Rating: 5 Stars
I saw Hamlet at the OSF five years ago, I think. It was one of the best plays that I’ve seen in my life. I approached the play this year with trepidation. After such a good experience last time, how could it ever meet expectations? No matter how good, won’t I be disappointed?
I then read the playbill and I became even more concerned. In the balcony was several guitars and a drum set. I read that the director had heard some local heavy metal musician and was going to incorporate that into the play. Sure enough, when the play started, a full bearded man with a heavy set of tattoos, looking like a roadie from Metallica, took his place in the balcony. How could this possibly work?
The fact is that it worked magnificently. This version of Hamlet could even be better than the last version. I’m not sure how the OSF can so consistently put on world class plays, but they certainly did so again.
The mood is this version is very dark, so the foreboding growls from the electric guitar helped set the mood. When during particularly dramatic moments, as Hamlet was being chased around the stage, the beating of the drums increased the level of excitement. Ophelia’s singing, while mad, is always such an odd scene to interpret. Set to a heavy music score, heavily miked up, it set the exact right mood for her madness.
The costumes were striking. This was on the Elizabethan stage, so most of the characters were so adorned. They were all set in shades of grey, except for Hamlet, who was basically wearing some kind of white undershirt and black leather pants. That decision made Hamlet seem even more of an outcast (of a heavy-metal flavor) in comparison to the rest of the court.
This Hamlet was a much tougher Hamlets than I’ve seen in the past. With his muscular physique and short cropped hair, he reminded me of a young Henry Rollins. There was none of the nearly fey, weak, indecisiveness of an Olivier, or even the theatricality of a Branagh. He was a young, strong, man out to avenge his father, come what may. I started out wondering if this was the right choice for a Hamlet but by the end I was completely convinced.
I do find it interesting that OSF does celebrate its actors’ diversity with non-traditional role choices. Horatio was played by a black woman and was stellar. She played the role of Hamlet’s rock solid friend perfectly. She was one of the highlights of the play.
The ghost of Hamlet’s father was quite strong. This was a weakness of the previous version that I saw. Here, it was a straight up fearsome ghost. In fact, there were several actors made up as the ghost, which produced the illusion of appearing multiple places simultaneously, to great effect. The swearing on the sword scene was especially harrowing.
Interesting, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were basically played as clowns. Even their attire made them appear clown-like. This was probably an unfortunate choice because this made them appear even weaker foes to Hamlet, which makes his decision to send them unknowingly to their death even more questionable.
Polonius started off a little shaky, but recovered later to become the silly, useless, irksome counselor that he really is. He also projected true paternal anger and possessiveness to Ophelia, which was effective in explaining Ophelia’s motivation in turning away from Hamlet.
The Claudius from the last time was stronger than here. Claudius picked up his game later in the play, but especially in the beginning, he projected weakness. The Claudius from the previous version seemed to have the hunger / appetite to achieve greatness, so it seemed more likely that he would murder his brother. This Claudius didn’t really seem as if he had the stones to do so.
The other main weakness was the gravedigger. This was played by the aforementioned heavy metal musician, in clearly a case of stunt casting. This would not normally be a big deal, but the gravedigger is, as one of the very few in the play to get the better of Hamlet, an important character. The musician was not bad, it’s just that he’s clearly not a trained Shakespearean actor, and it showed.
All in all, these were minor complaints. This was a masterful, creative production. I’m now going to have to think back one the previous version and see if I can really pick out a winner.