The Public Theater’s “Hamlet” Obscures Oscar Isaac in a Sea of Trickery

For actors, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is Mount Everest, the big one you’ve got to scale to rank among the leaders in your field. But for directors, tackling the sad tale of the Prince of Denmark’s mishap-laden attempt at revenge poses a different challenge: What wins you a place in the record books is not how high you can reach but how distinctive — or maybe how peculiar — you can make the result. The play seems to breed an eerie neurosis in directors; they view Hamlet not as a story to be told, with a central figure whom the world knows and loves, but as a species of famous property being put on the market, like a newly vacated antique mansion that needs major dressing-up before you let the customers in. Consequently, some of the smartest and best directors in the world have come a cropper with Hamlet, while lesser (or wiser) artists, with the modest goal of simply making its events clear to the audience, have brought it off splendidly.

So we come to Sam Gold and Oscar Isaac, the director and leading actor of the Public Theater’s latest Hamlet. Gold, a gifted and highly sensitive artist, has an erratic track record with works from the past: His genuine love for the drama’s substance often gets entangled with a driving need to make that substance speak in contemporary terms and — for a further complication — an equal need to raise the larger questions that plague our time, the ones about what a play is, how you define its substance, and whether there is any value at all in letting it speak. These aren’t new questions, least of all with Hamlet, which has been challenged on these terms for decades. (One of the many moments I cherish from Ingmar Bergman’s extraordinary 1988 Hamlet came at the very end, when Fortinbras had Horatio, in the middle of his final speech, hauled offstage and machine-gunned.)

For Gold, Hamlet’s difficulty lies in an indecision not unlike the Prince of Denmark’s own. Hamlet can’t fully make up his mind whether to believe the Ghost and avenge his father’s murder, punish his mother as the cause of the crime, distract himself with diversions and jokes, or give way to despair and suicide. Gold, similarly, can’t decide what he most wants his production to do. He builds images that underscore the play’s substance, like his repeated use of bodies lying prone to reiterate the text’s preoccupation with death. He tries tricks to jolt us out of conventional expectations, like having the “dead” Polonius and Ophelia suddenly transform into the two Gravediggers. Sometimes he pushes the work toward a phantasmagoria suggesting the hero’s mental turmoil, as by having the same actor and actress double the roles of Ghost/Claudius/Player King and Gertrude/Player Queen respectively. At other points he simply tries to push the work off its high-art pedestal with injections of contemporary cheapness, like having actors exit through an upstage door and reappear to the sound of an offstage toilet flushing.

Each of Gold’s tactics has its reasons. Even the toilet flush is a vague allusion to the startling fact that Caroline Spurgeon pointed out in Shakespeare’s Imagery (1935): The principal network of images in Hamlet focuses on rotting flesh, garbage, and the creatures that feed off them (rodents, kites, worms). The problem is that Gold’s many devices don’t mix well together; their diversity of effects gives the evening a jumble, or at best a sort of tasting menu, of concepts, instead of a unified approach. What emerges is often interesting, but it does little to help any spectator know what is going on in Hamlet. Some parts of Gold’s staging, like the play-within-a-play, almost appear intended to obfuscate. (You can’t watch Claudius and Gertrude react to the Player King and Queen when they’re busy playing those roles themselves.) Other directorial gestures seem merely to snigger at the whole idea of taking Hamlet seriously, like the giant prop syringe, out of a burlesque sketch, with which poison is administered (was Gold thinking, “syringes to catch woodcocks”?) or the tinfoil pan of lasagna that furnishes forth meals at arbitrary points. Nor can I explain, except by audiences’ desire to see movie stars unclad, why this Hamlet should suddenly take off his pants and attend a play in black briefs and T-shirt.

This directorial mix-and-match has unhelpful effects on Isaac’s performance, which might, in a better-sustained context, have been genuinely exciting. Isaac is clearly a strong, capable, thoughtful actor; he loves the verse and makes his way through it with great astuteness. Yet Gold’s device-parade pitches him constantly from one aesthetic realm to another — a problem no actor playing Hamlet needs, since the play’s action is already doing that to him: When all occasions do inform against you, you don’t want your director making matters worse.

Ironically, because Gold leaves Isaac so much free space in the soliloquies, the Hamlet that rises up out of this ultra-contemporary staging is, of all things, a big, heartfelt, nineteenth-century performance, all passionate declamation with a sob in the throat, and with its jokes (Hamlet is a constant jokester) downplayed in a dead-toned mutter, to keep the audience focused on his grief. Gold causes something similar to occur with Gayle Rankin’s Ophelia — a tough, hard-edged Ophelia, matching the tough Laura of Gold’s Glass Menagerie last year. Instead of going mad, Rankin goes presentational: While the musical style is contemporary folk-pop, the effect is exactly the one Bernard Shaw ridiculed in the standard Victorian Ophelia, not a mentally unhinged girl, but “a strenuously earnest and self-possessed young lady giving a concert and recitation for all she was worth.”

That Gold’s effort to make Hamlet vivid today should push his performers back toward the self-conscious artifice modernism was created to undercut says more about our collective problem than about his artistic limitations. (And Gold’s cutting helps the show’s most fully realized performance, Peter Friedman’s Polonius, businesslike and un-buffoonish, follow a standard “modernist” interpretive path.) Unlike the Victorians and every era of theater before them, we have no standard approach to classic works. Instead we have a mishmash of strategies that may or may not communicate to this or that segment of the audience. We can’t revive Elizabethan stage conventions the way the early-music movement has revived Renaissance performance practices, while reliance on individual directors only puts us at the mercy of their individual visions, for better or worse. Some sort of balance needs to be struck that can produce a more widely accepted standard, allowing classic plays to live in our time without incessant, arbitrary violation of their content. Hamlet, encrusted with centuries of thought and cliché, displays this problem at its toughest. Gold and Isaac have perceived the problem, but not solved it. That challenge remains for other hands.

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through September 3