Friday, November 23, 2012

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Michael Benz as Hamlet

By Joe Straw

Two women, wearing black, were having a great time at the theatre the night I went.  They were sitting in front of me and every time there was a recognizable quote from Hamlet they turned toward each other, smiled, and nodded affirmatively.  And then they directed their attention back toward the stage and continued their observation of the performance. -  The Narrator.

The Broad Stage is a very nice place to go.  There is always free parking without arriving too early.  The atmosphere is always friendly and everyone at the door greets you like a long lost friend.   

KCRW presents Hamlet by William Shakespeare and directed by Bill Buckhurst.  Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is back in town doing what they do best.  Tonight I was fortunate to be invited back to The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage to witness the performance.

Oddly enough, the set, Designed by Jonathan Fensom, was similar to The Comedy of Errors set, I had seen last year.  It was slightly different but the same shell of a space.  

Paul Russell, Lighting Designer, decided to keep the house lights up during the performance, for reasons unknown to me.  The actors, in this light, arrive on set in character, jovial, and in pursuit of a lighthearted objective.  They prepare themselves by adding wardrobe accouterments enhancing the finishing touches of their costumes also designed by Jonathan Fensom.  

When the last belt was tightened, and the last boot strapped, the actors grabbed an instrument and played away at a 17th Century English traditional song “A Begging I Will Go.” A diapason sound fit the occasion and certainly it is a song for pugnacious actors.  Notwithstanding “Begging” is a lighthearted number that introduces us to the play, Hamlet.  And it worked quite nicely, a very light touch of an introduction, for a play that we all know ends in a horrific bloodbath.  

The play starts with a whisper, an underscore of things that happen late in the night.  Two guards Marcellus (Peter Bray) and Bernardo (Matthew Romain) wait for the moments when an eidolon, the dead King Hamlet’s apparition, appears around the guarded walls of the castle at Elsinore.

Frightened, and chilled from the cold night air, the two are not willing to hold their tongue and so Marcellus and Bernardo tell Horatio (Tom Lawrence) of the sights they have repeatedly seen on a series of nights.  And just when they are telling the tale, the apparition appears stalking through the castle walls.  They cry out to the ghost but the ghost ignores them as he passes from room to room.  Horatio believes the ghost will only talk to Hamlet and runs to tell Hamlet the news.

Meanwhile, the iniquitous Claudius (Dickson Tyrrell) is now the new king.  He is espoused to Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Miranda Foster), in a hastily arranged marriage not two months after the sudden and unexpected demise of his brother, King Hamlet (Dickson Tyrrell).   

Hamlet (Michael Benz), the son, laments the passing of this father.  Claudius, happy to occupy the throne, wastes no time evaluating Hamlet’s imponderable mourning.    

“But you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, …

…but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ‘ tis unmanly grief;”  - King

With his manhood questioned Hamlet feels he must bide his time but he is not too happy about the outcome.  

“With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good;
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.” - Hamlet

Claudius must not feel he is king.  Certainly his ill-fitting wardrobe does not give him a regal appearance and he lacks the backbone and fortitude to stand up to his enemies, known or unknown.  He worries about the invasion of the Norwegian crown prince Fortinbras and hastily sends his ambassadors to stop the invasion.

Horatio anxiously tells Hamlet he has seen his father, has seen his face, knows it is he, and invites Hamlet up to the guard post at night to see the vision they have all experienced.   

Meanwhile Polonius (Christopher Saul), lord chamberlain, has a broken heart.  His children have grown, and with time running out, Polonius imparts his wisdom to his son Laertes (Matthew Romain) before Laertes leaves for France. And after this impassioned farewell Polonius turns his sight on Ophelia (Carlyss Peer) and warns his daughter Ophelia that she must be cautious with Hamlet.

“Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence;
Set your entreatments at a higher rate
Than a command to parley.” – Polonius

Hamlet’s hamartia is his youth as he rushes to the guard post to see his father. Hamlet, incurious, when he arrives, speaks with Horatio and Marcellus.  Suddenly the ghost appears and beckons Hamlet to follow him.  Horatio and Marcellus tremble at the repercussions and hold Hamlet until he breaks free.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” - Marcellus

The ghost leads him to another part of the castle with Hamlet pleading for him to speak only to find that it is not his father. (I am not your father.)

“I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,” – Ghost

(Okay, a technicality.)

The ghost tells Hamlet that he is doomed because of what he did in his life. (Just when you thought he was the good king!)  The ghost imparts his wisdom of the afterlife without going into specifics, which is all humorously articulated in the telling.  

And then the ghost tells Hamlet he was murdered by his brother Claudius and gives his the details of his murder.  He seeks his son to revenge his death.  

“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” – Ghost

Not wanting to leave Hamlet without fond remembrances the ghost embraces Hamlet with an unnatural love, and speaks.

“Adieu, adieu!  Hamlet, remember me.” - Ghost

This is the moment Hamlet makes up his mind about his uncle and his mother.

“O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!

…So, uncle, there you are.  Now to my word;
It is ‘Adieu, adieu!  Remember me.’
I have sworn’t “ - Hamlet

Hamlet makes a decision after he has secured the truth. Revenge is a seed planted in fertile ground.  And Hamlet has that seedling sprouting many evil machinations.  It will never end until the end is finished and done with ‘til the last line is spoken and the last breath is taken. There is no turning back once you have sworn to it.

“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,” – Hamlet

“He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.” – Hamlet

Hamlet asks his friends to swear they will never mention what they have seen this night.

“Never to speak of this that you have seen,
Swear by my sword.” – Hamlet

And repeatedly the ghost asks them to swear.

“Swear!” – Ghost


“Swear!” – Ghost

So aggravated by the ghost, Hamlet moves from place to place to avoid his constant verbal barrage until he has had enough.  

“Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!” – Hamlet 

Later Polonius wants Reynaldo to go to Paris, find out what Danes are there, and more or less to check up on his son, Laertes.  

Ophelia enters and tells Polonius that Hamlet is acting very peculiar and Polonius goes to the Queen to speak to her on Hamlet’s condition.

The whispers continue around the castle as the King and Queen have summoned Rosencrantz (Peter Bray) and Guildenstern (Matthew Romain), Hamlet friends, to enlist their help in discovering Hamlet’s ailment and strange behaviors.   

“… and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of the defect,
For this effect defective come by cause:
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus,” – Polonius to Queen

A befuddled Polonius tells the King and Queen that he will speak to Hamlet.  Hamlet, at this point, seems off his rocker. Polonius thinks, “he is far gone, far gone”.

Moments later, and sane again, Hamlets happily greets his childhood friends but with reservations. He asks Rosencratz and Guildenstern what is their purpose at Elsinore.  The sycophants feign innocence but then tell Hamlet they were sent for.  So they are, in fact, spies and it doesn’t take Hamlet long to catch on despite what Rosencrantz tells him.

“My lord, there was not such stuff in my thoughts.” – Rosencrantz to Hamlet

Hamlet has started the execution of his play with the actors arriving.  A casting session begins with Hamlet praising the actors, wanting to hear their recent works. Polonius is there to assist in the casting and after the auditions are complete Hamlet sends him off with the rest of the actors.  But, in the meantime, Hamlet grabs the first player (Dickson Tyrrell) and secretly tells him that he will have more for him to act.

“could for a need, study speech of some dozen
or sixteen lines, which I would set down and
insert in’t, could you not?” – Hamlet to First Player

Hamlet dismisses his actors and laments about what he about to do in front of the King and Queen.

“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” – Hamlet
…Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!
Why, what as ass am I?” – Hamlet

Hamlet performs the play to observe the looks of the King, to see if the play speaks hard to the truth.  The moment of truth sends a dagger swiftly into the conscious heart of a traitorous king.

There are a lot of marvelous moments in Bill Buckhurst’s version of Hamlet. Everyone has his or her own ideas of how this play should be played and I admired Buckhurst take.  It is fun and too marvelous for words.  The play within a play works to perfection and the discovery of the King and Queen’s expression after the revelation was brilliant.  

There are nearly thirty characters in this play but we get a scaled down version of eight playing a variety of roles and succeeding marvelously.

Michael Benz plays Hamlet.  Young and energetic Benz flies from place to place to capture the spirit of the role.  As the character this Hamlet was soft, not intellectual in the ways that maturity would make him.  And because of his youth, Hamlet seems to accept all information as truth, there was not a point where there was disbelief, wanting more information, and then deciding that his father was indeed waiting for him. He recklessly takes arms against of sea of trouble without thinking through the consequences.  And his actions are fraught with mistakes and without remorse, which leads him to his tragic fate. And, where is the quintessential moment that drives him over the edge in his pursuit?  Is it because the ghost tells him so?  Benz has an interesting characterization of the role.  As the prince the relationship between royalties and other member of his entourage was not distinct, not specific.  Hamlet’s relationship with his ghostly father – King v Prince, or father v son (slightly different).  He treats them without a royal regard, which I found interesting.  What does it mean when a mortal confronts ghost that is his father?  This can’t be an everyday occurrence even for the Prince Hamlet. Could it possibly be that he thinks he is the rightful heir to the throne?  He must think so.  He kills Polonius with little regard, (opps) and throws a curtain on him with very little affection.  This prince was ill suited for the throne, possibly something lacking in his character to wear the crown. And if his objective were to be the King, he would have been a bad one because he gets lost in the details of his revenge.

Christopher Saul was marvelous as Polonius. His art and craft was impeccable.  Not a wasted movement and specific in his objective.  It is so much fun to watch an actor with this kind of talent, watching each role filled with so much life. This is certainly an inspired performance and one not to miss. Saul also played Francisco, Player, First Gravedigger and the Priest and excelled at all.  

Dickson Tyrrell played Claudius, the King. As Claudius he seems ill suited to have the crown. Nothing fits. The clothes he wears, the decisions he makes.  His actions are precautionary rather than decisive and affirmative. And he sure is sneaky! Tyrrell is wonderfully offbeat in this characterization of Claudius. He also plays Ghost, First Player, and the Player King.

Carlyss Peer plays Ophelia.  There was something chilling about her, her relationship with her brother, and her deep admiration in a man who seemed devilish at times. Finding a way through that relationship, tugged on her mental and physical securities. She battles with her father and brother that tells her she is not good enough for Hamlet. (It’s no wonder this woman in love is mentally unstable.)  Ophelia’s appearance indicates that she was not internally affected by the events around her. And yet, she takes chances with her life, purposefully falling into the water and floats downstream in a simple act of suicide.  And as quiet as that event may have been, she waits for the inevitable events of gravity to drag her down to the murky bottom.  Peer also plays Voltemand. Wonderful job!

Miranda Foster plays Gertrude, the Queen. As the character she believes she has no choice but to let the men in her life change the course of her life.  But Gertrude has strength.  After all she was the Queen at one time.  Hard times have befallen her but she has the ability to rise to the occasions and not be so darn weak. Natheless, it was a very fine performance.

Tom Lawrence was quite marvelous as Horatio.  He is in touch with his instrument and was at ease on stage.  As Horatio he has a gentle smile and a way that would convince us that he is Hamlet’s trusted friend. He is there for the Hamlet’s bitter end and requested, by Hamlet, not to drink the poison but to tell the story.  Lawrence plays Reynaldo and Captain as well. And we are all better for it. Nice job!

Peter Bray plays Rosencrantz, Marcellus, Osric, and Prince Fortinbras all with impish dexterity, a slight smile, and a flit of the wrist.  Bray has a commanding presence and does a magnificent job.

Matthew Romain plays Laertes, Bernardo, Guildenstern, and Lucianus. Laertes is a strong character that did not learn from his father.  Actually, he has questionable characteristics.  At least his father believes so.  He flies off the handle without examining and blames Hamlet for the death of his father and his sister.  Romain played Laertes with honor, with a backbone, and with the belief that he must stand for the honor of his father and his sister. With his head held high he rolled with honor to defend the only life he has known.

Other members of this fine cast and crew are:

Dominic Dromgoole – artistic director, director
Tom Bird and Sacha Milroy – executive producers
Laura Forrest-Hay – original score
Bill Barclay – composer and arranger
Sian Williams – choreographer
Kevin McCurdy – fight director
Giles Block – Globe associate – text
Glynn MacDonald – globe associate – movement
Martin McKellan – voice and dialect
Alison Convey – assistant director
Chloe Stephens – assistant choreographer
Ng Choon Ping – assistant choreographer
Paul Russell and Dave McEvoy – production managers
Wills – technical manager
Marion Marrs – company manager
2Luck Concepts, Eleanor Oldham & John Luckacovic – USA general management
Claire Godden, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, UK general management

Support for Shakespeare at The Broad is generously provided by Linda and Michael Keston.

Through November 25, 2012

Run!  Take a friend named Yorick.  You will both laugh the night away.

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