Shakespeare’s Globe in London—a recreation of the original Globe Theatre, which stood a few blocks away before it was destroyed by fire in 1613—was created to honor the achievements of the man who made it famous. An ongoing production of Hamlet there did no such thing. Despite some very fine individual performances, the production was fatally flawed because of the finely tuned commitment to political correctness of the Globe’s new artistic director, Michelle Terry, who made adjustments so flamboyant, even by the standards of contemporary theater, as to undermine the essential power, drama, and humanity of the play itself.
This is unfortunate, especially because the text itself warns ambitious artistic directors against the dangers of self-referential innovation. In Act III, Hamlet explains his own theory of art while preparing for the play within the play,
. . . for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve . . .
Sadly beholden to politically correct ephemera, this recent production holds a mirror up not to nature but to the absurdities of our current age. Terry’s attempts to shock the bourgeois sensibilities of the legions of students and tourists who flock to the Globe for a taste of Shakespeare in England seem hollow and formulaic. The problem is that the middle-class audience is in on the joke—everyone is a bohemian now; and so no one is.
Rather than make the “predictable” (and therefore unacceptably mainstream) decision to cast a female actress with tragic depth, subtlety, and onstage gravitas, Terry delivers the unusual spectacle of a tall, thin, ostentatiously male Ophelia played by Shubham Saraf. He plays opposite a diminutive and very female Hamlet played by . . . Michelle Terry, who cast herself in the title role. The shame of this casting choice is that Saraf demonstrates great ability while delivering a fine performance despite being kneecapped by his director. This should not require saying, but, well, here we are: the pairing of a tall male Ophelia and short, antic, female Hamlet dressed in an Andy Pandy costume makes no sense and robs the relationship—and thus the play—of its essential tension and expressive power.
At the same time, Richard Katz is a standout as Polonius, delivering easily the finest performance in the show. Pearce Quigley, noted for his particular talents as a comic actor, plays both Barnardo and Rosencrantz. Sadly, an otherwise strong Rosencrantz is deprived of his power by an unfortunate pairing with the deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah, who plays the character of Guildenstern deaf as well. Perhaps Terry is unaware the actors are supposed to take on the traits of their characters, not the characters of the actors. One must assume that this was another of Terry’s genuflections to “marginalized communities.” Of course, there is nothing in the text of the play to suggest that Guildenstern is deaf, and the effect reduces to rubble the interplay between him and Guildenstern while the audience looks on, bewildered. At several points, members of the cast make exaggerated gestures in attempts to communicate with the hearing-impaired Guildenstern. Why? This addition to the text is a subtraction from the play.
Further casting miscues abound. The male Laertes is played by the diminutive (and female) Bettrys Jones, a choice that leads to unusual visual pairings that distract from and undermine the story. Laertes should be menacing, anticipating his final confrontation with Hamlet, but he seems instead to require protection from physical harm. This robs the production of much of its necessary visual drama. Thus do Michelle Terry’s politically correct novelties transform Hamlet from a tragedy to a farce.
In one of his best-known and most frequently quoted lines, Hamlet instructs the audience that “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” But the conscience on display here is that of Michelle Terry, who demonstrates a reckless disregard for the genius of the text itself by presuming to superimpose her own vision on top of and in place of it. This is a shame.
I could not help but reflect on one of the best-known paintings associated with Hamlet, Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia. Completed in 1852, it was painted in the style of the Pre-Raphaelite school, of which Millais was a leader. The painting of Ophelia floating in a pond just before she drowns is ethereal, haunting, and beautiful, much like Hamlet itself. If only the Globe’s artistic director could display as much fidelity, skill, and understanding of human character. Instead, she chose a faithless, and ultimately forgettable, abstraction.
The Globe is a sacred trust, and the artistic director must be its most vigorous defender. There are any number of venues for experimental and avant-garde theater. The Globe should not be among them. It exists primarily to display Shakespeare’s singular genius.
A note about Shakespeare’s Globe: if you’re visiting London, go. It is a striking recreation of the original and a lovely place to see a play and imagine Shakespeare’s own productions, which took place a few hundred yards away. As if this weren’t enough, there is a large, open-air terrace just outside the stall doors that overlooks the Thames and offers striking views of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge.