Audiences have grown so accustomed to high-concept Shakespeare — whether it’s Macbeth as an official in an Eastern bloc Stalinist nation, Richard II as a Nazi general or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” set in turn-of-the-century Tuscany — that it’s refreshing to be reminded that sometimes the best concept is no “concept” at all. One of the strongest things about director Richard Garner’s “Hamlet,” running at Georgia Shakespeare through October 27, is that most of the work is left to Shakespeare himself, who, after all, knew a thing or two about creating a compelling show.
The minimalist production has a sleek, modern look: the only “set” to speak of consists of two large, mobile, downstage mirrors, and these are minimally employed. The costumes are likewise unobtrusively contemporary, without specifying any particular time or place. Garner has also excised anything that could be described as fancy or goopy or overwrought in the speech of the actors.
There’s an admirable plain-spokenness here, which results in a lucid, streamlined performance. The emphasis is on storytelling. In fact, Horatio’s final speech to Fortinbras about the events at Elsinore is here brought to the opening of the show, letting us know that this is an evening for recounting, laying out the facts, as it were. What we might make of it all is left entirely up to us.
This approach works especially well in scenes of dialogue. The gravediggers, the Queen’s closet, the “get thee to a nunnery” scene and many others all have an admirable fleetness and sparkling clarity. A middle-aged couple sitting behind me was convinced that the language had been updated for this production, but no — it’s as Shakespeare wrote it, just spoken without a lot of fuss or mushy-mouthed artifice.
All the veteran actors really excel in this context: They’ve clearly grown accustomed to working with Shakespeare rather than against him. Allan Edwards’ Polonius isn’t just a bumbling fool; his Polonius is actually somewhat well spoken, if long-winded and likely to get hung up on words. But he’s most dangerous when he gets an idea stuck in his head or when he manages to persuade others to follow along with one of his terrible schemes. He is, in fact, the ultimate politician, the dangerous fool who doesn’t know he’s a fool, one who has spent his life studying how to appear wise without acquiring an ounce of wisdom.
Chris Kayser’s Claudius, in public, is likewise a politically efficient monarch, but we see the tortured, guilty soul underneath the public face during the prayer scene. There’s a lot for the character to say in Shakespeare’s monologue, but there’s plenty of eloquence in the soft groan Kayser gives out before he speaks a single word.
Joe Knezevich is a handsome, energetic Hamlet: The “sweet bells jangle out of tune” particularly well in the mad scenes. But I think that where Garner’s spare, simple approach occasionally falls down is in Hamlet’s monologues themselves. These seem as if they should have a fraught, almost muddled, psychological and philosophical depth, and we stay close to the surface. The Fortinbras subplot and a few of its attendant elements have also been taken out: They’re not especially missed, but if I’m not mistaken, there’s no “How all occasions” monologue, no “Witness this army of such mass and charge” and none of that speech’s conclusion: “From this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” It’s not a huge deal, but Hamlet does seem to undergo a major transformation between Polonius’ murder and his return from England, and we’re somehow left sort of in the dark about it.
Georgia Shakespeare has created a swiftly moving, fluent, “no fear” production of “Hamlet.” Those who love the play are bound to find something new in it when it’s presented in such an attractively spare and simple frame, and those approaching it for the first time will kick themselves for not having approached it before.