The British Are Coming!By Bence Olveczky
Presented by the Royal National Theatre of London
With Simon Russel Beale
Directed by John Caird
At the Wilbur Theatre through April 22
Student rush tickets available.
You may not have heard of Simon Russell Beale due to his lack of Hollywood credits, but in England the short and chubby 40 year-old is widely considered to be the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation. As such, it was only a matter of time before he would have a crack at the “big one.” Many critics feared he would be too old and pudgy to play Hamlet, but Beale proves his skeptics dead wrong with a haunting rendition of the doomed Danish prince that is sure to be a major theatrical milestone.
Many actors and directors have tried to scale the mountain that is Hamlet, but the road to the top is littered with corpses of some serious talent (Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes to name a few recent victims). Hamlet is an actor’s rite of passage precisely because it is such a merciless and difficult role. The antagonisms reflected in the dark prince’s personality has made him not only one of the most fascinating creations in all literature, but also one of the most difficult to render convincingly on stage. “What piece of work is a man” exclaims Hamlet, and indeed, what an artist is the actor that can convey the ambivalence of such an intriguing character with ease and authenticity.
Simon Russell Beale takes up the challenge and runs with it, and the Royal National Theatre’s subdued production provides a perfect vehicle for his acting genius. Beale’s Hamlet is at once intelligent and ironic, charming and difficult, as he scurries around the stage with his scraggly beard and greasy hair, overwhelmed by the sorrow of his father’s death. Beale’s convincing display of grief may tragically have sprung from a real-life experience: his mother lost her long battle with cancer during the rehearsals of the play. Beale has said that his mother’s death softened his portrayal and made it more romantic, but I suspect that it also served to inspire his ardent performance.
The combination of Beale’s magnetic stage presence with his command of the Shakespearean language propels his Hamlet well beyond the realm of antiquated quotes. He is at the epicenter of a living theater that speaks to us in a passionate voice, infusing old truths with new and urgent meaning.
Much of the credit for this must go to John Caird, who has directed the play with a sparseness and simplicity that purposefully frames the brilliant acting. The only props on the dark, candle-lit stage are leather trunks and suitcases that suggest a state of flux as they are continuously being re-shuffled to furnish the changing scenes. The costumes, inspired by the Italian Renaissance, provide a tinge of color and makes the stage design by Tim Hatley look much like the paintings by Tintoretto or Titian.
John Cameron’s sacred music gives the production a tint of religiosity, as does the paneled back wall that periodically opens up to let light in through a cross-shaped gap. The Christian imagery serves to underscore the hypocrisy and double standard by which the characters go about their business, but it also seems to imply that when all is said and done, there is forgiveness to be had.
This promise of redemption is in the spirit of a production that is milder and less damning than most. For a start there are no real villains here; not even the murderous and incestuous Claudius, played by Peter McEnery, is beyond salvation. Rather than staging an epic battle between good and evil, Caird portrays a dysfunctional family’s bitter struggles. To help focus on the domestic aspect of the play, he has toned down the play’s political content, cutting the scenes involving the Norwegian King Fortinbras and his army. While purists may raise their voices in disagreement, the production, which clocks in at three and a half hours, is probably better served by not having a bunch of knickerbocker-clad soldiers storm the stage at the end.
It is Russell Beale’s refined and focused portrayal of the Great Dane that sets this production apart, yet as he siphons off the audience’s attention it works to lessen the impact and contribution of a very capable supporting cast. The production loses momentum whenever Hamlet leaves the stage, as the happenings only seem relevant when in direct relation to the prince himself. The rest of the actors do an utterly professional job, but their characters lack the psychological complexity to match Hamlet’s. Yet the efforts of Sara Kestelman as the uneasy and alienated Gertrude and Peter Blythe as the as the somewhat pompous Polonius will be remembered alongside Simon Beale’s tour-de-force rendition as one of the great highlights of this theatre season.