nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
November 12, 2005
We see, in this Hamlet, a man just shy of midlife crisis territory: his crown, if worn, would cover no graying temples, but the lines on his face do not vanish so rapidly as his smiles anymore—if he smiled anymore. Michael Cumpsty’s Danish prince smolders with a deliberate, lethal intelligence, landing blows upon the hypocrisy of the Elsinorian court with the heavy finality of an ax stroke. His maturity and gravitas lend a sublime heartache to this character that has never reached me before in previous incarnations, stage or screen—no longer a youth, but still a student; no longer a son who can strive for his father’s approval, but a grown man long past those fresh-faced years when change is easy; no longer a prince who can expect the throne, but an aloof and aging noble stuck in a court that has literally whitewashed over all symbols of his god-like father’s legacy, and thus his purpose. The embarrassment of his mother’s ingenuous marriage to his usurping uncle, less than two months after burying his father, the former king, seems particularly acute in this production: Hamlet conveys little sympathy for those who trade the cares of life for the affectation of youth.
Cumpsty’s title performance at Classic Stage Company is compelling immediately, as he slow-burns his response to his newly crowned uncle, King Claudius (Robert Dorfman), clucking at another of his nephew’s cloudy-faced appearances at court. He gives the final word a venomous hiss: “Not so, my lord. Methinks I am too much in the sun.” Throughout the play, he allows his actions to erupt at pivotal moments, drawing from an inexhaustible supply of passion that the story builds in his gut. His defensiveness at the court’s disdain for his prior relationship with the considerably younger Ophelia (Kellie Overbey) is one such outburst that has marvelous elements of painful hindsight. It mixes a seasoned adult’s inner understanding of what kinds of relationships succeed versus what kinds fail, with a desperate lament that the heart ultimately disregards all such wisdom if love burns passionately enough.
I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum. What will thou do for her?
Cumpsty is a disciplined performer of experience and insight, and I heard more than once as the production’s opening approached that this also meant he was too old for the part. False. He has the chops, wisdom, and courage to plumb the very powerful adulthood of Hamlet, which many a youthful go at the part mishandles, mistaking the prince’s identity crisis as a desperate search for who he is, rather than a more mature despair at who, in the end, he is not. Cumpsty layers on a beautiful tragedy to Hamlet’s sense of failure as he comforts Horatio (Graham Winton) after accepting Laertes’s (Karl Kenzler) challenge to the final scene’s fencing duel. It is not just his inability to revenge his father’s murder that erases his fear of death; it is his realization that, though a grown, earnest man, he will never be his father. Lesser sons of great fathers aren’t granted that epiphany in its purest poetry until they have tasted the years past the age when their fathers became great.
The freshness of Cumpsty’s take on the role is in tandem with director Brian Kulick’s bold shaping of the oft-produced classic, making it visceral and engaging. From starting the audience onstage and the actors in the seating area, to turning the thrust stage into three-walled proscenium without compromising the view from house left and house right, Kulick’s concept of the world of Denmark is stark, jarring, and artfully symbolic, as realized in the work of his designers. Set designer Mark Wendland employs a color palette that is matched in Oana Botez-Ban’s elegant costumes. Claudius’s court is clad head to toe, ceiling to floor, in pristine whiteness, but the frailty of this hygienic attempt to symbolically clean away guilt from the past is cleverly realized in the walls of the court—they are made of thin white paper, cut away for entrances and the viewing windows through which house left and house right audiences see the action. The ingenuity of the paper walls is that they are so mutable and impermanent. Hamlet spray-paints accusatory graffiti on the back wall to rankle the king, and stabbed through the same wall is his sword that kills Polonius (Herb Foster) on the other side. Laertes literally tears open his own entrance in a thirst for Hamlet’s blood, and all the walls are torn completely down for the final duel, exposing a skeletal wooden framework lying beyond the delicate façade that once was. The whiteness of the set is further marred by the powerful shock of rest of the palette, the reds (such as blood and the costumes of Ophelia and the Player King and Queen, played by Jon Devries and Jason Ma, respectively) and the blacks (such as Hamlet and Ophelia’s mourning clothes).
Denmark is filled out with characters played fiercely and truthfully by an excellent cast. Graham Winton’s Horatio is especially touching as Hamlet’s only confidant, and his counsel is heartfelt. Jon Devries steals every scene he is in, whether he is on as the Ghost, Player King, Gravedigger, or Fortinbras. The biggest laughs belong to longtime stage genius Herb Foster and his nimble timing as Polonius, the King’s earnestly pompous advisor. Karl Kenzler is dynamic as Polonius’s son Laertes, and Caroline Lagerfelt plays Queen Gertrude with graceful, affecting vulnerability.
The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark is not undertaken lightly by any theatre company, and Classic Stage has risen to the challenge most impressively. I would rank it as the best Shakespeare I’ve seen this year, and to others I would say here is an opportunity to see how this play stays legendary. Everyone, in their life’s theatre-going, should have at least one memory of a Hamlet production that was as great as the play’s reputation, and opportunities to emblazon such a memory in your mind are precious. Take this one.