Hamlet: Something Is Quite Muddy but Magnificent in the State of Denmark.
The state of Denmark is bare, although carpeted in a dirty red tomato. There is, naturally, a simple folding table, a signal to us that this classic play, one of Shakespeare’s greatest, has been directed by Sam Gold. He seems to love a good banquet-style catering table as a center piece. Besides the table and the standard convention room-style chairs, also in that same hue, the props are piled up in plain sight (scenic design by David Zinn), plastic cups and tin food containers. This is all reminiscent of the similarly designed and conceived style of Gold’s stark and atmospheric Othello at the NYTW with movie star, Daniel Craig, and the bareness of The Glass Menagerie starring Sally Field on Broadway. The lighting, designed here by Mark Barton, is simple and standard, filling the room as if we were here for a class, lecture, or an interactive presentation. Until it’s not. Then it all goes away, and we are plunged into a surprise as the first scene strips us of all preconceived notions. He is forcing us to see past the grandness of Shakespeare and the classic-ness of the epic play, and instead listen and lean into the words. Forcing our senses to heighten and above all, pay attention.
And it works. Our ears prick up, and we all tune in, wanting to catch every whisper and beautiful phrase, and there are many. We are cast into a decimated and grieving intimate world, where sadness is called madness, and revenge is complicated. It’s clearly a story we know, and the words are familiar to all. We forget just how many universally known catch-phrases come from this place, and each one rings true and is seen in the light (or lack there of) it was intended. But Gold has created something that draws us in and brings us close. It’s like we see something old through new eyes, and the intimacy created, makes us believe we can feel their breath and hear their sighs.
The cast is excellent guiding us through Shakespeare’s tragedy of betrayal and revenge. Oscar Isaac (film: “Inside Llewyn Davis“) illuminates Hamlet, the Danish Prince who struggles to understand himself and the task before him. He is consumed with confusion and dark rage as he mourns the death of his King and father, and the quick marriage of his mother, Gertrude, played wobbly by Charlayne Woodard (Public’s In the Blood) the weakest link on the stage, to his Uncle and now King, Claudius, portrayed with roguish strength by Richie Coster (Center Stage’s Macbeth). Isaac and Coster are rabid foes, intense and energetic. They both grab hold with both hands and run full speed into this famous and glorious text.
Act One starts off rollicking, and with such striking imagery and conceptual inter-play. The band of men that surround Hamlet are all magnificent, and the casting of these actors is spot on. As sentries who witness the the ghostly apparition, Roberta Colindrez (Broadway’s Fun Home), Matthew Saldivar (NYTW’s Hadestown), Anatol Yusef (Royal Shakespeare Comp.’s Richard III), and especially Keegan-Michael Key (TV’s “Key and Penn“) as Hamlet’s good friend Horatio, are magnificent and thoroughly engaging. It’s difficult to keep track at points who is playing whom, as the actors and their parts are ever changing. Colindrez and Saldivar also portray Rosencranz and Guildenstern, friends of the family who are sent for to study Hamlet’s mental state. Wonderfully current and dressed in modern hip attire (costume design by Kaye Voyce), the two radiate pleasing souls, rascals but lovable ones. Yusef as Laertes is also a thrill to behold. His accent sometimes feels a bit out of place in this casual and modern take on Hamlet, but it also rings gloriously in the ear. The ever-changing of roles for almost all of the actors involved creates some of the best and most interesting transitions and moments. It’s compelling and definitely keeps us on our toes. One great example is when Woodard’s Gertrude and Coster’s Claudius throw off their preverbal crowns and don the hats of members of the acting troop that pay a visit to Elsinore, the Danish royal castle. They than proceed to play the King and the Queen in their play within Hamlet adding such inventiveness that we are amazed at the idea. This idea is well played throughout giving this production some added punch and spark throughout.
In the secondary parts, Peter Friedman (MCC’s The Nether) is thrilling and funny as the foolish Polonius who is one of the first to fall prey to Hamlet. It’s a sad and an unquestionably tender moment that leads us into one of the more complex and sometimes problematic scenes in this play, Ophelia’s decent into madness. Not much has lead her up to this point in Gold’s vision of Hamlet. As a character, Hamlet doesn’t seem to descend too far into madness himself, floating along the edge while pretending to act irrationally. He seems more of a manipulator rather than someone stuck in indecision and anguish. He is definitely heart-broken by the murder of his father, but his turn on Ophelia doesn’t actually ring all that true or all that hurtful. I always think of that moment, the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene, as epically cruel and soul crushing. A moment so destructive that it is enough to send a woman into a place so dark, that the death of her not-so-compassionate father, as portrayed here, would throw her down into a singing madness. Gayle Rankin (Broadway’s Cabaret) makes the madness a reality for all of us, with focus, total sadness, and unhinged anger, literally drenched in manic action. It’s messy and intense, and we feel her soul and mind detaching with every handful of dirt.
Gold always seems to love a surprise and a twist. There is hypnotic background music, composed and performed by Ernst Reijseger on a cello center stage. The music adds to the oppressive mood, but also, as many of Gold’s grand ideas, wears a bit thin as the concept drags on. He also has created an awe-inspiring surprise to enliven the last act, as he is want to do. In Menagerie, it was rainfall, and here in Hamlet, it is some of the same element. It’s compelling to watch, although distracting as the act moves beyond once the trick is unburied. I don’t want to give a thing away, but that one quick role change is worth it’s weight in Gold, and every ounce of water and dirt. It’s funny and works magnificently, shooting us all back to life. The only problem is, we must find a way to ignore the mess for the rest of the last act, pretending that the ramifications of Gold’s inventive surprise isn’t spread all over the carpet.
The longest of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet is a five act decent into madness and death, all spurned from revenge and grief. The Public Theater’s production winds us up quite successfully in the beginning, and is surprising adept at keeping that level of engagement to last as long as it does. The last act is when this tale starts to lose its grasp on our heart and mind. Gold’s mischievous theatricality in that last act does manage to salvage the moment and grab hold of our attention once again. The gravediggers bring it all back to life essentially, but at almost four hours, the rekindling is only momentary. A fellow theatre-junkie suggested a wonderfully fun idea that may have jolted the ending in the same way that Friedman and Rankin had earlier. He suggested that “They had the opportunity to have Isaac double as Fortinbras at the end of the play once everyone is dead…it would have been exciting to have Isaac stand up and re-enter as Fortinbras, the inverse-Hamlet.” It’s an idea that fits quite well into the strengths of this production. Gold’s tremendous ability to find a unique and challenging way to rethink the classics is what compels this strong cast to create something so intimate and powerfully engaging. Banquet furniture and plastic cups are only one of the ingredients for a Gold-en re-interpretation, he brings surprising twists, exchanging of preverbal hats, and strong, centered performances, all to support this fantastic Hamlet, made by an inventive director with a seemingly exacting eye on the thing that matters most: the text.