Acknowledged as one of Shakespeare's greatest works, Hamlet charts the demise of the prince of Denmark, as he attempts to avenge his father's murder by his uncle. Throw into the mix a little incestuous behaviour on the part of his mother Gertrude, some bonafide insanity from the love interest Ophelia and the threat of war from an army marching on the country and you have the recipe for a powerful play. But it's all about the performance.
First impressions are good - a sparse set, with lots of dark corners and crevices, perfect for the kind of grizzly introspection and soliloquising that you expect from Shakespeare's most cerebral play. Adapted from Joseph Papp's New York production, actor/director Kevin Kline has created just the right mood for the action to commence.
Then come the words. Unfortunately, the opening scenes are lacking the intensity and feeling of threat necessary to set the tone for the rest of the play. The whole thing has an air of amateur dramatics about it, but surely, on Kline's arrival, everything will change.
However, his performance fails to meet expectations; in fact, it is rather garish and overacted. True, his Hamlet is a fresh interpretation, but not one that rings true with what I was looking for in the Danish prince. His has a vigorous delivery and this is physical theatre, with plenty of leaping and rolling, lying and falling, but the intonation in his voice means that you can never be lulled to sleep by the lengthy monologues.
The play contains some of the most beautiful speeches ever written, full of emotion, anger, wit and suffering. The subtleties of the language speak for themselves and yet Shakespeare's mastery with words cannot be heard over Kline's shouting.
His Hamlet commands attention and, with tears streaking down his cheeks almost continuously, you cannot deny that he is putting his heart and soul into the performance, but where some people might like their Danishes sugared thus, I prefer mine with a little less saccharine and with a little more bite.
Josef Sommer, as Polonius, gives a good performance, playing a convincing "tedious old fool" and Diane Verona, as Ophelia, has an innocence which is well juxtaposed with her descent into madness. It serves to make her insanity and eventual suicide all the more tragic and painful to watch.
However, Verona's emotive delivery of a girl driven out of her mind by the events that encompass her has an adverse effect on the credibility of Kline's "antic disposition". Although Hamlet is supposed to be "mad in craft," there is an element of the narrative that should see him teeter on the brink of sanity, which Kline fails to pull off. His obvious comic abilities affect the layering of the prince, so that the physicality that he gives to the part and constant barrage of shouts and whispers, tears and wide eyes leaves the character looking one-dimensional.
On the positive side, many actors allow the prince's melancholy to override the obvious wit that is present in the lines, something Kline most certainly did not do. As his melancholy is less than convincing, he presents us with the polemic extreme, a jovial Hamlet rather than a pensive one.
For Shakespeare first timers, Kline's production is a good call - what you see is what you get. There are few layers to interpret, which will enable them to appreciate the structure of the play, the fall of the narrative and the tragic trajectory that the protagonist is on.
For those looking for a little bit more, I would advise against. I think a quote from Gertrude surmises it nicely. Addressing Polonius, she requests he delivers his speech with "more matter and less art".
The substance of the play seems to been lost in the desire of actors and director to give it all they've got. Sometimes 110% is too much.