To say that Shakespeare is our greatest writer is hardly an insight, but to explain why—that is revealing. It's not just that his writing vocabulary, at 20,000 words, is more than two and a half times that of any other extraordinary writer, and it's not that he invented much of the English language as we use it. It's not even that he set a standard for poetry and drama that is rarely equaled in individual effort and never equaled as a body of work. No, more than all these unparalleled achievements stand the author's genius at getting to the heart of the human condition. Given this singularity, we are compelled to take notice when his greatest work is performed.
While some may quibble and insist that King Lear, with its quintessential structure, deserves this distinction, others, particularly those familiar with the authorship controversy, understand that it is Hamlet that stands as the author's penultimate statement, because, truly, it is his most autobiographical work. It also happens to feature the one role by which any stage actor of distinction is measured.
|Scott Ferrara as Hamlet|
Photo by Terry Shapiro
So, not withstanding that we have seen many performances of Hamlet, we return with anticipation again and again to experience new efforts to interpret this masterpiece, in this case the Denver Center Theatre Company's production directed by Anthony Powell. Taking advantage of his rare opportunity, Powell boldly breaks new ground while, at the same time, delivering a clear and powerful rendition of the most famous and most analyzed play ever written.
Though curious at first, the choice of setting Hamlet in the intimacy of the Space Theatre, coupled with the casting of 28 year old Scott Ferrara as the young Danish prince, proves to add immeasurably to the psychological and emotional strength of the production. Powell's Hamlet unfolds with an intrinsic naturalness seldom seen. The character of Hamlet is young, and that explains much of his instability and impatience, but he is not deluded or mad. His is not the only one to see his father's ghost, and besides, not only is Claudius' suppressed guilt revealed by his reaction to Hamlet's play, but he admits to himself and the audience that he in fact did slay his brother. As Hamlet, Ferrara captures the sincere grieving of a son for his father, a righteous displeasure with his mother's cavalier remarriage (even if it is politically expedient for Denmark), and a no-nonsense determination once he has certified Claudius' complicity in his father's death. He is, after all, a prince trained in the kingly arts, intelligent and valorous, and Ferrara's Hamlet shows his pedigree for calculation and bluff.
If there is any relationship that gets short shrift in the swift arc of this production, it is that between Hamlet and Ophelia. At first, Morgan Hallett's Ophelia shows the requisite blush of blossoming womanhood, charmed by Hamlet's overtures. But her father's admonitions seem to overly dampen her affections, muting her reactions to both Hamlet's seemingly incongruous backpedaling ("I did love you once … Get thee to a nunnery!") and his forwardness during the play scene ("Lady, shall I lie in your lap? … It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge."), thus missing the requisite opportunities to offer glimpses of her passion that will underlie her final madness. When Hallett's touched and lascivious Ophelia surfaces after her father's death, we are bereft of adequate preparation for the scale of her transformation. With Hamlet, too, we are afforded no subtext when he denies his love for Ophelia. Is he suspicious of being overheard by Claudius and Polonius (who are behind the curtains)? If not, opportunities are lost to set up both the scene in which he slays Polonius through the curtain and when he unleashes his grief by jumping into Ophelia's grave.
That said, there are no such equivocations elsewhere in this production. John Hutton is a strong choice as Claudius, clearly a powerful and ambitious man. As an esoteric aside, we recall, when Claudius asks that his hands be washed of his brother's blood, that it was Hutton who played Macbeth, not so long ago, hands awash in another king's blood. Gordana Rashovich, as Gertrude, lays the queen's worldview before us without duplicity; she is good natured, loyal, yet unaware and unconcerned with the political machinations that surround her. Is this not what Polonius would have had his Ophelia become had not events conspired against her?
Speaking of Polonius, in the first printing of the play this character was called Corambis, or "two-hearted," which was a swipe at the motto of Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth's chief minister. In the Oxfordian view, this uncomplimentary character is the playwright Edward de Vere's way of repaying a lifetime of abuse, a trespass for which he was not punished, but forced to rename his foil. As he does so well with Moliere's antagonists, Randy Moore mines the egoism and foolishness of this Shakespearean archetype, the garrulous old man, with aplomb.
In a homecoming of sorts, veteran Tony Church returns to the stage after his recent heart surgery in the dual roles of the Lead Player and A Gravedigger. Much as he did with Prospero a few years back, Church lends his lifetime of experience and dignity to Powell's generous interpretation of the itinerant thespians, a take which is perfect keeping with the pre-World War I Scandanavian setting. The irony of Church's turn at a gravedigger is not lost on those of us who remember his comments on being visited in the hospital by Lawrence Hecht, who played Mick, the gravedigger in A Skull in Connemara.
In another unexpected moment, with tongue in cheek Powell directs Adam Gordon and Jason Henning, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as if the playwright were getting to pay his compliments back to Tom Stoppard's tribute to these two clueless sophisticates.
Finally, in a thought provoking twist, Powell double-casts Bill Christ as the Ghost and as Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, the former and future rulers of this troubled kingdom. Christ wastes no time in convincing us that he is indeed worthy of this throne. In a production is full of insights and surprises, this caps it off. Despite a few missed opportunities, this Hamlet soars.
The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Hamlet, directed by Anthony Powell, runs through March 9th. 303-893-4100.