The Guthrie’s Hamlet is Tragically Bland


My experience with Shakespeare has been limited. Past reading Romeo and Juliet and memorizing a monologue from Othello for auditions, my paths have rarely crossed with the bard. Whenever I’d think of Shakespeare I’d imagine a classical, periodic set with English accents galore and something akin to a fantasy that’s less of a fairy tale and more of a bloody one. Those preconceived notions were proven wrong when I saw the Guthrie Theater’s 5th take of the tragic tale of Denmark’s royal family with Hamlet.

Directed by Joseph Haj and starring Micheal Braugher as the titular character, as soon as I saw the set, I knew this was something different than what I imagined. A monochrome, concrete stage along with cold lighting painted a backdrop of a militaristic, dystopian world for this tragedy to play out. Brutalistic was used to describe the set for Hamlet but I think these creative choices actively worked against the show. I did find it to be brutal, brutally underwhelming.

The show began with two guards, Horatio and  a lot of energy,  but it faltered quickly with the arrival of Old Hamlet. The projections on the ground and an outright silly looking costume, with its uninspired generals coat and reflective round glasses, seemed too flashy where I’d rather have had it evoke mystery. The same feeling arose again when everyone was watching Hamlet’s play, instead of having the players act out the scene, it opted for a janky projection, which only muddied what was supposed to be this sweet moment of revenge and embarrassment for Claudius. 

Speaking of Claudius, his monologue right after the opening of the show is actually where the risks this production took worked to its benefit.. Claudius’ monologue was framed as a dictator addressing his new subjects, with an anthem playing and cameras flashing; it was an interesting take. John Catron played Claudius as slick and professional. Where others might have played Claudius like a mustache twirling villain, Catron stays reserved but still commands the stage. His performance was captivating.

It makes one wish there was more contrast between Claudius and Hamlet. Micheal Braugher had a solid presence with Hamlet, but there was a lack of depth in Hamlet’s emotion. I didn’t feel the insanity, nor did I see his affection for Ophelia and friendship with Horatio. Hamlet felt too well put together and confident, so when he killed Polonius, it felt like too much of a jump. 

Hamlet is full of awkward changes in pace, which isn’t helped by the surprising lack of stakes. With the play moving so fast, it never takes a second to let the audience take in a new development in the story. Huge moments and story beats, like when Polonius or Ophelia die, or when Claudius orders the murder of Hamlet when he reaches England, feel so empty when the danger is nonexistent. Hamlet feels like an audiobook with no pause button, there is no suspense or letting a line hang, just simply saying the lines and moving on to the next one. It’s not a great sign when halfway through a Shakespeare show you wish you were just reading the play, because at least then you could take a moment to adjust to a new threat, or mourn for a death. 

Like it’s set, Hamlet felt too gray and low key. This show needed more energy, something that was very prevalent in its first two scenes, but was lacking in the rest of the show. By the time each body was laid out across the stage, it didn’t feel like the tragic implosion of a family, just the vacant deaths of a few people we hardly got to care for and detest. It is, however, a testament to Shakespeare that I was still able to understand why this is one of his greatest tragedies, despite the lackluster messenger that was the Guthrie’s Hamlet.