Oh what a piece of work is this Hamlet, with Wentworth (left), Ricossa, Carlson and Davies.
HAMLET by William Shakespeare, directed by Adrian Noble (Stratford). At the Festival Theatre, Stratford. In rep to October 26. $29-$90. 1-800-567-1600. See Out of Town. Rating: NNNN
Hamlet is the mount everest of theatrical roles, and at this season's Stratford Festival, Ben Carlson scales its heights.
Director Adrian Noble's production is one of the best shows I've seen on the Stratford mainstage in a long while, not least because of the clarity of its vision and the strong cast who understand the intellectual and emotional aspects of the text.
Set in 1910, the production takes place at Christmas parties, outdoor cafés with spies lurking in corners, characters' bedrooms and even, duriing one thrilling moment, in the theatre in which we sit.
There are some impressive theatrical moments - the use of shadows in the players' scene is wonderfully creative - and many of the performances ring true, notably Geraint Wyn Davies's Polonius, a caring family man and diplomat rather than a buffoon, and Adrienne Gould's Ophelia, who progresses from Hamlet's girlish playmate to a confused and then angry woman rejected by those she's loved.
Scott Wentworth's Claudius isn't a total villain and reveals moments of remorse not just in his soliloquy, while Maria Ricossa's Gertrude is a trophy wife who doesn't quite know how to deal with her difficult son. Jeff Lillico gives some life to the cardboard Fortinbras, while Victor Ertmanis grabs the spotlight as the player king and first gravedigger.
But Carlson's Hamlet rightly caps this show. With a facility for language that takes us into the character's head and heart, Carlson delivers every soliloquy as a personal statement to each audience member. This Hamlet revels in being an actor who likes centre stage, whether in the public or private sphere. He encompasses the role's anger, pain, sadness and dark comedy, and only slows down somewhat after intermission.
The problem in the latter half isn't with Carlson's performance, but with Noble's production. There's less innovation here, less gut emotion as Hamlet accepts his fate and moves toward the work's tragic conclusion.