Straight Outta Denmark
Hamlet has a storied history, and the title role is one of the greatest in Shakespeare. It is also universally parodied: the BBC’s 60 Second Shakespeare tabloid reports: “Bloodbath at Danish Court: ‘Mad’ Prince Hamlet Was Right All Along”. It has always been a magnet for critics and armchair theorists. Horace Howard Furness, an early editor of Shakespeare, was quoted as saying:
I am convinced that were I told that my closest friend was lying at the point of death, and that his life could be saved by permitting him to divulge his theory of Hamlet, I would instantly say: “Let him die! Let him die! Let him die!”
This was in 1908.
Recent screen versions include Kenneth Branagh’s critically acclaimed 1996 film. A 2000 movie, directed by Michael Almareyda, starred Ethan Hawke as a film student in contemporary Manhattan. Hamlet is an international phenomenon; as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad in London, there were stage productions from Germany, Lithuania, and South Korea.
The role is considered the ultimate test for actors. In 2015, Benedict Cumberbatch, at the Barbican in London, was an unusually sane Hamlet. Mark Rylance, of Wolf Hall fame, was just the opposite. He played the role for the RSC in 1989. When the production was performed in a psychiatric hospital, an inmate told him, “You were really mad – take it from me, I should know. I’m a loony.” After collapsing backstage, Daniel Day-Lewis withdrew from the role in the same year at the National. At first, he claimed to have seen the ghost of his late father, poet Cecil Day-Lewis. He later denied those claims. But certainly, something must have happened; after the incident, he retired from acting for several years.
New York-based Aquila Theatre Company brings bold re-interpretations of classic theater to 50-60 American cities a year. According to The New Yorker, Aquila’s productions are “beautifully spoken, dramatically revealing and crystalline in effect.” The Hamlet at George Mason University on November 12 was all that and more.
At first, we see a projection, of what seems to be a 1921 German silent movie of Hamlet starring Danish actress Asta Nielsen. The ensemble enters, and, before an image of the moon, do an interpretive dance, to music which is by turns ominous and sprightly.
Bernardo (Michael Rivers), Marcellus (Harriett Barrow), and Horatio (Tyler La Marr) gaze in wonder at the Ghost, which appears to be above them as they face the audience. Black and white projections of various rooms and landscapes, which have an Expressionist look, materialize behind the actors. At times, we can see the shadows of the performers on the screens behind.
Claudius (Gys de Villiers) and Gertrude (Rebecca Reaney) are a handsome middle-aged couple. Claudius, an urbane politician, is irritated with Hamlet from the first. Gertrude, on the other hand, is devoted to her son. Once he sees the Ghost, now played by James Lavender, Lewis Brown as Hamlet begins to come apart.
Hamlet’s scene with the Ghost is musical in its rhythm, and freighted with a sense of dread. Lavender’s Polonius is a remarkable creation, angry and patronizing with Ophelia (Lauren Drennan), yet painfully obsequious to Claudius and Gertrude. Michael Rivers’ Laertes is a slightly condescending older brother, and both seem to enjoy mansplaining to Ophelia. Drennan, by committing to the role as it is, makes a forceful statement about the way women are treated in the play. Presenting the behavior of the men, and Ophelia’s reaction to it, tells us all we need to know about this monumentally patriarchal society.
Hamlet, beginning to put his antic disposition on, enjoys mocking Polonius. He doesn’t trust the hypomanic Guildenstern (Michael Rivers) or the slightly more down-to-earth Rosencrantz (Harriett Barrow). He makes it abundantly clear that he knows he is being spied upon. As Hamlet’s mood darkens and he begins to misuse Ophelia, Brown shows him becoming more and more desperate. Along with other judicious cuts, Sanchez has eliminated the dumb-show in the play-within-a-play which is meant to expose Claudius. The Player King (Harriett Barrow), the Player Queen (a hilarious Michael Rivers) and the 3rd Player (Tyler La Marr) bring a refreshingly comic edge to the presentation. It is Hamlet, in a mask, who poisons the Player King.
This Hamlet focuses on the family tensions and lightning changes of mood, rather than the struggle for dominance. Because Desiree Sanchez’ direction is so imaginative, the complexity and poetry of the play take hold and build throughout the performance. After the death of Polonius, the tragedy begins to speed up and the moments of horror pile up one after another. It is difficult to watch but impossible to look away.
The scene where Hamlet confronts his mother is one of the most compelling. Rebecca Reaney’s Gertrude is innocent of any knowledge of the murder. She is devastated by Hamlet’s deterioration, but furious at him for the way he is treating her. Ophelia goes mad; Laertes attacks Claudius in a rage, thinking the King has killed his father. Hamlet is packed off to England but adroitly arranges his return and his revenge on the traitors Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Brown, as Hamlet, excels in the soliloquies, which are spoken directly to the audience.
Ophelia’s mad songs are haunting. Her death is foreshadowed by a scene in which the Queen watches her as she stands pensively, alone, as if about to jump into the water.
The sword-fight (Fight Choreographer is Rick Sordelet) is first-rate, and the denouement comes with great intensity and power. Every moment of this Hamlet is carefully explored, and the moments fly by quickly. The Gravedigger (James Lavender again) is portrayed as the epically callous professional that he is.
Lighting Design by Joel Moritz and Sound Design by Andy Evan Cohen contribute to the mood of this many-splendored rendering of the play. Music is by Brian Eno and Andy Evan Cohen. Projections Designer Lianne Arnold and Costume Designer Lara de Bruijn create beautifully complementary visual effects.
Famed critic William Hazlitt once said: “It is we who are Hamlet.” This memorable production reminds us that it is still true.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Hamlet was performed for one night only, November 12, 2017 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts – 4373 Mason Pond Drive, in Fairfax, VA 22030. For more information about this touring production of Sense and Sensibility, visit Aquila Theatre’s website. For tickets to other shows in George Mason University’s Great Performances Season, call the box office at 888-945-2468, or visit their calendar of events.