Gertrude, watching Hamlet duel, says, “He’s fat and scant o’ breath.” Directors often cut this line, for obvious reasons; commentators explain that Hamlet is sweating (“fat”) from the unaccustomed exertion. In Simon Russell Beale, for once, the play had an actor on whom the adjective could sit, unashamed, in both senses. Beale, seen here on a brief visit by England’s Royal National Theatre, is slightly thick of speech as well as of body, a cherubic, cartoonlike figure whom you might more naturally expect to see playing a bureaucrat, not a prince. But since he’s also a first-rate actor, his persona didn’t stop him from making a strong emotional connection to the role, and giving a substantial performance that grew steadily more moving—a phenomenon so rare in English Shakespeare acting that some of my less experienced colleagues called it a new approach.
Beale’s prince was a bundle of indecisions and anxieties, desperate to be loved but always ready to pull himself up haughtily at the slightest hint of condescension or mistrust. His speech was laden with self-questioning pauses, often at syntactically “wrong” places in the text, making him seem more than a little unhinged. In creating this tangle of frayed nerve ends, Beale’s rotund figure told against him: It was hard to see what about him might appeal to Cathryn Bradshaw’s Ophelia (an earnestly intense, not wholly convincing performance), and he made a truly ludicrous sight declaiming at Laertes over her grave. But alone, or with Horatio, he was genuinely troubled; the force and pathos in his performance deepened as the action progressed, and I actually felt sorry when he died—an experience even rarer for me than seeing an English actor emotionally connected to his role.
There was ample reason onstage, unfortunately, for Beale’s Hamlet to be troubled. John Caird, a principal perpetrator of the indigestible Jane Eyre, is not the director to make any prince’s quest for peace of mind easier. One can say in praise of Caird that the play’s action did progress (some directors seem oblivious to it); that he presumably helped nurture Beale’s performance; and that his nearly four-hour production gave us a good deal more text than we usually get in today’s cut and recut Shakespeare. We can also say that he takes a more active interest in the “words, words, words” than most directors: Hamlet wasn’t the only character onstage who pointed puns and paused at ambiguities. For this relief, much thanks.
But they’re the only thanks Caird gets. In every other respect, his production was bad beyond belief, at points nearly a laughingstock. He apparently conceived Hamlet as some sort of religious allegory. Tim Hatley’s set, a lofty panoply of empty doorways, overhung by Victorian chandeliers, featured a towering aperture upstage center that, backlit, could pass for the vertical beam of a crucifix. Everything was underscored by John Cameron’s music, mock-Tudor liturgical chant. At the same time, Caird seized on the play’s many comings and goings of travelers to use trunks of various sizes in lieu of most other furniture. The result tended to suggest an Anglican church service performed in a baggage claim area that had once been a grand ballroom.
It looked just as stupid as it sounds, and I’m afraid it colored my opinion of the supporting cast, as miscellaneous a lot of unclaimed baggage as I’ve ever seen. Apart from Bradshaw, Simon Day’s bland, halting Horatio was tolerable, and Peter Blythe’s Polonius at least technically accomplished, though the latter could never quite merge the wise statesman and the nattering fool into one character; as the Gravedigger, he made the fatal mistake of trying to be funny. Even that put him far ahead of Peter McEnery’s Claudius, who alternated a sullen terseness, not wrong in itself, with seizures of shouting at maximally inappropriate moments.
Maybe McEnery felt unpartnered: Sara Kestelman’s Gertrude, harsh-voiced and hatchet-profiled, chose the closet scene for her only display of warmth, getting cozy with Hamlet despite the corpse on the floor. The rest, since I don’t want to lose my temper, had better be silence—though the allusion reminds me, first, that even Hamlet’s dying speech was decorated with chanting, for the kitschiest sort of Henry Irving effect, and, second, that everything relating to Fortinbras was deleted, making Beale the second BAM Hamlet in a month to omit “How all occasions do inform against me.” I’m glad Caird restored the Reynaldo scene, but couldn’t his star have explained to him about priorities?
A peculiar mother-and-son relationship, not without links to Hamlet, is the core of Han Ong’s Watcher, set in pre-cleanup Times Square, where mom Loretta (Mia Katigbak) sells tickets at a seedy third-run movie house, while her moody, less-than-swift son Angelo (Orlando Pabotoy) struggles to finish high school and daydreams about movies. Escapees from a murkily miserable marriage on the West Coast (as with Melanie Marnich’s current Blur, we never find out what was so terrible about it), Loretta and her babied angel resist making new connections in New York till the anomie outweighs their resistance, at which point Loretta succumbs to Cinquenta (Gilbert Cruz), the infinitely considerate manager of the movie house, and Angelo strikes up a kinship with the older, opportunistic Nestor (Anthony Ruivivar), another movie-lover, an orphan who has a similar tonic-dominant relationship with his implacably suspicious aunt (Ching Valdes Aran).
Nestor’s up to no good, of course, but apart from one ill-fated attempt to mesh gears erotically with Angelo (whose response seems to be no-sex-please-we’re-Filipino), Ong’s notion of the no-good one could be up to in the old Times Square seems almost as romantically naive as his hero’s. Ong and his director, Loy Arcenas, have a swooning fondness for antique attitudes of yearning, sorrowing, and breathless anticipation, which they pour together with the harsh details of everyday reality in an intriguing but ultimately unpalatable mix. Still, Ong’s gnomic, loosely strung scenes contain a lot of strong, incisive writing, and Arcenas’s harsh, jump-cut production proffers some strong performances to match.
Most arresting is Katigbak, her face pinched in a half-smile of perpetual sorrow, the polar opposite of her gushy media queen in the recent Dogeaters, while Valdes Aran creates what amounts to a rework of her monstrously pious general’s wife in the same show, cunningly scaled down and humanized. Pabotoy, who seemed at a loss in Paul Rudnick’s Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, finds his way much more effectively through this slice of what’s clearly home turf; Ruivivar makes him a slimily appealing foil.
The title apparition of The Woman in Black is a revengeful spirit: Whenever she appears, a son dies. With roots in every parent’s fear, this would be a great central premise for a ghost story. Regrettably, Stephen Mallatratt doesn’t know how to tell one theatrically. His adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel has been running in London for 12 years; the New York production makes that a greater mystery than any in Mallatratt’s wordy and improbably rigged-up script. All the stock elements are brushed in, perfunctorily: the deserted house; the ruined graveyard; the recently dead old lady whom all the village shunned; the taciturn servant; the naive young lawyer who arrives from London and finds himself ensnared. You could probably build a story out of those elements in your sleep that would be more effective than the one Mallatratt weaves.
Given Patrick Garland’s ploddingly paced production, you might get sufficient sleep to do it during the 80-minute performance. The tape-recorded screams are loud, but the thrills are few, and the real scare material—including a trick ending—is tossed out so casually you almost don’t notice it, despite Keith Baxter’s considerable skill as the now aged hero and the considerable charm of Jared Reed, as the young actor he hires to represent his younger self. I won’t try to explain that; the elaborately snarled theatrical frame in which the story’s set is the very worst of the script’s unwieldy notions. For a good deal less than the price of two tickets to The Woman in Black, you could spend 80 profitable minutes reading the best ghost stories of, say, Edith Wharton, Mary Wilkins Freeman, M.R. James, and Wilkie Collins, writers who knew that it isn’t enough simply to lay out the standard elements of spookery—you have to make them add up. If you must have your story in images rather than words, Robert Wise’s The Haunting, based on a Shirley Jackson novel, can still get pulses racing, though it’s black-and-white and four decades old. And it has a shattering performance by Julie Harris, who rather outclasses the gents in The Woman in Black.