Posted by: Nathan | March 27, 2006

Seeing “Hamlet”

There is no better play in the English language than Shakespeare‘s Hamlet. There may be no better play in any language, though I surely won’t ever know. Therefore, it was a delight to see it played this past weekend at Minneapolis’ famous Guthrie Theatre (I much prefer the “theatre” spelling to “theater”). I had two series of reactions to the show occuring simultaneously whilst I watched: first, I was excited to see Hamlet and be reminded of all the existential questions the play asks; second, I took note of the production aspects of this particular rendition of the tragedy.

Hamlet generally
The strangest thing about seeing the show was to actually hear actors uttering the famous speeches which everyone knows: “To be, or not to be, that is the question…”; “Get thee to a nunnery”; “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”; “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio”; “This is madness, yet there is method in it.” The entire play is marked by epic speeches, but when they were said, the upper-class (dare I say stuffy) Guthrie audience giggled like teenagers, “Hee hee! I know that line!” That was disappointing.
Being so familiar with the text, clearly I wasn’t going to be surprised by any plot development, but I was must affected by the visual elements of Hamlet. The scene where Laertes embraces the now-dead Ophelia is truly disturbing in a way I’d never pondered. Also, the sword duel was exciting to watch; one gets the overwhelming sense of impending doom. Overall, it was great to see actual people performing the show.
Hamlet is my favorite play because it asks all of the hardest questions and doesn’t offer easy answers. Is it better to live or to die? Why is there suffering? What should we do about the wrongs that have already been done? How do we handle tragedy? What is madness? How do we find love in a corrupt world?
Along with all those thematic questions inherent throughout the show, there are also the numerous intriguing elements that are specific to the action. The reader must wonder if Old Hamlet is a good ghost or a demon. One must question Gertrude’s fidelity to Old Hamlet, her knowledge of (complicity in?) his death, and her love for her son. The title character is a mass of intrigue. He says he’ll put on an “antic dispostion,” but one wonders if he maintains control of his madness. Similarly, there are questions about the cause of his delay in carrying out revenge, and the sincerity of his amour for Ophelia. For all these reasons and more, Hamlet is the most complex and profound play I’ve yet encountered, and it was fun to see actors and a director have to answer these challenges.

The Guthrie’s production
The most important piece of any play is easily the actors, and this production was solid with only a few let-downs. Santino Fontana’s Sable Prince was really excellent overall. He approached the character as a young person (which Hamlet is) and didn’t overplay the part, which is all too easy to do. His Hamlet was always sincere, ready to crack a joke (until towards the end), and unflaggingly energetic. Fontana’s Hamlet didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation until it was too late, and his madness scenes were well-done. It was a Hamlet I’d never seen before, and I appreciated that greatly. Fontana excelled at delivering the lines everyone knows so well (with the possible exception of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, but that’s pardonable as it’s so well-known), and his affection for Ophelia was clear and powerful. I really enjoyed his performance.
The other characters ranged from great to adequate. Ophelia (Leah Curney) was delicate, emotional, caring, and sweet when sane, and she was wild, lost, and deranged after her father’s death. Curney was outstanding. Peter Michael Goetz played a hilarous and enjoyable Polonius; Mr. Goetz hardly ever disappoints. Claudius (Matthew Greer) was good but not overwhelmingly so, as was Horatio (Kevin O’Donnell), but then Horatio’s really stoic anyway so it’s hard to deliver a stand-out performance with his part. The supporting cast was more than up for their roles. The only disappointment for me was Gertrude, who was played by Christina Rouner. She was detatched and emotionally distant from Hamlet, so I never bought in to their bond, and her choices when it came to the picture scene were underplayed.
The Guthrie set the show in the 1940s, which was fine but not earth-shaking. The timeframe allowed Hamlet to shoot Polonius instead of stabbing him, which noisily marked an instant turn toward the tragic in the production. The only other truly noteworthy aspect of the setting was the director’s choice to make Fortinbras into a Nazi-esque figure, which destroys what I always thought was a somewhat positive ending (after all the death of course).
Overall, I’d give the production an 8 out of 10. It’s hard to perform a show that’s so popular and make it fresh, but the Guthrie did a superb job of making the characters real. I stood up for Mr. Fontana during the bows, whose career will inevitably be slightly disappointing after playing the role in dramatic literature. I recommend seeing it, but not for more than $30 a ticket if possible.

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