Michael Birch's One Man Hamlet
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 18, 2009
[Editor's Note: A summary of the plot of Hamlet, should you need one, is here.]
It always floors me, whenever I see Hamlet, how much of its dialogue has become part of iconographic English speech. "What a piece of work is man"; "cue for passion"; "something is rotten in Denmark"; "the readiness is all"; "to thine own self be true"; and so on and so on. Michael Birch's One Man Hamlet—which is exactly what it says it is—makes us focus on the language in a way that a more populated and fleshed-out rendition of the play does not. The opportunity to really live inside and relish these words, and how they sound, and what they mean, makes this production a rewarding experience.
This Hamlet, staged without frills in Under St. Marks Theatre, gives us a single actor (Birch, obviously) performing a 90-minute version of the play as a solo. Birch distinguishes among the many characters chiefly through his voice: he gives each of his roles a distinctive sound and accent, so that Polonius sounds like an old codger while Claudius has a stentorian British sound and Hamlet himself has a contemporary American voice, probably closest to Birch's own natural speaking voice. It's akin to those old Rich Little TV shows where he would impersonate various people to tell a famous story like A Christmas Carol; except Birch is an actor rather than an impressionist, and so each of the voices he creates here is organic and original. Birch also adapts his physicality for some of the characters, and makes occasional use of props and accessories, such as a crown or a scarf. It is always completely clear who is speaking to us, even when several people are involved in a single conversation. By my count, Birch portrays some 17 different characters altogether.
As I said, the focus here is necessarily on the words, and Birch speaks them beautifully. He doesn't create deep psychologically complex characters here, but rather gives us a chance to simply hear what each of these people has to say; to discover how their speeches add up to a robustly entertaining story that bristles with thrilling imagery and the occasional profundity. The adaptation of the text, which Birch has presumably made with his director Bricken Sparacino, is efficient and effective; nothing you are expecting to hear is left out, and much of the extraneous material that requires such deep and clear insight into Shakespeare and his theatre to put over in the 21st century—the gravediggers' puns, the many verses of Ophelia's song—are abridged or excised so that the story is crisp and accessible.
Abetting the actor are occasional projections to indicate locale (the design is by luckydave, and didn't show up as clearly as one would hope) and live music on guitar, performed by the very engaging and low-key Eric Chercover.
Of Birch's creations, I enjoyed his Polonius, his Player King, and his Hamlet the best (but of course they do have some of the choicest lines in the play, don't they?). Birch's Hamlet moves fairly linearly through the play trying to work out what his course of action needs to be and then, after "To be or not to be," pretty straightforwardly implementing it; it's an interesting take on the character. Birch is less successful with Gertrude and Ophelia than with the male characters; I was a little too conscious of him straining to make his voice and physicality seem feminine. The only other problematic section is the very end, when Birch (as Laertes and Hamlet) has to engage in a sword fight with himself. He and Sparacino haven't really found a way to do this that doesn't feel funny, and the laughter takes us out of the drama of the moment.
But this is a genuine tour-de-force for this actor, and for audiences it's an entertaining and edifying way to experience a play that almost always reveals new things to us every time we see/hear it.