Sprawled belly-down on a bed, scrawling in a notebook as he ponders the prospect of a “consummation” with the grave; in the Old Globe’s powerful new staging of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, Hamlet delivers a “to be or not be” speech steeped in death and ecstasy and the specter of unholy unions.
It so happens that the place where he conjugates his phrases has just been the conjugal bed of his mother, Gertrude, and uncle, Claudius, who killed Hamlet’s father and now has taken his crown and wed his wife.
So there could hardly be a more intimate setting for Hamlet to meditate on those most personal of questions about his own place (if there is one) in the earthly world of desire and ambition and duplicity, of ceaseless “slings and arrows.”
The royal couple’s own enthusiastic efforts at consummation happen pretty publicly in the production - in fact, with aides standing in uncomfortable silence beside the bed, one of multiple moments in which director and Globe artistic chief Barry Edelstein brings welcome wit to the often harrowing “Hamlet.”
Edelstein’s assured sense of tone - in his most accomplished directing venture at the Globe yet - is one of the best aspects of this deeply absorbing and visually rich show, which unfolds across a broad emotional spectrum.
So is the absolutely committed performance of the young newcomer Grantham Coleman, who inhabits the character of Hamlet with an equally complex set of responses - at times slyly self-assured, at others volcanic with rage, at still others so twitchy and jittery he’s like a human nerve ending.
Although the actor’s own jitters occasionally burst through (he went a bit freestyle on the phrasing of one well-known observation to Hamlet’s friend Horatio on opening night), Coleman also handles the Bard’s poetry with eloquence.
There will never be a perfect “Hamlet” - the play is far too layered and at times maddeningly opaque for that - and I’ll confess a few quibbles about this one.
On opening night, the unbidden theme was “To begin or not to begin?”: The show had to be restarted just a few moments in, due to an issue with either some mobile scaffolding or the light-up armor on the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Those things will happen, but the ghost - while voiced magnificently by Michael Genet - has a kind of celestial presence when to me he ought to seem downright frightening.
That opening scene also felt uncharacteristically rushed, not quite letting a sense of dread and foreboding settle into the characters’ (and our) bones.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (7 p.m. Sept. 5, 6 and 10). Through Sept. 10
Where: Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
And while Curtis Moore’s distinctive original music (partly performed by live musicians) is full of funky, horn-inflected delights, its sometimes playful vibe seems at odds with the action here and there, although it does feel of a piece with Sten Severson’s atmospheric sound design and Stephen Strawbridge’s bold lighting in the open-air Davies Theatre.
The show’s issues are far outweighed by such pluses as its enormously capable - and admirably diverse - cast, Cait O’Connor’s sumptuous costumes (at one point the king and queen look as if they’ve just stepped off a deck of playing cards), and Tim Mackabee’s spare but evocative set design.
Edelstein has found perhaps a perfect Polonius - the lovably fatuous dad of Hamlet’s would-be soul mate, Ophelia - in Globe returnee Patrick Kerr, who brings just the right measure of high-minded cluelessness to the character.
Kerr also gets some of the most inspired bits of stage business, including the moment where Polonius recites his famous precepts to his son Laertes (an appealing Jonny Orsini) not from memory but by flipping through a book. It’s an ideal note of comic hypocrisy for a man who so famously insists it’s wrong to be a borrower.
Talley Beth Gale may haunt your dreams when she materializes in later scenes as a thoroughly wrung-out Ophelia, ghostly of pallor and singing a tuneless ditty in a ragged, bloodstained shift.
Cornell Womack brings a brusque humanity to Claudius, portraying him as overbearing and cruel but not a one-dimensional villain; and Opal Alladin is deeply sympathetic as the perhaps willfully blind but ill-used Gertrude.
Kevin Hafso-Koppman and Nora Carroll also lend a lot of foppish fun to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s doomed erstwhile pals, and there are strong contributions by Genet (in multiple roles) Ian Lassiter (as a stalwart Horatio) and a host of talented students from the Old Globe/University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program.
But it’s the ever-impressive Coleman who towers above this production, with a portrayal that in stature measures up to the formidable figure of a colossal golden knight that presides over the tragedy - a tactile reminder of the revenge that Hamlet’s father has both commanded and cursed him to carry out.
The rest, as he says, is silence.