Denmark is a high-windowed prison. The reigning king is masterful and cruel. His nephew — gloomy, nearly friendless, unsure of his rights and duties — struggles to preserve his murdered father’s memory and screw himself up to vengeance. This strife between powerful uncle and disenfranchised nephew anchors John Langs’ clean and adroit staging of Hamlet, showing at Seattle Shakespeare Company through Dec. 5.
Hamlet is an excellent spiky thicket stuffed with poisons and pirates, insanity, suicide, and musings thereon, a theatrical tutorial and a dramatic drumbeat of death, death, death. It’s a kind of bildungsroman whose hero passes at last into a stunted adulthood, realizing that “the readiness is all”: a samurai creed which frees him to fulfill his destiny and expire.
The corpse-strewn later acts appear at times to spring out of his diseased imagination, and his father’s ghost stands in for madness, or maybe for justice, or maybe both. His dying election of foreign Fortinbras is an act of nation-wrecking nihilism — or perhaps it’s prescient of the Glorious Revolution.
Shakespeare’s major plays are never as familiar as we expect; good productions will always surprise us. A director must choose which themes and tensions to spotlight: Hamlet’s relationship with his mother? His love for Ophelia, for Horatio? His indecision, or his conscience? Is he unripe, or old before his time? Does he wait too long, letting vengeance go stale? Is his uncle magisterial, corrupt, a boozing lout?
Stock stagings can be trying: an annoying Hamlet, a creeping Claudius, a spineless Ophelia, a guilt-ridden Gertrude, a pompous Polonius, a naïve Horatio, an inane Laertes. This production instead surprises and pleases us with nuanced realizations of its chief characters.
Asides and subtleties of glance add texture to static moments. Soliloquies are delivered, unflinching, to the audience. Langs and his actors choose to enact the characters’ forcefulness, leaving it to the text to outline their weaknesses. This would seem an evident necessity in stagecraft, yet few actors can credibly use the royal “we” or deliver “to be or not to be” without self-pity.
The strong portraits here bring new clarity to familiar scenes. During the Mousetrap, Claudius calls for light not out of choking remorse, as is typically portrayed, but rather to stare Hamlet down and unmask his motives. Hamlet in turn can see through schemers’ schemes: We freshly grasp his anger with Ophelia in the “Get thee to a nunnery” sequence, for now she, too, has betrayed him.
Darragh Kennan as Hamlet and Richard Ziman as Claudius are both excellent. Ziman, deep-voiced, dismissive of underlings, reacts to any infringement of his authority with impatience or rage; his unusually strong presence gives him a rare kingly aura. Kennan helps us to hear and understand each of Hamlet’s words, carrying off the great speeches of the play’s first half with extreme lucidity and without false elevation or exaggeration.
David Pichette’s Polonius is sly and tendentious, not just tedious — he’s credible as a teflon courtier, not simply a buffoon. Charles Leggett is, as always, extremely droll: He’s perfectly cast as the Gravedigger, though his deadpan delivery occasionally infects his other, more serious roles. The set and props are minimal and do not distract, with one bold though simple gambit.
The play’s female parts are tricky. Brenda Joyner’s Ophelia is a bit too red-blooded for us to apprehend the source of her insanity; Mary Ewald’s Gertrude doesn’t come sufficiently into focus to explicate her boudoir conversion to Hamlet’s anti-Claudian party. The minor roles could use more crafting. Hamlet’s voice drifts too high in his tenor range as the actor tires, weakening his display of new-found resolve. Yet these are quibbles.
Though shorter rapiers would leave more room for brisk fencing on this small stage, and notwithstanding a surprise appearance of the Plymouth logo on one costume change, and despite a few muddy scenes, and although, toward the end, the director begins to neglect his austere prohibition against common thespian hysteria — though in short this Hamlet is not flawless — it should be seen and appreciated as clean, confident, and revelatory.
If you go: Hamlet, Seattle Shakespeare Company, through Dec. 5, Center House Theatre at the Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., 206-733-8222. Tickets available by phone or online.