theater review

A Hamlet Where Everyone’s Onstage

Oscar Isaac in the Public’s Hamlet. Photo: Carol Rosegg/Public Theater

A little over a third of the way into the modestly dressed, disarmingly brilliant production of Hamlet now playing at the Public, Oscar Isaac as the iconic prince turns to us before one of his famous soliloquies and calmly tells us, “Now I am alone.”

I caught my breath at these four words. They were not a statement of fact — they were an invitation to the audience to imagine.

Isaac was not alone, not in this moment nor ever. Hamlet as written contains seven soliloquies, but the Hamlet who is now wrestling with his fate on the red-carpeted boards of the Anspacher Theater is never a solo figure: He always has an audience. During each soliloquy, members of the ensemble sit or stand strewn about the stage, still present, giving their prince a quiet, serious attention — a company of players, watching and listening.

Not every Hamlet calls attention to its own theatricality. This Hamlet — beginning with its use of the company onstage as a second audience, a mirror for us out in the seats — engages us in a game that makes us contemplate the very nature of performing. When Oscar Isaac tells us, still surrounded by his fellow actors, “I am alone,” he is not describing but instructing. He is working on our imaginary forces — or, as he might say, our mind’s eye — telling us, These are the rules of this game. Come, play.

It is a mark of this production’s intelligence that its rules are inscribed in its aesthetic from the very beginning by a set of design choices that blur the line between audience and stage. The Anspacher is a strange space: a thrust configuration — which is Shakespearean enough — but surrounded by raked banks of red upholstered seats that come from an entirely different era of spectatorship. Hamlet’s set (by David Zinn), like the production itself, is unassuming and very, very smart: It extends the feel of the seating banks by covering the whole stage in red carpet. The chairs used onstage are a match to those in the front rows of the audience: modern, institutional, more red upholstery. Hanging above the playing space are additional house lights mimicking those above the audience (these the domain of lighting designer Mark Barton, whose work is a subtle, powerful complement to Zinn’s).

The main playing area — apart from the chairs and a table that looks like it could have been pulled from one of the Public’s conference rooms — is empty. The back wall is unadorned. Props are few and almost all present at the back of the stage at the show’s beginning, waiting for eventual use. There is a station for a musician (the incredible Ernst Reijseger) who creates the entirety of the production’s sonic landscape on a cello and a set of wooden pipes that play like an eerie organ. Each actor has only one costume, and if designer Kaye Voyce has not pulled directly from the actors’ own closets, she has quietly and cleverly curated a palette that feels as if she has done so. Director Sam Gold and his team of designers seem to have constructed their world in alignment with Hamlet’s advice to the Players:

…O’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

The actors likewise adhere to these instructions: Their attack on the language is clear and often conversational. They carry us deftly through the poetry without bluster or bravado — we follow the threads of their thought, and when great emotion flows it flows naturally, from a wellspring of grief or rage or shame that feels real.

Real. Ay, there’s the rub. Nothing onstage in this Hamlet is “theatrical” in the way that we have come to understand the term — as a synonym for spectacular, outlandish, or exaggerated. Rather, Sam Gold and his company are interested in a different and perhaps deeper definition of theatricality: Their Hamlet is playing a game with our notions of real and pretend, of sincerity and falseness. After all, you might think that by following Hamlet’s advice to the Players you could simply end up with a realistic TV drama — but Hamlet isn’t asking for realism, he’s asking for truth. He’s asking for honesty wrapped in the artifice of play. The heart of Gold’s production — and its genius — lies in its obsession with the paradox of the Honest Performance.

Hamlet insists that he “know[s] not ‘seems.,” but any good actor will tell you that you can feel all day long, but without seeming — without the show of that feeling — there’s no play. And Hamlet, the character, is a good actor. (This Hamlet, in the person of Oscar Isaac, at once mischievous and deeply soulful, is exceedingly good.) Part of the character’s tragedy is that he is a thoughtful comedian trapped in the bloody, archaic genre of the Revenge Play, forced into playing a role his very nature abhors. Imagine if Othello or Hotspur had been Old Hamlet’s son. Claudius would be dead and young Fortinbras defeated by Act 2, Scene 1.

Gold’s production dispenses with Fortinbras and with all references to any wider political conflict. (In interviews, he and Isaac have repeatedly described the show as “intimate.”) It’s a vision of a Hamlet in which the wider world is not Scandinavia but the theater. The company’s members are aware on some deep level of their existence both as actors and as characters in a play. Keegan-Michael Key (who makes a charming Horatio) begins the performance with a casual, endearingly silly curtain speech to the audience, but this is no mere lark: It introduces us to Horatio as a kind of narrator, a role that he will return to with much more gravity when, at the play’s end, he assumes responsibility for telling Hamlet’s story. He even adopts one of Fortinbras’s lines at the finale — “[Let] these bodies / High on a stage be placed to the view” — and when he says it, we hear not a dictator organizing a military funeral but a stage manager preparing for a literal eternity of performances of Hamlet.

In cautioning Ophelia not to trust Hamlet’s declarations of love, Laertes shows a similar subliminal awareness of the play-world he inhabits. He warns his sister that Hamlet “may not, as unvalued persons do, / Carve for himself, for on his choice depends / The safety and health of this whole state.” By “whole state” he typically means Denmark, but in this production Laertes (the compelling Anatol Yusef) gestures to us, the audience, and around the room at the chairs, the table, the lighting grid. Laertes is warning his sister, This story depends on him, and there’s only one way it can go. Likewise, when plotting to send Hamlet to England, Claudius (the superb Ritchie Coster) growls that he can’t outright punish his troublesome stepson, because “he’s loved of the distracted multitude.” Those last two words can only mean us. We, the audience, love Hamlet, and our imaginary forces hold sway in this room; Claudius, Laertes, and the rest of this ensemble maintain an understated awareness that they are acting in Hamlet’s play. This is not nudge-nudge-wink-wink mugging; the actors are not nodding their heads at us and mouthing, as Hamlet might have it, “Well, well we know.” A showier self-consciousness of theatrical artifice is fairly common on the stage these days. There is something subtler at work here — an investigation of the paradoxical alchemy of sincerity and deceit that lies at the heart of Hamlet and of theater itself.

The layers of this theatrical onion are further multiplied by the fact that the nine-person company of players doubles as … the Company of Players. By limiting the number of bodies onstage and letting each one accumulate valences of meaning, Gold sounds Shakespeare’s play like a great resonant bell. Seeing the Player King/Player Queen scene played out in the bodies of Gertrude and Claudius (who is also the ghost of Old Hamlet) is a revelation: Often delivered with self-conscious puffy artifice, here the scene feels like a moment out of time, like watching Hamlet witness a moment that might truly have taken place between his mother and his sickly father. And the Player King’s warning to his Queen — that she won’t be able to keep her vows never to remarry — rings with pathos and prophecy: “Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.” So says this false king — this actor — prefiguring Hamlet’s recognition of the “divinity that shapes our ends” and summing up in a single line the tragedy of the prince’s character. What is Hamlet if not a creature of thought, doomed to an end none of his own?

Or take the doubling of Laertes and the Lead Player, who enters into a friendly competition with Hamlet over their shared delivery of the great Pyrrhus speech. The Player astounds Hamlet with his ability to “force his soul so to his own conceit” — he can make himself weep on cue! “For nothing! For Hecuba!” — which drives Hamlet to the frenzied contemplation of his own inaction. By this point, the Hamlet who could clearly separate performance from substance is gone: He now longs to act in all senses of the word, even if it means conflating those senses. In attempting to follow the Player’s example, Hamlet substitutes performance for the real action he so craves (and fears), winding up screaming melodramatically into the winds (“Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! / O, vengeance!”) and, here, doing great violence to a dish of lasagna. No wonder Isaac looks up afterwards — the clown who tried to play the avenger — and cracks a wry, abashed smile: “Why, what an ass am I!”

Though Hamlet knows in his most lucid moments that the performance of a thing is not the thing itself, he remains obsessed with the enactment of his own feelings, as if performing them paradoxically proves their honesty. When this Hamlet confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s grave (“What is he whose grief / Bears such an emphasis?”), we have already seen these two men compete in the performance of grief. First, it was for Hecuba, a mere fantasy, a play. Now, it is for Ophelia, a real woman whom they both loved. Laertes and Hamlet are both wracked by real anguish, and they are also playing at it: Who loved her more? Who can mourn her better? It’s a wrenching thing to watch — who among us has not felt something deeply and simultaneously felt ourselves performing the feeling? Acting is in our nature; we long to be witnessed.

Is such ore always there for the mining in this scene between the grieving lover and the grieving brother? Yes. But does every Hamlet mine it? No. It is the mark of a deeply intelligent production when it makes you hear anew a work encrusted with so many barnacles of historical, literary, and theatrical precedent.

They don’t call it “Poem Unlimited” for nothing. The glory of Hamlet is its unsoundable depth. Another director with another production might strike its great bell from a slightly different angle and produce completely different resonances. Another director might be as fascinated by kingship, war, and affairs of state as Sam Gold is by layers of theatricality. Still, while Gold might have stripped the play of its original political context, this “intimate” production has not been stripped of politics. Its seeming domesticity is deceptive; it has something pointed to say about the political state of our world, but its tool is a needle, not a bludgeon. By its indirections, we find directions out.

“Ay sir,” quips Hamlet to Polonius, “to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.” It’s a great line, always, but at this moment I heard it cut the air with a new sharpness. That word, honest, rings out over and over in this production. The politics of this Hamlet is a politics of performance, of being and seeming, of sincerity and hypocrisy, truth and corruption. In this way, Gold’s production may well be an abstract and brief chronicle for our time. After all, how many of our highest politicians might currently be asking themselves, “May one be pardoned and retain the offence?”

Hamlet is at the Public Theater through September 3.

*A version of this article appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

A Hamlet Where Everyone’s Onstage