Lindsay Anderson's production of "Hamlet" brings a new level of sophistication to the Folger Theatre. Infused with a fine intelligence, the play, which opened Monday night, is newly revealed and shows both the company and the playhouse at best advantage.
Anderson's audacity is that he dares to be simple. Often productions at the Folger have the tension of a large man in a too-small suit, straining for room on the tiny stage, searching for space in too many corners. This production is a perfect marriage of design and space, allowing the viewer the luxury of true intimacy -- the ability to see everything and to hear clear, direct speech without mechanical intervention.
Designers John Lee Beatty (set) and Jeffrey Beecroft (lights) have embraced the theater's limitations rather than trying to disguise them; the inescapable Folger pillars are echoed in exact copies, and the warm patina of the wood used in the set connects the stage to the playhouse and wraps the audience and players together to jointly create this imaginary kingdom of Denmark.
Anderson's first and perhaps most brilliant conceit is to begin the play with a capsule of the final scenes, in which a dying Hamlet pleads with his friend Horatio to "tell my story." Thus the context is set without pretension; a story is about to be told -- and a ripping good one at that -- of "carnal, bloody and unnatural acts," as Horatio says. "Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters/of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause/And, in this upshot, purposes mistook/fall'n on the inventors' heads . . ."
Mercifully absent is the sense of reverential duty that so often hangs over other productions of Shakespeare, the slightly patronizing air of importance that makes audiences feel they are too ignorant to actually enjoy the play. This must be what Shakespeare wanted, a production that does not search for gimmicks to catch our attention, but leaves us gently but firmly to hear the words and watch the tale unfold.
Part of this production's beauty is its balance; there are no star turns, nor are there any clinkers. In the title role, Frank Grimes is not particularly charismatic; his somewhat doughy features do not instantly command our attention. But he is immensely appealing, a tenderly pensive Hamlet who sees adulthood looming, and a choice between acting on principle or submitting to fate. This Hamlet is not merely seeking to avenge a wounded sense of honor but to redress his genuine grief at his beloved father's murder. If he is mad, we understand why.
Madeleine Potter's Ophelia is mad, but poignantly so. She trembles like a leaf about to be blown away (another advantage of the small Folger is that you can actually see her hands quivering). She is not unintelligent, but her frailty is her fatal flaw. Emery Battis (Polonius) is another reward of this production, a bumbling yet endearing old bore.
Roderick Horn's Claudius is excellently smarmy and as unprincipled as a fish. James Maxwell is a sober, scholarly Horatio, an articulate contrast to the silly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Edward Hibbert and Edward Gero), whose puffed up and ruffled costumes reflect their foppish natures. Only Michael Tolaydo (Laertes) and Mikel Lambert (Gertrude) seem slightly out of key; Tolaydo for retaining a touch of the bombast in his expostulations and Lambert for what has become a habitual drawn-out tremolo in her speech. These flaws are simply acting habits, made more noticeable by the unaffected directness of their colleagues. Tolaydo and Grimes' sword fights are convincing.
This production is a jewel in a small velvet box -- not a harsh and garish diamond, but a subtler stone, perhaps a pearl. It shows that skill and intelligent attention can often produce a more deeply theatrical effect than theatrics that grab our eyes but not our hearts.
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Lindsay Anderson. Set, John Lee Beatty; costume design, Judianna Makovsky; lighting, Jeffrey Beecroft; fight choreography, Erik Fredricksen. With Frank Grimes, Roderick Horn, Emery Battis, James Maxwell, Michael Tolaydo, Mikel Lambert, Madeleine Potter, Edward Hibbert, Edward Gero, Jim Beard, Alessandro Cima, Richard Hart, Michael W. Howell, Seth Allan Jones, Floyd King, John Wylie, Rick Sabatini and Joa o de Sousa. At the Folger Theatre through April 28.