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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Reconstructed by Daniel Fish at McCarter

Also see Bob's review of You Can't Take It With You

Hamlet
Rob Campbell (Hamlet) and
Michael Emerson (as Ghost of the late king, Hamlet's father)

Bring no preconceptions with you when you come, and come you should, to Princeton’s McCarter Theatre to see William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Although the words are essentially only those of Shakespeare, director Daniel Fish has altered their presentation so dramatically that you will be startled, surprised, and intimately engrossed in ways which are beyond anticipation. If you want to experience Fish’s brilliant tactics without foreknowledge of any specifics, it is suggested that you read no further until after you have seen this revelatory production for yourself.

The very opening, which likely sounds mundane in description, is startling and unsettling. The stage curtain is made up of eight brightly lit, vertically hung white panels which rise swiftly and silently as the house lights dim. We are in a rehearsal hall with a silver grey back wall, a silver grey side wall, and a second side wall with a black curtain covering a mirrored wall and ballet barre. Most of the cast is seated in cantilever frame chairs at two rectangular folding tables at right angles to each other at stage left. The actors immediately begin to read from the opening scene. Sitting alone stage center, facing silently upstage, is an actor whose positioning announces that he is our Hamlet. He is costumed collegiately in sweat pants and a dress shirt, tie and sweater. The other actors are dressed in various modes which can be broadly described as contemporary business casual. The lines are read by various actors (male and female). Portraying the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, one of the actors rises, thereby knocking a table askew. He then proceeds to toss it angrily about the room.

These quirky yet simple devices immediately inform us that we will not be seeing a traditional Hamlet, and that we had better pay close attention to matters at hand. Over the course of the next two and three-quarter hours, eight actors will play over twenty roles. Scenes will be transposed and interspersed, a revolver will be employed to commit deeds most foul, modern technology will be in full view, some lines will be cut and others will be read by characters other than those for whom they were written. This and any number of additional variations will be employed. Most importantly, all of these efforts are successfully employed in the service of providing as fresh, clear, intimate, and emotionally involving a Hamlet as one could ever hope to see.

I am not certain of the reason for each and every choice that director Daniel Fish has made (e.g., the employment of a silent chorus of ten young adolescent males). However, overall, his direction is assured and illuminating. Examples abound. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to Hamlet, they are played by the actors portraying Claudius and Gertrude. This highlights the fact that they are on a mission from the royal couple, mouthing words which the latter has assigned to them. The timeless, always contemporary personal family aspects of the young prince’s dilemma are brilliantly emphasized when Hamlet comes face to face with the Ghost of his father. The latter sets up two chairs facing each other, along with a standing electric lamp (which he plugs into a wall socket) and a standing ashtray. The white bright illumination which is otherwise omnipresent is cut off as the Ghost lights his cigar. Rather than the expected mystical, magisterial pronouncements which are usually played as a dramatic means to set Hamlet, we are now eavesdropping on an intimate and painful family talk between father and son.

There is no downtime for the shifting of scenes. Each scene is played directly into its successor. For example, after Hamlet is told that Gertrude wishes to speak with him, he immediately launches into his dialogue with her without moving from his place. This helps create the headlong pace which propels events along rapidly.

Although it seems a quaint expression in the 21st century, there is a “nude scene.” Hamlet strips after killing Polonius to demonstrate his madness to Claudius. Ultimately, when all is revealed, the richness of what Fish conveys by this will be quite apparent. (Still, earlier on, it seems unnecessary to have Hamlet pull down his pants, sit, and begin to read a newspaper in order to indicate that he is using the facilities.)

With this McCarter Hamlet, Daniel Fish continues to demonstrate his ability to employ the most outré, flashy and entertaining directorial flourishes to illuminate, without ever competing with or overwhelming, the text. His excellent cast, with its clear and natural sounding line readings, adds to the clear exposition of character and nuance. It should be noted that Fish assumes that his audiences will be bringing prior experience with Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the table. Those few souls who don’t will have their work cut out for them. However, this will not prevent them from being enlightened and entertained.

The conversational manner in which Rob Campbell speaks his soliloquies directly to the audience draws us close to him. Campbell interprets Hamlet as being calculating and rational. Both in Campbell’s line readings and the reconstructed script, there is no doubt that Hamlet carefully plans and calculates the effect of his behavior, and feigns his madness. However, Campbell and his director do have some late surprises to deliver. Campbell's Hamlet is exceptional.

Michael Emerson’s principal roles are Claudius and his brother, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Emerson nicely delineates between Claudius’ calculating evil and the Ghost’s determination to set matters right. Stephanie Roth Haberle achieves her finest moment when she tries to convince Hamlet that he is truly mad. Staring directly into the eyes of the Ghost, she makes it clear that this treacherous Gertrude is lying when she tells Hamlet that she cannot see it.

Carrie Preston is an extremely moving Ophelia. In slowly and clearly singing much of Ophelia’s “mad scene,” Preston offers a window into her heart which makes us truly care. Jesse J. Perez is a modern, hot-headed and convincing Laertes.

David Marguiles is exceptional in the roles of Polonius and the first Gravedigger. There is a natural rhythm in his voice and manner which transform his erudite New York intonations into the sound of the proverbial everyman. Polonius’ “neither a borrower nor a lender be” piece of advice to his son Laertes makes the familiar fresh and new. His stint as the first Gravedigger performed in part in tandem with Rob Campbell’s Hamlet is pure delight. Haynes Thigpen (Horatio) and Frank Wood (Player/Fortinbras) each provide strong support.

The important and intriguing costume designs are by Kaye Voyce. The effective set and lighting have been designed by John Conklin and Scott Zielinski.

Some stodgy souls may take offense with director Fish’s audacious approach. However, for the most part, McCarter’s sophisticated audience will find this reconstructed Hamlet, a breath of fresh air.

Hamlet will continue performances (Wed, Thurs, Sun (except 6/19) 7:30pm; Fri. & Sat. 8pm; Sat. 3pm; Sun. 2pm) through June 19, 2005 at the Roger Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton NJ 08540. Box office: 609-258-2787/888-ARTSWEB; online: www.mccarter.org

Hamlet by William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Fish

Cast
Hamlet .......... .Rob Campbell
Ghost, Claudius .......... Michael Emerson
Gertrude .......... Stephanie Roth Haberle
Polonius .......... David Margulies
Laertes .......... Jesse L. Perez
Ophelia .......... Carrie Preston
Horatio .......... Haynes Thigpen
Player .......... Frank Wood


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- Bob Rendell



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