The current Strat-ford production of Hamlet, starring Ben Carlson as the disillusioned Dane, is a thrilling tour de force. Carlson’s decade at the Shaw Festival, punctuated by his acclaimed performance in Man and Superman in 2004, and his recent stint as Hamlet with the Chicago Shakespeare Festival, attests to his general success as a classical actor. His first season at Stratford, however, provides him with a starring role that is not supported by a cast as charismatic or as engaging as their leading man. Hamlet is left alone, for the most part, to deliver eloquent meditations on the lascivious and corrupt state of Denmark.
The only weak spot in Carlson’s virtuoso performance is an utter lack of sensuality between him and his beloved Ophelia, due in large part to the production’s competent yet relatively lacklustre supporting cast. By the time we get to his declaration of love for the befuddled young woman who has been tormented by complex family matters it comes as a bit of a surprise that he has felt such passion for her all along.
Adrienne Gould’s Ophelia, although extremely effective in the mad scene as she sings some rather sordid secrets, does not follow through with a passion that should inform her every move. Scholars have argued that Ophelia may in fact be pregnant and that the snippets of song during her final demented ravings reveal this possibility. The smouldering sense of thwarted desire that should infuse her insanity during lilting lines such as “Before you tumbled me you promis’d me to wed” come across as muddled lyrical ramblings that bear little connection to the object of her affection. Arguably the women’s roles in Shakespeare need sharp, powerful interpretations by actresses; the female characters are often caught in a world where male characters seem hellbent on undermining and manipulating them, despite their love, from beginning to end.
Maria Ricossa’s Gertrude falls prey to an even more pronounced lack of passion than Ophelia, and becomes a rather one-dimensional and confused character who never seems to fully realize the depth of the tragedy that surrounds her. Confusion may very well be Gertrude’s lot in life, but in order to make it stage-worthy the performer must be directed to make clear and exciting choices on how to present Gertrude’s predicament. After all she has been humping two hunky kings over a relatively short period of time. That alone should heighten her emotion in some fabulous way.
On a brighter dramatic note Geraint Wyn Davies interprets the hapless Polonius brilliantly and gives Carlson rare moments of impeccable, rapid-fire interaction when they engage in pivotal scenes such as the delightfully comic fishmonger moments. This is the kind of tragicomic interplay that should grab us at the outset, preparing an audience for every momentous entrance by the famed prince who spends more than three hours dominating a drama that implicates those closest to him. Stark settings and beautiful late Victorian costumes by Santo Loquasto could have provided an effective environment for the ongoing action. With the exception of Randy Hughson’s delightful gravedigger and the beautifully rendered travelling players scenes, much of the drama unfolds as somewhat bland preparation for another exciting appearance by the fresh prince of foul air.
Much ado has been made of Hamlet, when in fact the current Stratford production would have fared better had the entire cast paid more detailed and passionate attention to the drama at hand, providing us with an exciting answer to the pivotal Shakespearean query, “to be [dramatic] or not to be.”