Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hamlet (RSC, fall 2008)

Gregory Doran’s production of Hamlet successfully questions the nature of identity, illuminating its characters with universally human fragility. Thus, the disintegration of social, mental, and emotional stability within Shakespeare’s most famous and philosophical play is entirely heartbreaking.

The portrayal of its titular character often defines a production. In spite of the immense hype due to his role in the popular sci-fi television show Dr. Who, David Tennant’s performance is far from egotistical. Often barefoot, whether dressed in a suit or jeans, Tennant evokes a childlike vulnerability. At one point, he crumples up and weeps, turning first to his reflection in the mirrored back wall and then to the audience. While sometimes too quiet to be heard, Tennant delivers his lines with lightning speed or tender, delicate contemplation. He is clearly a lucid Hamlet who, though disturbed and distraught, plays madness as a mockery of itself.

Though Hamlet is indeed cut off from those around him, excluding the unfailingly steadfast Horatio (played expressively by Peter de Jersey), similarities between Hamlet and others emerge. Even the manipulative Claudius, played by Patrick Stewart, contains a remarkable mixture of gentleness and cold selfishness. His performance is so sympathetic that he poses to the audience the possibility that the brother whom he murdered (also played with authority in the afterlife by Stewart) was the domineering, less sensitive sibling. Indeed, Claudius’ dignity makes his callous manipulation all the more unsettling.

As Claudius’s torn wife, Penny Downie is a wrenching Gertrude. Grief stricken to the point of laughter, Gertrude’s moral confusion and progressive isolation echo that of her son. Her relationship with Hamlet is most poignant. Thus the closet scene reveals the painful affection between a bewildered boy and his lost mother.

Oliver Ford Davies adds lighter touches as a hilariously rambling yet loveable Polonius, duly obnoxious and obtuse but never cruel. His son Laertes is intelligently played by Edward Bennett, whose emotional breaking at the death of his father also resembles Hamlet’s abandon when seeing his father’s ghost. Laertes’ love for his sister Ophelia (Mariah Gale) is palpable, but never overplayed. He lectures her on the dangers of loving Hamlet with both tedious piety and genuine concern.

Gale’s Ophelia is sensitive enough to match Tennant’s Hamlet. Though their relationship has been destroyed, Ophelia’s affection for him markedly lingers. Her grief induced madness once again resembles Hamlet’s loss of inhibitions. Ophelia’s scenes of insanity, particularly through the vision of the guilt suffering Gertrude, are unnerving and tragic.

Apparently partly based on the first quarto version of the script, Hamlet moves at an exciting pace, which is occasionally too quick. Though Hamlet’s distress and hurt at Ophelia’s rejection and apparent betrayal are well conveyed, the first scene between Hamlet and Ophelia feels rushed. Another moment which is glossed over, losing its efficacy, is the chilling realization that Hamlet has condemned his old friends, the frustrated (and somewhat devious) Rozencrantz and Guildenstern (Sam Alexander and Tom Davey), to purgatorial death.

The relatively modern setting, and simple but glorious costumes and set design enhance the story’s familiarity. Radiant chandeliers hang in the court of Elsinor, where regal but subtle outfits reign. The already mentioned mirrored wall is brilliant, illuminating when actors turn their backs on the audience but deceptive when confusion fills the stage, as unreliable as any image of identity. When Hamlet shoots Polonius, the glass shatters, and a vast crack remains in Elsinor for the rest of the play.

The lighting is also miraculous. In the opening darkness, only flashlights can be seen, which reflect off the stage onto other individuals. No one is viewed in direct light until a haunting beam from heaven illuminates the stage. Waves of shadows permeate fog during the eerie ghost scenes. Even the final moments are made all the more effective because lights fade out as music and a conquering force fade in.
The audience can see themselves in the back mirror. At one point, Hamlet literally holds up a mirror to theatre goers. Stray flashlight beams graze audience members. As Hamlet reveals characters’ weakness and tenderness as they struggle for identity and stability, Doran, his cast, and crew turn the question we ask of them onto ourselves: who is there?

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