If “Hamlet”, like its creator, is “not for an age, but for all time,” what does it say to our conflicted time? Artistic Director, Michael Kahn, has envisioned a world not so far from our imaginations in which a corrupt, autocratic King of Denmark spies on his enemies with sophisticated digital technology. Palace guards, sitting before screens in a sleekly modern high-rise fortress, watch as the ghost of Hamlet’s father is caught on CCTV. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playfully take selfies together as they lounge on a couch waiting for Hamlet to appear.
But this interpretation avoids being just another director’s nifty idea shoehorned into the script. “Hamlet” in the present with cell phones is astonishingly believable, funny in places we didn’t even know were funny, and vibrating with life. And with Michael Urie in the role of the irresolute prince, even this longest of Shakespeare’s plays maintains its moment by moment electricity.
I became an admirer of Mr. Urie several years ago when he moved seamlessly through the many parts of the intricate one-man show “Buyer and Cellar.” His astonishing range and precision make him exactly the Hamlet for this production, and though we have been forewarned that he intends to “put an antic disposition on”, the madness is penetrating enough to be mistaken for the real thing.
The cast of this ever-darkening story is equally well chosen. We know going in that Claudius (Alan Cox) is the bad guy, having murdered his brother, the king, and married his sister-in-law, the queen. Conservatively dressed and of quiet manners, Mr. Cox makes this king somehow more dreadful for the iron fisted deviance that we know lies behind the façade of mildness and control.
Madeleine Potter as Queen Gertrude, on the other hand, responds like an exposed nerve to the personal crisis around her. It appears that, comfortable with the position of queen, she consciously chooses not to see what her new husband really is, a denial that collapses in hysteria when Hamlet forces her to know it.
Polonius (Robert Joy) is every political sycophant known to lore and cartoons. Ever aware of his own interests, he lectures his son, Laertes, (in a boiling portrayal by Paul Cooper) flatters the king and queen, and decides that what he imagines is what is real. Mr. Joy finds the real humor in this character, right up to his unexpected death when Hamlet hefts the body and carries him jauntily out of his mother’s chamber. Ophelia is, of course, the real tragic victim of the story. Loving but not loved, Oyin Oladejot captures the sad simplicity of her state of mind as it degenerates into true madness.
While I have no quarrel with directors who want to trim some of the longer speeches in “Hamlet”, I was disappointed that some of the best lines from the gravedigger’s scene were scratched. The gravedigger (Keith Baxter, who also plays the Ghost of Hamlet’s father as well as the player king) has a most entertaining view on the kinds of corpses that fare well or not so well once buried, but we don’t get to hear it. Hamlet, too, addresses the skull of Yorrick freshly, but leaves out one of my favorite lines from the whole play.
This is as good a place as any to comment that the frenzy which characterizes most of Hamlet’s interactions determines that a few mineable moments get thrown away. I’m thinking of the “Except my life” moment with Polonius. I’m not suggesting an imitation of Laurence Olivier’s famous take, only that some real thoughtfulness at the line instead of screaming might have been more effective.
Scene changes on John Coyne’s monumental set are, as always, strong and swift. Metallic beams, girders, and stairway signal the idea of cold foundations not easily breached. CCTV screens appear instantly when needed, and the king’s security guards with their dark glasses and digital devices are everywhere.
Yi Zhao’s lighting design complements both the set and the atmosphere with its cold, direct focus, and original music by Broken Chord melds organically into the scenes.
Costume designs by Jess Goldstein accurately place the action in a dystopian modern society; young people in casual lines, officials in tailored cuts, blacks and greys everywhere – except for Gertrude in her vermillion dress, and Hamlet when he joins his player friends wearing a clown’s startling regalia. Each choice says something about the character and the idea behind the action.
Michael Kahn has successfully blended modern and classical, thoughtfully weighing the important themes and finding the resonating moments. This top drawer cast and dream team of technical support guarantee that you will carry the story with you out of the theatre.
Take it for all and all, this is a “Hamlet” for our times.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co. Harman Center For the Arts, 516 Eighth St. SE, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit ShakespeareTheatre.org
Playing through March 4