STAGE REVIEW : Old Globe Mounts a Fast-Talking ‘Hamlet’


The music by Bob James is strong, chilling, dramatic. There’s an abstract massiveness to Ralph Funicello’s set, modeled on Paris’ Jardin des Plantes and built at rakish angles, with walkways and high ceilings. Opulent reds and golds dominate the stage against backdrops the color of dried blood. Candelabra are everywhere. The statue of a stone angel sits dead center. And suddenly, out of the floor, more candelabra. Is this “The Phantom of the Opera”?

No. It’s “Hamlet” at the Old Globe Theatre, and all similarity with “Phantom” ends at that beginning. What emerges from the floor with said candelabra is a long table laden with food and drink and surrounded by members of the Danish court: Claudius (Richard Easton), Gertrude (Katherine McGrath), Polonius (Jonathan McMurtry), Laertes (Jonathan Walker) and Ophelia (Jennifer Van Dyck). And then there’s that fellow in black with his back to the audience. . . .

Campbell Scott is the Byronic Hamlet here, a stark, melancholy figure, raw as an exposed nerve, wearing an armband and a shabby suit (comparatively speaking; Lewis Brown did the elegant, vaguely mid 19th-, but essentially century-unspecific, costumes).

Scott is the very image of the romantic neurotic in this sumptuously appointed staging by Jack O’Brien. But he has taken some of Hamlet’s advice to the players too literally. From the first soliloquy, he delivers his speeches so “trippingly on the tongue,” you’d think wild horses were at his heels.


Why the rush? One doesn’t want to encourage Scott to linger over each word, but simply to not throw them all away. When such pointed, carefully articulated thoughts are mouthed at breathless speed, nothing is driven home. Anyone unfamiliar with this text couldn’t begin to keep up.

It’s a major problem with a potentially exciting performance. The lean, angular Scott is every inch the tortured Dane, moving in fits and starts with the edgy grace of a whippet. But if an audience is not given the emphasis or time to absorb the emotional twists of the language, many of the play’s other fine points also get dissipated.

Director O’Brien has done some fancy footwork with the script, cutting, shuffling and juxtaposing, but in a manner that generally streamlines and clarifies and will offend only the purist. If, on the other hand, there is a pervasive sense that we are skimming over this “Hamlet” rather than digging in, the feeling can be traced directly to Scott’s unnatural dedication to just getting through it.

Is this reverse pretentiousness or the fear of boring people? Fortunately, not everyone shares it. Easton’s Claudius is a lucid and unhurried politician, and he plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father with equal deliberation (to particularly strong effect in the closet scene). McMurtry’s manicured Polonius is among the least doddering (thanks to a text that has excised some of the dodder), a real statesman reluctant to admit that he might be slowing down.

McGrath’s buxom Gertrude is played for mindless sensuality, which makes better sense of this woman’s susceptibilities and her unhesitant leap from the bed of her first husband to that of her second.

Van Dyck’s Ophelia, though, is not so lucky. She was written opaque by Shakespeare and is unaided here by Scott’s jumpiness and, oddly enough, the good sense of this Polonius. She seems a passive young woman smashed up by the social politics of this court and Hamlet’s role within it. Her mad scenes, while not gracelessly done, hold no surprises.

This is pretty much true of the entire production that, while visually rich, opens no unusual windows on the text. A hint of contemporariness comes in the shape of the helmeted Fortinbras (Henry Godinez), whose talk of being “after a small patch of land” engenders thoughts of Kuwait--as much perhaps by coincidence as intent. But O’Brien makes the most of the play as character study, an effort thwarted, to some degree, by his leading man’s reckless haste.

There is much affection for effect, such as using the top of the long table as a platform stage (particularly by Hamlet and the itinerant players), but not always enough attention to emotional detail. Fortinbras’ casual look at the devastation of corpses he finds at the Danish court, for instance, seems jarringly out of step with the words he speaks. It can be played that way, but then the cynicism must be clearly underscored.


Ultimately, it’s Scott who must heed more of Hamlet’s wise advice and “suit the word to the action and the action to the word.” We repeat: Why the rush? As it is, this production moves like wind. It doesn’t have to be a hurricane.

At the Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts in Balboa Park, Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with some matinees. Ends Oct. 7; $20-$27.50; (619) 239-2255.


Shakespeare’s play. Director Jack O’Brien. Scenic designer Ralph Funicello. Lighting designer Peter Maradudin. Costumes Lewis Brown. Sound Jeff Ladman. Composer Bob James. Fight director Steve Rankin. Textual exposition Diana Maddox. Stage manager Douglas Pagliotti. Assistant stage manager Matia Carrera. Cast Campbell Scott, Richard Easton, Katherine McGrath, Jonathan McMurtry, Jonathan Walker, Jennifer Van Dyck, Peter Crook, Tom Lacy, Nicholas Martin, Will Crawford, Joe Hulser, Jonathan Nichols, Ray Chambers, Marc Wong, Blaise Messinger, Bray Poor, Jesus Ontiveros, Henry Godinez, Mary Kay Wulf, Sandra Lindberg, Andres Monreal, Al Wexo, James Kiernan.