Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ashland Shakespeare Note: the un-Branagh

Regular communicants at the shrine of Underbelly will recall Buce's test for any performance of Hamlet: when Ophelia says "Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" do we believe her? Have we seen that Hamlet is indeed a "noble mind" or is he merely something else--as, for example, an infantile twit?

Dan Donohue's Hamlet at Ashland flunks that test (directed by Bill Rauch) flunks that test which is a pity because he does so many parts of the role so well. But that's the trouble: Hamlet is many parts, and rarely if ever does one actor get all--or even a lot--of them right. Hamlet can be petulant, impulsive, self-absorbed, and Donohue can be all of these things. Many have noted that the play Hamlet, though a tragedy, is perhaps the funniest of the tragedies, and Donohue can make it funny (Donohue is, if nothing else, a highly skilled technician who can acocmplish the highly elusive task of getting his mouth round a handful of Shakespearen verse in a manner that makes it intelligible to a modern audience--even when he is speaking too fast, which he sometimes does).

But that's only part of the story. Hamlet is also a prince, the heir presumptive to the throne of Denmark. To make it work really well, we have to see that he has the qualities, at least incipient, that will mature into kingship.

And even more than mere kingship, there are moments when Hamlet achieves a kind of solemn dignity that makes us stop and catch our breath. The Hamlet who says "you shall nose him as you go up the stairs" is also the Hamlet who says "There ’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow or "... and yet what is this quintessence of dust?"

Which brings us to my favorite Hamlet--Kenneth Branagh. A lot of people aren't crazy about the Branagh Hamlet, and I can concede some of the point--there are a lot of things wrong with it. But for my money, Branagh is the one modern Hamlet who really conveys the since of Hamlet as a great Renaissance prince, who captures the dignity and the hint of majesty that I advert to above.

Perhaps the interesting point is that Branagh in spite (or becaue?) of his dignity and majesty, never really captures the petulant schoolboy or the frivolous crown. You never feel that he Branagh's "mad prince" is mad even north by northwest. Donohue's Hamlet knows how to fake madness for the family and may have a touch of the real thing.

The point may be that there are simply too many changes of register here: that nobody is going to get them all in the same performance (and we might not be able to assimilate it if they did). So Donohue may qualify as the un-Branagh, the one who gets exactly right precisely those parts at which Branagh is not so hot.

Aside from Donohue, there were a lot of other aspects of the performance that were good, if not exactly great. Perhaps the best was Richard Elmore as Polonius in what must be his 300th season at Ashland. Elmore understands that Polonius is funny, but does not lose sight of the fact that he is also a mean-spirited bully. Jeffrey King as Claudius looked a little too much like Daddy Warbucks to be completely convincing. And while you could believe him as a man who wanted to hang onto his job, you never felt that he understood the full dimensions of kingship.

Greta Oglesby played a Gertrude who didn't seem quite to grasp the point that her new husband is a murderer. I think this is a legitimate reading of the text, but it leaves her as merely a distraught mother, which isn't as rich a role to play.

A couple of fun facts: Hamlet's age is a problem in any production because Shakespeare made it a problem. I once saw a 19-year-old play Hamlet as a 19-year-old. I believe Donohue is 41, which would make him one of the older 19-year-olds in theatre history. And about five years older than Branagh was when he gave it his more mature reading in 1996.

No comments: