On Friday, The Wife and I saw the Aquila Theatre Company's production of Hamlet. It's a smallish touring troupe; there's only eight names on the cast list. It was a very simple set with maybe a dozen props, including moving furniture pieces. The backdrop was an enlarged photo of what looked like a cobblestone road hub, but at that size it appeared as a shattered window or a spider's web. If you're traveling as they are, you have to work simple. According to their website, the show tours in tandem with Jekyll and Hyde throughout the Spring of 2006.
As to the show itself, Hamlet is such a cultural landmark that, unless the audience know absolutleys nothing about the play, it's impossible to judge a production on its own. This is the Moby Dick of plays: not the longest, not the most popular, but the most well-known of all titles and characters. This is not a show you can merely breeze through and hope the dialogue carries the production. You have to understand what the characters mean when they speak, aside from the random "bodkins" and"fardels," and unfortunately, there's no critical consensus as to when Hamlet is acting crazy or truly has lost his fardel-marbles.
I'm not sure every scene of this play is given its due: the speech and direction seemed hasty, as if the actors were rushing through a slower moment to get to one with more meat to it. For instance, Gertrude announces Ophelia's death by standing in place and speaking to the audience. There is no interaction with the other characters here. Similarly, the ghost appears behind the actors, leaving them to act toward the audience. Osric is presented with a hurried Irish accent (an Irishman in Denmark?), and his explanation of the duel is a quick mumble. The "to be or not to be speech" not only was recited at warp speed, but I think they moved it.
There was quite a bit bumped around or bumped entirely from the show. The big confrontation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is given instead to Polonius. Fortinbras doesn't appear, and the play ends as Hamlet dies; there is no coda as with Romeo and Juliet. Osric doesn't get his comedy scene, and I'm not sure Hamlet ever learned about Ophelia's death onstage. Again, one wonders if knowledge of the show works against you when viewing a production that makes edits. Someone who never read the play might have loved it. I was left a mite confused about their choices and whether the changes makes the play illogical to a newcomer. But these changes, one thinks, are made primarily to speed the play along. The audience I was a part of was mostly old, and I don't know if their bladders could cope with the full daffy Dane.
Speaking of age, my pet theory of Hamlet is that he's a kid who has to move quickly from book-learning to street smarts at the nadir of his mopey-goth teen phase, and I'm glad to see a young Hamlet in this show. Youth excuses some of his eccentricities, bad judgments and his famous dilemma of acting versus thinking. This is a show ultimately made of great moments, when the actors nail the scene or the emotional moment amid the rush and edits. For instance Emily Bennett delivers the best crazy Ophelia I've seen, and the interpretation of R and G as ivy-league frat boys is so brilliant, I cracked up before they got to speak. Also, when Claudius has his confessional scene, the actor almost steals the whole show. The show doesn't live up to the high standard set by Shenendoah Shakespeare (with which I always dreamed of running away), but Aquila gives you a two-and-a half hour injection of The Bard without dumbing it down.
This was better than the near-camp of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version, but didn't have the invested gravity of the Mel Gibson adaptation.