Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Thumbs-up for Carlson's Second Hamlet

Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian gives Hamlet 3.5/4 stars:

"Last night's opening night production of Hamlet was a tantalizing demonstration of how close the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, under its new management, is coming close to delivering its promises.

"I am willing to bet you couldn't find a better Shakespearean performance in all of North America – maybe in all the English-speaking world – than that of Ben Carlson.

"It possesses all the qualities you dream of in a Hamlet: energy, intelligence, virility, charm and a brilliant way of speaking the text.

"Add to this the fact that he's surrounded by a mostly excellent supporting cast and framed by a frequently thrilling production by Adrian Noble, and you realize why the evening is such a cause for celebration.

"It's not perfect yet. There are still instances of miscast roles and overdesigned scenes, but it must be stated: this is the best production we've had of a major Shakespearean tragedy at Stratford in far too long.

"Noble's concept is to set things back in 1910 in a vaguely Scandinavian setting which provides an interesting balance between the old and the new. Guns can be carried, but men can still wear sabers, while the elegantly severe line of Santo Loquasto's costumes is flattering on almost everyone.

"Things start out badly, with an odd conception of the ramparts sequences and James Blendick appearing through huge back doors engulfed by enough smoke to keep Lord of the Rings going for a year.

"But they pick up immediately in the court scene, which Noble conceives of as a fun Christmas party, with everyone swirling around in bright red costumes.

"No wonder Hamlet's dour entrance puts such a cramp on the proceedings.

"We really shift into high gear with Carlson's first soliloquy which shows this is a man who can actually make thought seem visible and give intellectual concepts a muscular identity.

"It's the kind of thrill you imagine people must have felt when they saw Christopher Plummer perform the part 51 years ago.

"For a while afterwards, Noble's grasp seems erratic. It's fascinatingly different (as well as richly rewarding) for Geraint Wyn Davies to play Polonius as a real, concerned middle-aged father instead of a dottering laugh-getting machine, but once again the perambulating presence of Blendick as the Ghost is less than convincing and results in some pretty drab scenes.

"The conception of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is also strangely vague and you wonder what David Leyshon and Patrick McManus are supposed to be accomplishing.

"But then you get to the scene with the players and everyone comes alive, led by a lustily amusing performance from Victor Ertmanis as the Player King (his First Gravedigger later on is also quite droll).

"Carlson keeps those amazing soliloquies firing like machine gun bullets and we find ourselves in a Nunnery scene where Adrienne Gould comes into her own as Ophelia, creating real romantic and sexual tension with Carlson.

"The play-within-a-play scene is one of Noble's most brilliant pieces of staging, with lights flashing everywhere. It sends Scott Wentworth's Claudius into an acting high he maintains for the rest of the show. Malleable, yet evil, self-loving and self-loathing at once, he's a brilliantly conflicted Claudius.

"By the same token, Tom Rooney's Horatio is gentle and thoughtfully supportive throughout.
The same can't be said for Maria Ricossa's Gertrude, who seems too much of a Rosedale trophy wife, elegantly thin and totally clueless. Her moments of passion – like the description of Ophelia's death – largely go for naught.

"Gould, however, grows ever stronger with a mad scene that goes for hurt and anger and lust rather than wistful insanity and she makes a real meal out of it.

"All throughout, Bruce Godfree is perfectly acceptable as her brother Laertes, but strikes no real sparks of originality.

"As far as I was concerned, the evening built to its climax at the first act curtain, with Carlson's electrifying rendition of 'How all occasions do inform against me,' with it's modern political overtones ringing through stronger than ever.

"The much shorter second act has several problems. There's less Carlson in it, to begin with (blame Shakespeare for that) and when he does reappear, he's in a kinder, gentler mode that's perhaps a bit too passive.

"Noble also over-reaches by playing the Laertes-Claudius plotting scene around a giant billiard table for no apparent reason.

"But by the final duel scene, everyone is back on form and it's hard not to feel a lump in your throat as Hamlet speaks his final words

"All in all, it's a more-than-worthy night and Carlson's Hamlet is the kind of performance that comes along once in a lifetime."

No comments: