A Hamlet for the Ages

During the big gap in blog entries this past month, I went to Ashland, Oregon, for the family’s annual trek to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I don’t normally write about it here because it’s obviously not a music trip.

But director Bill Rauch, in the program notes, quotes from a literary analysis that says Hamlet could be considered Shakespeare’s most avant-garde play. They’ve delivered on that premise, and the results are electric.

Dan Donohue recites Hamlet’s lines in a contemporary patter. His technique, in past years, has involved a more American lilt and a casual style of reciting lines, as if to create a more conversational Bard by changing the delivery and the timing, but not the syntax.

The result feels very modern (the use of modern dress helps) and fresh — and alive. There are spots in the first act when it feels like Donohue overdoes it, but what’s important is that he maintains an intensity throughout. Hamlet opens the play bitter and hostile — not brooding in a corner, as you sometimes see him — and his descent into madness felt steeper and faster than usual.

This perpetual energy keeps the momentum building.  Hamlet is the longest play in the canon, but this version’s three hours and 15 minutes zip by. When the scenes leading up to the climactic duel start to unfold, you get the sense of an unstoppable snowball, of events beyond any one character’s control.

But here’s the best part: They nailed the ending.

Certainly there are a lot of elements to like. Other reviews focus on the use of sign language or the hip-hop break (it’s gratuitous but not as groanworthy as you’d think). The ensemble is captivating (Richard Elmore makes Polonius funny and even likeable). There are some major twists, made without changing the dialogue — Gertrude, in particular, gets a very interesting interpretation.

All those elements, and Donohue’s crack performance, are fine on their own, but they really pay off as a setup to the last 10 minutes. And likewise, the finale wouldn’t mean anything if you hadn’t taken the full journey with the characters. It adds up to a Hamlet that’s deeply satisfying and feels more complete than usual.