Home / Arts & Life / Review: The Greatest of Danes, as Oscar Isaac Takes On ‘Hamlet’

Review: The Greatest of Danes, as Oscar Isaac Takes On ‘Hamlet’

We, on the other hand, are taken directly into the tortured prince’s confidence. And when Mr. Isaac confides, we listen. Best known for his work in film (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), he showed a vernacular ease with Elizabethan speech when he appeared as Romeo (to Lauren Ambrose’s Juliet) in Central Park a decade ago.

He demonstrates an even greater verbal nimbleness as a Hamlet who uses wordplay as a sword, fending off invasive intimacy. He’s an overgrown student who, you suspect, has lived largely in his own mind for most of his life. But just before the story begins, Hamlet’s father has died. And Mr. Isaac’s performance is informed, above all, by Hamlet’s startled awakening to the cosmic mystery — and biological fact — of death.

When we first see this Hamlet, he is helping an older, obviously ailing man walk across the stage. That’s Hamlet’s father, it would seem, but don’t take the image too literally, since we later learn that Dad died suddenly, poisoned by his brother, Claudius. (Ritchie Coster is superb as both.) What this moment does is establish an image that will never leave Hamlet’s head.

Purists might respond to such interpolations with “Say whaaat?” But Mr. Gold is one of the canniest directors working, as well as one of the boldest. (The past year alone has seen his incandescent productions of “Othello” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” as well as a venturesome but misfired “Glass Menagerie” on Broadway.) And before the play begins, he coaxes us into a friendly state of receptivity.

On the night I saw “Hamlet,” our preperformance warm-up man was no less a personage than Keegan-Michael Key, half of the inspired comedy team Key and Peele, who asked us to shout out that we were doing all right. (Mr. Key soon rematerialized as a most convincing Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend.)

Then other cast members ambled onto David Zinn’s set, which suggests an out-of-the-way conference room in an office or a school building. There’s a collapsible cafeteria-style table covered with flowers in the center, and what looks like a disassembled organ.

It’s the sort of place where employees might retreat for gossip or a private discussion of creative projects. The performers have a casual, disaffected air and wear what look like contemporary street clothes (in costumes by Kaye Voyce). You might think that these folks, to crib a Lorde lyric, will never be royals.

Even when they start to speak Shakespeare’s words — starting with an opening scene in the pitch dark, set on the castle battlements — they sound very 21st-century. Many of their observations are pitched directly to us, as if the audience were their grievance committee.

This has the effect of declassifying, as it were, speeches so classic that they have calcified in the collective imagination. The language’s beauty is always secondary here to what the characters want — no, need — to express, both to one another and to themselves. And the troubled relationships of the extended family of Elsinore have rarely read so clearly or affectingly.

That’s saying something, given that many of the cast members take on several roles, and that they tend to hang around onstage even during scenes they’re not involved in. Their abiding presence underscores the idea that the royal seat is, after all, a domestic dwelling. And like all homes, no matter how large, it can feel awfully claustrophobic to those who inhabit it.

For this “Hamlet” is, above all, a family drama, emphasizing the ties that bind and strangle, especially when death has suddenly entered the house. The subplot involving the imminent invasion of Denmark by Norway, led by the purposeful Fortinbras, has been eliminated altogether.

The focus is squarely, intimately on the conflicts within the castle. Even though the stakes happen to be of national importance, it is possible to identify, in terms both passionate and prosaic, with every person onstage — even the scheming, regicidal Claudius, whose ambition eats away at him like a cancer.


From left, Matthew Saldívar, Keegan-Michael Key and Roberta Colindrez in “Hamlet.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The shifts in lighting (by Mark Barton) and the subliminal, mood-morphing music (performed onstage by the cellist Ernst Reijseger) feel organically linked to the emotions of the characters. And the nine actors in the ensemble deliver such a completely inhabited performance that I didn’t feel restless, as I usually do, when Hamlet wasn’t around.

Charlayne Woodard is a regally ambivalent Gertrude, whose fatally divided loyalties to her son, Hamlet, and her husband, Claudius, are always in tremulous evidence. The crafty actor Peter Friedman is at the top of his game as both the officious Polonius and a vaudevillian gravedigger.

Anatol Yusef is splendid as a pugilistic Laertes and a lyrical Player King; and Roberta Colindrez and Matthew Saldívar are teamed to piquant effect as a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who, for once, don’t disappear into the woodwork.

Some interpolations give pause. Do we really need to see Polonius sitting on the toilet? Or Ophelia bingeing and purging with a big dish of baked pasta? Or syringes substituted for the usual swords and daggers? I totally bought Hamlet’s running around in his underpants for his “antic disposition” scenes. (And, by the way, this production completely grasps the comedy, as well as the tragedy, of “Hamlet.”)

Audience members new to the play may be confused by Mr. Coster’s fluid transitions between the roles of Hamlet’s father (or ghost) and his uncle. But there’s method in this scrambling of identities, which gives palpable form to Hamlet’s overpowering obsession with his father.

For as Mr. Isaac plays him, Hamlet is always straining, with a baffled and anguished intelligence, to make sense of what it means to die, and to bring death, and to communicate with the deceased.

This production daringly has him delivering the beginning of his “to be or not to be” soliloquy while laid out on a table, like a corpse on a bier, trying on sweet oblivion for size. Being dead is not a natural fit for him, of course, not yet.

But while Hamlet’s relationships with others — with his family, and with Ophelia, Horatio and even Laertes — are all compellingly and persuasively rendered, it’s a dead man to whom he is most magnetically drawn. Whenever this Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, his face turns rapt and wondrous.

And it is impossible not to feel that universal ache of longing for connection with those who left the world before us, who still speak to us in our heads; to erase forever the line between the quick and the dead.

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