SAN FRANCISCO -- John Douglas Thompson, the British born actor of Jamaican heritage who trained in America and is now a citizen here, has carved out a reputation as one of our leading classical actors.
His Othello is considered among the finest modern renditions. Combining gravitas with infinite suppleness, he has illuminated other roles in the Shakespeare canon as well as characters in Eugene O'Neill, Christopher Marlowe and August Wilson. (L.A. audiences will remember his towering performance as the haunted traveler searching with his daughter for his vanished wife in Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" at the Mark Taper Forum in 2013.)
One part he's never until now scaled is Hamlet, the Mt. Everest for actors of his intelligence, technical ma-jesty and ambition. At 53, Thompson might be considered too old to play the Danish prince, a 30-year-old student on leave from university after the suspicious death of his father and the overhasty marriage of his mother.
Director Carey Perloff wisely thought otherwise. She opens her final season as artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater with a production of "Hamlet," in which Thompson shatteringly portrays the melancholy Dane in a boyishly affectionate performance that heightens the plight of a character forced by treacherous circumstances to relinquish his youthful ideals.
To judge by appearances, Thompson's Hamlet is firmly ensconced in his middle years. But the actor brings the ardency and intensity of a much younger man. The innocence of the character is oftentimes intellectualized away. Not here, where the character's philosophizing is born out of a poet's broken heart. Hamlet must mature quickly, but maturity has never seemed like such a bad bargain.
The sweetness of Thompson's Hamlet is as unmistakable as is his sadness. When he tells Ophelia (an emotionally unsteady Rivka Borek) to "get thee to a nunnery," he's clearly and mournfully specifying a safe haven, not a brothel. He loves this woman so deeply that when he begins to catch on that she's a pawn in a spy operation, his fury seems to scald him even more than it does her.
The production, using a freshly abridged version of the play that occasionally seems rushed and blurry, quickly dispatches the "To be or not to be" speech. Thompson turns the moment into a feverish spike of consciousness rather than the culmination of the character's thinking. The rash fluctuations in mood -- suicidal one minute, manically ebullient the next -- hint at a protracted adolescence. The references in the original text to "young Hamlet" may have been cut, but the character is still working out how to become an adult.
Most actors show off Hamlet's topnotch brain in the famous speeches. Thompson reveals the character's formidable intelligence in the silences that swell up when words seem utterly inadequate. His Hamlet notices more than he lets on. Sometimes he turns away, not wanting to see what he can't yet accept. When Hamlet observes his old school chums Rosencrantz (Teddy Spencer) and Guildenstern (Vincent J. Randazzo) scheming on the sidelines, the look of disappointment that washes over his face is as expressive as a soliloquy.
"Hamlet" is the quintessential play about the trauma of growing up. Assimilating to adult reality in the corrupt world of Elsinore is a deadening process. Long before the poison-daubed sword slashes Hamlet in the final scene, the rotten state of Denmark has seeped into his bloodstream with the pernicious stealth of a deadly toxin.
Shakespeare repeatedly reminds us of Hamlet's noble nature -- his emotional, intellectual and moral superiority -- so that we feel its loss more acutely. Thompson imbues even the character's most lunatic moments with an anguished vulnerability. When Hamlet confronts Gertrude (Dome-nique Lozano) in her bedroom, he recoils from his violent outburst and becomes childlike, a terrified boy entreating his mother to end the nightmare that has engulfed them.