Hamlet at The Public Theater in New York City has the odd distinction of being the funniest production of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy I have ever seen. Certainly Shakespeare’s work is often humorous, but with the possible exception of Polonius, the morose Dane isn’t usually a great source of comedy. Directed by Sam Gold, this production throws all that out the window to deliver a Hamlet that is comic, contemporary, and delivered in a way that feels accessible for Shakespeare fans and those less familiar with the Bard’s work alike.
Hamlet at the Public Theater is also the most #aesthetic performance I’ve seen of this play. A table covered with fresh cut flowers sets the scene, but the lighting choices as well, particularly in the ghost scenes, have a beauty all their own. The set is spare, consisting mainly of a metal table and chairs and a few props on a red carpeted stage, but it’s used effectively. Actors who are not actively involved in a scene often sit just off stage, but visible, on a carpeted stair at the back of the set. A just off-stage washroom, visible to the audience, is also used to great effect.
It’s a distinctly contemporary version of Hamlet. The actors wear modern-day dress, including Polonius in a business suit and Hamlet alternately in a hoodie or in a cozy sweater and a pair of briefs, the poison is delivered using a syringe, and lasagna features prominently in one scene. Yes, there is a lasagna splash zone! This has its pluses and minuses. The costuming isn’t particularly original, and the play removes some of the broader context of Hamlet, such as Fortinbras and the European political situation of the day, but the contemporary setting does lend itself better to physical comedy and it feels like a very accessible version of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
I’d be lying if I said the chance to see Oscar Isaac live on stage wasn’t the impetus for my most recent trip to New York City. First introduced to Mr. Isaac’s work through the most recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, I began working my way through his filmography (more of a feat than it sounds because I’m generally more of a TV viewer than a moviegoer). I marveled at his on-screen charisma and admired his ability to transform into completely different roles with conviction. When the news that he would be taking on the Dane in New York City broke, a friend and I quickly hatched vacation plans, egged on further by the knowledge that the new season of Broadway musicals featured exciting shows like Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 that we both wanted to see.
So, after all of this build-up how was Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet? His performance is every bit as good as expected. Isaac appears comfortable and at ease on stage, his charisma radiating throughout the theatre. His Hamlet is animated, seeing to teeter on the edge of madness throughout the play, and Isaac is adept at balancing low comedy (as he plays mad, Isaac’s Hamlet quite literally spends much of the play without pants) with soliloquies that are heartfelt and imbue the well-known text with meaning. He engages directly with the audience and is fully committed to a very physical performance that must be exhausting to perform each night.
The other standout of the evening was undoubtedly comedian Keegan Michael Key. Even before the performance began Key brought the laughs, giving a pre-show speech where he asked the audience not to plug-in their cellphones to a socket at the back of the stage during intermission. “You would think I wouldn’t have to say this,” Key said, “but it happened last night.” Personally, having skipped dinner before the nearly four hour show due to train delays back from Coney Island, by intermission the tray of lasagna still on stage was looking more interesting than the socket!
Keegan Michael Key’s portrayal of Horatio, much like this production of the play itself, relies heavily on physical comedy but it’s extremely effective at doing so. Key’s depiction of the murder of Gonzago in the play within a play scene not only had the audience laughing uproariously but also had his cast-mates struggling to keep straight faces! The rest of the cast is generally strong, especially Peter Friedman (Polonius) and Ritchie Coster (Claudius). Gayle Rankin certainly provides a unique take on Ophelia, as an angry, sarcastic young woman who doesn’t seem to have much of a connection with Hamlet at all, but I’m not certain it worked for me.
This production of Hamlet also acts as an effective ad for Dyson or other industrial cleaning products. By the end of the night the red carpeted stage is such a mess of fresh cut flowers, lasagna, and mud that I don’t envy the cleaning staff!
All in all, it’s a very good production of a play that, full disclosure, has never been a favourite of mine, but I think Hamlet at the Public would have benefited from a more cohesive vision overall. Running four hours, it also begins to feel a little long. Oscar Isaac’s performance would be worth the price of a ticket on its own though and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see his energetic and charismatic take on the Dane live.
Hamlet plays until September 3rd at the Anspacher Theater of The Public Theater in New York City.