Something’s rotten in ‘Hamlet’s’ direction
In my time as an arts critic for the Justice, I’ve always attributed the mediocre University productions to poor scripts, which relegate actors to shining within the confines of dull plots and muddled dialogue. Of course, I’ve seen plays here that were excellent both on and off the page, ones where praise went all around and the only criticisms were nit-picks. There have also been productions full of heart that simply never clicked with a poor script. Yet I’m now stuck with the conundrum of reviewing a disappointing Brandeis production of “Hamlet.” I can’t blame Shakespeare for poor storytelling. So, whose responsibility is it if Shakespeare’s story is not brought out to its full potential?
This Sunday I went to Merrick Theater in Spingold to catch “Hamlet,” directed by Abi Pont ’19. The titular role was played by Bryan McNamara ’19, who held his own with his stellar performance and proved himself as the moody, emotional Hamlet. Occasionally veering in and out of what seemed like a British accent, his performance was stellar regardless. His disappearance into the role was unmatched by anyone else on stage. His uncle, Claudius (Riely Allen ’18), was a domineering presence over the kingdom of Denmark. His plotting against Hamlet was as authentic as it was conniving, adding to the underlying sense of deviousness and betrayal within the family.
Another stand-out was Laertes, performed by Eli Esrig ’19. With a booming voice that matched McNamara’s, he stood out as an equal and opposite force. Similar to McNamara, Esrig easily slipped into his role and delivered his lines naturally. Their duel in the finale was done well, pitting the two powerhouses against each other and performing intense fight choreography (credited to Haia Bchiri ’20). Laertes’ mother (via gender reversal), Polonius, played by Kerstin Shimkin ’21, was another standout performance that deftly captured the character’s talkative attitude. However, Shimkin delivered her lines so quickly that half the time I was exhausted trying to keep up. While it was certainly a novel choice to portray Polonius as a fast talker, that choice was wasted on the audience because she didn’t articulate properly. Less is often more in Shakespeare, and talking with a slightly faster-than-normal cadence would have gotten the point across without muddling the language. But you may be thinking “Maybe that’s just her regular talking speed?” Well… it appears to be, as evinced by her rapidly going through announcements prior to the show. Yet she should have been told to slow down so the audience could enjoy her entertaining performance.
This leads me to my main problem with the production: the direction. I felt that each actor in the production held their own in their respective roles, but lacked a direction and individuality. Hamlet paced back and forth throughout the play aimlessly and points were altered for reasons unknown. Old Hamlet’s ghost violently drowning Ophelia and forcing Gertrude to drink the poisoned wine was simply baffling. All around I feel the actors were hindered. Take Hamlet’s mother Gertrude for example, played by Elizabeth Gentile ’20. Throughout her entire performance, she was either loudly weeping or shivering while sobbing in the corner. The director chose to have Gertrude’s main characteristic be “traumatized,” as mentioned in her note. I feel this narrow focus kept Gentile back. Prior to the slaying of Polonius, Gentile was motherly and subtle in her performance — this scene was the only time in the play where she wasn’t crying or sobbing with her hand over her mouth. Trauma can come in the form of a stutter. Intense shaking. Frozen stature. Instead, Gentile is instructed to place her hand over half her face and be escorted off-stage by Claudius multiple times.
The vision for this production lacked subtlety. Was there really no other way to convey Hamlet’s moodiness than to have McNamara hold a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” for a quarter of his stage time? Was the Hamlet ghost’s murder of Ophelia really necessary? Killing Ophelia undermines her state of mental health in the play completely. Was she not so ill that she committed suicide, but rather was murdered by the ghost to symbolize his undying wish to seek revenge on … his son, Polonius, and Laertes? If Old Hamlet’s ghost can just murder anyone, why does he bother with this elaborate scheme? Hamlet isn’t a ghost story, it’s a human story. I applaud the actors for trying their best amid the play’s tonal inconsistency. I hope you all shine in future roles that have clear motivation and competent direction.