'Hamlet' review — strong casting is king in this production of the classic tragedy
Read our review of the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet, presented by The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater through August 6.
It's the summer of Hamlet. The Public Theater set the stage to revisit Shakespeare's familial tragedy last year by putting up Fat Ham, a comedic send-up of Hamlet that wraps a Tony Award-nominated Broadway transfer this weekend. Forty blocks uptown, the Public now mounts the original play — with a few cuts and updates — as this year's Free Shakespeare in the Park offering.
Beowulf Boritt's set depicts a finely furnished present-day house with a Stacey Abrams poster out front and a car with the license plate ELS NOR (a clever nod to Elsinore, the name of the Danish palace in Shakespeare's text) off to the side. The whole scene is half-buried and askew, suggesting a world turned upside down even before the events of the play begin.
Quick recap of said events: King Hamlet gets murdered by his brother Claudius before the play starts. Prince Hamlet (the title character, played here by Tony nominee Ato Blankson-Wood) gets a visit from his dad's ghost, who urges revenge. The young prince pretends to go mad while secretly plotting to kill his uncle. Additional deaths — a lot of them – ensue.
Director Kenny Leon doesn't unearth much new insight into this story from the modern setting, however, instead electing to stage a fairly run-of-the-mill Hamlet that happens to be in contemporary dress (costumes are by Jessica Jahn) and feature (truly beautiful) gospel and rap music to ground this production in Black culture.
Strong performances buoy the production: Blankson-Wood, on the Delacorte Theater stage for the second summer in a row following last year's As You Like It, is a sharp Hamlet, exhibiting the perfect blend of boyish petulance and thoughtful introspection. Solea Pfeiffer, even in her comparatively little stage time, matches his skill as an Ophelia who demands to be heard. Daniel Pearce provides delightful comic relief as Polonius, and the masterful John Douglas Thompson almost makes the audience sympathize with Claudius before turning on a dime, ending Act 1 with a perfect line delivery and commanding exit.
Even with multiple smart scene cuts, Hamlet still runs close to 3 hours, and you'll feel it in the second act — it's slower compared to the first. Greg Hildreth runs away with the act in his single scene as the wisecracking gravedigger, and just beforehand, Pfeiffer especially stands out in Ophelia's tour-de-force fit of madness. She not only gets to show off her gorgeous singing voice, but a blazing torrent of deep, enraged sorrow.
She's not overbearing with it, though — one of the strongest moments sees her laying flowers upon the other characters like graves as she speaks in controlled, bitter tones. It reads as somber foreshadowing. In Pfeiffer's performance, it also suggests more mental clarity than the characters believe Ophelia to have — everyone on that stage is complicit in their fates. Following her father, she's among the first to be collateral damage.
And such does Leon's Hamlet subtly reinforce the parallel between her and Hamlet — of being haunted by their fathers, of being caught between grief and anger as they try (and ultimately fail) to find a path forward.
Fat Ham's influence on this production looms large (Public Theater director Oskar Eustis has specifically mentioned it) — that brilliant play of Ijames's vividly explores the effects of cycles of violence and grief getting passed down, specifically among Black families. This seems to be the intention behind Leon's majority-Black casting, too.
On its own, his direction fails to strongly deliver that vision (or any other), but together, the two shows invite a more full-bodied conversation about old-fashioned notions of death as liberation and how, and why, a new way of thinking is necessary now. This Hamlet's final stage picture, of these many Black bodies lying dead on the floor, makes that clear.
Photo credit: Ato Blankson-Wood in Hamlet. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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