Last night was the fourth time I’ve seen Hamlet at the Blackfriars Playhouse. The first time, before I began this blog, was in 2001 during the inaugural season of the Blackfriars, shortly after the home of the American Shakespeare Center, then “Shenandoah Shakespeare,” opened. The second time was in the Fall of 2005. That was an outstanding production, that I reviewed briefly here, with Khris Lewin as Hamlet. I believe that both of those productions were of the “Folio” Hamlet which, if I understand it correctly, is the version that is most often performed. (See this article that discusses the different versions.)
In 2007, during that year's Actors’ Renaissance Season, the company performed the “First Quarto” version of Hamlet (sometimes known as the “Bad Quarto”), one that is much shorter than either the Folio or the Second Quarto versions, and is rarely done. This production was interesting more because of its oddity than its performances, but I enjoyed it anyway, as my review demonstrates. (One of the superficial differences between this version and the others is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are named Rossencraft and Gilderstone.)
There are two very interesting things about the production I saw last night. First, it was performed by the new touring company (The Stark Raving Sane Tour, and came in the form of a preview in the midst of the full Fall season of the resident company. So the performance was done by new faces (although there a few carryovers from the previous touring company), and this was the only chance to see this show "at home" until the touring company returns for a short season next Spring. [The touring company is also doing Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” and Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.”] And second, during the pre-show entertainment, Rick Blunt and Ginna Hoben, who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, invite the audience to help choose, through a coin toss, whether the company will perform the Second Quarto version or the Folio version, which differ mostly in sequencing. (There was no independent verification of the coin toss, but I’ll trust Rick Blunt’s announcement—he seems like a good guy—that the coin came up heads, meaning that the company would do the Second Quarto version. Now, if you know the Stoppard play, you know that the coin R and C toss comes up heads 87 times in a row—or something like that—so the coin toss thing might just be a literary allusion; I’ll find out when I next see this production whether the Folio is really an option or not.)
Anyway, so the production my friends and I saw was the Second Quarto. It’s the longest of the three, but I was enthralled and the audience seemed to love it. The high points for me were the performances of Luke Eddy as Hamlet and Dennis Henry as the wonderfully pompous Polonius. Henry did an excellent job of letting Shakespeare's humor shine through the tragedy. Eddy not only looked like Hamlet should look, but his swings from cheerfulness to madness, from anger to affection, were compelling. His scenes with Ophelia, played wonderfully by Brandi Rhome, were especially moving. Aidan O’Reilly as Horatio and Josh Carpenter as Laertes were also strong. (And you've got to love Blunt and Hoben as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; I can't wait to see them in the Stoppard.)
So this is definitely a production worth seeing, if you can catch it on the road or when it comes back to Staunton to the Blackfriars Playhouse next Spring. The touring company is doing a preview of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tonight, which unfortunately I will miss, but I’ll certainly see it at least once next Spring. They’ll do a preview performance of The Comedy of Errors on September 8, and I may try to get there for that.