The Madness of Hamlet's World

Hamlet Directed by Ron Daniels At the American Repertory Theatre Through January 12

Who is the man that steps from a tumultuous gray sea backdrop through a slanted window wearing hiking boots, khaki pants and a red button-down? He is the same man who trudges around in dirty pajamas with socks falling off his feet for over half of the play in which he stars. He responds with a thumbs-up when asked "How goes it?" and sings a biblical quote in an Elvis impersonation. He is truly an unusual Hamlet.

Hamlet, under Ron Daniels' direction, successfully captivates the audience for the full three-and-a-half hours. The play is a powerful visual experience and an artistic accomplishment. More importantly, Hamlet's theatrical achievements never cloud the focus of the play-to show how one responds to suffering and uncertainty in one's life.

Daniels, Honorary Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, presents a refreshingly non-traditional interpretation that fans of convention may find upsetting. Every aspect of the production works to further Hamlet's pain and frustration, warrant his indecisiveness and inevitably drive him to madness. The addition of modern gestures and effects offer comic relief from this frightening society while adding to the overall disjointedness of Hamlet's life.

From the beginning, set and costume designer Antony McDonald confirms the bizarre timeless and time-warped world which Hamlet inhabits-characters walk obliviously among sloped walls, tilted windows and mixed period costumes. Persons of the Court dress in sedate gray, crimson or black uniforms and evening gowns. Visitors to Elsinore wear three-piece suits and trench coats, and each Player sports a different decade's styles.

McDonald's set also hints at the peril which threatens this unstable society. The light gray, starkly furnished rooms of Elsinore are tipped precariously over a menacing ocean. Major set changes occur in semidarkness in order to display striking images of moving castle walls.


Music, sound and lighting effects add significantly to the desperation of Hamlet's world. Claire van Kampen's score of trumpets, strings, percussion and piano-coordinated with sounds of wind, sea and rain-compliments the mood of accompanying scenes. The thundering chords, lighting and unearthly chanting of "Sanctus Spiritus" heighten the horror of the Ghost scenes. Strains of piano and strings underlying loving scenes between Claudius and Gertrude and later among Laertes, Ophelia and Polonius reveal the fragility of those moments.

Hamlet's situation is made more formidable by Mark Metcalf's portrayal of Claudius, not as a clear inferior to the brother he murdered, but as an emancipator who releases Elsinore from an austere ruler and awakens Gertrude's passion and love. Metcalf depicts Claudius as the ultimate politician-charming and charismatic whenever it suits him. In comparison, the Ghost (Miguel Perez) is presented as a frightening imposition on poor Hamlet's time, rather than an inspiration to avenge. Claudius' appealing grace undermines the Ghost's severe dignity, and, as a result, the audience understands Hamlet's delay in killing his uncle.

Mark Rylance presents Hamlet as a man truly lingering on the edge of insanity. In his madness, Hamlet's remarks reveal important truths that stem more from blunt lunacy than clever deception. He seems shy to face the audience straight on-a direct contrast to Fortinbras (Royal Miller), who stands smiling, proud and tall. Hamlet begins monologues muttering with his back to the audience, revealing his misery and shame over the direction his life is taking.

One of the most powerful moments of the play-the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene with Hamlet and Ophelia (beautifully played by Stephanie Roth)-has been moved from the third act to the second, in accordance with the earliest known edition of Hamlet. One consequence of this is that Hamlet's mood swings seem more appropriate, following as they do his recent encounter with the Ghost.

Christine Estabrook accurately represents Gertrude's struggle between caring for her son and enjoying marital happiness. Alvin Epstein is a perfectly sanctimonious Polonius. Unfortunately, the weakest cast member, Steven Skybell, plays the important role of Horatio-Skybell is too nerdy and bland to be convincing as Hamlet's sole confidant.

Daniels' interpretation will interest anyone who wants a new view of Hamlet. Daniels has chosen to cut only 800 of the roughly 3,900 lines in the play, and his production may run too long for those unfamiliar with the text. Nonetheless, the intriguing direction, strong acting, exceptional technical achievements, and, of course, well-written script ensure an enjoyable theatrical experience.