and full of love for Hamlet from the outset. Her relationship with Polonius is very finely drawn; Geraint Wyn Davies plays Polonius as a man of genuine talent as a courtier and genuine affection for his children, not a fool at all, just a man of some importance who is very conscious of his status and position. When Gould obeys him, reluctantly, both in his instructions to rebuff Hamlet and, later, when he uses her as bait for him, you can see her torn between her own instincts that tell her Dad has got this one wrong, and her genuine desire to make him happy. But nothing in her earlier appearances prepares us for her mad scene, which Gould ravishes. She is the opposite of a sad, fey, little-girl-lost; in madness, her Ophelia reveals a hungry lust and a thirst for vengeance (“my brother shall know of it”) at war within her soul and her body. It’s not that she was a fragile flower crushed by events beyond her compass, missing her father and her brother and feeling it was all her fault – it’s that her boyfriend killed her father and she still loves him, and hates him, and neither will ever come again. It’s an absolute tour-de-force.
Polonius, as noted, is also excellent, just pompous enough to give Hamlet what to work with and play off of, just human enough that we cannot take his casual slaughter as lightly as his killer does. Wentworth’s Claudius has, as noted, a couple of moments of rushed speech, but his characterization is extremely sharp; this man was, is, ready to be King, and never would have had the chance but for his crime; and he truly loves his Gertrude, probably more than his brother ever did. His scene with Laertes, when the young man bursts in armed for vengeance, is played with utter confidence. This Claudius is ready for any challenge that might come a King’s way, except for Hamlet’s. Victor Ertmanis is very fine as both the Player King and the Gravedigger – I especially liked how, as the former, he humors Hamlet; this may be the only moment in the play when Hamlet doesn’t notice that someone is playing him. I could go on – Tom Rooney is a solid Horatio, appalled by Ophelia’s madness and willing to tell Hamlet when he thinks him cruel; Juan Chioran and Ron Kennell make the most of their brief moments as Osric and Reynaldo respectively; and Bruce Godfree plays Laertes like Siegfried as described by Anna Russell “he’s very strong . . . and he’s very brave . . . and he’s very stupid.”
The only two weak performances are James Blendick as the ghost and Maria Ricossa as Gertrude. Blendick seems to have wandered in from some lesser production; his ghost is an orator, not an apparition, and does little to justify Hamlet’s exalted opinion of his father. His interactions with the ghost are the only times in the play when I felt Carlson was merely acting. But this is, in the end, a minor role, and the production moves on quickly to stronger stuff. Ricossa is a somewhat bigger problem. Her Gertrude is an utter blank – if Gould gives us a stronger Ophelia than we are used to, Ricossa gives us a strikingly weak Gertrude. I began to wonder, indeed, whether this wasn’t deliberate; if we are to believe Hamlet and his father’s ghost (and we are not obliged to do so), Gertrude is a rather weak character, hanging on whatever strong man is around. I could imagine Ricossa’s Gertrude heading to her closet once or twice a day for a bit of mother’s little helper to put her son’s problems and her husband’s memory out of mind. That wouldn’t be a bad way to play her, in fact. But Gertrude must be present when she narrates Ophelia’s death – we must see inside her, just this once if never otherwise – and Ricossa remains a blank here, too. Fortunately, Carlson plays off this blankness brilliantly in the closet scene; Hamlet seems much more intent, from the start, on getting Claudius to confront his crime than in punishing him for it, but this is even more emphatically true with regard to Gertrude. And here he is, screaming at her, pushing in her face the evidence of (as he sees it) her fall and . . . she doesn’t get it. She says she gets it, but she doesn’t get it; she isn’t there. It’s incredibly frustrating for him, and we see it in his face.
I would love to see this production again, later in the season, and see how it develops – Carlson in particular, but the production generally. It is so strong already, but with Hamlet there is always room to go deeper, and get stranger. If you can see it once, though, do. This is what Stratford is supposed to be about.