Darko Tresnjak’s Old Globe outdoor “Hamlet” lives in the 16th century as surely as did Shakespeare himself. With the actors brilliantly clad by Robert Morgan in period garb, the festival stage brims with visual references to contemporary realities, notably the Elizabethan era’s newfound interest in diaries and personal essays and the profound introspection they demand. Concept animates the soliloquies but eventually leaves the aud cold, for this is a Hamlet less interested in holding a mirror up to nature than in holding a mirror up to himself.
Sure that much of the play’s power lies in direct address, helmer sends the Prince (Lucas Hall) into the house to work out his concerns with us. Youthfully handsome, Hall is credible as courtier, scholar and soldier, lucidly guiding us through his musings on suicide or acting’s paradoxes with touching candor. One yearns for a vocal range wider than his restricted tenor, but the great soliloquies’ evidence as to Hamlet’s unwillingness to swiftly avenge his father’s murder is made understandable and persuasive.
Production sizzles whenever we and Hamlet are in private conference, as it were, but sags upon each return to an Elsinore that makes the current Iraqi government seem a model of stability. Uncle Claudius (Bruce Turk) is a mewling, ineffectual sot and Gertrude (Celeste Ciulla) a glowering harridan, both rarely seen without flagons in hand. The judgment to expel Hamlet to England is laughably lacking in force; he goes solely because script says to do so.
Polonius (Charles Janasz) is a preening twit with incipient Alzheimer’s and a daughter, Ophelia (Joy Farmer-Clary), whose maturity is at odds with her evident distress. Rosencrantz (Chip Brookes) and Guildenstern (Nathaniel McIntyre) are plump boobies in green costumes and white leggings that suggest leprechauns. They couldn’t fool a credulous toddler.
This confederacy of dunces offers Hall’s Hamlet so little opposition or threat that he’s left to run roughshod over the court in an uncomfortably superior way. Given to sudden lurches and howls of frustration, often in mid-stride, he clearly doesn’t need the play-within-a-play to prove Claudius’ guilt, and there’s no sense of Hamlet’s wishing it would prove otherwise so the cup could pass from him. It’s as if the concept demanded that all his vulnerability be restricted to those private moments.
As the play starts depriving us of soliloquies during which Hall can win us back, Hamlet’s smug self-absorption can’t help but turn into narcissism. By the time he’s berating the skull of his supposedly beloved Yorick and using it as a puppet, this Prince has become an outright bully lacking in nobility and sympathy, and it frankly comes as a genuine relief when “the rest is silence.”
Lush production never lacks of mirrors for characters to observe themselves, with considerable religious imagery — including a big cross on Gertrude’s incestuous-bed spread — conjuring up the transition from Catholicism to Anglicanism. (Accompanied by Protestant clergy, James Knight as conqueror Fortinbras enters the corpse-strewn throne room and promptly adds to the usual body count with the snap of a neck. If you thought something was rotten in Denmark before, get ready for King Fortinbras.)
Some of Tresnjak’s conceits, like the giant red cloth that envelops the stage of “The Mousetrap,” are rattlingly effective, while setting action awkwardly and illogically on the upper stage proves less so. Thesps carry out his instructions dutifully if not especially interestingly, the outstanding exception serving to illuminate two roles rather than one.
As the Player of whom Hamlet requests Priam’s lament for Hecuba, Old Globe vet Jonathan McMurtry evokes, in a few carefully chosen gestures, both the conventions of a bygone acting era and their power to enthrall. Later, his low-keyed believability allows him to wring every bit of mirth and sadness out of the Gravedigger, for whom doleful banter is an everyday habit. Each of these characters is labeled “the First,” and McMurtry is certainly the first among this company.