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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Folger's Hamlet Shows That To Be Great, Less Is Sometimes More

I never quite noticed just how amazing the language of Hamlet is before seeing the new Folger production. The reason is that director Joseph Haj has gone with an all-white stage, modern but not futuristic in any way. Just as in graphic design where the white background makes the "type" pop, this white background lets us focus on language. We are here to listen to this Hamlet. Characters take their time and it still clocks in at under three hours - probably due to some artful cutting. The speeches are beautifully delivered, foremost by Graham Michael Hamilton as a Hamlet who is pretty sure of himself and the mayhem he wants to create. 

What's interesting to me is that Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard - with whom the Folger had its biggest triumph last year with Arcadia - and Mamet - his classic American Buffalo will be on stage any minute at Studio - are the playwrights known for language.  Where meaning sometimes takes a backseat to sound and rhythm.  But here, at times, we also just listen for the rhythm, the poetry and the sheer sounds without thinking about meaning.  Although what this language-first version also acccomplishes is better comprehension. We can decipher the words a bit better when they're not rushed.  It's like when I once saw Ian McKellen break down Shakespeare in his brilliant one-man show: "Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow," he began with the start of Macbeth's great speech. "Is everyone with me so far?"

Probably the only shortfall of this type of production, where we are mesmerized by the actors and the words, is that the tension might be reduced a bit. When we do get to the last scene and the inevitable bloodshed, it feels a bit like an anticlimax - like how can anything top the amazing speeches that we've been treated to all night. But that's all right. The swordplay is carried out very dashingly, the characters die in pretty quick order and we look forward to Fortinbras coming on stage and sending us home reasonably happy. I think this is the perfect approach for a theater like the Folger and their amazing space. The audience is so close to the action, that it's a rare time when you can really concentrate.  The Folger has had a brilliant year, with a diverse and spirited Much Ado About Nothing, a playful and inventive Orestes, and now a smartly "plain" Hamlet with a terrific cast. (Lindsey Wochley will be heard from soon again in this area after her stirring Ophelia, and Stephen Patrick Martin lets Polonius deliver a solemn "To thine ownself be true" speech before letting everyone catch on to his bluster.)  Get thee to the Folger.

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