Thursday, May 29, 2008

Post Can't Say Enough About Hamlet

Review of Hamlet by Robert Cushman (National Post):

"In his years at the Shaw Festival Ben Carlson mastered the art of delivering long prose sentences, lucidly and thrillingly and wittily, on a single breath. As Hamlet at the Stratford Festival he translates this same skill into blank verse, with results that are just as exciting and--Shaw being Shaw and Shakespeare being Shakespeare--considerably more moving.

"In a production by the British director Adrian Noble that's without a single dead moment, he gives a performance without a single dead word or dead thought. It's world-class Shakespeare.

"Carlson can be a difficult actor to sum up because he is so transparent. He offers no mannerisms that a critic can seize upon and call 'interpretation.' This makes him ideal for Hamlet who is less a character than a ceaselessly probing intelligence, a glistening, abnormally sensitive surface that reflects and refracts every idea that fate throws in its path.

"He does, of course, have emotions and a situation, and Carlson gives full measure to Hamlet's initial grief, to the complementary qualities of gentleness and mordancy that allow him to see the best in some and the worst in others (Adrienne Gould's superb Ophelia gets it from both barrels), and the determination that alternately spurs and deserts him.

"The Ghost's revelations excite him, to the point that he literally throws a fit, from which he emerges well on the manic side of depressive. When he's in company, he has purpose; he can't stop himself talking. When he's alone, he can't stop himself thinking.

"The production, full of action in group scenes, leaves him pointedly alone on vast expanses of platform, for the soliloquies; and it's exhilarating to see Carlson, in his first appearance on the Festival stage, commanding both the space and the text. He has a remarkable gift for sounding spontaneous, conversational, freshly thoughtful without ever losing the shape of a speech.

"'O that this too, too solid flesh would melt' is pure, baffled sadness; 'O what a rogue and peasant slave' is vigorous self-directed anger, laughing at his own excesses ('O vengeance') and then resolute to put them to use ('about, my brains').

"A couple of minutes later in 'to be or not to be' he's thrown back to naked mind; the idea of suicide has occurred to him, he can't shake it and it leads him to a quieter and yet more helpless bafflement at his own failure to revenge. The most hackneyed of speeches is made fresh.

"The last soliloquy, spoken against the sight and sound of the Norwegian army trudging off to their graves 'like beds,' is the ground zero of hopeless resolution. When he returns from England it's with a new philosophical resolve, a new gentleness and a steely new realism. And he's the first Hamlet I can remember who speaks to the skull of Yorick as if he actually did know him.

"Every scene has a rationale, fresh but unforced. We see the Players rehearsing Hamlet's new speech for The Murder of Gonzago just before he instructs them in it. Claudius tempts Laertes over a game of pool. He also sets spies on his own spies. A few familiar ideas come up fresh: the use of silhouettes, for example, for the play within the play, and then in the play itself. The Ghost (James Blendick) enters in a conventional swirl of dry ice, but when he speaks it's with a truly eerie mix of the supernatural and the familiar.

"His reappearance in Gertrude's closet is clearly the product of Hamlet's own imagination, a brake on an encounter that's becoming uncomfortably Oedipal. Maria Ricossa's elegant Gertrude is shallow in the wrong way (she makes nothing of Ophelia's drowning) but I at least believed that she and Hamlet were mother and son; in some productions they might never have met.

"Scott Wentworth as Claudius doesn't play his love for her as deeply or tormentedly as he might (and he is sometimes surprisingly hard to hear) but he presents a smooth usurper-tyrant whose fits of rage extend, in the prayer scene, to himself. The mutual loathing of him and Hamlet is palpable.

"The richest family grouping, though, is Polonius-Ophelia-Laertes, who share an affecting group hug when Laertes (Bruce Godfree, a bit suburban) leaves for France. Geraint Wyn Davies, the least doddery of dads, conveys real concern when he lectures his kids, and he gets their respect in return. Gould's Ophelia, loving and shockable, strikes any of number of new notes, including some on the piano (the production's use of music is exemplary); her elders show their affection by joining her in duets, a habit that has a horrific pay-off in a harrowingly unsentimental mad-scene. Earlier, she's silently shown her reaction to Hamlet's plans to go back to school; she's not in favour.

"There's a bed on stage for the nunnery scene, making its eroticism first tender and then nasty. Tom Rooney is a lovely, supportive Horatio, Victor Ertmanis and Randy Hughson a funny pair of Gravediggers, and I could go on. This is a fantastic evening. "

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