On the 400th anniversary of the death of the bard, it is entirely fitting that the Washington Ballet should bring Stephen Mills’ Hamlet (2000) to the stage this season, a work which has been well-received through its lifespan although not as often performed as one might think. For it is, to my mind, a wholly successful translation of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy, neither tentative nor yet overly-ambitious, boasting a stylized simplicity and sensibly distilling the sprawling five acts into two, a concentration of high drama in a very powerful hour and forty minutes. This rigorous containment and welcome lack of self-indulgence was reflected in the choice of composer. Philip Glass’ stunning score gives a propulsive character to the whole but also, as Septime Weber pointed out in his opening address, a simplicity upon which dance may be built. The real rather than fictive tragedy of the evening was the absence of a live orchestra. There is no relational dynamic with a mere recording and there were some awkward transitions, not to speak of abrupt terminations of sound at the end of each act. "Tis true, tis pity, and pity ‘tis, tis true."

The Washington Ballet in <i>Hamlet</i> © media4artists | Theo Kossenas
The Washington Ballet in Hamlet
© media4artists | Theo Kossenas

But otherwise, the company performed with a particularly striking display of character progression in the main roles. Maki Onuki as Ophelia was a case in point. As her plight became more pronounced, she displayed to a nicety the yielding physicality of vulnerability, with a supple spine that could bend any which way and very flexible legs. Her descent into madness, hair in unballetic disarray, was danced with fragile yet manic energy. A very clever piece of theatre overlaid her dying, with three incarnations of herself, as daughter, sister, and lover, dancing with the men in her life, as the real drowning woman appeared suspended over the stage, at the last, a mere body of light as the darkening river carried her away. In the same style, Hamlet’s feigned madness was also conceived as incarnations on stage ; later in Act II, in his madness of anguish, the incarnations seemed to stand in judgment over him. This was all sleekly done. Jonathan Jordan as Hamlet started off as an unsure young man, but then again, he is supposed to be. Still for the sake of the dance, one could have done with more immediate impact. He warmed up into more power of expression. The male pas de quatre with his various selves brilliantly drew together the visual energy of the first act and his soliloquies (how cleverly choreographed) were exercises in self-torment and physical angst – just the sort we’d expect from Shakespeare’s unusually emotional Dane. As he was mostly on stage, we were certainly not suffering a Hamlet without a prince. But an unfortunate costume – dated shirt and pleated trousers that were on the baggy side – meant we missed out completely on the visual of powerful wrists and limbs. The concealment was a loss surely, and, to my mind, entirely inexcusable from the dramatic point of view.

Sona Kharatian expressed the ambivalence of Gertrude, in elegance of line but yet clear physical subservience to her son. The ensemble, kept to a minimum, began by looking a little scrappy in the court scene, as there was a struggle to attain collective pace, but this later improved.

The production, staged by Michelle Martin Piner, with scenic design by Mills and Jeffrey Main, was very fit for purpose. Particularly striking was the opening of Act II with the bier on which lay the dead Ophelia, clad in virginal white, suspended high about the stage against a disarmingly blue background (Act I had been black throughout), and a caste of mourning dressed in black entirely, broken into by the incongruously scarlet-clad Hamlet. Plexi-glass towers presented the action within the action of Act I, especially effective when Claudius (Tamás Krizsa) was enclosed in one, battering against the glass, a symbol of his own imprisonment within his guilty conscience. Fencing is, in effect, ballet with a sword, so Laertes (Corey Landolt) and Hamlet’s pas de deux hostile was good value, and deaths were distributed all round in authentic Shakespearean fashion. I had some queries about the costumes (Christopher McCollum) and a niggling feeling of less than successful effect. Whilst the process of updating the look was entirely in keeping with Mills’ sleek stylization, I do think that character needs to remain intact in the transition. To be brutally frank, Hamlet as the perfect Renaissance ‘courtier, scholar, soldier’, in whatever era’s apparel he appears, simply shouldn’t have looked like a high school kid dressed up for a prom. It didn’t stop irking throughout. In an odd way, it was, after all, Hamlet without a prince.