With Forms to Her Conceit

The first and most important thing about Yaël Farber’s revival of Hamlet is that it is one of the best-spoken Shakespeares I have heard in years. These are actors who both understand the meaning of the language and respect the rhythm of the poetry. They remind us that Shakespeare, despite his reputation to the contrary, is quite easy to understand. When actors follow the iambic pentameter, the meaning is clearer, the pacing is tighter, and the opportunities for self-indulgence are fewer.

This isn’t about adherence to arcane rules. Once actors master the rhythm of Shakespeare, they are free to play, to experiment. This Hamlet is full of surprising moments, moments that revitalize familiar dialogue. For instance, when Polonius (Nick Dunning) tells Laertes (Gavin Drea), “And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry,” both his son and his daughter, Ophelia (Aoife Duffin), speak the line with him, in unison. Evidently they’ve heard this pompous speech as many times as we.

Earlier, Gertrude (Fiona Bell) appraises Hamlet’s (Ruth Negga) dark attire and asks, “Why seems it so particular with thee?” Hamlet spits back, “‘Seems,’ madam—nay it is, I know not ‘seems.'” Considering his eventual performance of “north-north-west” madness, this line will resonate throughout the remainder of the play. Most actors I’ve seen emphasize seems, as if Hamlet is disgusted at the thought that his mourning is disingenuous. Negga makes a different choice: she emphasizes madam, and the line becomes far more accusatory, perhaps more calculated. Rather than stewing in her own anger, she throws the ball right back at Gertrude. It’s only a few seconds in a play that runs over three hours, but it’s also a revelation, and the production is not light on such thoughtful touches.

Negga herself brings a nimble, impish quality to the part. Her physical agility reflects her mental agility; she seems to disorient the taller, slower characters who surround her. There is also the added isolation of race: the only other person of color in the cast is the ghost of her father (Steve Hartland), adding a sinister undertone of racist violence to Claudius’ (Owen Roe) desire to rid himself of Hamlet.

It is, then, one of the most rewarding, most invigorating productions of this play that I have ever seen. Before it began, a man sitting before me shouted “Yeah!” at a volume more familiar to music venues than theaters hosting Shakespeare revivals. By the end, however, I had to agree.

Hamlet runs through March 8 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.  29 Jay Street  New York, NY.  3 hours 15 minutes.  One intermission.

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