Globe’s HAMLET – Much Fury signifying Nothing
Reviewed by James Murray
Chicago Shakespeare, as a part of their exchange program with the Globe Theatre in London, is hosting their traveling production of the Bard’s greatest tragedy Hamlet, running only 3 performances. Their ambitious tour began in London this past spring on Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday, will cover 205 countries with Chicago being one of two in the United States, and commence on the 400th anniversary of his death. It has been paired down significantly sporting a cast of 10, some playing multiple roles and a set consisting of trunks, tarps and a red drape that acts as a curtain and arras.
For those who do not know the plot (and you really need to know it in order to follow this production) Claudius murders the king of Denmark, his brother and marries his wife Gertrude. Hamlet encounters the Ghost of his Father who wants him to revenge his death. This sets the rest of the story into action ending with a everyone dead.
The role of Hamlet is shared by two actors and on the Monday evening opening was portrayed by Naeem Hayat, an actor who wants us to know that he is “acting” the greatest male role in literature. He beats his head, has an annoying habit of biting his thumb nail, acts crazy and afflicted from the beginning and likes to yell and spit to show us that he feels his role. He is also difficult to understand at times with his sibilant “s” sounds and breaks the line wherever it suits him. He is frenetic and, for me, difficult to relate or even connect to. Although a RADA trained actor I feel that he lacks the experience to tackle a role that has eluded even the greatest actors of history. He should follow the advice he gives to the players which is Shakespeare’s to his own actors, “Speak the speech, I pray you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as life the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand…” For whatever reason the director and his actors have decide to choose the contrary advice.
I think that Hayat and the directors Bill Bruckhurst and Dominic Dromgoole fell into just about every trap that Hamlet possesses. By choosing to play him like an affected Pee Wee Herman from the start when he puts on his crazy act for all it leaves him nowhere to go and reduces the character into a humorous clown (and I will admit that Hayat is funny and has a great comic ability). Nor did I ever believe him to be royal or princely as he lacks the deportment of a prince.
It is possible that director Dominic Dromgoole directed Hayat to play the “everyman” Hamlet but for me it was more like this one came out of a cartoon. In many of the choices in The Globe’s Hamlet, I found much pretentiousness in this production instead of truth. They wanted to show they can “act” when they would be better off taking the time to play and discover the moments; in short let the story be the star.
Apart from Hayat there are some fine classical performances from Keith Barlett’s Claudius and Ghost of Hamlet’s father, Phoebe Fildes beautifully captured the range of emotion for her Ophelia, Miranda Foster’s mature and seasoned Gertrude and Tom Lawrence’s Laertes.
The strongest performance of the evening was without a doubt that of Rawiri Paratene who played Ophelia and Laertes’ father Polonius. Paratene brings the highly seasoned and polished performance that is the hallmark of a Globe Shakespearean actor. He has an innate comic sense and understanding of the poetry and humor of the lines and steers clear of caricature.
The other strongest element of the evening was the haunting musical score and sound effects by Bill Barclay and beautifully played by the actors (yes, they play instruments which is the latest craze).
I never found the world of this Hamlet as it was a hodgepodge of styles,(acting and fashion), without any concern to time or place (this could be the result of having two directors). This works for the nothingness of Godot but with Shakespeare it looks slovenly and robs the piece of any richness; it is a grey production and the actors look like a ragged threadbare troupe who have been on the road for years. I fault the directors if this is a deliberate choice. This kind of Hamlet has been done before, and before, and before. If he is trying to be avant-garde then he is about 30 years too late.
I am the first to admit that I have a bias of wanting the piece to be performed and set in the time it is meant to be. However I have seen productions of Shakespeare set in other eras that came off magnificently. What made it work was having all of the actors and designers playing in the same sand box and everything seeming to work together in a seamless fashion. This Hamlet is truly a mixed bag.
Most disturbing to me was the audience’s reaction to The Globe’s Hamlet, giving it a standing, roaring ovation as if on cue. I would venture to say that if this Hamlet were at a storefront theatre by an unknown company in Chicago and not staged at Chicago Shakespeare the audience would be on their feet…out the door. It reminds one of the powers of a brand, tricking people into believing that a gimmick is great art. Just speak the speech I pray you and trust in the great story penned by Shakespeare which continues to capture our imaginations 400 years later.
The Globe’s Hamlet plays Tuesday and Wednesday, July 29th and 30th. It is almost sold out. Visit ChicagoShakes.com for more info