When you think about the great works of theater of all time, if you haven’t included Hamlet on your list, you’re probably not putting your list together very well. And it seems that every high schooler in America (and probably in England as well) is made to study the show. Unfortunately for me, that wasn’t really the case. My senior year of literature class, we instead studied King Lear (which I looooooovee!!!), and then it never really came up after that when I was in college (yay Bio major with a limited English requirement since I got a 5 on my AP Literature exam?). Probably the most experience I’d had with the play was as a middle-schooler taking part in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Secondary School Festival. Our director that year had written a conglomeration of many many different plays to make scenes that talked about … something. I don’t remember. But I do know that my big part in that show was the gravedigger scene from Hamlet, and I won some kind of award for that performance which meant a hardbound Folger Library edition of Hamlet, which I have to this day.
On top of all that, my only other experience with the full show, and not just the famous soliloquies or the various phrases from that play which have entered the modern English lexicon was watching a performance back when I was in college. And that was it. One of the greatest plays in the English canon, and I knew very little about it. So when it was announced that in his second-to-last season as the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theater, that Michael Kahn would be taking on Hamlet as one of his final directorial challenges. Not only that, but he would be directing Michael Urie in the title role – an actor that I was familiar with, mostly from his comedic work on Ugly Betty, but who it turns out was a student of Kahn’s at Julliard. So I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It would probably be a good show, but, how?
It turns out that Urie’s energetic presence on Ugly Betty translates very well into the slowly devolving and manic Hamlet. It may not be the traditional interpretation, and that doesn’t seem to appeal to more traditional critics. But in this modern interpretation, where Hamlet is prince in a surveillance state Denmark, it makes sense. In a world where everyone is always watching, it becomes second nature to present as calm a public presence as possible, while only revealing your true self and feelings when you are alone. Soliloquies that are traditionally interpreted as deeply thoughtful, verging on depressing become more flights of madness, which isn’t too hard a leap to make when you consider that Hamlet is grieving his recently deceased father and mourning the sudden marriage of his mother to his uncle.
The supporting roles were a mixed bag. Keith Baxter in a trio of roles (Ghost/Player King/Gravedigger) is very good. Ryan Spahn and Kelsey Rainwater as Rosencratz and Guildenstern are a fascinating study in deception and transformation as they go from school friends of Hamlet’s, recruited to cheer him up, but turned into agents of the state, willing to take their friend away to England. The fact that this portrayal seems to turn on a dime without explanation (apart from the audience knowing they were pulled in by the king and queen all along) can feel off. And while I enjoyed her portrayal of a Ophelia, Oyin Oladejo’s main challenge seemed to be maintaining and American accent – while this may not have been as obvious to the rest of the audience, to my English husband and myself, it was definitely more apparent.
It’s a good show. Really interesting and modernized in a way that feels relevant and scarily accurate in the surveillance state we find ourselves living in. I fell asleep briefly at the point before the intermission, but I think a great deal of that can be blamed on being eleventy-months pregnant and exhausted. At the end of the show, the audience that we saw it with gave it a standing ovation – I stood too (out of peer pressure, sort of?), but was trying to decide whether it was for the performance that we saw, or in honor of Michael Kahn’s final Hamlet. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. But that didn’t mean it was any less worthy of an interpretation of this classic play – just something different that may not sit as well with more traditionalists.