Because so many actors in their 30s and 40s have played Hamlet — and another one, 45-year-old Paul Giamatti, is slated to tackle the role later this season at Yale Rep — it’s easy to forget that the soliloquizing prince is, after all, still a university student.
That fact is never far from our minds as we watch the spirited production of “Hamlet’’ by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center Mainstage.
As portrayed by the blond and boyish Michael Benz, Hamlet is less a melancholy Dane than an antic young rebel with a cause, chafing at the limits of his life and eager to make mischief. However irresolute he may be when it comes to follow-through on his big task, there’s an aspect of generational revolt in Hamlet’s efforts to subvert the hypocritical elders (Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius) who hold sway at Elsinore.
While still abounding in corpses and weighty rumination, this version of the classic revenge tragedy is brought off at high speed and in high style. If you’ve got a student of your own at home who’s resisted Shakespeare, the Globe Theatre’s “Hamlet’’ is an excellent introduction.
The production’s electricity and accessibility come at a cost, though. This is not a “Hamlet’’ to “harrow up thy soul,’’ to borrow a line from the ghost of Hamlet’s father, whose appearance sets the son on a mission to avenge his murder. It seldom touches the depths of existential dread plumbed by, say, the Gamm Theatre’s production last year, which featured Tony Estrella’s brilliant performance as a Hamlet wrestling with the overwhelming weight of full consciousness.
Codirected by Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst, the Globe Theatre’s “Hamlet’’ is so determinedly non-cosmic that it unfolds in a spare, barnlike environment created by set designer Jonathan Fensom: a floor of wooden planks and a wooden platform around whose pillars are wrapped two pieces of crimson cloth, a hint perhaps of the bloody deeds to come. Later, Hamlet saunters onstage wearing a scarf of a similar color; when we first see Carlyss Peer’s Ophelia, she is attired in a yellow dress flecked with red.
As Hamlet, Benz sometimes opts for a stylized delivery, seeming to arch an ironic eyebrow at Shakespeare’s verse even as he’s speaking it. But for the most part he delivers a passionately committed performance. Peer takes a more restrained approach to Ophelia’s mad scene than is commonly the case, but she is quietly haunting when the young maid puts her grief into song. We hear her lovely voice even after her death: Dromgoole and Buckhurst position Peer upstage on a ladder, where her mournful tune punctuates Ophelia’s burial (in this production, the body is a cloth-wrapped shape).
The house lights remain on throughout the roughly 2½-hour performance of “Hamlet,’’ in a bid by the company to simulate the open-air setting of the original Globe Theatre. Of the eight-member cast, everyone but Benz plays multiple roles. A particular standout is Dickon Tyrrell as Claudius and the Ghost, among others.
Indeed, Tyrrell’s Claudius is so compelling, his venality mixed with suggestions of his own inner torment, that at times he virtually takes over the play. Very nearly as good is the bearded, ruddy-faced Christopher Saul as Polonius, the eternally sententious gasbag who promises to be brief — it’s he who notes that “brevity is the soul of wit’’ — but, happily, never is. As Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, Miranda Foster is fine if not particularly memorable.
When they’re not in a scene, the actors remain in the picture and contribute to the atmosphere by playing musical instruments. For example, as the Ghost is informing a horrified Hamlet that he was poisoned by Claudius (who promptly married his widow, Gertrude), a cast member punctuates the Ghost’s words by slowly, rhythmically striking a drum.
This is a production ever eager to explore “Hamlet’’ for pockets of fun, and willing to find it by taking a few prankish liberties with the hallowed text: a reference to “Jacob Wirth’s tavern’’ is dropped in to tickle Boston audiences, and Claudius can’t seem to keep straight the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (he calls them “Rosenblitz and Guggenheim’’). The pantomime of the poisoning by the Hamlet-coached troupe of actors is played for laughs, and it gets them.
The Shakespeare scholar Northrop Frye described “Hamlet’’ as “a tragedy without a catharsis,’’ and he’s right, of course. But this production does deliver a beauty of a coda, in which the dead arise and dance a jig. With this particular production, that’s fitting.