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A CurtainUp Review

By Allan Wallach
It begins with Hamlet standing alone on a darkened stage, scattering his father's ashes while a lyrical memory-film shows him as a boy, running joyfully into his father's arms.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet dispenses with the traditional opening scene of sentinels on the battlements. Missing as well is a major soliloquy, along with many less familiar lines and a few minor characters, including Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, who usually has the last word in the most famous of Shakespeare's tragedies.

Thrift, Horatio? No, the RSC wasn't cutting the text simply to cut costs in the Hamlet that opened its five-play season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Rather, according to reports from London, the company was trying to counter criticism that it had become too stodgy, with only tired productions in its repertory.

So this is a "streamlined" Hamlet, although it manages to make a number of local stops in its three-hour running time. It is also an updated Hamlet. Shakespeare's Elsinore resembles mod London, populated by men and women who like to party in tuxedos and bright ball gowns. (Even the ghost of Hamlet's father dresses up, since he makes his first entrance amid the festivities celebrating the wedding of his brother Claudius and Gertrude, his widow.)

Hamlet uses a revolver to kill Polonius, takes a few drags on a cigarette and a few snaps with a Polaroid camera. Claudius, looking more like a hard-driving CEO than a recently crowned king of Denmark, likes to keep a long cigar clenched in his teeth. Ophelia, in her mad scene, tosses white pellets that look like pills instead of the customary flowers.

By now, unfortunately, these kinds of modernizing devices have hardened into trendy cliches. Here, they become substitutes for a point of view; the production seems to have little on its mind but costumes and cleverness. And with most of the men in evening wear or business suits, it's hard to know who's in charge. This would be a confusing introduction to the play for students.

Director Matthew Warchus, who staged Yasmina Reza's Art so wittily, has directed Hamlet as though it, too, were a comedy. Some scenes are indeed funny, especially when Hamlet gives his speak-the-speech instructions to the players with a Groucho-esque delivery. There's a comic payoff, too, when Polonius casually writes out a check while telling Laertes, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," and later, when the Gravedigger sings "September Song" while shoveling dirt and skulls out of Ophelia's grave.

But this, after all, is supposed to be a tragedy. With very little heft to the characters, the tragic elements are curiously remote. Even when the lines are impassioned, you don't feel the emotions driving the characters. (It doesn't help that the breakneck delivery of speeches, coupled with the BAM Opera House's problematical acoustics, makes many lines inaudible.)

In the title role, Alex Jennings demonstrates formidable technique, and he's impressive in those scenes when Hamlet is mocking Polonius or heaping scorn on Claudius and Gertrude's hasty marriage. Technique, though, isn't enough; his Hamlet, with his oddball voices and funny little impressions, is something of a Wittenberg frat boy, showing an antic disposition even before he begins to feign derangement. The soliloquies, tossed off rather casually, make little impression. I missed the deeper notes sounded by Ralph Fiennes in the recent Hamlet on Broadway, as well as many of his predecessors.

Elsewhere, the actors range from barely adequate to good. The lighter characters are generally well served, especially by David Ryall, as an eager-to-please Polonius, and Alan David, as the Gravedigger (there's only one here). As Ophelia, Derbhle [CQ] Crotty starts blandly, making the character little more than a party girl, and her speeches are especially difficult to understand. However, she does inject some desperately needed feeling into her later scenes. Paul Freeman gives Claudius an unvarying brusqueness throughout, and the Horatio of Colin Hurley is drab. On a more positive note, Susannah Yorkis a warm and very human Gertrude, whether doting on her new husband or showing concern for her apparently deranged son.

Designer Mark Thompson has made many of the scenes visually striking. In the most notable of them, the players performing the catch-the-conscience-of-a-king ``Mousetrap'' play are seen in silhouette behind what looks like a large bedsheet. Hamlet, in a clown's whiteface, is like a wisecracking emcee presiding over the shadow-play. In other scenes, elongated shadows loom behind actors to add ominous dimensions.

While the RSC may be right to strive for more inventive ways to stage classic, the result here doesnt give the play overall the dimensions it demands. Go here for her complete review. For her more recently posted reviews of RSC performances at Stratford, check our London page.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Matthew Warchus
With Alex Jennings (Hamlet), Paul Freeman (Claudius), William Houston (Laertes), David Ryall (Polonius), Susannah York (Gertrude), Derbhle Crotty (Ophelia), Colin Hurley (Horatio), Edward Petherbridge (Ghost of Hamlet's father and Player King) and Alan David (Gravedigger).
Designed by Mark Thompson
Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone, recreated by Geraint Pughe
Music by Gary Yershon
BAM Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
5/21/98-5/23/98,5/26/98-5/30/98; opened 5/22
Reviewed 5/23/98 by Allan Wallach

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