Kevin Kline's new 'Hamlet' on PBS is to be watched, not worshiped


November 02, 1990|By Michael Hill

There's an appealing, refreshing quality to a new production of "Hamlet" available on PBS tonight that might be attributable to its all-American status.

By keeping everything on this side of the Atlantic, the play was one small but important step removed from the near-deification that Shakespeare and his works have undergone in England.

And that means that handing the title role to an actor like Kevin Kline helps to make "Hamlet" what Shakespeare intended it to be, a play to be enjoyed instead of a theatrical icon to be worshiped.

This "Hamlet," which will be seen under the auspices of ''Great Performances'' tonight at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, was staged by the New York Shakespeare Festival and taped last August.

Kline, who co-directed with Kirk Browning, also avoids another trap -- his Hamlet is not just a speechmaker who is there to declaim the great soliloquies with a flourish, he is an actual character that you can come to know and understand.

Not surprisingly, given Kline's abilities, this "Hamlet" emphasizes the play's comic aspects. Certainly this Dane is still melancholy, but he uses his rapier wit to parry the despair that is incessantly thrust upon him, the soliloquies, delivered with a well-schooled classical precision, marking those times when he falls into the abyss of depression.

On a psychological level, you come to see Hamlet as a Prince who, raised in the lap of luxury, never had to grow up, yet suddenly, faced with the reality of his father's murder and mother's remarriage, must undergo a sudden, traumatic rite of passage.

On a dramatic level, you realize that this flaky, perhaps mentally disturbed, young student represents the only possible foul-up for the new king and his queen in their quest to pull off the perfect crime.

The sets are sparse, the costumes sort of generic modern -- everyone is dressed like the ruling party of an eastern European country -- all of which allows other elements of the production to step aside and the let these characters and their drama dominate the stage.

Brian Murray plays the stepfather King Claudius like a smarmy politician desperately working the crowd to solidify his hold on the office. Josef Sommers makes a sensational Polonius, so obsequious and grating yet still innocent and naive. Diane Verona is effective as the doomed Ophelia.

This "Hamlet" is so alive that you can hear its echoes in contemporary events -- a scheming court that looked like the Nixon White House during Watergate, a debate about a war over a patch of ground that resonates with the controversies of the Mideast situation.

Kline takes Hamlet off the shelf and puts him in your face. You can cackle at the off-color puns with the bear-baiting fans down in the pit. You can admire the elegant language with the English majors in their ivory tower. But most of all, you can realize what an extraordinary creation this character and this play are, how resilient and timeless they seem three centuries later.

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