With all the reverent portent that attaches to productions of “Hamlet,” an audience can lose sight of one keen attribute: It’s a ripping good yarn. That sometime-neglected trait is compensated for satisfyingly in the version currently in locomotion at Folger Theatre, courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe.
This brisk and compact “Hamlet” from London, performed by a mere eight actors, casts off solemnity and muscularly embraces the essential task of telling the story. You’ll find little attempt on this occasion to discover the psychological depths of Hamlet’s cynicism or despair: In Michael Benz’s frisky portrayal, he’s a kid returned home from college who just happens to be contemplating his revenge over the murder of his royal father and his mother’s hasty marriage to the dead king’s brother. The framing device of rustic dances chosen by directors Dominic Dromgoole (the Globe’s artistic director) and Bill Buckhurst further reminds you that even tragic events can first and foremost be intended as diversion.
Folger’s hosting of Shakespeare’s Globe on the launch of its North American tour of “Hamlet” — it goes from here to Pace University in Manhattan and then to Emerson College in Boston — represents a new category of programming for the theater-in-the-library on Capitol Hill. In the trailblazing style of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, it’s adding to Washington’s performing-arts palette another troupe from overseas that otherwise has no outlet here. Wouldn’t it be terrific if Folger carved out a niche every season for just such a classical event and maybe even sealed some similar deals with non-English-speaking companies?
Shakespeare’s Globe was a natural place to start, and its smart, highly portable “Hamlet” proves an attractive supplement to Folger’s three-play season. Let’s be real: When actors are not only doubling or tripling, but also quadrupling in roles — Peter Bray, for instance, turns up as Rosencrantz, Marcellus, Fortinbras and Osric — the elucidation of character may be not quite as incisive as in some other productions, nor the spectacle quite as spectacular. (You will not find the kind of parsing of personality or lucid music an actor like Simon Russell Beale or Mark Rylance might bring to the title role.) The compensation comes in the supple marshalling of resources and the sleek, expository effectiveness.
The actors, in street clothes theatricalized by simple wardrobe suggestions of regality or servility, soliloquize on a stage with only a few primitive adornments: Jonathan Fensom’s set is made up of benches for actor-musicians to rest against, and a curtain on rope for Hamlet’s conscience-catching play-within-a-play. The Folger house lights remain on throughout the evening, a hat-tip to the natural illumination of the company’s own Globe, an open-air replica situated close to where Shakespeare’s theater once stood. Patrons of American Shakespeare Center in Staunton will also be familiar with the lighting practice.
In sparing bursts, Dromgoole and Buckhurst locate freshness on this rough turf, especially during the playing of “The Mousetrap”: The curtains are manipulated several times to provide the alternating perspectives of the Players, mimicking in their presentation the slaying of Hamlet’s father, and then the perspectives of Claudius (Dickon Tyrrell) and Gertrude (Miranda Foster), growing grayer as the significance of Hamlet’s theatrical evening sinks in. A mimed prologue to the play-within-a-play, timed to the incessant beat of a drum, underscores the highly disciplined quicksilver of the entire production.
Tyrrell and Foster mold a taut symbiosis as the usurping king and his compliant queen; Foster is especially compelling in the scene in her quarters, when Hamlet confronts her and unwittingly stabs to death the eavesdropping Polonius (Christopher Saul.) The facile impulse has been to suggest a sexual element to their encounter. That the Globe directors resist this urge amounts to something like modern revelation. The fuse lighted between this Gertrude and Hamlet comes across as a natural result of the rage each is feeling at the other’s betrayal. It is mercifully undistilled from the text.
The flaxen-haired Benz doesn’t pretend he’s spouting poetry; the soliloquies here are the protein shakes of his gathering strength as a strategist, and in his intelligent portrayal you do not have to question, as the royal household around him does, whether he’s of sound mind. Of course this particular Hamlet is. In this straightforward telling, the drama lies not in what he decides to do, but how he decides to do it.
Though the final fight between Hamlet and Laertes is merely okay — don’t places like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which Benz attended, teach swordplay? — Matthew Romain’s stout-hearted Laertes is a potent adversary. Having Carlyss Peer’s excellent Ophelia picking imaginary stalks of rosemary and daisies is a sharp way to expose her delusional state, and Saul’s comic embodiments of Polonius and the First Gravedigger are wry leavening agents.
As a steady, down-to-earth Horatio, Tom Lawrence completes this skillful party of eight in their 21 / 2-hour strut upon the Folger stage. Which goes to show that under the right circumstances, Hamlet can indeed be cut down to size.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst. Set and costumes, Jonathan Fensom; lighting, Paul Russell; original score, Laura Forrest-Hay; fight director, Kevin McCurdy; choreography, Sian Williams; voice and dialect, Martin McKellan. About 2 ½ hours. Through Sept. 22 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Visit www.folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.