In last season’s touring production of the Globe Theatre’s The Comedy of Errors Bill Buckhurst filled the Broad Stage with low comedy as the twin brothers Antipholus, providing a lean and light interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic filled with mischief and farcical foolery. This month he flips the coin and returns as director for the Globe’s Hamlet, which he helmed alongside Globe artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole. By stripping away pretense and sentimentality, and trimming the text to come in under three hours, their Hamlet remains fleet of foot, shedding its angst-ridden tendencies, and becomes a vivid rendering that capitalizes on the traditional limitations of touring. (Always remember to pack light.)
A compact multi-use wooden set built for travel reminds one of the Elizabethan stages of old. Its minimalistic design features two levels that create the castle Elsinore lookout and surrounding grounds enhanced by a pair of wooden step stools to simulate distance. With the addition of two wooden planks, built nicely into the choreography, scenes transition to the interior of the castle. A simple split red curtain is used sparingly for dramatic effect and to create the surprisingly fresh staging of the play within the play.
House lights remain up so the actors can communicate directly with the audience as they would have done in Shakespeare’s time. The actors’ costumes suggest their character with pieces that can be removed quickly onstage over a base that is part traditional, part early American World War I/II. Even the original score/soundscape is performed by members of the company eliminating the need for additional musicians.
The 8-member troupe of technically skilled and adaptable actors plays all the roles, switching characters as deftly as they change their hat. Miranda Foster, for example, transforms from the regal Gertrude to the Second Gravedigger so believably that you almost don’t recognize her. Michael Benz takes on the title role; a Hamlet for today’s youth who possesses uninhibited self-delight at his own ingenuity even as he suffers the pain of betrayal of one after another of his family members and friends. Posing stoically center stage as though answering a dare, he is confidently in control of the text at times playful, roguish, and at others persistent and driven. He delivers the famous speeches so clearly and simply that a collective hush came over the audience more than once as if to not disturb the air lest they miss a word. That alone was thrilling.
Humor trickles through when least expected. Christopher Saul’s Polonius cannot remember the correct versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s names and he even references at one point the Beverly Hills Hotel. Dickon Tyrell cuts an imposing figure as the Ghost, ironically doubling as Claudius and the Player King elsewhere in the play and Tom Lawrence is steady and honest as Hamlet’s last remaining friend.
Yes it’s true that just about everyone still dies in the end, but that aside, you won’t find an oppressive, brooding, torturously labored Hamlet in these traveling trunks. No indeed. What you will find is a production that is intelligent, swift, and light on its feet, honestly unpretentious, and exciting in its precision. And that’s always worth the price of admission. As the dead rise to end the night in the revelry of a traditional Elizabethan dance it oddly feels just right.
Through November 25, 2012
The Broad Stage
At the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center
1310 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401