Concerning the current production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet now playing at The Public Theater, here is the short version the review: See it. Just see it.
Ok, for those who need more…
Among theatre geeks, the 1964 production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud has achieved legendary status. It gets copious mention in the first season of Slings & Arrows. It moved us past the Olivier interpretation onto fresh new ground. As best as I can piece together, what Oscar Isaac and Sam Gold have crafted here is the closest we are ever going to get in the 21st century to that landmark production. I was in London in July, and I had the chance to see the Andrew Scott take on the role (which, by all measure, is also superlative). I did not go because I felt like I have seen my definitive Hamlet.
Eschewing sets, costumes, and pyrotechnics, Gold just focuses on the language, the narrative, and forming on ensemble that will fully inhabit the world of the play. He succeeds. I had seen his Othello at New York Theatre Workshop, and he exceeded the high bar he established there. The claim of this production is that you get the full text. That is not quite true. Anything having to do with Fortinbras and Norway has been excised. Still, that’s 95% of the script, making for an evening long in hours (but far from an endurance test, at least for the audience).
Given his work in indie films (Inside Llewyn Davis) and major studio releases (the new Stars Wars trilogy), Isaac is known to have considerable acting chops. He lives up to that reputation. This is fully as realized a performance as we are likely to get. He embodies grief and the feeling of being completely at sea. When Hamlet feigns madness in Act II and III, one wonders here how much he is actually feigning. As Hamlet plunges into torment and guilt after killing Polonius, Isaac ably communicates the rawness of what the Prince of Denmark is experiencing. The final duel with Laertes is a welcome escape from the ever-mounting pain.
Isaac is surrounded by a cast equal to his talents. Keegan-Michael Key is an extraordinarily dynamic and funny Horatio; for once, I felt the necessity of Horatio in the play beyond serving as a sounding board for Hamlet. Ritchie Coster is an able (finally!) Claudius and sorrowful Old Hamlet. Peter Friedman offers the wiliest Polonius (plus Grave Digger) in a long time, and he has able support from Gayle Rankin as a bulimic Ophelia and Anatol Yusef (Boardwalk Empire) as a cooler-than-usual Laertes. If there is a link weak in the chain, it belongs to Charlene Woodard’s Gertrude; she just did not seem to get into the swing of the proceedings.
Throughout Gold makes bold choices, and even if they do not always quite connect, you have to admire the invention and love of the play that never once wavers. Foremost, this is a celebration of Hamlet and so, even given the play’s elegiac turns, the evening never turns turgid. We are on a journey and glad to be on it.
This production closes Labor Day weekend. It needs to be seen.