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Theatre in Review: Hamlet (Gate Theatre/St. Ann's Warehouse)

Caption: Ruth Negga. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

It's the details that count in Yaƫl Farber's staging of Hamlet, a series of gestures big and small that add up to an extraordinarily comprehensive vision of Shakespeare's masterpiece: The clinical image of the dead king's corpse being wheeled in on a morgue cart, the body visible through a transparent sheet. Claudius strong-arming Hamlet in front of the court -- a brute display of power in the name of cheering up his bereaved nephew. Polonius, looking nervously over his shoulder, making sure no one is listening before ordering Ophelia to fight off Hamlet's amorous intentions. Gertrude slumping uneasily in the club chair, unaware that the ghost of her dead husband stands behind her, looking on impassively. Hamlet throwing his love letters at Ophelia and furiously rubbing her face in them. Claudius embracing the vengeful Laertes, simultaneously waving off two armed guards who have come to rescue their king from a perceived assault.

Each of these moments -- and a dozen others -- reveal an Elsinore riddled with suspicion and deceit, where spies lurk behind doors and trust is an unaffordable commodity. The grand but battered interior designed by Susan Hilferty -- a once-imposing royal salon grown bleak and shabby -- is indicative of a decaying monarchy turned police state. Among other textual adjustments, Farber has eliminated the subplot in which Denmark is threatened with invasion by the Norwegian prince, Fortinbras, but make no mistake: This is a society fetid with corruption, sinking into a morass of scandal and violence.

Farber has also assembled a superb company led by Ruth Negga -- lithe and athletic in mostly black attire, her hair pared back to a skullcap of curls, her eyes like searchlights scanning the room for hypocrites. First seen uttering a silent scream following the viewing of the king's body, she delivers an intensely anguished Danish prince, torn between grief for his father and cold fury at Claudius and Gertrude and their unseemly marriage. She plays the early scenes with a certain adolescent sullenness, each bitter remark cutting like a switchblade. Yet, as the play unfolds, Negga and Farber provide a solid foundation for Hamlet's indecision: Stunned by his mother's hasty remarriage and terrified by an encounter with his father's ghost, he is, quite justifiably, paralyzed. Whom should be believe? An appearance of ectoplasm, demanding revenge for his murder? Or a beloved parent who has suddenly become a stranger? Whipsawed by conflicting emotions, he finds himself unable to act.

Negga's Hamlet is also keenly aware that the castle's corridors reverberate with whispers of intrigue and betrayal. His fury at Ophelia -- which, in other productions, can seem needlessly cruel -- here reflects his awareness that she has been sent to keep tabs on him. Casting a chillingly skeptical smile at the discomfited Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he says, "Were you not sent for?" -- in five words demolishing the lie that they have casually dropped in for a visit. And he throws himself into the feigning of madness with such gusto that one begins to wonder if he is playacting at all. Negga's performance is intensely physicalized, whether delivering lengthy speeches crouched on a table, falling to the ground in terror before the Ghost, or crossing swords with Laertes. Providing a powerful through-line to her characterization is Hamlet's desperate need to right a world gone wrong, an often-flailing effort that ends in ruin.

Similarly, Aoife Duffin brings a rare coherence to the role of Ophelia, plausibly rendering how a life glittering with promise ends in madness and suicide. If she initially comes across as a sarcastic, eye-rolling teenager, we also see her powerful attachment to Laertes -- and, for once, she and Hamlet seem authentically crazy about each other. Unusually, she is a silent witness to Hamlet's first soliloquy ("O that this too solid flesh would melt"), which gives her rare insight into her lover's agony. But her appearance in the rain, distressed and clutching Hamlet's letters, is an awful prevision of things to come. When she is made to hand over those missives to Polonius and Claudius, there's something obscene about these schemers pawing through her personal life; her violation at their hands is palpable. Even worse, Hamlet's rejection of her is staged as a near assault that leaves her brutally cast off. By the time she appears in front of the Danish court, half-dressed and psychotically detached, carelessly lifting her slip to reveal her genitalia -- and, a minute later, crudely feeling up Claudius' guards -- we understand how she has been reduced to a broken pawn in the power games of those who profess to lover her.

Fiona Bell's Gertrude -- impassive, dignified, forever showing her public face -- is, nevertheless, marked by a sense of mounting horror that her marriage to Claudius has unleashed the chaos that engulfs them all. Her screams of terror in the closet scene, as Hamlet murders Polonius, may stay with you long after the play is over. In the boldest reworking of the text, Farber has interpolated a brief scene from the First Quarto -- not necessarily the most definitive version of the script -- in which Gertrude realizes that she is married to a villain; it's an interesting choice that makes all the more poignant her ultimate fate.

Nick Dunning's Polonius is, under his smooth manner, an icy intriguer, yet his feeling for his children is authentic. During his famous advice to Laertes, both his children mock him, mouthing the speech to indicate that they have heard it all before; yet, grabbing his son's arms, he delivers the final line ("To thine own self be true") as if to say "don't end up like me"; it's a surprisingly poignant gesture from a character who often gets no respect. Owen Roe's Claudius, his face frozen in a half-smile/half-grimace, his voice like sandpaper on rusty iron, is a brute haunted by the enormity of his crimes yet unwilling to part with the prerogatives of power. In another of Farber's innovations, his guilty soliloquy ("O, my offence is rank: it smells to heaven") is delivered to a priest in the sacrament of penance. The final line ("All may be well") is spoken by the latter, suggesting that absolution has been given; this effectively sets up the next scene, in which Hamlet chooses not to kill Claudius in a penitent state, thereby risking sending him to God. There are also solid contributions from Gavin Drea as Laertes, demanding justice for his father and sister, and Mark Huberman as the staunchest of Horatios.

Farber's staging often spills into the auditorium, no more so than when the entire court occupies a row of seats to see the play with which Hamlet hopes to poke Claudius' conscience. Onstage, Hilferty's all-black set opens onto a set of hallways through which John Torres blasts bursts of side light, suggesting untold depths; Torres also makes strong, striking combinations of warm and cold white looks to redefine the space -- and to underscore the sinister atmosphere that prevails. Hilferty also deploys an eerily billowing, translucent drop for Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost, a choice that adds a spectral touch to the proceedings. The closet scene begins with Gertrude lying spread-eagled on a bed that rolls downstage as a scarlet curtain drops in. She looks almost like a sacrificial victim, and the touch of deep red underscores Hamlet's revulsion at his mother's carnality. (Hilferty's costumes utilize a muted palette for the men, comparatively bold colors for the women, and derby hats for the actors cast as the Players and Gravediggers, perhaps a slight nod to Beckett in this Irish production.) From time to time, the keening vocals of Tom Lane's original music are a bit intrusive, but most of his work is in sync with the production and his sound effects -- which include tolling bells and cheering crowds.

It all builds to a thrillingly staged duel witnessed by the spirits of the dead -- not a small group at this point -- a choice that reinforces one of Shakespeare's bloodiest truths, that the corrupt exercise of power only begets more of the same, in a never-ending cycle that brings down everyone. This is the rare Hamlet in which everything comes together, vividly realizing the play's fundamental points while providing new and intriguing insights. And in Negga it has arguably the best Hamlet New York has seen in decades, one who captures the quicksilver moods and mysterious indecisiveness of one of drama's most confounding characters. Days later, I'm still thinking about the quietly heartbreaking way that this prince, abraded by tragedy, eaten up with self-fury, and facing a duel that may well end disastrously, delivers his saddest, bravest speech ("There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow"), ending, with a kind of shrug, "The readiness is all." Hamlets don't come much better than this. --David Barbour

(11 February 2020)

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