Returning to UCSB after a hit performance and critically-acclaimed (cough, by me, cough) West Coast tour of A Comedy of Errors last year, the actors of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater graced Campbell Hall’s stage once again on Friday, Nov. 9, to perform Shakespeare’s metaphysical tragedy upon tragedy, Hamlet. Capable of capturing the essence of Elizabethan theater both aesthetically and conceptually, the theater troupe dealt with the Bard’s most wild and whirling work in perhaps the most fitting way possible; that is, by immediately throwing the audience into a tizzy of simultaneously eruptive and enchanting confusion.
As is common and usually effective in the staging of Shakespearean plays, a semblance of a time period other than the piece’s original Elizabethan one was evident even before the performance itself. In fact, as the audience was ushered in (or ushered themselves — shout-out to the gaggle of co-eds who tried to nab my seat), the players planted themselves casually on the stage, mulling about the authentic set.
Ironically, however, as a form of theater marked by its complex and formulaic iambic pentameter and adherence to some antiquated genre styles, Elizabethan theater is relatively lawless. Such anarchy made itself merrily known when the entire ensemble of players began their mandolin-infused, Deep-Southern musical interpretation of the play’s introduction.
At first, the Americana setting was unsettling: although Queen Gertrude, played by Miranda Foster, entered the stage dressed like a pre-Great Depression-era belle, she and King Claudius, played by Dickon Tyrrell, quickly dawned fur caps over their worn costumes, making an effect that was not altogether visually pleasing and didn’t quite work even on an incongruence-for-congruence’s-sake level. Similarly, the ever- troubled Hamlet, played by Michael Benz, appeared in a costume clearly nostalgic of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film production of the piece, a calculated resemblance that was a bit bizarre in a costuming scheme that seemed to have no rhyme or reason.
Expectedly, however, directors Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst ultimately unveiled that there indeed was an effective, dramatic method to the madness. Perhaps what makes Shakespeare’s Globe Theater troupe so fantastic — and deserving of its official renown — is that it consistently manages to give an authentically Elizabethan essence to its productions. The hodgepodge costuming, minstrel-esque music and small cast playing multiple different roles introduced refreshing brevity to the three-hour piece, and re-introduced a form of simplicity to Elizabethan theater. Such unabashed simplicity shone particularly bright in the play’s infamous play-within-a-play scene, as it transformed a scene which often tends to take up an uncomfortable amount of time — staggering the audience’s attention span and rendering individuals restless in anticipation for Hamlet’s actual plot development — into one of sharp wit and punch.
The play-within-a-play also showcased the performance’s standout actors, Foster and Tyrrell. Foster did a fantastic job in the scene by adding an almost vaudevillian caricature to her silent pantomime. The actress was also cast as one of the gravediggers who prelude Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. She played the masculine character of a jesting simpleton, doing complete justice to the play’s surprising interjections of comedy and farce. Moreover, the simple costuming of her Gertrude — normally a regal queen wrapped in glamorous facsimiles of royal silks and furs — enabled the actress to actually endow the character with a biting personality, adding a two-dimensional aspect the queen who is often painted as overly sympathetic or merely as an instrument to the play’s real star, Hamlet. Similarly, Tyrrell played a delightfully and unusually slapstick Claudius, with a loud, jovial speech and a penchant for slapping the rather frail — both physically and mentally — Hamlet across his slouching shoulders. In other words: Tyrrell played the same hideously unsympathetic Claudius that Shakespeare wrote him out to be, but in a refreshingly novel way.
While Gertrude and Claudius may have offered up the piece’s most interesting actors, it does indeed go without saying that Hamlet, the iconically disturbed titular character, is the real star. Young Michael Benz followed in a similar vein to the performance itself in that at first, his character rang somewhat stunted. Perhaps over-doing the hangdog look of pouty Hamlet, the character seemed to already have his mental faculties not so intact from the start of the production. In time, however, Benz’s sulking brand of comedy attained an almost adorable quality that had the audience appropriately sympathetic with the starring character. His goofy and uninhibited rapport with his two school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, was well-acted and realistic. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves (Peter Bray and Matthew Romain) also added an element of dynamism to the play, as they appeared with tennis rackets and skis, implying that the two foolhardy and fairly stupid young gentlemen initially came to the dreary castle for a month or two of vacation.
Although his general affect was, somehow, one of a derisive and tragic humor, Benz approached the play’s more confrontational scenes with a casual professionalism. Although his scenes opposite Carlyss Peer’s Ophelia were fluid, the flippancy and slight lack of chemistry between the two made for a production of Hamlet that focuses less on the romantic intrigue and more solely on Hamlet’s mental devolvement and corrupted familial feuds. The chemistry between Hamlet and Ophelia’s father Polonius (Christopher Saul),
however, was palpable with Saul’s seemingly perfect representation of the long-winded, foolish, yet somehow exceedingly pompous courtier fitting well alongside Benz’s snarky Shakespearian quips.
Even as perhaps the most esteemed troupe of Shakespearian theater in the world, which could have undoubtedly funded ornate costumes, dozens of actors and numerous sets, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater company opted to capture the essence of Elizabethan tragedy by bravely not shying away from brevity, simplicity and chaos in its production of Hamlet. And while perhaps the aesthetics of the piece were sometimes a tad unsettling, it did well to highlight the often understated themes and characters, add a breath of fresh air to one of history’s most-performed plays and above all else, create an authentic and traditional Elizabethan theater performance within its modernity and innovation.
Image courtesy of Fiona Moorhead
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of November 15, 2012’s print edition of the Nexus.