Hamlet. A Version

Hamlet. A Version feature image

Boris Akunin’s Hamlet. A Version reimagines Shakespeare’s classic tale of political intrigue as a multi-layered murder mystery. Akunin, a Russian writer best known for his Sherlock Holmes–like character Fandorin, which has a cult following, does not write just for thrills. His Hamlet is a tragedy but also a whodunit.

In Akunin’s version Hamlet’s psychological crisis over his father’s death does not take on epic proportions. Hamlet (wonderfully played by Matt Weiss) is caddish and irresponsible. When the play begins, he has been off drinking and carrying on, but is now sad that his father is dead. His brooding is more that of a slacker, less of a philosopher. When he delivers his famous line, “To be or not to be,” he cuts himself short and says, “Oh, who cares?” Hamlet’s abbreviated soliloquy feels like a reflection on the state of our times: how do we undertake these deeper questions in our fast-moving lives?

Akunin has done some interesting things with the language: he uses the cadence and energy of Shakespeare’s text to create the dialogue for the play. As a result, it sounds Shakespearean, even if it isn’t. Everyone speaks in this way, except for Horatio (the fit and energetic Khris Lewin), who speaks solely in contemporary language. Horatio is also different in other ways: he wears jeans, a T-shirt and boots, while everyone else is dressed in Elizabethan garb (wonderfully done by Heather Klar). He is Hamlet’s most trusted friend and confidant, but he is also of much more interest to Akunin than the Danish prince. He seems to fit in, but looking back, one can see that his differences—his dressed-down appearance and easy language—are signifiers of a life beneath the surface that comes to the fore late in the play. 

Horatio (Khris Lewin) confronts Gertrude (Joy Hermalyn). Top: Horatio (Lewin) instructs Hamlet (Matt Weiss) in fencing. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.

Horatio (Khris Lewin) confronts Gertrude (Joy Hermalyn). Top: Horatio (Lewin) instructs Hamlet (Matt Weiss) in fencing. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.

What else lies beneath the surface? Directed by Irina Gachechiladze, Akunin’s play, although condensed to 90 minutes, and pared down cast of characters, for the most part captures much of Shakespeare’s story. True to the original, the ghost of King Hamlet sets the ball in motion. Here Horatio is the one who has seen it first (not the guards), and he goads Hamlet to visit the tower. When he does, the prince is visited by the ghost, who tells him that treachery and murder have been committed. After this, Hamlet spirals into doubt and despair, and his courage and strength wax and wane depending on how sure he feels about this accusation. He has to prove it before he can seek revenge.

Akunin has added new elements. Polonius (Alan I. Ross), the chief counselor, is often portrayed as an obsequious old fool. Here he is malignant and power-hungry and seems determined to bring Hamlet and Ophelia (Claire Brownell) together in order to strengthen his hand. Nor does Ophelia seem completely sane to begin with: she may be dim-witted or slightly mad already. After Polonius’s death, she descends fully into madness. Brownell’s physicality gives this scene a mystical air, like a wood sprite returning to nature. With her hair undone and her proper dress of ruffle and collar gone, she moves gently through the space with a twig broom, “cleansing” the world around her. 

James Philip Gates as Claudius, with Gertrude at right.

James Philip Gates as Claudius, with Gertrude at right.

Hamlet, with the help of Horatio, attempts to clean house also. But his mother, Gertrude (Joy Hermalyn), and uncle, Claudius (James Philip Gates), the new king, are making it difficult. Akunin plays up the idea that Gertrude and Claudius were illicit lovers even before King Hamlet died.

The set design, by Cate McCrea, appears simple, but includes many spectacular facets. Images are projected (designed by Michael Ivanishvili) onto a fringed curtain that hangs from a semi-circle of archways at the back of the stage. The projections move the scenes from one to another: a rainy sky, a sheet of blooming lilies that dissolve into green, or a proscenium with spectators change the mood accordingly. Scenes are made more spectacular by Giya Kanchelli’s sound score which feels light, like pinpricks on the skin.

What will become of Hamlet? That is the question when watching Akunin's Hamlet. Will he slink off into bro’dom with Horatio? Will he usurp the throne? Or, the more common assumption: will he descend into madness himself? There is an unexpected twist at the end, but along the way, Akunin explores Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a nuanced way that leaves an impression that remains longer after the show is over.

Boris Akunin’s Hamlet. A Version runs through May 7 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th St. (between 9th and 10th avenuves). Showtimes are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p,m. Tickets are $18 and are available by visiting      http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2893563.

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