The Royal Shakespeare Company has launched a month-long residency at Washington's Kennedy Center with Shakespeare's best-known play, "Hamlet," and one of his least-known plays, "Henry VIII."
And, though both plays concern kings who married their brothers' widows, the productions couldn't be more different. Director Matthew Warchus' modern-dress "Hamlet" is a fresh look at an over-produced classic. But the chief distinguishing feature of director Gregory Doran's "Henry VIII" is merely that it offers a chance to see a rarely staged work (albeit, one with an extraordinary depiction of the wronged Katherine of Aragon).
Warchus' "Hamlet" accomplishes the nearly impossible -- it takes a play everyone knows and imbues it with a sense of suspense. This is a "Hamlet" that actually makes you wonder what's going to happen next.
It's not just that the director has lopped off between a quarter and a third of the text and rearranged some of what's left, it's that he and his magnificent lead actor, Alex Jennings, have found an eye-opening approach to both the character and the play.
Dispensing with all references to Fortinbras and Norway, as well as the opening scene of the night watch, the play begins with Jennings, in a dark, three-piece suit, spilling his father's ashes out onto the stage floor. Next, a grainy black-and-white home movie is projected behind him, showing Hamlet, as a small boy, playing with his father.
When the movie ends, the back wall opens up to reveal the wedding party for Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and uncle, Claudius. Lurking on the sidelines, Hamlet snaps Polaroids, as if collecting evidence.
From the start, Jennings' Hamlet is resentful, morose, angry and, above all, grief-stricken, viewing the world around him through an almost constant veil of tears. Instead of an indecisive young man, as he is often portrayed, this is a more mature Hamlet. Once he encounters his father's ghost (a disappointingly bland Edward Petherbridge), he knows what he must do and he doesn't waver -- distasteful and distressing as his duty may be.
Nor is there any question of whether this Hamlet goes mad. Jennings makes it clear that he is indeed feigning "an antic disposition," as he tells his dear friend Horatio (an earnest Colin Hurley). This is reinforced after intermission, when Jennings appears in the white-face of a clown as he serves as master of ceremonies for the play he has prepared to incriminate his uncle. By the time Hamlet confronts his mother in her bedroom, the clown makeup remains on only half of his face -- a visual metaphor of his divided nature. A sensitive and loving soul, he is acting against his own instincts when forced to revenge his father's murder.
There are other illuminating performances in Warchus' fast-paced interpretation. Just as Hamlet is a bit older than usual, so Derbhle Crotty's Ophelia is also more mature. From the way she and Hamlet embrace, there's no doubt that theirs was a genuine love affair, not a teen-age crush.
Paul Freeman's cigar-smoking Claudius is as severe and ruthless as a corporate raider, and as his new wife, Susannah York is an elegant Gertrude. A truly devoted, concerned mother, she is so stunned when Hamlet informs her of Claudius' guilt that she recoils the next time Claudius enters the room. David Ryall's Polonius is a doddering but well-meaning old man, who writes a check to his son, Laertes (William Houston), while advising him, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."
While the RSC's "Hamlet" is distilled to a taut family drama, dispensing with external politics and history, the company's "Henry VIII" is all politics and history. Or, more specifically, it's a series of scenes that alternate between pageantry and treachery.
Designer Robert Jones does well by the pageantry, with Paul Jesson's Holbein-looking Henry VIII making his entrance on a life-sized replica of an armored horse that emerges from a two-story gilded chamber. But director Doran does little to help the audience make sense of the treachery. On the contrary, many of the noblemen seem interchangeable -- a confusion enhanced by their nearly identical black costumes.
The production's one redeeming feature is Jane Lapotaire's moving portrayal of Katherine, Henry's first queen (the play only concerns his first two marriages). Lapotaire invests the discarded queen with so much dignity and decency, her character is the perfect foil for all the hypocrisy and ostentation around her. Her simple, heartfelt scenes are infinitely more involving than the intrigue that makes up most of the play.
Doran does add some interesting interpretive touches. He enhances the duplicity of avaricious, ambitious Cardinal Wolsey (played with all appropriate villainy by Ian Hogg) by turning him into a debauched Bacchus figure in an early party scene. And at the same party, Claire Marchionne's Anne Bullen (as Anne Boleyn is called in the text) is revealed to be less than a blushing innocent.
It is widely believed that Shakespeare collaborated on this late work with John Fletcher, which may explain the thinness of the material. Today, the play is famous mainly because the Globe Theatre burned down during its performance on June 29, 1613. In other words, "Henry VIII" is a historical footnote at best -- an impression this production does little to alter.
What: "Hamlet" and "Henry VIII"
Where: Kennedy Center, ("Hamlet," Eisenhower Theater; "Henry VIII," Terrace Theater), off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 1: 30 p.m. Saturdays (call for the rest of the matinee schedule). Through June 21
Pub Date: 6/13/98