Hamlet is so iconic it’s easy to forget how iconic it is. You can barely get through a scene without hearing a well-worn line, and feeling that renewed sense of discovery, or hearing the title of a book you read in college. The play is like Cliffs notes for Western civilization.
Which also means it’s freighted with expectations. Everyone knows what’s going to happen – the challenge is making it fresh. The Globe antes up with a big, muscular production, heavy on rage and spectacle.
Directed by Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein, an acknowledged Shakespearean scholar, the production seems bent on pulling the play from the vault and freshening it up for a modern audience. Grantham Coleman as Hamlet provides much of the ammunition. Coleman tries on the full spectrum of emotions – happy, sad, depressed, anxious, fearful. He is spry, muscular, sudden. This Hamlet is a keen observer of human foibles, complete with paper and pen to take notes.
This focus on the written word is an interesting part of the production. In his advice to Laertes (Jonny Orsini), Polonius (Patrick Kerr) reads aloud rather than reciting. In the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet seems to be writing it as he thinks it up. At one point, Hamlet slips a (love?) note into Ophelia’s gown.
In addition to Coleman, Kerr offers a standout performance, investing Polonius with a certain idiot intelligence. Talley Beth Gale is downright creepy as the undone Ophelia, offering a slightly less disturbing version of Eurus Holmes. Cornell Womack is marvelously imperious as King Claudius.
Edelstein is a master of the pregnant pause. Add a beat, and a line that might have been heavy with drama comes off light and perhaps a bit mocking. The costumes add a surreal quality, particularly Queen Gertrude’s (Opal Alladin’s) butterfly getup in the first act. While the live music can be intrusive, it does ratchet up the tension.
One sour note on the ghost (Michael Genet). While the rest of this production bends towards an update, the ghost woodenly marches across the stage – as stereotypical ghosts do. We need a better ghost.
Otherwise, the production is sharp and new. You’ll hear all those old favorite lines but with the slightest shifts.