When Anglo American actor Michael Benz was 12 and making his way on British television — playing, among other roles, Little Lord Fauntleroy for the BBC — he was asked to present a bouquet at a benefit to Judi Dench and her actor husband, Michael Williams. “I knew her only as M in the Bond movies,” he says, sounding a bit sheepish.
He still cringes inwardly at what happened next. “She asked me, ‘Do you think you’ll do any theater?’ ” he recalls, letting out a little preemptive giggle of remorse. “And I said, ‘Well, maybe on the side.’ ”
This, of course, feels to him all the more embarrassing, given the turn his acting career would take after he graduated in 2004 from Georgetown University and followed that with a degree from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. For Benz is now firmly entrenched on Dench’s turf, playing of all essential parts that of Hamlet in a touring production from Shakespeare’s Globe in London that settles in early next month at the Folger Theatre for a two-week stay.
This “Hamlet” is both a return and an arrival. It’s the Washington debut for Shakespeare’s Globe, a 17-year-old company housed in a reconstructed version of the theater on London’s South Bank, a few hundred yards from the site of the 16th-century original that showcased Shakespeare’s plays. While the company presents a full season at its home base — the new one features the Globe’s founding artistic director, Mark Rylance, as both the title character in “Richard III” and Olivia in “Twelfth Night” — it has sought repeatedly to take its theatrical wares on the road, as a continuation of a hallowed practice.
“The English theater was a touring theater before it got locked into wooden houses,” says Dominic Dromgoole, who took over from Rylance as artistic director in 2005. “We wanted to revive that tradition.”
Folger, meanwhile, has been looking for ways to broaden its hold on Washington audiences even as its friendly classical rival across town, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, expands its role as a presenter of notable work from Europe: The National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch,” for example, comes to the STC’s Sidney Harman Hall for a repeat run, from Sept. 19 to Oct. 7.
Janet Griffin, the Folger’s director of public programs, says she has been in talks for some time with the Globe about bringing one of its productions; as a leading research library and repository for Shakespeare folios and quartos, the Folger seemed a natural ally.
The Folger’s theater season typically encompasses three plays, two of them Shakespeares and one other a classical piece or a play with a classical theme. The 2012-13 season includes “Henry V,” “Twelfth Night” and “The Conference of the Birds,” an adaptation by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere of a 12th-century Persian fable. “Hamlet” is an add-on event in one of the few open spots on the calendar for Folger’s playhouse, which is shared by all of the institution’s programs.
“It just made so much sense: The U.S. coat of arms is at one end of our building, and the British coat of arms is at the other,” Griffin says. About the Globe, she adds: “They want to build an archive, and we want to partner with that. But this visit is a trial run for us. And it is a partnership that lets us think about bringing in other countries.”
The “Hamlet” that is coming courtesy of the Globe has toured Britain extensively and begins a North American journey with its Washington stop. The production then moves to New York and Boston before heading to the West Coast and possibly, Dromgoole says, to Mexico City. It’s an economical version of the play, unfolding in only about two hours and 40 minutes — at its rarely seen full length, it runs about four hours — and performed by a mere eight actors.
“It was devised to be infinitely adaptable,” explains Dromgoole, who is staging it along with actor-director Bill Buckhurst. “It can play the Globe space, it can play an open-air field, it can play a big amphitheater in Europe.”
The production aesthetic is physically sparer than a piece of “Hamlet’s” epic scale usually inspires. “You realize,” Dromgoole adds, “that big, heavy naturalistic sets and complex lighting plots aren’t necessarily the only way to go.”
While Washington is virgin territory for the Globe, the Folger visit is a homecoming for Benz, who grew up in England as one of six children of American parents. As it happens, matriculating at Georgetown, where he majored in psychology, is something of a family tradition. And though he’d appeared as a kid on a long-running British children’s show and then later on “Mike & Angelo,” a “sci-fi sitcom,” it wasn’t until he got to Georgetown in the early 2000s that his attention turned to the stage in a big way — and to the Bard in particular.
“When I was at Georgetown, I sought out Shakespeare in Washington,” Benz says by telephone while on tour in England, where that night he would play Hamlet. It turned out that the city’s classical companies, and some of its better-known actors, opened the eyes of a teenager from Britain to the wonders of Shakespeare. “Wallace Acton was my first Richard III,” he says, “and the first Viola I saw was Holly Twyford.”
Maybe some of the Shakespeareans who made such a deep impression on him will be in the audience to see him now.
By William Shakespeare. From Shakespeare’s Globe. Sept. 8-22 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theater.