A lot of theater companies and filmmakers seem to think that in order to make Shakespeare comprehensible to modern audiences, they need to place his plays in a modern setting. But it turns out that – wait for it, this might come as a surprise – Shakespeare was actually a really great writer of the English language. Although you might not have gotten the point of Hamlet in high school English class, the Guthrie Theater / Acting Company‘s production proves that all you really need to understand a well-written play is a company of well-trained actors.

Although the set and lighting (Neil Patel and Greg Goff) are put to excellent use, they are unusually simple; so are the lovely Elizabethan-style costumes by Candice Donnelly. This means that the actors don’t have a single flashy, distracting crutch to lean on – so it’s a very good thing that this ensemble doesn’t seem to need one. It is clear that each actor has undertaken a thorough study of the text, but the line delivery never comes across as excessively cerebral or declamatory. Rather, under Ian Belknap‘s thoughtful direction, the actors make Shakespeare sound natural and unforced, with the greatest value placed on meaning, not artifice.  
For the Acting Company, which aims to give young classical actors the chance to develop their repertoire, this natural approach is the perfect way to both showcase its young actors and do justice to Shakespeare’s text. Even having previously read the play and seen the Kenneth Branagh movie version, I was shocked by how much better I understood exactly what Hamlet is really about. There were moments of revelation throughout John Skelley‘s performance of Hamlet, but also in Jaqueline Correa‘s interpretation of Gertrude and in Angela Janas‘s portrayal of Ophelia. (Ophelia’s sudden descent into madness has always been problematic to me, and I found Janas, too, to be somewhat less compelling in the second half. However, her initial naivety made the character’s later vulnerability, and the ease with which her father, brother, and boyfriend manipulate her, make real psychological sense.) Andy Nogarsky also got a lot of traction out of his kooky and well-meaning old Polonius.
There is a reason Shakespeare’s plays have lasted for so long, and a reason his themes are said to be universal. All of this can so easily get lost beneath the window-dressing of an “innovative” modern interpretation. On the occasion of the Bard’s 450th birthday, the Acting Company has stripped away the frills and gotten down to what is really important: skilled actors bringing a masterfully crafted text fully, and absolutely comprehensibly, to life. 


Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Produced by the Acting Company at the Guthrie Theater, April 23 – May 4, 2014 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets $25-45 at http://www.guthrietheater.org/plays_events/plays/hamlet.

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2 thoughts on “Hamlet

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