Broadcast Text Reviews: Hamlet and The Physicists

by Lynn on May 31, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following reviews were broadcast on Friday, May 28, 2015. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm: Hamlet plays at the Festival Theatre, Stratford until Fall, The Physicists at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Ont. Until the fall.

The Host was Phil Taylor.

Good Friday morning. It’s theatre talk time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. Since Stratford opening this week, I assume you’re going to talk about Shakespeare?

Yes, I’m taking about Hamlet, perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous play, if not the most famous play in the world. It’s sometimes referred to as being about a man who could not make up his mind, at least the Olivier film suggests that.

And The Physicists a fascinating, rarely done play by Swiss playwright, Fredrich Dürrenmatt about patients in a mental institute pretending to be famous physicists. The play is unsettling and full of secrets.

Let’s start with Hamlet. What is rotten in the state of Denmark?

Plenty. Hamlet’s father, the king of Denmark, has died and young Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, has assumed the crown as the new king.

About two months later, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude marries Claudius, her brother-in-law.

Well the swiftness of these two events leaves Hamlet dazed, confused and depressed. Added to that, Hamlet’s friends in the castle at Elsinore say that they have seen the ghost of Hamlet Sr. roaming around the ramparts. Hamlet sees for himself. His father’s ghost appears to him and says that he was murdered by Claudius (his brother). That is what is rotten in Denmark. Hamlet creates a plan to trap Claudius and reveal his guilt. Those are the basics but the court is swirling with intrigue.

Do you think that Hamlet is about a man who couldn’t make up his mind?

I don’t think he’s indecisive. I think his problem is that he sees both or many sides of a story equally and each side presents viable options.

For example, he wants desperately to kill Claudius. He has a perfect opportunity when Claudius seems to be praying. Hamlet is about to kill him but then realizes Claudius won’t go to hell, as Hamlet thinks he should, because Claudius is praying. Therefore he would go to heaven. That’s not what Hamlet wants. So Hamlet reasons himself out of making that decision.

What Hamlet doesn’t realize is that Claudius knows that his prayer is false and that he does not mean what he says, so Hamlet should have killed him and damned Claudius to hell. And for an extra bit of ironic humour, Claudius is bowed down but his arms are bent around a tankard of liquor that he has been drinking. Hamlet doesn’t see that either.

When Hamlet does act in the play, it’s impetuous, without thinking. For instance Gertrude has called Hamlet to her room to chastise him for his behaviour.

Hamlet replies with anger that she married his uncle so quickly. She feels threatened. Screams. What Hamlet doesn’t know at this point is that Polonius, a member of the court, is also in the room, hiding behind an arras to spy on Hamlet and hear what he says. Gertrude knows this.

Gertrude’s screams frighten Polonius, who also yells from behind the arras, and Hamlet just reacts blindly and kills him. In the text he stabs him with his rapier. In this production he shoots him with a rifle. No matter. He kills him and that sets off more reactions and trouble.

What do you think of this production?

I think it’s a clear, revelatory production that goes like the wind and leaves you breathless. Director Antoni Cimolino and his creative team (spare set by Teresa Przybylski and evocative lighting by Michael Walton) have created a stark, spare production illuminating the moody, forbidding goings on in Denmark after King Hamlet suddenly dies.

So many details are telling. Hamlet Sr. has died two months before but Gertrude, his widow, has quickly married Claudius, her brother-in-law. In their first scene Claudius is in a white military suit and Gertrude is in an iridescent red dress. She is hardly the mourning widow. It makes you certain Claudius and Gertrude were having an affair before her husband dies. Hamlet of course is in black, appropriate for his mourning for his father.

In Jonathan Goad we have a quit-witted, intelligent, passionate, impetuous Hamlet. Because he is able to see so many solutions to problems it makes you wonder what kind of king he might have been. And we get a clear sense that he really wanted to be king. In one scene Hamlet puts on Claudius’s crown and it’s too big for him so it falls down from his head and rests around his neck. He reveals his frustration by taking the crown, holding it in the air and saying, “I lack advancement.” Revelatory. He wants to be king. And of course shouldn’t the crown have come to him if his father dies and not his uncle? This production got me thinking of that.

And Goad’s facility with Shakespeare’s language is never in question. He knows that poetry down to his toes. But how to make those iconic speeches seem fresh so that one is not tempted to whisper along with Hamlet and instead listen to what it means? Goad has found the way. A flesh and blood character–conflicted, confused, unsettled, grieving—guides us through every poetic, true moment as if it’s conversation.

Adrienne Gould plays a delicate, sensitive Ophelia who must cope with a lot of upheaval in her life; her father, Polonius, being murdered and the strange behaviour of her beloved Hamlet being just two devastating instances.

In one scene Hamlet says to her that he never loved her and urges her to “Get thee to a nunnery.” This scene is full of such passion, desperation and true love it leaves you heart-sore.
I can’t remember a more vivid representation of this scene with both lunging at, clutching, and hugging each other. He begins to tear up his letter she has just returned to him, and it’s too much to bear for her. She tries desperately to get him to stop. Stunning. You see the detailed movement from sweet innocent young woman to madness in Gould’s meticulous performance.

Seana McKenna plays a regal compassionate Gertrude. Geraint Wyn Davies is a confident, ambitious Claudius.

As I said Antoni Cimolino’s direction is vivid, clear and impressive, but I do have quibbles.

What are they?

Often in Cimolino’s productions, he has a scene before the actual play begins that creates the world of the play.

In Hamlet a group of WWI soldiers hold a simple coffin, ready to bury it, with a solitary man standing (back to us) in a cone of white light, watching this happen. I assume that the man is Hamlet and he’s at his father’s funeral. Then the play starts proper.

The problem is that you would have to know the play well to guess that’s Hamlet watching and even then I’m not sure. What of the folks who aren’t familiar with the play—and there are plenty—the production starts in confusion. The play that Shakespeare wrote sets up the goings on and the world of the play quite clearly without extra embellishment.

And I have found in Cimolino’s productions that in crowd scenes with more than one focus, things get muddy. So at the end of Hamlet lots of things are going on. Hamlet is in a dual. Claudius secretly poisons a cup of wine he intends Hamlet to drink.

But Gertrude drinks it instead, even though Claudius urges her not to. So we are looking at the dual, but I am also looking at Gertrude to see how she is reacting to the poisoned drink.

The problem here is that I had to look at many people on the periphery of the scene before I find her, way over there, and almost out of the light. These telling scenes should be more focused. But as I said, quibbles…..

Get thee to Stratford to see this gripping production of Hamlet.

And tell us about The Physicist. Why is it unsettling?

Written by Fredrich Dürrenmatt which premiered in 1962. This version is adapted by Canada’s own Michael Healey, a playwright in his own right.

The world had seen a lot of political upheaval. The play is set in a mental institute overseen by a white-haired, hunchback woman named Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd.

Three patients think they are famous nuclear physicists; namely Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Johann Wilhelm Möbius. One of them is telling the truth. Each has murdered a nurse to ensure they will remain there.

The unsettling nature is that someone at that facility knows who is telling the truth and is stealing the theories of that person to gain world domination.

The lead up might seem funny—the play is full of humour–but this being Dürrenmatt, there is always an underlying sense of foreboding. And with Michael Healey’s adaptation he knows his way around a funny line or situation but his plays always have a serious underlying tone. I think he’s given a freshness to the play with his adaptation.

Does the production do justice to the play?

It does. It’s directed with clear efficiency by Miles Potter. Möbius speaks to King Solomon, regularly, and in Geraint Wyn Davies’ performance he is slightly crazed, docile, thoughtful, and always has you wondering if he’s nuts or not.

As Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd Seana McKenna is striking with her humped back, her severe- white wig, black round rimmed glasses and a razor sharp stare that can scare you at 20 paces. Von Zahnd is humourless and ruthless. It’s all there in McKenna’s performance.

The Physicists is a challenging play about the state of the world, and Stratford offers a chance to see this rarely done work.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at Twitter @slotkinletter.

Hamlet and The Physicists continue at the Stratford Festival.

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