Both the United States and Britain are currently “locked down” due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. With theatres on both sides of the Atlantic now closed due to public health concerns, the fabled Globe Theatre of London is currently streaming a special production of “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” directed by Federay Holmes and Elle While, via the popular YouTube online platform, allowing audiences the opportunity to see the show in the same theatre it was performed in 1600 and 1601.
Despite this very traditional location of the performance, this production takes several bold risks, such as the decision to have women take on the roles of Prince Hamlet, his trusted friend Horatio, and Hamlet’s nemesis Laertes (portrayed by Michelle Terry, Catrin Aaron, and Bettrys Jones respectively). In a similarly gender-bending manner, male actor Shubham Saraf takes on the part of Ophelia—though it might also be argued that this sort of gender-fluidity is actually traditional, given that during Shakespeare’s time male actors always portrayed both male and female roles!
…with its non-traditional elements and meditations on the meanings of family, friendship, authority, loyalty, and human mortality, is especially apropos for our current post-modern, COVID-19-laden world.
This production features many excellent performances. Michelle Terry plays Hamlet with authority and conviction. She is especially effective in a scene in which Hamlet enters in a clown costume, becoming, as it were, one of the players enjoined to set “The Mousetrap,” the play-within-a-play intended to provoke the usurper Claudius into revealing his involvement in the murder of Hamlet’s father. James Garnon, as Claudius, delivers what can only be called a tour-de-force performance; taking another dramatic risk, the actor portrays the murderer with an unusual level of empathy and emotional resonance. In particular, Mr. Garnon depicts Claudius as sincere in his initial embrace of his newly-adopted son, at one point kneeling before the prince, imploring him “to remain here in the cheer and comfort of our eye” rather than returning to his studies at the University of Wittenberg. Mr. Garnon also adds a rare humorous touch to his interactions with Polonius.
Richard Katz as Polonius imbues his lines with a wonderful mix of humorous intonation, comic timing, and facial expressions, all of which benefit especially from close-up shots in this filmed performance. Colin Hurley is similarly superb as the gravedigger – again, taking up the production’s focus on comic timing and effective visual humor. Helen Schlesinger is also effective as Gertrude, playing the queen with an understated gravitas which works well with the non-traditional aspects of the production.
The show’s unexpected juxtaposition of traditional and nontraditional elements extends as well to the choices of music and costuming. Stately trumpets heralding the royal past occasionally give way to wild jazz solos, as in the “Mousetrap” sequence. Props are generally minimal, and most of the costumes are sumptuous Elizabethan garb, punctuated with an occasional anachronistic modern backpack. As is de rigueur in productions of “Hamlet,” there is a fast-paced, exciting denouement at the play’s end. We will not give away the ending of the show, but rest assured that the ending has a similar blend of traditional and surprising elements!
This Globe Theatre production of “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” with its non-traditional elements and meditations on the meanings of family, friendship, authority, loyalty, and human mortality, is especially apropos for our current post-modern, COVID-19-laden world. While this performance can be enjoyed by all, persons already familiar with this famous play are likely to most appreciate this nontraditional enactment performed in the ultimate Shakespearean setting of London’s Globe Theatre.
Shakespeare’s Globe is streaming “Hamlet” for free until Sunday April 19, 2020. The production may be viewed on YouTube.