(July 2008) This year’s Hamlet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) really surprised us, from the casting to the pacing to unexpected moments of humor. But this show really works.
We knew we were in for something different from the opening scene. Everyone knows, of course, the opening of Hamlet: jittery guards pacing over the foggy, ghost-infested ramparts of Elsinore Castle, folklore about supernatural visitations, debating how to let Prince Hamlet know that they have seen the shade of his late father. Like the ominous themes at the beginning of a Tchaikovsky symphony, the opening scene of Hamlet sets the mood for an evening of gloom. There’s only one way to play it.
Or so we thought. In this production, this opening scene went by in a flash. The ghost of the late King Hamlet (James Blendick) had given Prince Hamlet (Ben Carlson) his marching orders (“Revenge my foul and most unnatural murder!”) and retreated to purgatory almost before we had settled into our seats and staked our claim to the armrest. Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio popped up through the trapdoor, whipped through their lines, and made their exits. The scene changed, and Claudius and Gertrude, the happy newlyweds, were leading a promenade at a castle ball.
This Hamlet reminded me of nothing more than fast-paced thriller motion pictures from the 1930s and 1940s like The Big Sleep and Foreign Correspondent, filled with snappy repartee and action sequences. The movie connection was reinforced by the military-looking costumes worn and the rifles carried by many of the male characters (props not mentioned in my edition of Hamlet), and also by the use of blinding spotlights at different points in the play, meant, no doubt, to suggest the play’s probing into the dark recesses of the souls of Claudius, Gertrude, and Prince Hamlet.
We know Ben Carlson well from his work at the Shaw Festival. Several years ago, we saw him as Jack Tanner in a full-length version of Man and Superman, in which he had an almost impossibly long part to learn, compared to which memorizing his lines for Hamlet must have seemed like child’s play.
It is now clear that his talents are as well fitted for Shakespeare as for Shaw. Like the very best actors we have seen at Stratford, Carlson manages to make Elizabethan English intelligible to twenty-first century audiences, even when delivered, as here, at hyperspeed. (Instead of a melancholy Dane, this production of Hamlet features a manic Dane; the manic effect is exaggerated by stage lighting that leaves Carlson’s eyes mostly in shadow, not unlike a raccoon.) Best of all, Carlson showed us that Hamlet includes a healthy share of witty lines. I doubt that audiences at Stratford have ever laughed so much during performances of Hamlet.
The casting of this production defied all my preconceptions. In my mind’s eye, I see the Danish prince as a tall, slim, brooding teenager with an introspective, romantic bent. But Ben Carlson is a stocky man of medium height at best, decidedly older than what one might expect from a student at the University of Wittenberg (granted, the character is actually thirty, according to the gravedigger), thoroughly extroverted, with just a hint of incipient middle-age paunch. He’s no heartthrob.
The same went for other characters. I imagine Gertrude as a full-figured, vaguely sensuous woman approaching middle age, but Maria Ricossa, a trim, brisk Gertrude, is fully satisfactory. I think of Ophelia as a barely adolescent flower girl who mopes around Elsinore; Adrienne Gould gives us a spunky Ophelia who knows her mind. We liked her a lot, all the more because our expectations for Ophelias are so low.
Mercifully, this Hamlet spares us overlays of Freudian psychology. Gertrude has no incestuous designs on Hamlet, and Oedipus does not rear his head. However, this Hamlet was systematically stripped of melodrama, which many theater lovers will miss. The show never slows down, even for dramatic effect, not in the scene in which Hamlet flinches from dispatching the conscience-ridden Claudius as he prays, not even when it is finally time for Horatio to say, over Hamlet’s corpse,
Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
(Act V, Scene 2.) Claudius (Scott Wentworth) and Laertes (Bruce Godfree) keep up a brisk dialogue even as they play billiards (badly) and plot the murder of Prince Hamlet during Act IV, Scene 7. (The large billiard table on which they played was another distracting prop not indicated in my edition of the play.) To my surprise, by the end of the play the rapid dialogue seemed natural; we’d gotten used to it.
This was still a long play, a little over three hours; not much seemed to be cut. Fortinbras and his army, left out in some modern productions, duly appeared, and the play was better for their presence. The same for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Best of all, we saw and heard much from a marvelous troup of traveling players, who endured Hamlet’s gratuitous advice about how to act their parts with as good a humor as Laertes tolerated Polonius’s advice to be true to his own self.
Hamlet and Ophelia as conceived by Eugene Delacroix and Dante Gabriel Rossetti? See this Emsworth post on painters who’ve done scenes from Hamlet.
Seeing Hamlet reminded Emsworth of how J. K. Rowling lost her nerve in the final volume of the Harry Potter saga. See this post on what Harry Potter could have learned from Hamlet and other Shakespearean tragedies.
Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, including Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (see this post); Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).
Emsworth gripes about the recent leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival, which resulted last winter in Des McAnuff’s becoming the sole artistic director of the Festival, in this post.