Hamlet: Words, Words, Words
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., Sept. 28, 2001
Hamlet: Words, Words, Words
Beverly Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theatre,
through October 7
Running Time: 2 hrs, 20 min
Rarely in the annals of local theatre history has such a talented ensemble been so ill-used as in this Austin Shakespeare Festival production of what most of the English-speaking world considers the greatest play ever written. This is a cartoon Hamlet, one that substitutes introspection for the cheap gag, dramatic action for the melodramatic moment; it is a thin Hamlet of watered-down performances and even more diluted directorial choices.
Hamlet, Shakespeare's phenomenal play -- an intoxicating distillate of rhetoric, the essence of humanity -- has historically been subject to interpretation, or "adaptation," as the rather misguided director, Guy Roberts, claims of his innocuous staging. Merely putting a play on stage is not adapting it, no matter that key speeches are moved ("To be or not to be" is shifted with woefully ineffective results) or cut: There is no "antic disposition" to this angry-young Hamlet -- themes of madness and sanity, the theatrical and reality, are barely touched upon. And the geopolitical context is gone: There is no uncertainty surrounding the state of Denmark with the imminent arrival of Norway's soldier-prince, Fortinbras, to add an external imperative to the action. This play is consigned to its rather dull court; which is where this rather dull revenger's tragedy commences, not in the fog and dark and ghostly mystery of the first guard-tower scene, but among cartoon nobility costumed for early 20th-century imperialist Europe for reasons that are never clarified. Yet even as a court drama, this Hamlet hasn't the claustrophobia or paranoia to create lasting dramatic impact.
Roberts' directorial approach is to overemphasize specific moments to the exclusion of a conceptual whole: a gratuitous and, ultimately, unsuccessful approach for a play as dense of image and language as this. No accented moment resonates with any that follow; choices are highlighted for their immediate impact only. When Hamlet demands that the visiting theatrical players don't go for cheap laughs in performance, such as might overshadow the more meaningful question of the play, Roberts follows this with extraneous comic nonsense. Has he listened to what the play is saying?
There are a few interesting, effective choices. Paul Norton adopts a lower-class accent for his usurping, murderous King Claudius, creating a dichotomy of power and self-consciousness. Harvey Guion is double-cast as the Ghost of Hamlet's Father and the Player King, allowing a spark of recognition when Hamlet confronts the Player King and, speaking of "fathers," seems to recognize his own in the person of the older actor (who goes on to portray a character with damning similarity to Hamlet's father in the play within the play, The Murder of Gonzago). Barbara Chisholm's recounting of the death of Ophelia turns flamboyant, dim Queen Gertrude sad and simple, and lovely, in spite of the dismal musical underscoring. Ben Wolfe makes a sympathetic Horatio, although it is incomprehensible why Horatio should be a cripple. He and (Chronicle Arts editor) Robert Faires -- who plays the insipid Lord Chamberlain, Polonius -- are old hands at Shakespearean text, and their comfort with the language helps to keep the story on track.
Helen Merino plays Hamlet, but she is not yet an actress with the craft or comprehension to do justice to the role. Few actors in the history of the theatre have been, but when the play is stripped to a character-driven court drama, whoever plays Hamlet has to create more than just a hot-tempered young man, hand on the pommel of his sword, prone to roaring and leaping about unexpectedly. The caged tiger of the role cannot eclipse the variety of other animals -- and other cages -- that also comprise this most difficult of all characters. Merino rarely finds expression for the cold-fire melancholy of the intense, conflicted young prince.
Once again, attempting to produce an artistically successful, serious drama on the Zilker hillside has proven beyond the talented artists of the Shakespeare Festival. These plays used to be produced in great theatres that were as much outdoors as in, so what is missing here? The magnificence of the drama becomes plain and pedestrian, relegating it from its theatrical heights and life-affirming meaning to mere words, words, words.