It is a given that when a director wants to stage “Hamlet” anew there is the desire to do something different from all the productions that have been previously staged. So it is with Sam Gold and his mounting of “Hamlet” at the Public Theater with Oscar Isaac in the title role. Recently Gold did well with “A Doll’s House, Part 2” but he ruined his revival of “The Glass Menagerie.” Now he has very mixed results with “Hamlet,” depending on what your tolerance level is. In effect, Shakespeare has a co-author.
There are some good creative moments in the use of the small stage of the Public’s intimate Anspacher Theater, such as keeping the place in total darkness for the scene with the ghost of Hamlet’s father appearing while we hear astonished gasps. I’ll get to Isaac’s portrayal in a moment.
On the other hand Gold indulges in some utterly gross approaches that severely undercut the play. Peter Friedman gives an excellent performance as Polonius, but do you really want to see Polonius taking a crap in a modern bathroom with the door open while he talks to a bystander? (Shades of President Lyndon Johnson.) Or Hamlet emerging from that bathroom with a newspaper and implying that he has also been on the can? And speaking of that bathroom, do you want to watch Ophelia puking into the toilet?
On the subject of Ophelia, Gold has cast her senselessly against type. This Ophelia (Gayle Rankin) is tall and powerful looking, appearing strong enough to kill anyone in sight with her bare hands. She carries on dramatically, but there’s nothing fragile about her to indicate she would drown herself. Incidentally, that drowning is symbolized by a very long hose emerging from the bathroom and spraying water on herself and poor dead Polonius as she lies down beside him.
And why have Hamlet going around in his briefs? To show off his buns? All right, enough of the desecrations. Let’s get to the performance by Isaac. His Hamlet is a very energetic, even aggressive, one. If you accept that concept and tone, he does brilliantly and creates an especially dynamic Hamlet. However, that approach strips away the idea of a melancholy Dane. This Hamlet is filled with more rage than inner turmoil, and again the staging detracts from a key scene. His “To be or not to be” speech is partly spoken while he is lying on his back on a table. Why?
Charlayne Woodard is effective as Gertrude, and Ritchie Coster is properly arrogant as Claudius. (He also plays the ghost of Hamlet's father.) And there is Keegan-Michael Key as an impressive Horatio. But here again, the staging sometimes undercuts them and other well enacted characters in various ways. Role interchanges can sometimes be confusing and actors hang around in the background when not speaking.
But the production has the advantage of getting the audience to feel extremely close to the action, which helps in the best parts but works against the play when the staging is tasteless. The production is nearly four hours long (even with Norway's Fortinbras eliminated) and although whatever one may think of the direction, Gold succeeds in holding audience attention even at that length.
As for Isaac in his interpretation of the challenging role, his performance is a major one to see this season, given his skill, his importance as a film star and his parallel gift for acting in the theater, especially with his easy conversational command of Shakespeare’s language. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Reviewed July 14, 2017.