The playbill for the Red Bull production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged Coriolanus gives the time period as "Rome, 493 B.C.E. Here, now." But, under Michael Sexton’s direction, the latter prevails: military men in camouflage fatigues and dress greens, a First Citizen with a T-shirt that reads “You can’t have capitalism without racism,” and several female soldiers all declare it’s now. There’s virtually nothing identifiable from 493 B.C.E.
If you have seen Hamlet several times and are likely to be bored with a straightforward rendering, then perhaps the Classic Stage Company’s new modern-dress production, directed by Austin Pendleton, is the one for you. It’s full of bizarre ideas to a fault.
Where to begin? Well, one of the great revenge tragedies no longer has a hero who kills his enemies. This Hamlet is not directly responsible for the deaths of Laertes or Claudius. In the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, the latter cuts Hamlet with the poisoned rapier, then lays it down on the floor. Hamlet charges him like a bull; they wrestle; and Laertes accidentally rolls on top of his sword and wounds himself on the poisoned tip. As for Claudius, the action of Hamlet stabbing the king is omitted. After Gertrude lies dead, Hamlet hands the king the poisoned cup and commands: “Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damnèd Dane/Drink off this potion.” Claudius, berated into suicide, quaffs the drink.
The one person this Hamlet does kill is Polonius, but that’s an accident. Still, weirdness is injected here too. Polonius’s ghost walks out from behind the arras, crosses the stage, and then exits. By comparison, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father—a character who actually has lines—is invisible in this production. Invisible ghosts have been used in tandem with dialogue spoken on tape, but here the Ghost’s words are eliminated as well, as if it were entirely in Hamlet’s imagination (although Francisco, Bernardo, and Marcellus speak of seeing it). And Ophelia’s ghost appears unexpectedly to hover around her own gravesite. So extra-textual ghosts are real, but Shakespeare’s real Ghost doesn’t exist?
If Pendleton has a concept, it appears to be that Hamlet is insane from the get-go, that his imagination is working overtime. That might explain why an uncut, multi-tiered wedding cake sits upstage, some two months after "the funeral meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.” Either the clean-up crew has been on strike, or it’s a symbol weighing on Hamlet’s diseased mind.
Still, troublesome ideas can sometimes be overcome by outstanding acting. But Peter Sarsgaard seems determined to sledgehammer the meter of the verse into little pieces. Actors such as John Gielgud, accounted one of the great 20th-century Hamlets, and directors such as John Barton have advised that if one follows the scansion of Shakespearean verse, it will buoy the actor and the sense will reveal itself. Sarsgaard doesn’t, and he sinks like a stone. He puts in pauses every three words or so. On “a little more than kin…and less than kind,” the delay kills the pun. Moreover, his delivery is so halting throughout that one suspects he hasn’t got the words down. Certainly he’s not letter-perfect in the crucial “To be or not to be,” and lyricism is repeatedly sabotaged.
Gielgud, who directed Richard Burton in the role on Broadway, wrote in Stage Directions that “a Gertrude older than 50 must surely be unconvincing on the stage.” Pendleton has chosen Harris Yulin and Penelope Allen as Claudius and Gertrude. With the Internet at one’s fingertips, it gives nothing away to say that both are in their eighth decade. When Yulin’s skillfully spoken but lethargic Claudius tells Hamlet he wants him to stay at court rather than leave for Wittenberg, you might suspect that it’s because he has his eye on Hamlet as a caregiver.
Pendleton’s casting repeatedly creates inconsistencies. Hamlet’s school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are considerably younger, and Rosencrantz (Scott Parkinson) doubles as the Gravedigger, even though Jim Broaddus, an actor closer to the right age who is superb in smaller parts such as the Player King, would have been more apt. Glenn Fitzgerald as Laertes has a resonant voice and a presence that make one wish he had more to do. Unfortunately, although Hamlet claims to be “fat and scant of breath,” Sarsgaard is clearly in good shape. It’s Fitzgerald’s Laertes, supposedly an athletic and practiced swordsman, who is carrying a few extra pounds.
Ultimately, it’s Stephen Spinella’s Polonius who feels like the best-rounded character. He’s a dapper, instinctively shrewd courtier with warm feelings for his family. Still, the play isn’t called Polonius—though in the hands of Pendleton and Sarsgaard, it’s not so much Hamlet either.
The Classic Stage Company production of Hamlet runs through May 10; evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $65 and may be purchased by visiting www.classicstage/.org.