The Suitcase Hamlet Gets Lost in Transit

Another opening, another Hamlet !

I must say, with regrets, that I found the Royal National Theatre production of

Hamlet a very poor one, indeed. It

shall henceforth be known as “The Suitcase Hamlet .”

The motif of John Caird’s long, literal, murky production-the bewilderingly

lame idea behind his entire conception of the play-is a suitcase.

The set is dominated by suitcases and trunks of various

shapes and sizes that are moved about like building blocks in the Stygian

gloom. Eyes, and therefore souls, are not deceived. They are strained. Why a

suitcase? That is the question. Why are we looking at a castle of suitcases all

night long? I ask you in all candor: When we think of Hamlet , when we try to grapple anew with its tragic vastness and

meaning, does the image of a suitcase spring to mind? And if sprung, does it

stay?

I can only assume the director, Mr. Caird, and his set

designer, Tim Hatley, were agonizing one day over a brave new concept best

suited to the most produced great play in history, and they thought, and they

thought, and they cried out to the heavens: “Got it! Let’s do suitcases!”

And so it was. I’m afraid there was time enough to ponder

their meaning. The evening began at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 11:15. Why a

suitcase? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-and Hamlet, too-wouldn’t need 20 of them

for their fateful journey to England. They are not Elizabeth Taylor. Besides,

the suitcases are in every scene. Could they, by any chance, be a symbol ?

Voilà! We have it!

Hamlet is a young man who must travel from adolescence to manhood, from thinker

to assassin. He’s on a journey . Hence

the suitcases! Whether that’s an illuminating new concept of Hamlet , I leave to you. If it were left

to me, I’d leave on the next train. Except that Mr. Caird’s suitcases aren’t

going anywhere. We’re stuck with them all night, squinting at them through the

near-permanent darkness of the stage. Suitcase = travel; darkness = tragic

foreboding.

Mr. Caird recently adapted and co-directed Jane Eyre , the musical, which also takes

place in darkness. (Tragic foreboding = Jane Eyre; clippety-clop = sound of

horses.) And we’ve seen those blessed suitcases before! They were piled up all

those years ago in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Nicholas Nickleby , which Mr. Caird

co-directed with Trevor Nunn.

There’s nothing particularly fresh or startling about the

big, conventional production. It meanders in its rhythm and length; the choices

are simple-minded (Gertrude fondling her wedding dress in her bedchamber) or

they’re peculiar(anunkingly Claudius with earring and pony tail; a bimbette

Ophelia). The churchy background music milks the cosmos, providing a

faux-celestial “otherness” and “mystery.” From the opening, most unthrilling

ghost scene to the last, hackneyed image of a cross, all is not well. The

political aspects of the drama have been cut (no loss), but the production as a

whole remains an average one, in spite of the lauded performance of Simon Russell

Beale.

Mr. Beale is a fine actor, though a portly prince. It’s been

said that his short, pudgy physique is of no consequence. But it’s been said

too often, including by a defensive Mr. Beale. Acting is acting who you aren’t;

acting itself is a glorious illusion. No, it isn’t that Mr. Beale looks

mournfully as if he’d like to console himself occasionally with a bag of sticky

buns. It’s more that as a mature 40-year-old actor-his beard flecked with gray,

his grief worn like a shroud of long suffering-his markedly adolescent Hamlet

is a stretch. I never acutely sensed the tragic youth, more an acted version of

it.

It is director Caird’s notion that Hamlet is about goodness compromised or gone rotten. Maybe so, but

too goody-goody: Is Claudius a good man who lapsed, as he seems to be here?

After all, he usurped the throne, murdered the King, married the Queen two

months later and would have Hamlet assassinated. A good guy? And what of

Hamlet? Was Hamlet born good? Mr.

Beale suggests he was born nice ,

which is less than good. The fire of inner rage and madness doesn’t burn in his

performance. There’s little or no sense of frightening bitterness or vengeance

thwarted. He’s a sweet prince. The readiness is all. But one fears that Mr.

Beale’s good-natured Hamlet will never be ready.

He is too much the confused student, too little the would-be

assassin. He delivers the soliloquies tenderly and beautifully, an innate

intelligence in support. Elsewhere, his voice as fine-tuned musical instrument

surprisingly forgets itself, lacking range. His performance is characterized by

a soft romanticism rather than the tragic greatness that has been thrust upon

it. Violent emotion isn’t in Mr. Beale here; tears are. They encourage the

sentimental sense of a wounded Everyman, and the star isn’t above milking it

the old-fashioned way. As the curtain descended slowly at the end of Act I as

if we were attending a grand opera, the theatrical sobs coming from Mr. Beale’s

weepy Hamlet were loud enough to awaken Yorick.

Then again, the ghost was a good old declamatory

19th-century ghost, emoting to the rooftops. Polonius was a bore, as usual; the

gravedigger scene is clownishly so-so, as usual. We had an Ophelia without

poetry (and a pro forma singsong

madness scene). The cowardly, goading Claudius, and the ferocious, compelling

Gertrude who could have eaten him alive for breakfast, were played by the

veteran Shakespeareans Peter McEnery and Sara Kestelmen, and it was good to see

these veteran Shakespeareans again.

I’ve avoided mentioning the Peter Brook Hamlet that was in Brooklyn only a month ago. If I have a bias in

favor of Mr. Brook’s imaginative simplicity, don’t forgive me. It’s a bias I’m

happy to have. The point I would like to make is only to observe that the two Hamlet productions are found on two

different planets. The Royal National Theatre production is big state theater

on display in the Opera House in Brooklyn. Save for just one of its actors, the

cast is all white. The Brook production is innovatory theater with a multicultural

cast of eight that played in B.A.M.’s intimate second theater. The one

continues a Shakespearean tradition, now grown predictable, growing weaker,

slowly dying. The other reexplores Shakespeare in order to invigorate the

classical theater and renew it. Which of them is truly alive? Which is the way?

I know the road I would sooner follow. The one without the

baggage of the past, the one without the suitcase.