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To See or Not To See

Posted by on September 27, 2012

Gene and I saw Hamlet at Cal Shakes last night. I give it a solid sideways thumb.

Obviously, nothing was going to live up to the last production of Hamlet that I saw, so I’m trying to add grains of salt to my review, but here are some issues I had:

  • Claudius delivered all his lines as though he was really proud of having memorized them — just shot them out at top speed with very little inflection or apparent understanding of their meaning.
  • Hamlet began frenzied, built to a frenzied middle and ended in a righteous frenzy. Considering his first big speech is about how dull and sad the world seems, I feel like he could have started a little more quietly. Also, as Gene put it, “I don’t like how he tries to control people with his hands in every scene. It’s cheap.” So true. This Hamlet was very grabby.
  • There was very little chemistry between Hamlet and Horatio, which for my money is the richest relationship in the play. These are the only two characters who love each other completely and unselfishly, but in this production Horatio was just a sounding board for Hamlet to deliver his next frothing line. Most disappointing.

I also had trouble with the staging, which fell a little short of its own goals. For example, they created a fun conceit wherein the play begins with Horatio mourning Hamlet and saying his lines from the end, promising to tell the whole sad story. After that he appears in several scenes where he has no lines, just as a silent watcher, which would be a great idea if he’d appeared in all the scenes. He should either be onstage the entire time, chronicling the times, or he should only come on where it’s appropriate for his character to be. Pick a side, director.

And another thing: in order to emphasize the way Ophelia is ignored by everyone unless they need to use her, there are a couple of scenes where people talk over her. Again, I like the idea they’re trying to portray, but there has to be a better way to do it. You go to Shakespeare plays for the words, guys. When two people talk at once, you miss the sense of everyone’s lines. Sondheim can get away with this; you cannot.

My final problem: it was staged in an empty swimming pool. Why? By all means, directors, get creative with the location, but only if you can find something more moody and atmospheric and bleak than a freezing medieval castle in B.F., Denmark.

There were plenty of good things about the play though. Polonius was delightful; often his speeches are just boring, but this actor managed to find the funny. And the actor who played the Player King, whom I had seen before as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, always makes me giggle. I also thought Ophelia was great; Shakespeare doesn’t give her much to work with, and for my money the best thing to do with her madness scene is to get it over with as quickly as possible, but her scenes with Hamlet were actually touching in spite of Hamlet’s best efforts to make them about yelling and dragging people around the stage.

All this said, I would actually recommend this show. My complaints look more serious now that I’ve whined about them at length, but mostly they were passing irritations. Anyway, I will pretty much always recommend seeing things at Cal Shakes because it’s such a pleasure to picnic under the trees and watch the bats come out and then see a play performed in the open air with the cows and crickets moving and melodying across the distant hills.

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