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Editorial Review

At the Folger, a powerful and pared-down ‘Hamlet’
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, September 11, 2012

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 that 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.

PREVIEW: To D.C.’s Folger, a ‘Hamlet’ from Shakespeare’s Globe
By Peter Marks
Saturday, August 11, 2012

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, on 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.