REVIEW: Hamlet

Hamlet is a play that we all know in some way or another–whether it stalks the recesses of our brains from high school English class or has simply permeated our collective subconscious—the story of the Danish prince is synonymous with the theater. Ask someone off the street to describe a Shakespearean actor and they’ll probably tell you about a guy in tights, holding a skull, musing on whether “To be or not to be…” and for good reason. Hamlet speaks to so many because of how relatable he is when his entire world is turned upside down.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is often referred to as the theatrical Mount Everest; the pinnacle of achievement that many strive to accomplish in their career, whether as an actor or as a director (and sometimes both at once). But with so many performances and interpretations of this monumental work piling up over the centuries, the material takes on a looking glass quality: you start to see more of the person behind it than you do the thing itself. And so we have Joseph Haj’s Hamlet, marking the 60th anniversary of the Guthrie Theater’s founding in Minneapolis.

Attending a performance of Hamlet is also something of an achievement for audiences. Frequently clocking in at more than four hours, it can be challenging to sit through one soliloquy after another as Hamlet broods and ponders and plots—to say nothing of finding a babysitter who can stay out past 11pm! Not so with this production; stripped down to the bare essentials, Haj’s Hamlet is a bullet train that somehow never feels rushed in its sub-three-hour runtime (including a 15-minute intermission). To shave off that much time requires not just a mastery of the material by the director, but a cast that can sling iambic pentameter with a lived-in ease.

That said, there’s a lot going on in this production that appears intended to leave audiences disoriented. Right from the start, the abstract, austere, Brutalist set design feels like it could have been part of old Star Trek episode. Haj and scenic designer Jan Chambers use this space without context to create a sense of “dis-ease,” perhaps as a way a place greater emphasis on the performers. But there too, while each character’s costume is well-tailored to their state of mind as the play progresses, the lack of any particular thematic thread from one character to another leaves the audience adrift.

As if to complete the disorientation of the audience, Haj takes liberties with the text itself, moving segments around to create an entirely new context for events. Most notably are the scenes between Hamlet and Ophelia, where Hamlet’s admonition to “get thee to a nunnery” precedes, rather than follows his iconic contemplation of whether “to be or not to be.” One further change revealed in Ophelia’s costume, while fleeting, further casts the audience adrift, and not just because of its dubious support in the text. What are we to make of a production that makes the material more accessible by cutting the run time, but leaving the audience with such few handholds once they’re in the room?

It’s at this point, though that the cast is to be commended. Michael Braugher’s Hamlet is perhaps the best I’ve seen on stage or screen. Everything about his performance calls out the youthful nature of the character, while still bringing the gravity of his plight and decisions to the center. His humor is light and quick, his anguish is sharp and brash. John Catron’s Claudius is masterful for its smarm and guile, a swamp creature right out of House of Cards (which must be all the more delicious as a contrast to his Bob Cratchit graced the same stage just a few months ago).

As a showcase of talent, any production of Hamlet is a must-see, and this one is no different for its ability to “amaze indeed, the very faculties of eyes and ears.” Were there choices I wish Haj had made differently, certainly, but they do little to lessen the pinnacle of this mountainous play.

Hamlet is at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis though May 21, 2023. Tickets start at $31.

Photo by Dan Norman.