If brevity is the soul of wit, then I’ll try to keep this short: Richmond Shakespeare’s Hamlet is excellent. The performances are very good and offer real depth and insight into Shakespeare’s iconic characters. With smart updates and a simple, unobtrusive approach to setting, this production is a strong introduction for young viewers and a rewarding watch for audiences at all levels of familiarity with the source material.
Richmond Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set in an ambiguously modern timeline, opening on soldiers in 20th century uniform followed by a familiar, contemporary cocktail wedding scene. The lack of specificity works. They’ve wisely resisted the temptation to focus significant attention on the self-conscious process of updating Shakespeare’s work, and the vagueness of the stage decoration and unclear historical moment instead serve to reinforce Hamlet’s thematic timelessness. When Claudius is preoccupied with the optics of his wedding, posing for pictures and directing the photographer, it feels like a natural extension of the character and story – not like an update for its own sake.
Richmond Shakespeare’s Hamlet Runs Through November 17
One of the production’s greatest strengths is its interpretation of Polonius, portrayed with unusual sympathy and complexity by MaryBeth Adams in her Richmond Shakespeare debut. She captures the character’s bombast and delivers many of the show’s biggest laughs with her physical comedy and bold speech. Rather than playing Polonius only as a foolish, pompous statesman, though, she brings genuine warmth and care to Polonius as a parent. In an early scene with Rosemary Richards and Robbie Winston (as Ophelia and Laertes, respectively), the three paint a compelling and believable portrait of a loving family: the siblings bond over teasing their mother, but the affection between the three is evident. More than any other interpretation I’ve seen of these characters, I experienced the tremendous weight of their grief as the play progressed because their familiarity and joy as a family unit felt so true. This production’s positioning of Polonius as Ophelia’s mother is particularly effective, recontextualizing their relationship and imbuing it with new depth and dimension.
Joshua Carter is exceptional as Hamlet. His portrayal is intricate and dynamic, meeting the emotional demands of the character with a desperate energy that makes it seem as though he’ll collapse or explode or both. Carter adeptly conveys Hamlet’s inconsistency and instability: He balances brattiness, frenetic sadness, and still determination from moment to moment. When he commands the players, there’s an intentionality and regalness to his bearing that reminded me that Hamlet is a prince – an element of the character that’s rarely at the front of my mind. The performance is both restrained and physically strenuous, and Carter is compelling in every moment.
Reinforcing the haunting quality of Carter’s performance is insistent, droning sound design by Kate Statelman. The mechanical on-and-off quality of the tracks are disjointed and smartly deployed to make clear when the ghost’s presence moves in and out of a scene. Gretta Daughtrey’s lighting design is similarly informative, shaping the mood while also constructing consistent visual cues around the hauntings as well as recurring emotional themes. Audience members are positioned at the sides of the stage, which enhances the flow of Shakespeare’s asides. Those placement choices also enable interesting dynamics of visibility and invisibility, at times confining the characters’ movement and enhancing their sense of claustrophobia, limitation, and frustration.
Under James Ricks’ direction, Hamlet is a powerful theatrical experience and an impressive start to Richmond Shakespeare’s 25th Anniversary Season. Gottwald Playhouse grants an intimacy and proximity to the production that enhances the urgency of Hamlet’s violent rage while also giving plenty of breathing space to its quieter themes of loss and alienation. It’s well worth your time, whether you loved reading Hamlet in high school or not.
Richmond Shakespeare’s Hamlet runs through Friday, November 17 at Gottwald Playhouse in the Dominion Energy Center. For tickets and showtimes, visit DominonEnergyCenter.com.