NEW YORK — When Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and its artistic director Dominic Dromgoole set out to stage “Hamlet” last year, the goal was to shed what he calls the “colossal juggernaut of baggage” that’s built up around the play over its 400-year history.
“We try to make everything we do at the Globe as fresh as possible and to escape the straitjacket of preconceptions for whatever play we’re doing. That’s a hard job with any play, but it’s an immensely difficult one with ‘Hamlet,’ ” says Dromgoole, speaking over the phone from London, having just come from examining models of the indoor Jacobean theater the company is preparing to build at its complex on the Thames.
In order to break away from the play’s constricting performance history, Dromgoole decided to mount it using the company’s popular small-scale touring format, which it started doing about five years ago as a nod to Elizabethan tradition.
The resulting “Hamlet,” now on tour in the United States and arriving on the Paramount Center Mainstage Tuesday, is a fleet-footed, stripped-down production that features a compact, two-tiered wooden stage and just eight performers playing more than two dozen roles. The actors bang drums, strum guitars, and clang on bells onstage and off, creating all of the sound effects. Clocking in at about 2 hours, 40 minutes, it’s a brisk staging of a play that routinely runs three hours or more. But it maintains key material that shorter versions often excise.
“It was a way of being able to do ‘Hamlet’ without all of the pomp and the seriousness and the rather excessive faux gravity that it usually carries around beside it,” says Dromgoole, who directed the production with Bill Buckhurst. “I wanted it to be staged with the freshness and enthusiasm that I imagine it was first done. Because sometimes when you see actors do it . . . they sound like they’re in pain. And you’re like, oh, Christ alive, how many hours of this am I going to have to sit through?”
A central convention at the Globe’s open-air theater, a faithful replication of Shakespeare’s original playhouse, is the use of natural light. When performing at indoor venues like the Paramount, the company mimics the effect of daylight by keeping the house lights turned up, heightening the dynamic between audience and performer.
“That is a massive transformative element, in that you can look into the audience’s eyes,” Dromgoole says. “You’re saying to a group of people, who can look all around and look at each other, ‘Come on, let’s collaborate on this together. Let’s use our imaginations together — to create Denmark or to create ancient England or to create Rome.’ That’s a whole different, much more democratic, much less coercive way of making theater.”
When he began working on this production, Dromgoole had lodged in his head an observation about the character Hamlet that came from a 1960s BBC television roundtable that included Orson Welles and Peter O’Toole discussing the play. In it, as Dromgoole recalls, Welles says that the key point to remember about Hamlet is that he’s a man of genius.
“He can’t stop being brilliant and inventive with language and with insight and with thought,” Dromgoole says. “So I thought of that against all of these post-Freudian Hamlets that always look sort of intensely neurotic. I thought that the exuberance of the language and the insight and the thought has been lost slightly, and I was trying to get some of that back.”
So what advice had Dromgoole offered Michael Benz, the actor playing the brooding Prince of Denmark on the current tour?
“You don’t have to play Hamlet as sad. That is the single most famous fact in Western culture: that Hamlet is sad. So if you come off and try and look sad, it’s always going to be a disappointment, or it’s just going to conform to a stereotype,” the director says. “It’s understood that he’s sad. Just explore other sides of him.”
Still, Benz explains in an interview in New York, where the production is running through Sunday at Pace University, it was important for him to first see the world through Hamlet’s grief-stricken eyes. Not only has the character’s sorrow become all-encompassing after the untimely death of his father, but he’s struggling with feelings of anger and betrayal toward his mother, Gertrude, because of her hasty marriage to his uncle, Claudius.
“But I didn’t want to be petulant and moody, like a pissed-off teenage boy,” the energetic, bright-eyed actor says. “If Hamlet is too melancholy and too full of angst, I think the audience tires of it a little bit. You’ve got to play with his flips of emotions. Moments of humor and lightness come out of the most tragic, horrible things. It’s funny how people can be in the depths of tears and then they suddenly think of something hilarious and laugh themselves stupid.”
Shakespeare laces the bitter, heart-rending tragedy with mordant wit and lively humor — and he also gives some clues about the kind of person Hamlet used to be.
“I think it’s crucial to always think about what Hamlet was like before the roof fell in on his head,” Dromgoole says. “Because the evidence that you have from Horatio, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, from Ophelia and others, is that he was a delight, that he was brilliant, and that he was a very rewarding and enriching friend. So you can’t just play the pain. You’ve got to play the person who’s going through that pain.”
Benz, with his tousled blond locks and lithe build, must also contend with the ghosts of Hamlets past — from Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Alec Guinness to Kenneth Branagh, Simon Russell Beale, and, recently, Michael Sheen. But both Benz and Dromgoole say they believe their production greatly benefits from having a non-famous actor in the role, one who appears much closer to the age of the youthful student prince.
“When it’s ‘Michael Sheen does Hamlet,’ you know, that’s the poster, and so the focus shifts. No one knows who the hell I am,” says Benz, with a laugh. “So I think that’s probably refreshing.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.