note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Beverly Creasey
The much ballyhooed Royal National Theatre production of "Hamlet" has arrived in Boston with Simon Russell Beale as the famous tragical historical hero --- billed as a "Hamlet for our time".
Director John Caird envisions Hamlet as 'everyman' --- just an ordinary guy, a bit uncomfortable in his own skin, embarrassed at his station in life. Beale has the face of a cherub and the body language of a mouse. He tries to connect with his mother, and with Ophelia, but he reaches his arms out only to draw them back, as if he lacks the confidence to follow through and touch anyone. Even with his father's ghost, he reaches, then hesitates, then reaches and hesitates again.
Hamlet connects with one person only: his best friend Horatio who, in Caird's kinder, gentler production, opens and closes the play in a piercing shard of light --- eliminating Fortinbras altogether.
Beale's abashed, self-conscious Hamlet probably would have endured the overhasty marriage of his mother and his uncle, were it not for that ghost. He has to honor his father's memory because Shakespeare calls it his father's "commandment" --- giving it the weight of heaven. Caird sees religious overtones in every scene, introducing a giant cross to hang overhead --- Tim Hatley's set is mostly overhead --- or going to blackout via a cross of light (Lighting by Paul Pyant) where the set separates crucially.
In fact, the most gripping scene in the play is Claudius in the chapel confessing his sins and vowing to advance his plans despite the risk of hell. Peter McEnery's Claudius is the one performance which creates real sparks. (Villains are always the most fun to watch.) Caird even suggests martyrdom when Claudius thrusts his chest forward, his arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, daring Hamlet to dispatch him.
Peter Blythe makes a lusty gravedigger, but his Polonius seems lightweight for the notorious Lord Chamberlain. After all, he verbally abuses his daughter and plots against his own son. Caird make his co-conspirator a buffoon instead of a henchman. (Once you've seen Richard Briar's evil Polonius, in both Branagh versions on stage and film, it's difficult to settle for Polonius as a comedian.)
Sylvester Morand as the ghost grips his son's hand as if to shake Hamlet out of his complacency. Later Morand reappears as the affable Player King for the play within the play, giving us the chance to see a fine character actor create two distinct roles.
Most Hamlets are compelling, either in their suicidal self-centeredness or their maniacal princeliness. The Royal National gives us a charming, affable sad sack who seems to run out of steam at play's end. A "Hamlet" for our time? Perhaps these are not heroic times.