Hamlet, Folger Theatre

It's hard not to like the Great Dane. In the production directed by Joseph Haj at the Folger Theatre, however, like is about as far as it could go for me. A mounting number of missteps throughout the production added up to a lot of Meh in the service of one of the greatest plays ever written.

To start with, there's the stage itself. The lovely Elizabethan-style space is transformed into a blazing white, utterly sterile Elsinore. This is not the misstep (although the eye does long for a little variation after awhile). The misstep is that the back of the set draws into a perspective corridor, which looks lovely and interesting!... until the actors actually USE it to exit. Even with a ramp, you still have moments where your actors are suddenly GIANTS.

I was also put off by the music in this production. I admit- I have a bias against synthesizers in the theatre that stems from its misuse during years of community theatre in my youth. Jack Herrick, who provides the music live in the house every night, is a talented guy! For Hamlet, however, he's missed the mark. His accompaniment to EVERY SINGLE SCENE quickly starts to become more than background (and sometimes makes the actors struggle to be heard over him) and more to the point, it simply doesn't suit the mood. On stage, you see Hamlet himself, raging through 'O what a rogue and peasant slave am I', and coming from the nook on stage right, you have gentle strummy strummy tinkle music. It just doesn't fit. When it's time to be sad, I rather think that a line like 'I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers Could not, with all their quantity of love, Make up my sum' does the job well enough on its own.

To keep in the design realm a moment longer, there were- AGAIN- some odd touches in the costuming. I grant that they were going for a washed-out palatte of black white and grey, and while it's not to my taste, it's a choice and I can live with it. What doesn't seem to have been a choice is that the men of the cast (and remember, this is Shakespeare- almost EVERYBODY is a man) are almost all wearing ill-fitting, non-matching suits. Cuffs hang too long, trousers are all over the place, and most of the suit pieces were mismatched (with a few exceptions). If it were a choice, a commentary on the state of the Danish court, I could go there, but that just doesn't seem to be the case. Also, there's a costume in the second half that can only be described as 'Satanic Priest', which. YEAH.

For Justin Townsend's lighting design, hurrah! Well done, sir. It was a wonderful painting of the space.

On to the performances, which is where I know you would all prefer I go. Haj has made a number of very interesting decisions in the doubling, for which I do commend him. Doubling parts in a significant way adds a wonderful level to this production, so keep an eye out for how actors might reappear over the evening. Todd Scofield is SUCH a gem- keep giving that man wonderful parts, DC theatres- he deserves them. David Whalen turns in a fine Claudius as well, giving the audience a view of the flashily attractive man who could turn Gertrude's head, the leader who could convince the court to let him rule, and the brother who could commit fratricide.

For our Hamlet, Graham Hamilton gives an energetic, fiery, one-note prince. Hamlet is wonderfully funny, and that humour is a blessing in an evening of murder and scheming, but it just didn't come across on the Folger stage. Instead, we got a series of furious (and furiously paced), desperate soliloquies- qualities that are CRUCIAL for Hamlet, but shouldn't be all that we see.

Most other roles were performed solidly- Justin Adams was a great Laertes and Jonathan Lee Taylor, even with half his lines as Osric cut, makes a wonderful impression- but I admit to being disappointed with several other key performances that just fell flat for me.

In his director's note in the script, Haj discusses several 'problems' of Hamlet that he sought answers for. Unfortunately, that's what we seem to receive- a night full of tidy Answers for questions that we don't necessarily NEED answers for. Furthermore, I wish I knew Haj's approach to speaking the text- an emphasis for speed in delivery seems to have forgotten to also remind the actors not to speed through turning points, or basics like emphasizing verbs. I could follow every moment because I know the text of the play very, very well, but over and over again, I felt like leaping up and saying, 'Wait! That was IT, that was the ENTIRE REASON you're speaking RIGHT THERE in that line, and you just rushed right past it.' I dearly love this play and I wish that I could have loved this Hamlet, but there were too many things that just didn't ring true. As I drove home with my theatre friend after seeing the show, we discussed one of the glories of seeing Hamlet. You can't escape the resonances of every other production you've ever seen or heard of when you hear Shakespeare's words. Undoubtedly, I'll remember this production the next time I see a Hamlet, and some things I will look back on fondly as they arise in my memory. The majority, however, will be largely forgettable.

If you've never seen Hamlet, you MUST go as a service to yourself. If you've never seen a Hamlet that really works for you, you SHOULD go and see if this is the one that will finally turn on the lightbulb for you. If you've already seen a Hamlet that makes you dance and sing, however, this isn't likely to surpass that. It could be interesting, and I'm always glad to see a Hamlet so that I'm glad I went, but you make the call.


Popular Posts