nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
June 19, 2008
The proposition is simple: one actor and the text of Hamlet. No props, no costumes, no light effects. Can this work as theatre? That is the question. Can one man contain this, the longest of Shakespeare's plays, the consummate feather in the stage actor's cap, packed full with murder most foul, a play within the play, Oedipal angst, a swordfight, and more than 15 characters (male, female, and ghost)? The simple answer: yes.
Starting with a brief command for "lights," Raoul Bhaneja pares down the tragedy, delivering the essentials without pause for 95 minutes. I was tempted for a moment to distance myself from the conceit and view the play as a man talking to himself: Hamlet in Hell, reliving his downfall in a state of lunacy. But no, impossible—every gesture has intention, each voice is distinctive. There is nothing schizophrenic about Bhaneja's performance. The characters shine through; we do not see a man possessed, channeling demons before us, but fully-formed people speaking, interacting, feeling. And this is riveting.
How does he do it? First, Robert Ross Parker's direction does not forget the audience, mapping out enough cues so we know where we are, who we are seeing. This ultimate actor's challenge is in the end not "about" the actor, in the sense of asking us to witness a self-pleasuring exercise. Rather, as we settle into the dark plot, the idea of "Bhaneja as actor" (or, in other words, the novelty act factor), fades, and the court of Elsinore surfaces in his hands, his shape, his voice. To name just a few, Claudius wields a goblet smugly, loyal Horatio sports a noble squint, and the patsies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are distinguished by their frozen classical poses, to charming comic effect.
Contemporary touches help to shape the characterizations as well. Laertes sounds like a clean-cut American soldier, while in his long-winded father, Polonius (one of the best you'll see), we hear the quintessential British stuffed shirt. Ophelia, unfortunately, is a slumping girl. Though we can always tell who she is, it is hard to see what would draw the artful, quick-witted Hamlet to this shrinking violet.
The staging wisely avoids the perils of dead space in transitions. Dialogue runs at conversational speed, with Bhaneja often switching characters literally in the blink of an eye, rather than through a clumsy repositioning. Scenes with multiple characters are amazingly clear and make full use of the space. The mini-play "to catch the conscience of the king" in particular artfully manages to keep at least five characters distinct in the space of ten minutes or so.
And where is the Prince of Denmark in all of this? Ironically, it is Bhaneja's loving care for the whole cast of characters that at times threatens to obscure the star (so to speak) of the show. While the fast pacing keeps the audience rapt, during the first third in particular, I was longing for some breathing room in Hamlet's soliloquies, particularly given the actor's word-perfect command of the delectable language. The shortened script may also contribute to this swift-acting Hamlet; much of his infamous indecision is lost with the omission of the prince's hesitation to strike at Claudius at prayer. Without Fortinbras and impending invasion, the stakes are not as high as the whole kingdom. Instead, family loyalty trumps all. This is a Hamlet full of rage, desperate for action.
The need for some cuts is understandable, and the interpretation succeeds. There is no need to dust off your old copy of The Complete Works before attending, though a brief review of the plot is recommended (a synopsis is provided in the program). Hamlet (Solo) offers up the essence of Shakespeare's brilliance, an opportunity to bathe in the Bard's wildly inventive language and, in Bhaneja's skilled hands, its ability to convey the nuance and range of human emotion.