The Momentum of Doom
Hamlet and Abraham Lincoln
If you are unfamiliar with Hamlet—are there any of you out there?—you should stop reading this review and take the next opportunity to see the current production of the most famous play in the West, and maybe the world, at Seattle Shakespeare Company. Director John Langs and his excellent cast have assembled the clearest, cleanest, least bombastic, and most profound Hamlet I've ever seen (including the film versions), in which each actor understands every word he or she speaks. This is rare. Too often with Shakespeare in general, and Hamlet in particular, actors skid over their Elizabethan words like a car on an icy road: There's no traction. And if they don't understand what they're saying and those of us in the audience have to do the work of understanding the text for them—well, that's how bad and boring Shakespeare productions are born.
Langs, to his credit, has made the gutsy decision to keep this Hamlet simple—no updating, no flashy concept. Midway through the play, Hamlet verbally assaults his scheming "friends" Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, shoving a musical pipe toward them, commanding them to play a tune. "Believe me, I cannot," Guildenstern protests. "Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me!" Hamlet snarls back. "You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops... Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?" Many directors have made the same mistake as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, presuming to play upon the play by setting it in 1980s Wall Street or a 1930s vaudeville palace or some other debasing, wocka-wocka adaptation. This production lets Hamlet reveal the heart of his mystery in his own time, on his own terms.
And the actors meet the challenge. Charles Leggett brings expected gravitas and an unexpected humor to the ghost of Hamlet's father. (Shakespeare himself played this role in the original production, and his own son, Hamnet, died at 11 years old. James Joyce suggested that Hamlet is Shakespeare's ideal son in the same way Prince Hal is Falstaff's ideal son.) When the ghost visits Hamlet in his mother's room—a tense scene typically played up for its latent oedipal drama—Leggett uses an "O" in the script that other actors usually deploy as an exclamation to ramp up the next line. Instead, he walks across the room, notices the corpse of the recently murdered Polonius, and gives a mildly surprised, but not at all put-out "Oh." Not an O I'm about to deliver a great declamation!, but an Oh, so you killed that twit... I never liked him anyway.
It's a teeny-tiny moment in which Leggett (and Langs) finds a new glint of interpretation in the old speech, but it's indicative of this production as a whole. Langs and company are relentlessly dedicated to interrogating the text for undiscovered information, jokes, and bits of pathos. They do not approach Hamlet as The Great Play that they must either pinch with frivolous updates or cower before.
The actors simply speak to each other and listen to each other, drawing us more deeply into their world, where we find examples of our worst selves—in the half-assed guilt of Claudius (Richard Ziman), in the pretentiousness of Polonius (David Pichette), in the foolish rage of Laertes (Shawn Law), or in the sweet and abused naiveté of Ophelia (Brenda Joyner)—plus the frighteningly huge character of Hamlet himself. The old critic Harold Bloom has said that Hamlet is too big for his play, perhaps too big for the world itself, and he's right. Crawling inside Hamlet, as actor Darragh Kennan's performance allows us to do, is like finding yourself in a dark and vast ocean, where you just try to keep your head above water. Hamlet is deeper than you.
And in the mouth of a competent actor, his words about everything from suicide ("To be or not to be") to depression ("Look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appears no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors") to the paralysis of thinking ("Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of thought") have the horrifying chill of recognition. Hearing the barely formed thoughts of your own mind articulated so well cuts like a razor.
In the title role, Kennan speaks with the same attention to meaning and truth as Leggett—and most everyone else in this Hamlet. His golden curls shake, his deep eyes flit around the room to take everything in, his face twitches with the roiling contradictions he holds in himself, trying to do the right thing: Love Ophelia or spurn her? Kill his uncle or keep quiet? Quit the kingdom for a happier life elsewhere or stick around and face his doom? If he does what the ghost asks of him, eight people will die—his lover, his mother, his uncle, his childhood mentor, three of his friends, and himself. You get the sense that he knows this in the "to be or not to be" speech, the way Abraham Lincoln said during the Civil War: "If I had my way, this war would never have been commenced. If I had been allowed my way, this war would have ended before this. If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it... The bottom is out of the tub. Whichever way it ends, I have the impression that I shan't last long after it's over."
The momentum of doom in Lincoln's words is the same momentum of doom in Hamlet's—and Kennan's.
This Hamlet, in short, is excellent.
Remember old police chief Norm Stamper, the guy who presided over Seattle cops from 1994 to 2000, left his office after the WTO debacle, and has since become an anti-drug-war warrior, speaking out for the need to "legalize and control" narcotics instead of letting the violent, chaotic black market ruin people's lives both north and south of the U.S./Mexico border? Well, he's in a play, a community-theater production of Brilliant Traces, in which a woman in a wedding gown crashes into the hut of an Alaskan hermit during a snowstorm. Over the course of the play, the woman (Melinda Milligan) and the man (Stamper) reveal their secret guilts and truths and kiss once or twice. It's a sweet little show, brought to sweet little life by the Actors Theater of Orcas Island. It probably won't change your brain or reorder the cosmos for you, but there are worse ways to pass an evening.