“Hamlet,” like many Shakespearean tragedies, ends in a bloodbath. At the end of the play, there are three stabbing victims and one poisoned queen on stage; add in the corpses that are offstage (more stabbings, a drowning), and you’ve got quite a body count. Good thing the title character is such a comedian.
“He’s a genius, first off,” says Michael Benz, who will be playing the iconic Dane as the Folger hosts the D.C. debut of the production by Shakespeare’s Globe theater of London. “And like most geniuses, [he’s] really, really clever and really, really funny. They know how to get the humor out of the macabre. There’s humor all the way through it, and I try to bring out as much as I can. Great humor comes out of moments of horribleness.”
This version of “Hamlet” is a lot leaner than what you might remember. The play — which can run upward of four hours when nothing is cut out — has been trimmed to a brisk 2½ hours here, mostly by losing the whole war-with-Norway subplot that even your high school English teacher probably breezed over. This is less of an affront to Shakespeare, Benz says, than an accurate reflection of what would have happened in Shakespeare’s time.
“It would have been cut and sliced 400 years ago when on the road,” he says. “They’ve cut bits here and there, but all the juicy bits are in there. People go in knowing it’s slightly slimmed down, but they often say, ‘We didn’t notice any of the cuts.’ ”
Benz still used the full text as he prepared to take on what is perhaps the most famous Shakespearean role — or possibly the most famous part in the Western canon. “I actually read the unedited, unadulterated version at least three or four times before reading our version,” he says. But “I made a decision to just focus on our version and not to think about the stuff that’s cut. I look at it as our version.”
Another reflection of the Globe’s method (when in London, the cast performs in a replica of the famous Elizabethan theater) are the simplified costumes and sets used in the production. Benz says this gives the production “a timeless kind of quality.”
That quality is helpful in other ways, he admits. “Certainly from a practical point of view, since we’re not in full Elizabethan garb — I’m not in tights, the ladies are not in corsets — there’s a certain ease we have onstage.”Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE; Sat. through Sept. 22, $35-$85; 202-544-7077. (Capitol South)