Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hamlet Star and Director Praised

Hamlet receives 3.5/4 stars and a glowing review from J. Kelly Nestruck at the Globe and Mail:

"When Ben Carlson's Hamlet picks up Yorick's skull in that much-parodied graveside scene, he doesn't look the old jester straight in the eye sockets as is usual. Instead, he holds the cranium high above his head as if he is remembering being a small child below and contemplating the long, sad passage of time that separates that time of ignorant innocence from now.

"There are dozens of magically melancholy moments like that in Adrian Noble's new production, where crisp direction and compelling acting combine to make Shakespeare's greatest play seem fresh even in its most familiar scenes.

"Carlson, Stratford's eighth Hamlet and recently pilfered from the Shaw Festival, comes trailing acclaim from Chicago, where he won the 2007 Joseph Jefferson Award for best actor in the role. His is a smug and sarcastic Hamlet, a bullying intellectual who excoriates everyone around him for their actions and yet does nothing constructive himself – that familiar modern man of privilege who takes university degree after university degree, mostly out of a desire to delay engaging with real life, and then looks down on those of lesser learning with contempt. But while he should be loathsome, Carlson – a curly-haired cross between actors Albert Schultz and Vincent D'Onofrio – remains consistently alluring in his aimless arrogance. He may not be Prince Charming, but he's still a prince.

"Prince of what, though, I'm not quite sure. Noble, a former artistic director of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, has set the play in 1910 in what seems vaguely to be czarist Russia in Santo Loquasto's beautifully repressed design in shades of grey. His production is less concerned with the particularities of that moment in time, however, than with letting the text unfold with as little adornment as possible. It's the mirror opposite of Des McAnuff's showy, robust Romeo and Juliet, which opened the festival Monday; the only rat-a-tat-tat here comes from Carlson's machine-gun delivery.

"Noble's direction is never more elegant than when the Players (led by a stirring Victor Ertmanis) arrive at the court in a giant caravan, garnering spontaneous applause from the audience. Through their rehearsals to the moment Hamlet commandeers their spotlight to 'catch the conscience of the king' in the audience, you can't imagine a more enthralling production.

"Part of what is great about this string of scenes is that Noble wisely gets entirely out of the way in the middle, leaving Carlson to deliver, 'O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!' on an empty, illuminated patch of stage, as if he were a chess piece marooned on a single square trying to figure out his next move without knowing the position of the pieces around him. He falls to the floor in despair, bangs on it, smacks himself on his head in self-loathing, then finally snaps out of it. This is just one in a string of soliloquies that Carlson delivers as if they were the whole play in miniature.

"Not every element in the production is so bewitching. A billiards table brought on for Claudius and Laertes to plot over looks marvellous, but the actors are uncomfortable with this kind of cue. Laertes flubbed his first attempt to break, then Claudius missed an easy shot. (Perhaps by the end of the run they'll be clearing the table.)

"And Carlson misses a couple of pockets as well, notably, 'To be or not to be' (though to be fair, that speech snookers just about everyone). It is hard to imagine a Hamlet as self-regarding as Carlson's ever seriously contemplating suicide. His Hamlet is not truly mad, but rather, as humorist W.S. Gilbert memorably put it, 'idiotically sane with lucid intervals of lunacy.'

"In contrast, Adrienne Gould's Ophelia genuinely loses her mind, losing her pants along the way – hers is a disturbing, lewd madness. Even when in her right mind, Gould plays the part with an original bent, as a bookish and nervous young woman, expressing through the piano what society forbids her to speak with her tongue.

"She rounds out a mostly strong supporting cast. Scott Wentworth's Claudius gets a soliloquy to match Carlson's as he confronts his conscience in front of a bare light bulb. Gerant Wyn Davies is everything you would want in a Polonius, a bit of a pill but lovable – though dispatched in a too-hasty manner. Tom Rooney is a stalwart Horatio, while James Blendick thunders as the ghost of old Hamlet.

"Maria Ricossa's frail Gertrude, however, is an enigma wrapped in a riddle shrouded in an Oedipus complex. She seems constantly on the verge of explaining herself, but is robbed of having her chance to speak by Claudius, Hamlet and then death.

"Though everyone knows Hamlet's question, 'To be or not to be,' few are as familiar with his fatalistic answer in Act V: 'Let be.' It's his last line before stepping into the fencing match and bloody denouement he has delayed for ages. At this moment of final acceptance, Carlson is clear-headed and confident. His path to this moment is a precisely articulated journey – and worth making your own up to Stratford to see."

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