Review: Free For All ‘Hamlet’ at the Shakespeare Theatre Company
Let’s get the basics out of the way. Hamlet is one of the greatest plays in history. The Shakespeare Theatre Company is a celebrated professional troupe. The Free for All series makes world-class theater accessible to everyone, free to anyone willing to spend the time. It’s good! Residents of the DMV, citizens of the states, tourists from the imperial provinces, go see it before July 21. It is time well spent.
As for the rest of it:
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The thing the play is—what’s the matter with Hamlet—is a vivisecting of authenticity.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
The prince of Denmark, along with everyone else around him in the bloody court intrigue we all remember dimly from English class, puts on barely metaphorical mask after mask, obscuring him from friend, foe, and self alike. Like Claudius’s line: My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go. And the actors who play Hamlet, who wear the mask of that sweet and heart-cracked piece of work, are tasked with bounding within the nutshell of their own selves the infinite space of man’s spirit. To encompass that capacity for magnanimity and smallness, to be methodical in the walk along the edge of madness is to become a picture of both what is fixed in human nature and what is of a moment, and so each version of Hamlet is defined by its lead.
Laurence Olivier spoke Hamlet in 1948 with all the tripping charm and insistent anger of transatlantic love affairs by steamer and wartime newsreels. In 1990 Mel Gibson gave us a manly student prince, martial resolve cloaked in a learned English accent, like NATO triumphant. The decadence of 1996 brought Kenneth Branagh’s baroque exuberance, his Hamlet a sort of rootless echo of Olivier. David Tennant performed the prince in 2009 with a trademark frenetic energy that fit the contradicting fever of years of political hope and economic panic. And a decade later in 2019, Michael Urie has given us a new Hamlet for our time.
He’s a Bo Burnham of Denmark: internet-irony inflected, self-consciously effete, occasionally self-consciously effeminate, accented by sarcasm, speaking with the sad-mad-hopeful tones of YouTube and Vine for a generation whose primary illusion is that they have no more illusions. It is masterful. Some time ago I saw a rehearsal for the production that this brief run revives, and was unsure of what to make of the seemingly overwrought, insincere-sounding sincerity I glimpsed in Urie then. I’m sure now it is exactly correct, allowing us to discover in his embodiment and expression that Shakespeare’s language has hardly aged at all, that Hamlet could very well be a painfully intelligent late adolescent today, brain broken by life online.
Hamlet seems written for a cultural moment such as ours. Such is the nature of all works that touch eternity; but Urie’s performance makes that reality clear and fresh. Betrayals by authority and prior generations, privacy so far removed from real possibility that only the deep dark of interiority can be a refuge from others, a feeling of usurpation and disinheritance, and confusion as to the course and rules of love: All are as true to life for those born in the last three decades as for Hamlet. The Bard would not be so lost as us in the perplexities of the now, for they are not new—just made stranger to us by our technology.
This production makes good use of that technology. Cameras create a world of watchers and being watched, of ghosts on ramparts and bodies hidden under stairs. Microphones hidden in Bibles let spies listen from out of sight. Smartphones ping lovers’ messages back and forth across the stage. The intimacy the devices can seem to offer is shown to be a sham—Polonius can take Ophelia’s phone to the king and queen, after all, and convey what passes twixt her and the prince.
We liberal moderns don’t know what to make of monarchy, though, and the play, made so present and alive by Urie, wilts a bit for that. In design, Shakespeare Theatre Company has leaned hard into Nazi and Soviet aesthetics to suggest the tyranny of Claudius, with arm bands and insignias and uniforms and a set straight out of East Berlin. Blunt and brutal totalitarianism, it seems, is the only form of tyranny we understand. Claudius, being the bad guy, must be just like Hitler, or perhaps just like Stalin. There were only two evil men ever, hadn’t you heard? The rest of us are just following orders.
It is a shame. We lose any sense of it being a real tragedy, for Denmark, and not just a personal one for Hamlet, that his father was killed. Nor have we any way of imagining Hamlet as the just and righteous king he might have been had this usurpation not occurred. Dictatorship is the only thing we seem to recognize, now, presidents with limitless power, to use for good or ill as we decide: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. So much of Shakespeare is about a thin line running through the human heart upon the throne that divides true monarch from tyrant. But today, this long after the language of virtue Shakespeare wrote in, we think of liberty as the highest good, with no trace left in it of the vice the playwright heard in the word.
But never mind the few faults of this production; the play’s the thing.
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