Bold decisions make ‘Hamlet’ strikingly dark
The gravedigger scene in Writers' Theatre's "Hamlet" has been kept intact, providing some levity in an intense version of the Shakespeare classic. | Photo by Michael Brosilow
at Writers’ Theatre, 25 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Through Nov. 11
$35 - $70
(847) 242-6000, www.writerstheatre.org
Updated: September 20, 2012 9:26AM
Hamlet has a lean and hungry look.
And that’s as it should be in Writers’ Theater’s stark and accessible production of Shakespeare’s seminal tragedy. This is, after all, a ghost story that’s all to do with death, starting in the aftermath of one murder and ending with bodies piled up like cordwood on the stage. Fratricide, suicide, vengeance killing and gruesome quasi-accident — they’re all here in Hamlet, but it’s not just the often bloody and startling act of shuffling off the mortal coil that Shakespeare’s getting at.
More than the means to the inevitable end, Hamlet is about coming to grips with that inevitable, final mystery of not being. If Scott Parkinson’s turn in the title role is the haunting, hunted kind, it’s entirely fitting.
Director Michael Halberstam has made some bold decisions with his take on Hamlet. For starters, it doesn’t begin as Shakespeare’s does. Halberstam has excised the opening scene on the battlements, wherein a pair of frightened sentries presage the entire tone of fear and disarming disjointedness that permeates the play. The scene is one of extreme unease, suspicion and fear, three emotions that dominate the play as a whole. Instead, Halberstam cuts straight to scene two, the party where newly crowned King Claudius is celebrating his nuptials to his former sister-in-law, the two-months widowed Gertrude. It’s a choice that initially seems counter-intuitive but in the end is quite effective. As Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius is surrounded by applauding, smiling well-wishers, his nephew lurks slouching in a corner like a looming thundercloud or an obsessive needle of conscience. Something is clearly rotten in the state of Denmark.
Another striking aspect of Halberstam’s direction has to do with Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Shannon Cochran.) Many’s the time we’ve seen her portrayed as a cold-blooded murderer’s accomplice and an incestuous gorgon, overtly lasciviously inclined toward her former brother-in-law and subtextually putting the moves on her son. Not so here. Cochran’s Queen is deeply sympathetic, a maternal figure whose horror at just how her first husband died indicates a clear(ish) conscience hitherto unaware of just how twisted things have become in the royal household.
Finally, there’s Halberstam’s wise decision to keep the gravedigger’s scene wholly intact (it’s often the first to go in a piece that would run toward four hours if performed wholly unedited). It comes as a balm of comic relief – and wryly pragmatic philosophy –amid the maelstrom of violence sucking everyone in Elsinore deep into its vortex.
Hamlet is anchored, of course, by Parkinson who brings a cold-eyed, steely quality to the prince that’s both fascinating and alarming. He’s got the angst of a young man grappling with life’s biggest questions (to be or not to be?) down, but he also seems propelled by a core of lethal composure. As the ghost of the murdered king, Larry Yando is a truly terrifying menace, a voice of urgency and damnation so potent it makes you rather wish Halberstam hadn’t cut his first scene. Also marvelously effective is Liesel Matthews’ as a warm and guileless Ophelia. She’s initially the sole face of unspoiled goodness in the royal court, making her ultimate, abrupt descent into lunacy all the more troubling.
As for Collette Pollard’s set design, it artfully, ably captures a crumbling kingdom rotting from the inside out, a place both at once formidable and disintegrating.