Every great male Shakespearean actor wants a shot at Hamlet and John Douglas Thompson has been waiting a long time for his shot. Now in his fifties, Thompson makes for an older Hamlet who seems more approachable because of the weight the actor brings to the role.
Overall, Thompson’s Hamlet comes across as a cool, smart dude you might want to hang out with, rather than a tortured soul in impossible circumstances. He’s certainly the only Hamlet I’ve seen that I’d want to have lunch with.
Hamlet kicks off A.C.T.’s 2017-2018 season, the company’s first Shakespeare play since 1996. This production is really well done, equally well acted and directed as anything you might see in London or New York. Like all good productions of Shakespeare, the actors make the language accessible without overacting or pantomiming every other word.
Overall, it’s a solid production. If you’ve never seen Hamlet performed live before, this production would be a good starting point. That stated, if you’re a Shakespeare fan, it’s not going to redefine your understanding of the play or make you rethink justice, mortality or any of the other big themes tackled in the show.
If you love seeing Shakespeare productions or just want to see a really good production of Hamlet, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re looking for something that will really stick in your mind for dozens of years to come, this isn’t that show.
Throughout the show, there are lines performed in strange ways, but they all work remarkably well. In the title role, Thompson consistently makes unusual choices during Hamlet’s big speeches and soliloquies. For example, the “To Be or Not To Be” speech is not given the long drawn out weight often associated with the famous soliloquy. He questions the trials of life and death like they’re a daydream rather than something he’s seriously considering. It’s an odd choice, but it does work. Likewise, the “Get Thee to a Nunnery” speech is also flipped on its head. Instead of angrily ranting at Ophelia (played by Rivka Borek), Thompson’s Hamlet seems to be pleading with her to get out of the Danish court by any means possible. Again, it’s a weird choice that I haven’t seen before but it does work within the context of the scene and the play.
The rest of the cast is equally good, even outshining Thompson’s performance at times. Steven Anthony Jones plays Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous Uncle, with an oily confidence that makes you love to hate him. Both Dan Hiatt as Polonius and Teagle F. Bougere as Laertes also play their roles with sincerity and emotional specificity that will have you both cheering for and regretting their on-stage deaths.
A.C.T.’s Hamlet will not redefine your understanding of the play, but not every production needs to do that. The show is well imagined and performed by the actors and the creative team is the caliber one expects from a prominent theater in a major city like San Francisco. This production is solid and enjoyable, and if you’re hankering for a good Shakespeare show, it’s worth the trip to the theater.
Hamlet is playing now through October 15, 2017, at The Geary Theater near Union Square, San Francisco. The show runs about 3 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets range from $15 to $105.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne