What a difference a day makes! 24 hours after a disappointing Romeo and Juliet (staged by artistic director Des McAnuff), Adrian Noble—veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, making his Stratford Shakespeare Festival début—put a Hamlet on the Festival Theatre’s famed thrust stage that will be a hit with audiences until the final bows are taken in October.
It’s a production most assuredly anchored by Ben Carlson as the crazed Dane (more about that in a moment) but it’s Noble’s wonderful attention to detail (don’t miss the human/mechanical pantomime brought to high life by Sean Baek as the Players make their festive entrance) and ability to let his talented charges seize their moments (“Gravedigger” as delivered by Randy Hughson has never been funnier) and provide a few touches of improv over the three-hours-plus tale of murdering family members on the fast track to power.
The decision to enhance the Festival’s pre-performance live music to both excite and summon the patrons to their pews by employing a quintet of actual musicians on stage—when it’s time to party hearty or give the play-within-the play—pays off handsomely even if the talented minstrels occasionally overwhelm the lines. That will be put to rights as time goes on.
Claudio Vena’s original score is a marvellous quilt of styles beginning with a Shostakovich, snare-enriched, brooding opening, later Albinoni Adagio-infused strings just prior to the gravediggers’ scene and a near chord-for-chord (from the death of Mimi in La Bohème) brass choir as the bodies start to mount up. Here’s a soundscape that does much more than fill in the dull bits and maintain interest during the blackouts; the music on and off stage becomes a most welcome extra player.
Santo Loquasto’s design fits like a glove with Michael Walton’s lighting plot (and vice versa: “spot on” takes new meaning during the Ghost’s famous “Swear!” sequence).
And, while the trapdoor and castle-size, floor-to-ceiling hinged panels keep the pace flowing steadily forward, there wasn’t the frenetic, music-video feel of the Montague/Capulet feud just a day ago.
As with opera (where the schedule conflicts, talent pool and just plain economics preclude a voice-perfect result), the cast demonstrated the company’s overall state-of-their-collective art.
For those who deal in or near the underworld, James Blendick renders a marvellous Ghost who’s more intent on vengeance after life than during it; Victor Ertmanis (First Gravedigger—equally skillful as the Player King) proves to be a fun-loving jokester, affably balancing the coming carnage that will have him digging deep into overtime.
From those who take orders Rosencrantz (David Leyshon) and Guildenstern (Patrick McManus) affably lie to their best friend while in collusion with the king, easily sailing off to their ledger-balancing deaths in England. Horatio (Tom Rooney) proves his loyalty with conviction; Bernardo (Stephen Kent), Marcellus (Stephen Russell) and Francisco (Patrick McManus) not only keep watch over their lord as he has his interview with the restless departed, they keep their mouths firmly sealed—a rare trait that demonstrates Hamlet’s leadership by avowed silence.
The skills of those who pontificate and expect their every whim to be satisfied are not as consistent. As Claudius, newly minted king and seducer of Hamlet’s short-time mourning mother, Scott Wentworth looks the part (the circa 1910 costumes provide for a most debonair and well-heeled court) but his lingering vowel, middle register declamations are, at times, difficult to decipher. Some of the finest acting of the night comes from Geraint Wyn Davies’ brilliant portrayal of Polonius. His comedic sense, dynamic range (with nary a syllable being lost in the rapid-fire delivery) and joyful innocence make his early demise a double tragedy. Gertrude, (Maria Ricossa) fails to impress one way or the other.
Yet it falls to those living on the edge of sanity to make the deceits, violence and treachery that swirl around them seem to have been worth the murderous fuss. In the early going, Adrienne Gould’s Ophelia is too wise and mature for her eventual fate underneath the willow. But when she happily flies far over the cuckoo’s nest following the accidental slaying of her eavesdropping father, she sears unforgettably into horrific anguish.
Carlson’s “Is he/isn’t he really deranged?” mystery begins with a quiet inner strength that, in the early soliloquies (notably “Oh that his too, too solid flesh”) are marvels of understatement, subtly reinforced with hands thrust in pockets, allowing his diction-perfect voice and visage to let the text truly speak for itself. His descent—feigned or contrived—sees the disheveled prince become increasing agitated (at times several decibels too high) before employing his arms (whether to underscore speech or terminate the guilty), but just misses the perfect arch as his own demise sends him into the company of Yorick. JWR