And it starts out so good.
After we watch the King of Denmark killed and then lying in state, we’re surprised to see him rise, walk a few paces, don some regal wear and begin speaking the lines that belong to Claudius.
So Sam Gold’s production of HAMLET at the Public Theatre immediately offers a different but valid interpretation. After all, Claudius could greatly resemble his brother – the one whom he murdered.
Gold’s also wise in the next scene to have Hamlet sitting with his back to the audience as everyone around him celebrates Claudius’ marriage to his mother Gertrude. Because Oscar Isaac is a sci-fi film star, he could command substantial entrance applause. Gold would rather stress that the play’s the thing.
Make that Gold would rather stress that comedy is the thing. He wants the audience to have a rip-roarin’ laff-riot of a good time. Of the 17 HAMLETS I’ve seen dating back to the legendary 1964 production with Richard Burton, this is the one that most goes for slam-bang laughs.
Case in point: David Zinn’s set includes a door that opens to a fully tiled bathroom where Polonius is seen seated, pants and underwear down, presumably in the middle of a bowel movement.
In other words, Gold puts someone else in addition to Claudius on the throne.
Once poor Peter Friedman is revealed in this state, the audience laughs heartily. They’ll get more bathroom humor later when Hamlet emerges from the privy wearing a garland of toilet paper around his neck. It’s a poor excuse for the ruffled collar that Shakespeare sports in that famous portrait.
At least the toilet paper is mercifully unused and doesn’t foreshadow the substantial amount of dirt and mud that will litter the stage before all comes to a close.
When Hamlet comes out of the bathroom, he does so without his pants. An uneven black shirt covers more in the front than the back, where tighty-whities that have been dyed black are revealed. Isaac will spend at least 30 minutes of the four-hour production in that state of dishabille.
(Have I just sold a few more tickets?)
One might presume that Gold will only play the opening scenes for comedy to get those solely for Isaac into a No-Fear Shakespeare zone. No: Gold continues the merriment well into the second of the three acts when he deals with the troupe of strolling players.
Hamlet specifically tells the actors who’ll perform THE MURDER OF GONZAGO “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.” He means that they should act naturally — or, better, perform as little as possible — so to seem true-too-life and convincing.
Apparently they can’t follow direction. They perform the play as an over-the-top melodrama before they deliver a piece of stage business that must have been shopworn by the 16th century: Gonzago is stabbed, screams in overwrought agony for an inordinate amount of time in order to coax laughs from the audience; only after he gets enough of them does he finally die – only to jump up with a start a few seconds later, springing back to life and moaning again before he finally, finally dies.
Here, The Player King then lurches up a second time. Shall we give Gold the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s commenting on the amateurishness of provincial troupes and/or the lack of literary worth in THE MURDER OF GONZAGO? Hamlet had stressed that “those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them.” These certainly didn’t.
The manner in which Hamlet “hides” Polonius’ body is played for laughs as well. The audience roared its approval at it all; as they guffawed virtually to the final curtain, the play was officially taken away from Gold and Shakespeare.
There’s a skimpy cast of nine, at odds with HAMLET’s 27 speaking parts, not to mention the lords, ladies, officers, soldiers, sailors, attendants and, of course, The Ghost and The Players. Gold has everyone except Hamlet playing many roles and this double-doubling results in both toil and trouble: Polonius and Ophelia, now dead, resurrect themselves to play The Clowns (i.e., The Gravedigger and his Assistant).
Doubling is an especially serious problem in THE MURDER OF GONZAGO. In this play-within-a-play, The Queen and her newly kinged brother-in-law are supposed to represent Gertrude and Claudius; here they’re played by Charlayne Woodard and Ritchie Costner — the same performers who play Gertrude and Claudius.
As a result, disappointment is in store for those who like to see the expressions on Gertrude and Claudius’ faces while they watch the play that remarkably parallels their own lives. Isn’t some HAMILTON money pouring into the Public? Spring for a cast, Oskar Eustis! You’re obviously not paying the playwright.
Certainly the set didn’t cost much. Zinn has undoubtedly never done so little work for such a major credit. A long rectangular table center stage is basically it. Set designers get royalties, but surely in this case Zinn had to have waved a hand and waived his money with a quick “Forget it,” for he’d have to be too ashamed to take the royalties.
And yet, money is being spent on cellist Ernst Reijseger. His playing during the wedding reception is excellent but terribly obtrusive during the Polonius-Hamlet-arras scene. Reijseger’s salary would have been better spent on an additional actor.
Maybe there are overtime cost-runs, for this is a less-abridged-than-most text. Even those who have seen many HAMLETS will notice that virtually every character has some lines they may not have heard before. And yet, the running time of three hours and forty-five minutes doesn’t seem excessive – but that has more to do with Shakespeare than Gold.
The cast deserves extra pay, let alone combat pay. Kaye Voyce’s costumes must head to the cleaners after each performance because, as indicated earlier, Gold has dirtied up the stage to an extent rarely seen. Although no one says that famous drinking toast “Here’s mud in your eye,” it comes to mind for some might really wind up in at least two to 10 eyes.
It’s a fine cast. Issac’s flat on his back when he delivers the soliloquy that Kurt Vonnegut called “2BRØ2B,” but he makes it stand up for itself. With Ophelia, his displaced hostility is effective pre-spousal abuse. There’s a little Pacino and Turturro in Isaac, but much more Isaac. He gives a noteworthy and accomplished performance that proves the young actor can carry the canon’s most demanding role and play. He’s sure-footed even in his underwear.
There are some standout performances. Peter Friedman is a marvel as Polonius, suggesting that he’s intent on getting his daughter to be the future Queen of Denmark. As Anatol Yusef’s Laertes listens to his father’s “To thine own self be true” advice, he endures the speech in the manner that all teens do when they’re about to leave home, can’t wait to get going and are stalled by parental cautions.
Laertes does have a chance to show paternal love after it’s too late. When Laertes roars in to revenge his father, Claudius knows that the best defense is a good offense. So does actor Ritchie Costner.
He shows nice feeling for his sister, who of course has her own problems. Gold has Gayle Rankin’s Ophelia eat when she’s nervous, sing songs that have a Roaring ‘20s feel and give a mad scene that’s madder (and wetter) than most.
Gold does have a solid idea when Gertrude is about to imbibe the concoction that Claudius has poisoned. If anyone has ever wondered why she would drink after he’s told her with great urgency not to, Gold offers a believable take: Gertrude does indeed infer from her husband’s warning that he’s done something to the drink, but by now she’s come to terms with her crimes and feels the need to pay for them. The obvious punishment is death. Similarly speaking, after she dies, Claudius comes to the same conclusion and doesn’t try to avoid Hamlet’s revenge.
Gold doesn’t kill them off, though; they’re still alive even as the lights finally dim.
Remember that that this production was originally scheduled for last season at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn until its artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz and Gold couldn’t see mind’s-eye-to-mind’s-eye. We’ll never know about what the two men disagreed, but Horowitz doesn’t come away from this HAMLET looking as if he made so big a mistake.