August 25, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
With only nine performances to go, and after a sold-out, two-month limited engagement, I got to see Hamlet last night at the Public Theatre. On the subway ride downtown, I got to reminiscing on all the Hamlets I have seen on stage over my fifty years of theatregoing.
First in 1969, the angry and majestic Nicol Williamson (thirty-three at the time, but appearing ten years older due to already legendary years of drinking and carousing behind him). As he was not only my first Hamlet, but my first time seeing a Shakespeare play (I was twelve), that experience has stayed with me forever. My visit backstage with Williamson, chronicled in my book Up in the Cheap Seats, is too long to repeat here. Suffice it to say that our conversation about whether the ghost of Hamlet’s father was real or not — the one question to which I sought an answer — went unanswered.
My next stage Hamlet was at Lincoln Center in 1976, with the thirty-five year old Sam Waterston. Jane Alexander played his mother (even though they were only one year apart in age), which was odd. Then I saw a much younger Hamlet, Kristopher Tabouri, in a 1978 production at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. At twenty-four, he would prove to be the youngest Hamlet I would ever see. When I saw Roger Rees in 1984 at the Stratford Theatre in England, he was forty, matched closely to Laurence Olivier, the first screen Hamlet I ever saw, who was the same age as Rees when he began filming in 1948. And in keeping up with these facts and figures, for some reason, Olivier cast Eileen Herlie as his mother, who at the time was nine years younger than he was. Other screen versions I saw starred Mel Gibson (1990), Kenneth Branagh (1996) and Ethan Hawke (2000), not to mention ones I missed like the acclaimed Russian actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky, whose 1964 Soviet film was very well regarded, as well as a black and white version starring the Academy Award winning actor Maximilian Schell (in 1961). I can add small screen versions to my list, which I saw on television, with the Hamlets of Richard Chamberlain (1970), Derek Jacobi (1980) and Kevin Kline (1990) and I’ve also listened to various versions from radio broadcasts that have included John Gielgud and Paul Scofield, not to mention a record album (and a very bad film shot live of Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway Hamlet). I’m sorry not to have been able to get to the three most recent Broadway Hamlets of Ralph Fiennes (1992), Steven Lang (1995) and Jude Law (2009).
That’s a lot of Hamlets. All this on a subway ride downtown, happy to finally be getting back to seeing a full-length Hamlet on stage once again, in a production that clocked in at exactly four hours. To that I say, “Boy am I glad I saw it.”
Directed with fresh reserves of imagination by Sam Gold, whose Othello last season Off-Broadway starring David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig was one of the best Shakespeare stagings of my lifetime, I was taken in by this Hamlet even before it started. The actors came out and took positions on a stage no bigger than an average living room, surrounded by the audience on three-quarters of its playing space. There was a table, a ledge to sit and park a few props upon, and two doors. That was it. And it didn’t really change from that configuration for the rest of the evening. Hamlet is played by Oscar Isaac, now an international film star due to his status as a member of the Star Wars confederation, in his role as Poe Dameron. But this classically trained actor (Julliard), who began his professional career at the Public Theatre, has been itching to get to this role before he would become too old for it (he is thirty-eight). His first job out of school in 2005 was at the Public as Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona, but not in the 1592 Shakespeare play, but in the 1972 musical version that first had its premiere at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Isaacs performed it in Central Park as well, in a production that was extremely successful. Unfortunately, the night I was scheduled to see it with my children, a rainstorm hit Manhattan that produced thunder and lightning that terrified my kids more than any they had ever experienced. We didn’t make it to within miles of Central Park, locked in our apartment as we were watching the rain pour down in sheets. If it surprises you to discover that Isaacs can sing, it shouldn’t if you recall he played the title role of the ’60s folk singer in the Coen Brothers Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013.
Isaac’s Hamlet was heartfelt, intelligent, athletic, funny, sensual and even perverse (he plays a good deal of it in his underwear). The thing about Hamlet, perhaps more than any of the other major tragic roles in Shakespeare, is that it allows any actor to bring of themselves whatever they choose to the role. Macbeth is a warrior, Othello is a general, Lear is a King … Hamlet is a young prince. Recently out of school (and not schooled by any means in the intrigues of the politics of the court to which his father gave his life), he doesn’t know what to make of his mother marrying her brother-in-law or even whether she knows he killed her husband or not (something that has been open to interpretation for hundreds of years). Hamlet’s confusion is our confusion and we are helpless to intervene as we watch his solutions to his predicament go disastrously awry, hence the play being a tragedy. The fact that Gold and his actors mine as much of the comedy that they do serves this production well. It’s not for nothing that the extraordinarily talented Keegan-Michael Key is Horatio, a role not known for being a whole lot about the funny. I particularly enjoyed Ritchie Coster as a no-nonsense Claudius, played without pretension. In a nice twist, the actor doubles as his own brother (the ghost of Hamlet’s father). The entire cast shines, with the Polonius of Peter Friedman deserving special mention, as he excels at every aspect of the character. Often played as a fool, there was nothing foolish about Friedman. I enjoyed him in his every moment on stage (and he is on stage a lot).
So for anyone adventurous enough, I urge them to go downtown and see what they can do to try and nab a ticket to this Hamlet, as it ends on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend September 3rd.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-SeatsHistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8–4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book