“How,” my theater companion asked, “is Hamlet still relevant today?”
To my mind there are two answers to this question, and The Shakespeare Theater Company’s current production strives to highlight them both. Michael Urie (Buyer & Cellar, Ugly Betty) stars as an impassioned, impetuous Hamlet in this contemporary staging of Shakespeare’s greatest drama.
First, Hamlet is the evergreen story of man’s struggle against lust and degeneracy – lust for power, lust for people, and the inevitable corruption of mind and morals that accompany capitulation to base desire. History and headlines tender a buffet exploitative power, a cornucopia of dictators’ rise and fall. “The world is a prison,” Hamlet sighs, lamenting not merely his mental state, but also the realities of police-state surveillance: Everyone is being watched.
Director Michael Kahn had fun with it. Sly historical references wink through. The nightwatch who report to King Hamlet’s ghost (Keith Baxter) to Horatio (Federico Rodriguez) are security guards, evoking shades of Watergate. The specter first appears on video surveillance screens (Projections and Video Design by Patrick W. Lord), evoking cold war and current day espionage. Rosenkrantz (Ryan Spahn) and Guildenstern (Kelsey Rainwater) could be Russian moles – turned from Hamlet’s confidants, to informants, to ultimately accessories to Hamlet’s attempted murder. When King Claudius repudiates the theatrical players retelling his murder most foul, he cries fake news, his retaliation against his stage counterpart a muzzle on free speech. Video toppling the despot’s statue could be footage upending the effigy of Joseph Stalin in1956, or that of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Toppling bronzes: a thing since King George III in 1776.
John Coyne’s stark sets foster a stage on which any era’s despot could stride. Jess Goldstein’s costumes slowly creep from school spirit to somber arm-banded Nazi garb. Yet, at some point equating King Claudius’s rule to the rise of Nazi Germany falls short of Shakespeare’s words and the interpretation doesn’t convince. The recitation of evils still has tones that ring true because ultimately Hamlet is a play about human suffering. A partial list of things that are rotten in the state of Denmark include: death, grief, loneliness, betrayal, cruelty, despair, mental illness, loss of meaning in life, breakdown of relationships, and the corruption of basic institutions (including state and family). Hamlet is the chief martyr, but none in the cast escape torment. Hamlet is a revenge drama – and everybody loves a revenge drama – without revenge. Hamlet is incapable of exacting reprisal, even the hotheaded, gun brandishing version offered by Urie. We loiter in his inaction, as if waiting for Godot, embroiled in endless soliloquy and twitchy irresolution. “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
Which leads to the second strength of Hamlet: it is the heavy hitter of timeless quotes. The Bard’s “words, words, words” form a bedrock of modern philosophy and language: “To thine own self, be true;” “To sleep, perchance to dream;” “We have shuffled off this moral coil;” “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” There’s a deliciousness in seeing these words in their original context. I could go on, but “brevity is the soul of wit.”
STC’s production is passionate and energetic, at time sacrificing enunciation for fevered delivery. Urie has a modern rather than classical energy, delivering Hamlet’s soliloquies with a balletic physicality. His pantomime is distracting, and his oration overly dramatic. Hamlet’s tortured introspection is eclipsed by campy method and foot contortions. It’s a funny Hamlet! How novel! But in one of the greatest written tragedies, we crave a respite into Hamlet’s hallmark contemplation.
Robert Joy is pitch perfect as pompous, droning Polonious, earning some of the best laughs of the play. Madeleine Potter shines as Gertrude, delivering the most convincing performance in her role as the conflicted and morally ambiguous Queen. “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Or, in this case, the chemistry between Hamlet and doomed Ophelia. While Oyin Oladejo gives it her all, the relationship remains unconvincing, rendering her slide into madness abrupt. Maybe it was just me. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Kahn retires at the end of the 2018-2019 season, so this is his final Hamlet. He strives for modern resonance of time-honored words. While the performances don’t bury home the tragedy’s emotional import, the words still make you marvel after all this time. Am I a Shakespeare nerd? Yes. Is his poetry as relatable when read as a text message? There’s only one way to find out.
Hamlet is playing at The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sydney Harman Hall (610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004) through March 4, 2018. Running time: approximately two hours and thirty minutes plus one intermission. For information or tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or click here.
*Photos credit Scott Suchman