Sunday, November 21, 2010

Shakespeare's "Hamlet:" Not Quite a Review

On Friday evening, Mighty Reader, two of our friends and I went to the Seattle Shakespeare Company's performance of Hamlet at the Seattle Center Theater. If you live in Seattle or evirons, you must go see this. It totally rocks the house.

This is a not-quite modern dress Hamlet, as there are nods to 19th-century fashion alongside high heels, Uggs and Eurotrash ski wear. The sets are minimal: a bare stage with flats painted to look like either castle walls or desolate winter landscape, a couple of chrome and wood benches and not much else. The Seattle Center Theater is a small space and the actors use the aisles between audience seats as extensions of the stage; Hamlet made his entrance behind me, to my right. I don't usually like things like that, but for this production it worked.

The cast is generally excellent. A lot of performances of Shakespeare strike me as being acted by folks who don't really undertand the language, but in most cases here the lines are delivered as if Elizabethan English is a living tongue and the actors believe in what they are saying. Many of the words have changed definitions over the past 400 years and the actors use that to change the meanings of some of the lines, usually for comic effect, and I think it works in this production. I was happy with how much humor director John Langs found in the play, and how much of it the audience got.

Darragh Kennan is too old for the part, but his Hamlet won me over pretty quickly. He addresses the audience directly during his soliloqueys and I think that works and I believed him. Richard Ziman as King Claudius is exactly the right mix of egotism, smarminess and savvy politician. His first speech is delivered at a microphone, surrounded by courtiers. His "prayer" speech is great, and the chemistry between Claudius and Hamlet is wonderfully hateful and dangerous.

Everyone, as I say, acquits themselves well. Gertrude and Ophelia are not really roles of great depth (few of Shakespeare's women ever transcend the level of stereotype anyway) but they are done well here. Ophelia's madness is possibly a bit predictably done, and I'm tired of seeing her with a handful of stones instead of flowers, and possibly I'm also tired of seeing her so over-the-top mad in her mad scenes. I'd like for once to see a bit of a subtle madness, a lost Ophelia rather than a lunatic. Maybe someday. Her exit from the stage after her funeral is cool.

A lot of the staging and the interpretations are cool, in fact. The action opens in total darkness, the first line ("Who's there?") startling and spooky and the light comes up gradually on stage as the action progresses toward the entrance of the ghost. Claudius and Gertrude wear bathrobes and drink flutes of champagne when they greet the returning ambassadors to Norway. The play-within-a-play is downright brilliant, especially the dumb show that opens it (and also Hamlet's scene beforehand with the players as he tiresomely gives them advice). I remember being struck during the third act, maybe, with how surprising the production was. But I was struck more, truth to tell, with how versatile Shakespeare's poetry and plots really are, and how well they endure the centuries. Shakespeare's plays--especially his tragedies--are so complex, so refusing of easy interpretation and summary, that there are nearly infinte ways of understanding them, of reading and performing them. There is simply so much to Shakespeare, such great depth and complexity, so many levels and possibilities sitting right there in the prose that it will be impossible--no matter how many more centuries pass--to "wear out" the plays and exhaust the interpretive possibilities of them. Shakespeare was that good. He was better than we are, and I am again humbled by his genius. He was a man, take him for all in all, but we will never see his like again.

13 comments:

  1. I love Hamlet. Haven't seen a theatrical production for a few years -- must put that on the to-do list.

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  2. Sounds like a great production, but probably not worth flying to Washington for, alas.

    Poor, abused Ophelia.

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  3. Methinks you like Shakespeare's plays. I probably should reread them now that I'm out of school.

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  4. Weronika: Who doesn't love Hamlet? I keep thinking that I'll tire of the play, but I never do. I'm betting there's a lot of great Shakespeare in NYC.

    Nevets: You'll never know unless you come and see. Just saying. This is way better than the Ken Branagh stuff you can rent.

    J-Man: Shakespeare is unbeatable! You should read the tragedies. My favorite of the plays are actually "Julius Caesar," "Titus Andronicus" and "The Taming of the Shrew." But all of them are great, even the history plays full of characters I can't keep straight.

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  5. But the Ken Branagh stuff, as a commercial production, has the benefit of having been passed through the approval process of several key gatekeepers and of having been refined and polished by professionals to give us the stamp of quality.

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  6. Yeah, but it's still got Ken Branagh in it. And you're very droll, Mr. Nevets.

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  7. Thank you, sir, I find my moments.

    And the Ken Branagh price is rather a heavy one to pay.

    I think my university is putting on Hamlet this spring, actually. I'm very much looking forward to it. Their Macbeth several years ago was the best adaptation of the Cats choreography I've ever seen.

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  8. The Shakespeare in the Park folks here did a "steampunk Macbeth" earlier this month that we missed. It looked good, with lots of plaid wool, leather coats, brass fittings on the sets and gallons of blood everywhere.

    I liked Branagh as Guilderoy Lockhart, though. He was born to play that role, as Mighty Reader says.

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  9. No question about that. What a testament to the man's career!

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  10. This sounds fabulous! Yet another reason for me to mourn that I don't live near you.

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  11. I'm (re)reading Hamlet soon. They were right about you, Uncle - you are a Shakespearean influence!

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  12. Sounds awesome! Wonder when, if ever, I'll get to watch a professional production of Shakespeare. I'll settle for any of the plays :(

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