In a recent lecture, professor Harold Bloom lamented the waning influence of Shakespeare, particularly the growing inability of thespians today to successfully bring the Bard’s plays to life on the stage. And with director Gabriel Bloomfield’s ’11 adaptation of “Hamlet” — opening this week in the Calhoun Cabaret — Professor Bloom is surely crying himself to sleep.
On the surface, Bloomfield’s “Hamlet” is a straightforward telling of the play: Keeping with traditional productions, the titular character seeks to exact revenge on his uncle Claudius for murdering the former king of Denmark (Hamlet’s father) and then taking the throne and marrying his brother’s wife Gertrude. Themes of treachery and moral corruption come to a head as Hamlet questions both his existence and his own resolve before avenging his father in the play’s final, tragic scene.
That said, the play’s opening makes very clear it is an adaptation: Before any actor utters one of Shakespeare’s original lines, Taylor Vaughn-Lasley ’12, accompanied by accordion and violin, performs a musical number that sets the mood for the rest of the play. But Lasley’s voice is barely audible over the melody — the only line that comes through is “pool of blood,” which is repeated several times. Therein lies the fundamental problem that this production of “Hamlet” is unable to overcome: This play, though extremely promising and based on rich material, never quite finds its voice.
Cooper Lewis ’11, in the title role, approaches the scatterbrained and uncertain prince of Denmark in a one-dimensional yet effective way. Whether intentionally or not, his performance closely mirrors the prototypical rebellious teenager⎯— complete with chain necklace and an eyebrow piercing.
His sarcastic and often frenetic interactions, notably with his mother Gertrude (Kate Berman ’11) and the stunning Ophelia (Julie Shain ’13), complete this stung and rather immature image. Indeed, the play entirely hinges upon Lewis, who admirably seems at ease bearing the weight of Shakespeare on his misunderstood shoulders.
The play is obsessed with its rebellious, if not misguided, revision of the timeless classic. Anachronisms abound, from digital stand-ins for the ghost of Hamlet’s father and a clip of duck-walking soldiers set on a visual loop, to gaudy fur coats that would make even Nicki Minaj proud.
Even the other performances aim to defy convention.
Who could imagine Polonius (Hunter Wolk ’12) played so apathetically? And in an interesting departure from the Shakespearean tradition of all-male casting, women even play the parts of Claudius (Peregrine Heard ’12), Horatio (Charlotte McCurdy ’13), Rosencrantz (Calista Small ’14), Guildenstern (Antonia Czinger ’13) and Fortinbras (Lasley).
But for all its glamour and attempts at innovation, “Hamlet” never quite measures up to its potential. Like the starkly individualistic and at times head-scratching performances, the play runs together quite loosely, and the changes, rather than adding to the narrative, tend to distract. Bloomfield seems caught up in presenting his personal take on the tragedy, but ultimately, his adaptations add little to Shakespeare’s masterwork.
Yet there exists a certain glory in trying to make something new out of a play so thoroughly grounded in history. Bloomfield takes an ambitious and commendable leap, even if it does not entirely pay off. As this version of “Hamlet” makes very clear, convention warrants a reworking.