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Something is Rotten at The Guthrie: A Review of “Hamlet”

In Joseph Haj’s “Hamlet,” a production put on to celebrate the Guthrie’s 60th anniversary, Claudius calls for “Lights! Lights!” during the fictional Murder of Gonzago play, as he has thousands of times in “Hamlets” past. In lieu of Claudius stopping human actors putting on the play, we have projections in which light and shadow show us hands touching and silhouettes of people enacting the late king’s murder. To some, this would seem to be a technologically brazen choice. To me, it undoes itself by virtue of drowning the play area in lights through the projections. What’s the point of calling for “Lights!” when there’s already too much light onstage to begin with? This production seeks to put its modern foot forward and yet somehow forgets that, somewhere between all the fancy projections, there is a text in need of interpreting. I entered the doors of the Guthrie for the first time to watch “Hamlet” and left them only having learned that the Guthrie is evidently well-funded (perhaps inappropriately so), rather than having discovered anything new about the play. 

When the play begins, we are never invited into its world. The soldiers come onstage screaming, while images of rolling clouds dog-ear the corner of the massive gray wall that flanks the playing area. These are not soldiers standing in fear of a ghost’s arrival; they are actors being asked to speak at an unreasonable volume, holding plastic guns, anticipating the entrance of the actor playing the ghost. Shakespeare can yank us out of the theatrical illusion when he wants to (all the world’s a stage and all that), but “Hamlet” lets the amateurish direction do so at haphazard will … and no fog machine or projection can pull you back in either. 

It’s not as if there aren’t decent actors here, though. The problem lies in that, in navigating Shakespeare’s text, they’ve been given a faulty compass. As Haj would have you believe, any soliloquy can be delivered effectively in two modes: quiet muttering or unprompted yelling. Much like the cold binary between light and shadow of those Gonzago projections, the actors are never allowed to run free in the “undiscovered country” between these volume settings. As Hamlet stands over a praying Claudius, he prattles inconspicuously until he raises his blade, yelling, “VENGEANCE!” Supposedly a melancholic prince seeking justice, Hamlet is reduced to a child pretending to be the king of the hill on a playground; these infantile spikes in volume box Shakespeare’s text in a crossword puzzle rather than encouraging mutability and experimentation. There is no room for play, for transition, and it becomes a grueling game of waiting for each incoming famous speech to be put through the cheese grater. It’s like going down a tube slide at a McDonald’s Play Place: traveling at the same friction-by-plastic pace marked by the occasional static shock from a metallic bolt. 

What’s worse than the production’s fear of playing with the text is its fear of what the world of “Hamlet” looks like outside of it. Hamlet and Ophelia, to my surprise in being reminded, share no scenes before he’s telling her to get herself to a nunnery; their prior relationship is only conveyed to us by other characters. Of course, this hasn’t stopped more daring directors from giving us a glimpse of what that relationship looks like by giving them at least a small moment together. This production gives us only what the text has to say about them, which undermines its largest interpretive choic: here, Hamlet has gotten Ophelia pregnant. For one, this choice is less bold than it seems, given that enthusiastic English teachers have been pointing students to this reading for decades; as Carleton’s resident Shakespeare aficionado would be quick to tell you, those famous flowers Ophelia passes out are the ingredients to an abortive agent. So, okay, we have a production choice, not a new one, but something that the text doesn’t give us straight from the outset without a little pushing. I struggle to fathom the possibility of this pregnancy as, while this Hamlet certainly seems to hit a climax out of nowhere without any build up or awareness (as his line readings would indicate), I just can’t believe this Hamlet ever so much as touched Ophelia, much less had been in a situation where he’d forget to pull out. There’s no love, attraction or anything details of their circumstances; all we see is the way he treats her in the play’s action as the text has laid it out. Claudius and Gertrude seem an even less convincing couple; their actors have painted their relationship as sexless and more for publicity’s sake than anything a young Hamlet would find disgusting enough to equate with incest. I struggle to believe all of it. 

Haj’s “Hamlet” is a great deal of “words, words, words” without a semblance of meaning attached. Famous speeches are uttered rather than experienced, much less worked through by the characters to arrive at their conclusions. It is an unchallenging “Hamlet,” a “Hamlet” which sets out with no questions for its characters and fewer for its audience to leave the theater with. And of course, anything that leaves us with less than nothing is nothing to make much ado about. I just waited for these characters to die rather than watching them inhabit new life on the stage, and it’s not as if Hamlet and co. have lost their spark of life either. There’s something about this play which has haunted the world for centuries; there’s a reason why we still do it. For the Guthrie, celebrating their 60th anniversary seemed like reason enough, but getting to wear a party hat is a weak motivation to stage Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. “To be or not to be” has been the query floating in the human zeitgeist for generations, and the Guthrie has answered it with an unenthused shrug. 

Rating: 1/5

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