Unlisted in the credits for the visceral production of Hamlet which opened tonight at New York’s Public Theater are the custodians who, after every performance, must clean up the sodden and muddy Anspacher stage after the movie star—and Public Theater alum—Oscar Isaac and his fellow actors have left the stage.
This is not a large space, it is not a large cast, and the most significant props are flowers, a table, and—later—all that soil and muck. The characters are dressed in modern garb, and there is even a very modern restroom where the characters periodically retreat to. Yes, that’s Polonius sitting on the toilet.
It’s not every production of Hamlet where you will see Ophelia make short work of a meal of lasagna, but here Gayle Rankin, a restless and stroppy Ophelia rather than a wispy and tragic one, ravenously piles in mouthfuls of the dish.
So no, this is not a classic Hamlet, but it is one you will not forget in a hurry. And if you’re in the front row, prepare to put your clothes in for dry cleaning.
The production’s spartan-ness and its modernity makes this very much a Sam Gold production—and give the poor man a cold compress; in the last year he has directed distinctive productions of Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop, The Glass Menagerie and A Doll’s House, Part 2, on Broadway and now this.
It was Gold, as Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, points out in the Hamlet program, who shepherded the magnificent adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home from the Public to Broadway and then on to touring success.
Some did not like The Glass Menagerie, of course (this critic did), and elements of the aesthetic of that production, and of Gold’s Othello and A Doll’s House, Part 2, recur here. All that you may not like about starkly reimagined plays that Gold has done before may rankle here. The red carpet and office chairs are the quintessence of drab.
For Gold, the text is the thing. Décor should startle but not overwhelm. A bare stage gives all the more room for movement. Gold is more keen to find new angles for the characters to face the audience, to shock us with a visual, to produce innovative, mischievous beats in a play, than he is to overgild and over-design.
As in those other productions, lighting is key. If theater-goers recall the mysterious cloak of near-darkness of Othello and Menagerie—and which Gold has employed in his productions of Annie Baker plays like The Flick and John—then they won’t be surprised when it descends again in Hamlet, with the words of the actors emanating from the gloam.
This production is distinguished by a bracing tour de force performance of Isaac, whose movies include 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davies, criminally robbed at the Oscars, Ex Machina, and playing Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the forthcoming The Last Jedi. He revealed recently in The New York Times that he had read Hamlet to his mother Eugenia as she lay gravely ill; she died in February. “It’s for my mom that I’m doing it,” he said of this production of Hamlet. “It’s to honor her life, but also her death, which was so awful.” He named his son Eugene, born in April, after her.
The play begins and is studded, though not heavily, with comedy, which is not something you might associate with Hamlet. However, Gold is also respectful of the play and its characters.
Keegan-Michael Key, who plays Horatio, addresses us as himself as the actors gather on stage, to ask us to turn off our cellphones, and to not—as one audience member has already attempted—to plug their cellphone into the socket on stage. He also reminds us, regarding the duration of the play, that it is really, really long.
He’s right. Three and a half hours. You have to commit to this Hamlet.
Key doesn’t mug, but his scenes, whether through his looks to audience or incomprehension, bring fun with them. And it is not just him: Other characters revel for moments in their absurd or overheated plights, and we laugh with them too.
Of the more traditional light relief of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Roberta Colindrez, also playing Reynaldo, and Matthew Saldívar), it is Colindrez’s deadpan and waspish monotone that is winning.
The story is familiar, but Gold and his cast’s interpretive breadth is wide. Isaac’s Hamlet is tortured, crazy, witty, and vengeful. Sometimes he is all of those things together: a bran-tub of moods, all utterly believable, as he deduces that his father was murdered by his scheming brother Claudius (Ritchie Coster, also the play’s fight captain).
Coster also plays the sporadically appearing spirit of the dead king, which makes for a very effective on-stage duality in his dealings with Isaac, who one moment will be wishing his dead father back, and the next minute spitting venom at his suspected murderer; and somehow Coster deftly segues from noble to reptilian in a flash.
Gold too doubles up Ophelia and her father Polonius (the excellent Peter Friedman, who you want to listen to for hours; his cadence and timing are meticulous) as their own gravediggers, and this after a stunning scene in which Ophelia’s drowning is staged using two planters requisitioned from outside the theater, soil from those planters, a hosepipe, and flowers. Stand by for mess.
The energy when Isaac is not on stage dips, and if this play has a flaw it is that it follows all of Hamlet the play’s highways and byways: You feel that three and a half hours by the end. Depending on where you’re sitting in the oddly partitioned and leveled Anspacher, you may not see characters very clearly if at all when they’re in that bathroom, or in another room, or loitering behind pillars. Claudius’ death looked particularly odd when viewed from where I was.
Yet this long, ranging adaptation with its many moods and paces never sinks. Gold doesn’t let it, even when Hamlet is absent from the stage. Isaac’s tones, and his running and cavorting on stage, eventually stripped down to a pair of black briefs and in a T-shirt and babbling lunatically, is a performance made all the more forceful by being realized in such a small space.
What strikes you, because the performers and their director have clearly studied and immersed themselves in the play, is the beauty of Shakespeare’s language (and who could want more than that?), and how much there is in Hamlet: family, power, madness, the creation of art, love, grief, betrayal, and revenge. And all the great-hit lines are here too: “Alas, Poor Yorick…” and “To be or not to be,” which here occurs as it occurs in the play, rather than at its beginning (which the Benedict Cumberbatch adaptation toyed with in 2015). As for Yorick’s skull, well that becomes a mock-foetus at some point. Only Ophelia’s brother Laertes (Anatol Yusuf) is played traditionally straight; stout and outraged by the calumnies around him, he seems to have been beamed in from a more conventional production. (At least he gets to wrestle Hamlet in the dirt near the end.)
How challenging it is to find something new and resonant in these well-known lines for both actors and director, yet this Hamlet does it. It also finds a moving heart to the tortured relationship of Hamlet and his mother Gertrude (Charlayne Woodard); he furiously accusing her of betraying her husband, his father’s, memory in marrying his brother; and she—for much of the time at a regal remove to her son’s madness—recognizing far too late what that means and the truth about her new husband.
Through Isaac’s performance, you really do come to see Hamlet himself as a one-man study in the human condition.
There are some odd gaps in the production; most notably, Hamlet and Ophelia function so separately in the play and seem so independent as characters, they seem more like kindred spirits than lovers when on stage; Hamlet’s later agonized declarations of love for her seem odd, and Ophelia’s ultimate tragedy seems squarely hers.
The body count at the end is well-known. But Isaac’s arresting performance means that we stay rapt until Hamlet’s very last breath, and Shakespeare’s very last word. It is a long evening for sure, but also a beguilingly off-kilter, rewardingly rich one.
Hamlet is at the Anspacher Theater at the Public Theater, until Sept. 3. Book tickets here.