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As Long as We Remember...

June 22, 2007

An American "Hamlet" for the Ages

Roy Meachum

Even people unfamiliar with Shakespeare's first name know of "Hamlet." It is by far the most performed and the most quoted English-language tragedy, which I first saw and heard, by coincidence, in French.

Two Army buddies joined me in a typical go-to-hell, rambunctious GI week in the City of Lights. We were guilty of the expected stupidities but now and then we emerged to look for something else. We did the Paris Opera version of Shakespeare's "Othello," dropped in on the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and, above all, at the Theatre Marigny, Jean-Louis Barrault's Hamlet.

By dumb luck three teenage Americans stumbled into one of the truly great performances in the world's 20th century stagecraft.

M. Barrault interpreted the tragedy of the melancholy Dane for French sensibilities. Memory serves up his Gallic Hamlet as languid; "To be or not to be," Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy, was delivered by the famous actor reclining on the stage's apron, that part that protrudes into the audience, out from under where scenery could fly down.

In Berlin, the suicidal musing became "Sein oder nicht Sein" and that Hamlet was quintessentially "echt Deutsch," truly German. Upon returning to the states, I found in a Washington movie house Laurence Olivier's stiff upper-lip cousin to his brusquely British "Henry Fifth," which we called Hank Sank. Hollywood mavens were so impressed they gave Sir Laurence that year's Oscar.

Among the "Hamlet" productions seen in this country only the show that starred Richard Burton stands out; not for the Welsh actor's rendering of all the musicality of Shakespeare's words, but because of the way Canadian Hume Cronyn created a Polonius that I could believe was his country's prime minister, not some dithering old fool.

In any event, every director in North America, in my experience, tried, and sometimes succeeded, to maintain Shakespeare's English impression of the Danish prince, who mourned his father by presiding over the elimination of the old king's murderers. And there's plenty of poetry, filled with very familiar quotations, to aid and abet "Hamlet's" melodrama.

The pseudo-British mold was broken for me this week when we traveled down to the Washington Shakespeare Theatre for Michael Kahn's very gutsy "Hamlet."

Jeffrey Carlson rewrote the book, as the saying goes, for an American audience; his prince is not as melancholy as thoroughly mad. He focuses entirely on his business of seeking revenge. He has a thoroughly American drive to succeed, cost what it may. He tosses off without throwing away the passages that reflect his range of thoughts working up to his supreme triumph. He thinks out lines rather than let them echo in his mouth. He has superbly created a Hamlet unlike any other I've seen.

At the end, as you must know, the last act leaves the stage with bodies littered about. Director Kahn has not called for Hamlet's funereal litter to be borne triumphantly in the wings; for that express purpose Shakespeare contrived the appearance of a Norwegian army. The line remains, calling for the prince's final progress, but Norway's newly arrived Fortinbras keeps his troops out of sight.

On the way back to Frederick, considerable conversation and wonder went to Will Spangler's set; he designed a way to manipulate on-stage changes in a way that would totally befuddle my Uncle Pat who was a New Orleans stagehand all his long life. The scenery seemed to trick-and-turn inside itself in the spirit of a magician's "now you see it, now you don't." Bravo.

As usual when Mr. Kahn concentrates his tremendous energy and talents, there is not a single clinker in the show; none that I could tell. I was swept away by every on-stage element: actors, costumes and lighting, to name the basics. Presenting the play-within-the-play as Kabuki, complete with marvelous puppets, left me shaking my gray beard. Who would have thought? Michael Kahn did.

While Hume Cronyn's Polonius stands out in memory, I shall never forget the way Robert Cuccioli fashioned Claudius as a suave and thoroughly sophisticated killer, and good-looking to-the-boot. For the very first time, I accepted this was a man the queen, Hamlet's mother, would conspire with to assassinate her husband, Hamlet's father. Mr. Cuccioli set the standard for future productions, as did Mr. Cronyn. This Claudius has to be seen to be believed.

In no small part, the evening's great success belongs existentially to the way director Michael Kahn set up the play's flow; he brought all scenes to the front, where every actor enjoyed the spotlight for the moments Shakespeare focused on his players. Nobody's lines or presence wound up lost in back-stage's concealing spaces.

If you surmise that I was mightily impressed by what the Washington Shakespeare Theatre created from the greatest "old horse" in any actor's repertory, you are totally right. Here is a "Hamlet" for people who never cared for Shakespeare except in occasional quotes; many first saw light in the manuscript for the Danish prince.

This is, indeed, a production to be preserved for the ages, as long as the love of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" survives. Arrangements should be made for a high-quality videotape and they should be started now. Taping the final week when actors would have worked out fully their interpretations strikes me as thoroughly possible, given the group's inventive resources.

The "live" production runs in the house on Seventh Street Northwest until July's end, but even midweek tickets appear to be selling out. Get on the phone or on-line quickly: 202-547-1122 or

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