Arena Stage's "Hamlet" takes place in upper-class Victorian government cirles (not to be confused with the world of Victorian melodrama in the Folger's recent "Hamlet"), where social order is the ideal of civilization, and anybody who wants to upset it must be mad.
This concept of director Liviu Ciulei's gives a startling new interest to certain speeches, scenes and characters. Unfortunately, Hamlet is not one of them. As a very pretty prince, Kristoffer Tabori's Hamlet would be entitled to indulge in some romantic posturing, but he exceeds the amount that would be tolerated in this milieu. The name given to vehement emotion working against the interests of society then was hysteria.
It is for this reason that Ophelia's mad soene, played at a formal dinner table with the rosemary-for-remembrance plucked form the centerpiece, is incredibly effective. When an obedient maiden makes a scene at table, you know her wits have truly deserted her.
Making a scene would have been unthinkable for the sterner, royal personages. Thus, it seems incongruous for Claudius, whom Richard Bauer plays as Edward VII, to disrupt the palace play, or for old Hamlet, whom Tom McDermott plays as Nicholas II, to incite his son to assassination. One doesn't do such things.
For that matter, Gertrude ahs surely done the dutiful thing, for which there is plenty of royal precedent, by marrying the new king after lost the old one. So why should Hamlet treat her as a moral inferior?
Obviously, this is a director's production, in which his most valuable aide is Ming Cho Lee, whose sets stylishly support the atmosphere of order. Tabori's Hamlet and Christine Estabrook's Ophelia seem almost to have been painted by them, in attitudes such as Gloom or Disappointed Love. The king's advisers could be sitting for a group portrait of the 19th century State Department, and Guildenstern looks like somebody's grandfather's graduation picture.
The exception among the actors is Leonardo Cimino, whose Polonius brilliantly epitomizes the interpretation. He is neither the conventional comic bore nor the conventional moralistic bore, but a true statesman, cleverly distilling his peculiar mixture of vanity, loyalty, wisdom, foolishness, vulnerablity, cunning, obsequiousness and self-interest, and using it to oil the social machine. It is finally possible to see how Polonius could be simultaneously an adviser whom a cunning king trusts, and a buffoon whom a young prince easily dismisses.
But what would be difficult for anyone in such sophisticated court circles to understand is why anyone would harp on events that, however, appalling, are now past and irrelevant to the political situation.