You could say that Shakespeare’s Hamlet wakes up in the ultimate actor’s nightmare. He’s thrust onstage with no training. He’ll perform without rehearsals, or even peeking at the text. He must find out the play and his character by indirections.
But Hamlet isn’t in a play. It’s real life in the extreme, for which he’s even less prepared. His father, the king of Denmark, died four months ago, though it seems just two hours to Hamlet. His mother married Claudius, his father’s brother, in haste. Now the king and queen revel. Cannons boom every time he quaffs Rhenish wine.
Hamlet begins the play in shock. At just about every turn he suffers more outrageous fortune: apparently for the first time he learns about deceit, “that one may smile and smile and be a villain”; the king won’t let him go back to school; Ophelia, his innocent lady fair, stops speaking to him, then chooses “not to be” and commits suicide; and a specter haunts the parapets of Elsinore Castle. He claims he’s Hamlet’s father. The new king murdered him, and the ghost demands revenge. But is it his father? Are ghosts real? And if they are, how can Hamlet commit regicide and yet, as the ghost insists, remain pure and “taint not” his mind?
Hamlet, most likely the equivalent of a graduate student at Wittenberg University, loved to ponder perplexities, within the safe confines of logic and reason, of course. But he learns that “thoughts beyond our nature…” can “horridly shake our disposition.” So, what to do? No book has the answer. No philosophy can solve such an intractable dilemma. Hamlet’s only recourse: feign madness as a disguise. That way he can hide in plain sight and spy on the court. His situation’s so grave, however, insanity could result. The extent of Hamlet’s madness — how much is real, how much just “passing show”? — has been one of the great — nay, intractable — dilemmas in Shakespeare. At the Old Globe, Grantham Coleman’s Hamlet takes a different tack. The Dane may know more about the theater than anyone this side of the Bard. But Coleman’s Hamlet is a mediocre actor. He’s pseudo-loopy. He flaps his arms chicken-wing, he bobble-heads, he paints dayglo-red graffiti on his outfit. He wouldn’t pass muster at an audition for the role, let alone on a psychiatrist’s couch.
But Coleman replaces lunacy with speed. He will not stand still. He flits and darts, pivots and leaps, at one point even moonwalks backward off a low platform. He isn’t “fat and scant of breath,” as the queen says in Act Five, scene two, line 290, Arden edition (a line always cut since it would sabotage hordes of svelte Hamlets). He’s frantic, yet so locked in an impossible predicament, he’s spinning his wheels. Coleman also has the vocal chops. He gets words and rhythms usually correct. His readings of the famous lines are fresh without straining to impress or be different.
What’s missing: we don’t see many of Hamlet’s “aha moments” — the “noble mind,” in the act of thought itself, wrestling with contradictions, making verbal choices, or discovering ideas on the spot. Overall, the Barry Edelstein–directed Hamlet is competent, often much more so.
The production has a then/now look. Cait O’Connor’s rich finery combines high Renaissance with suggestions of today’s trends (though she goes way overboard in the first court scene, but more of that anon). Tim Mackabee’s gold, metallic set, with moving platforms and swiss-cheese holes on the walls, enhances scenes without being fussy. Curtis Moore’s original score ranges from late Medieval strains to klezmer and jazz intonations for woodwinds and brass.
To a person, the multi-racial cast articulates well. Many, however, rely on a hard vocal attack — lines begin and end at the same volume — as if having to shout over a crowd to be heard. Though otherwise quite capable, Cornell Womack’s King Claudius, Talley Beth Gale’s overly gruff Ophelia, and Michael Genet’s Ghost, Player King, and Gravedigger hammer speeches that call for modulation. Others could take a cue from Kevin Hafso-Koppman’s spirited Rosencrantz and Patrick Kerr’s Polonius and relax.
Kerr smartly makes Polonius, usually played as a bumbler, a serious, albeit wordy and prudish man. He is, after all, second in command, as able as the king to demand espionage on a suspect. Although Polonius usually speaks them, Kerr reads the famous “few precepts” from a book. It’s a subtle touch. Other additions are not. The robotic Ghost, yellow neon streaks on his shoulders and thighs, behaves like a fugitive from a video game. When the king and queen make their first entrance, their bizarre, miles over-the-top costumes — she looks like a giant butterfly — break Polonius’s first rule of couture: be “rich, not gaudy.”
An ever-present 11-foot statue in gold armor commands too much of the stage. You can almost hear it shout, “I symbolize the old king!” Other additions are sophomoric: quoting “Oh for a muse of fire!” from Henry V; a complaint about classical theater performed in modern dress; Hamlet singing “Rule Britannia.” A persistent urge to entertain detracts from an otherwise strong production of Shakespeare’s seemingly infinite tragedy.
Directed by Barry Edelstein, cast: Grantham Coleman, Opal Alladin, Michael Genet, Patrick Kerr, Ian Lassiter, Jonny Orsini, Cornell Womack, Amara James Aja, Samuel Max Avishay, Nora Carroll, Kevin Hafso-Koppman, Talley Beth Gale, Lorenzo Landini, Larica Schnell; scenic design, Tim Mackabee; costumes, Cait O’Connor; lighting, Stephen Strawbridge; sound, Sven Severson; original music, Curtis Moore; fight director, Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum.
Playing through September 10: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; theoldglobe.org