Hamlet

Theater, Shakespeare
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
Hamlet (Public Theater 2017)
Photograph: Courtesy Carol Rosegg

Theater review by Adam Feldman

Hamlet is, as he himself might say, a piece of work. Brooder and jokester, slacker and control freak, spurned and spurning lover, determined but reluctant would-be murderer: There’s a lot going on in the fractured mind of the Danish prince, and Oscar Isaac elucidates his thinking beautifully in Sam Gold’s intimate and perceptive account of Shakespeare’s deferred-revenge tragedy at the Public, finding new layers in one of the world’s most familiar texts. 

Staged in modern dress with a cast of nine on a minimal set—its biggest indulgence is a bathroom where Ophelia (Gayle Rankin, finding depth in the character’s passivity) goes to sulk—Gold’s Hamlet forsakes grandeur in favor of small moments of clarity. Its focus is on theatricality, comedy and language; it keeps long speeches about the Trojan War, for example, but cuts the invading army of Fortinbras. There is singing, an onstage cellist and choice overwrought-death-scene clowning from Keegan-Michael Key (who also plays Horatio).

Hamlet features some wonderfully vivid performances: from Isaac, who gives Hamlet a sometimes ruthless charm; but also from the superb Peter Friedman (as the doting, officious beta male Polonius, and later as a gravedigger) and Ritchie Coster, whose Claudius—a rough-mannered corporate thug—has moments of real tenderness, especially toward his queen, Gertrude (Charlayne Woodard).

The production occasionally gets muddy—literally, thanks to fresh earth and a garden hose, and figuratively, as in the needlessly confusing doubling of actors in the Murder of Gonzago sequence. But the combination of artifice and human detail works to highlight the degree to which the characters are often acting: fronting to others, lying to themselves, feigning madness. (When Hamlet is playing crazy, Isaac strips down to his underpants.) If this Hamlet is rarely emotionally moving, it is never less than engaging. For more than three and a half hours, it holds you in the gentle fascination of watching a constantly changing mind.

Public Theater (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Sam Gold. With Oscar Isaac. Running time: 3hrs 40mins. Two intermissions. Through Sept 3.

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