You don’t review people’s art to make friends. You certainly don’t do it to lose them either. However, managing honesty while attempting charity is fruitless. Every once in a while you have to tell it like it is, even when it stings. This is going to sting. The premiere of Richmond Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Dominion Energy Center made a solid case for Hamlet to be put to rest, resurrected in only the most inspired of occasions.
Hamlet is widely regarded as the best of Shakespeare, the best play in the English language even. It has enjoyed four hundred-plus years on top of that list. As such, it has been staged by countless productions, and parodied by everyone from Mel Brooks to Bugs Bunny. It is referenced casually without context in comedies, tragedies, and everything in between. It is a staple of our theater diet.
As such, it contains very few surprises. The Bard’s mellifluous iambic pentameter on a distracted tongue is more likely to confuse than elucidate. The rhythm is a susurrus whose spell can only be lifted by dedicated actors that understand every word. Delivering these lines, some of the most memorable and beautiful in literature, is a sacred task with no shortcuts. Hamlet is a very risky mountain to climb. On the paths to the top of Everest lie the bodies of earnest souls. Earnest souls that miscalculated their abilities and the season of their ascent. Every time you see the word Hamlet on a marquee, what is going on inside is one of the most challenging efforts a company can attempt.
It’s ironic that the colloquialism “Brevity is the soul of wit” would come from the longest of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. It is the Sistine Chapel of prose. But it is, in its completion, a nearly four-hour production of twisting phrases and over-explanation. It is very common practice to edit large chunks out of the play to accommodate a reasonable attention span. What, and how much, of the play that gets cut is the purview of the Director. These editorial choices set the stage for the exact story the audience gets. Like any edit, the risk of leaving the play’s soul on the cutting room floor is a real one.
In this performance, so much of Hamlet’s relationship with Polonius is cut that his (her, in this case) inevitable death at Hamlet’s hands carries little weight. This murder is the motivation for the counter-revenge planned by Laertes and the usurping king that dominates the third act. The loss of dramatic effect is lethal to the pacing of the production. What’s worse is that Marybeth Adams’ Polonius is the best part of the production. Her absolute understanding of the material and clearly communicated delivery transcended the words and made them sing. Big kudos to her.
Joshua Carter’s Hamlet did not disappoint overall. In very few moments it seemed the plot was lost and the dialogue phoned in. I saw this develop as fatigue rather than unmatched talent to the material. He recalls Donald Glover in mannerism and vocal affectation, a comparison I make with compliments. Had the performance just been him and Ms. Adams reading every part, I would have been satisfied.
The rest of the cast had moments they shined in, but often seemed disconnected from their motivations, more intent on delivering a gag than a revelation. Horatio seemed rushed to chime in on cue. This was to be Hamlet’s best friend, not court acquaintance, best friend. When he held Hamlet to his final rest, nothing of intimacy reverberated from the stage.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have always been comedic foils, but the dramatic cost of their betrayal to Hamlet’s trust is lost amid stoner stereotypes played way too broadly. The inclusion of a 70’s rock song in the gravedigger scene created laughter in the audience that served no purpose or lyrical alignment to the play. It also drowned out the dialogue that continued in spite of it.
The abrupt onset of Ophelia’s madness was countered by the neverending display of it. Laertes’ reaction to the death of his mother was shockingly tame. Hamlet’s dispatching of Polonius seemed an afterthought. So many moments were played so straight as to undermine the cause of artistry.
The set design was minimal but impressive. The sound design in the king’s ghostly voice and the tonal interludes between scenes was en pointe. The lighting was gorgeous, especially when used to create silhouette effects on actors emerging from the wings and lurking in shadow. The costume decisions were inscrutable, the intended time period unknowable, and as such, irrelevant. I was left disappointed but I learned a few things:
- Don’t even try to put on Hamlet if you don’t have something new to add to the institution. Set it in space. Make Hamlet and his buddies emo goth malcontents in a boring Midwest town. Go full on horror/thriller. But do something – anything – new. This play is a slog at face value.
- Spend more time understanding the language. Shakespeare’s loquaciousness can be your greatest asset or your worst enemy. There will never be an economy of words with his work. It is up to the actor to conjure the bridge from poetry to communication, not the audience.
- Cohesion between set design, costuming, props and clarity of setting cannot be understated or overlooked when missing.
In the end, Hamlet is an endeavor for the prepared. It’s the World Series of theater. Attempt at your own risk. That said, I congratulate every person that worked on this production for doing it at all. It’s HARD. Because of that, the criticism must also be hard. I hope the rest of the run finds its center, some heart, and puts the cast on a common path. I really really do.
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