Still scarred from last year’s less-than-stellar season and concerned about recent news of the Stratford Festival’s administrative shake-up, I have to admit I approached this year’s production of Hamlet with considerable trepidation. My fear was somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that this production is directed by the illustrious RSC veteran Adrian Noble, and is cast with some of my favorite long-term actors from the Stratford stable, combined with some exciting and promising fresh blood. Luckily, from the moment the lights dimmed and the words “Who’s there?” rang out, I knew I was safe. This is a great production.
The show works on so many levels. The sets, designed by Santo Loquasto, are a Master’s class in how to use a minimalist set effectively. Loquasto has boldly removed the signature Festival Theatre balcony, replacing it with tall, plain doors which serve as a simple canvas against which action can be created. The doors also open inward to great effect, twice into clouds of billowing smoke to reveal the ghost, once to allow the entrance of the actors’ delightful gypsy caravan, and several times to represent alternate architectural spaces. Beyond that, the sets remain completely stripped bare, often with only one or two pieces of furniture present to establish location. Nevertheless, Loquasto has chosen these pieces so well, and placed them so effectively, that the stage always retained an organic sense of completion and solid sense of space. The early-20th century costumes are also solid and understated, yet contribute a sense of earthy solidity and gravitas to the performers. A usually restrained but continually varied lighting design by Michael Walton further helps solidify the sense of place and atmosphere throughout.
This visual framework, in turn, defines the nature of the action which takes place within its confines. The production is evenly executed; a fine piece of ensemble work such as I’ve only seen once or twice here at Stratford. Ben Carlson’s Hamlet is strategic and deliberate in his madness, which contrasts brilliantly against raw outcries of anguish and genuinely expressed emotional vulnerability. Scott Wentworth’s Claudius may very well be definitive. It’s one of the rare instances of this role where one walks away with a full sense of Claudius’ back story and motives, which engender understanding if not outright sympathy for the situation he has created for himself. Meanwhile, Maria Ricossa acquits herself elegantly and consistently as Gertrude. Geraint Wyn Davies returns from the Shaw Festival to portray Polonius with a fantastic middle class, administrative taint that also feels grounded and gives weight and credence to his comic turns. Incidentally, Davies went blank just prior to the advice scene, and covered so beautifully I ended up in an argument over whether or not it was intentional. One always hopes that actors will not forget their lines, but the truth is that when they do, and when they cover so brilliantly, well, that’s really what theatre is all about. Other highlights include the graveyard scene, played with aplomb and perfect timing by Victor Ertmanis and Randy Hughson. The actors’ entrance is beautifully integrated and nicely self-contained, and the Mousetrap’s prologue done as a shadow show on a curtain strung up between the central doors. The effect of the latter is both spooky and nostalgic and contributes nicely to the quaint, gypsy-esque traveling show.
Among the less admirable performances is Ophelia, played aggressively by Adrienne Gould. Gould is costumed in exceedingly childish clothing and is surrounded by items suggesting a super-imposed child-like innocence. The concept is interesting: the childish trappings suggest excessive artificial control by her parents and provide fodder to feed her later madness. Unfortunately, Gould approaches the role with a deep, gruff voice and a wiry, almost masculine body presence, which works at odds with the visual concept. She seems uncomfortable and abrasive, so we gain no sense of sympathy for her or her plight. Also oddly out of place is Stratford veteran James Blendick, whose ghostly apparition as Hamlet’s father is largely undone the moment he speaks, conveying neither majesty nor mystery.
All in all, a distinguished, wonderfully executed production, one that’s well worth the trip to Stratford. The production still had a few minor bumps along the way, but I fully expect these will iron themselves out within the next few weeks. By the end of June, this could well be, if not the definitive Hamlet of our time, certainly among the most memorable.