Six decades ago, Laurence Olivier got a lot of criticism for removing the relatively minor characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from his famous film adaptation of Hamlet. Yet 75-year-old actor-writer-director Austin Pendleton goes a lot further than that in his new production of the play at Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company with Peter Sarsgaard, Stephen Spinella, Penelope Allen and Harris Yulin.
Pendleton has removed Hamlet’s ghostly father, one of the tragedy's key characters, who divulges to Hamlet the circumstances of his murder. That entire scene is gone. Instead, Hamlet simply walks offstage for a few seconds and returns, all shaken up and changed and ready to avenge his father's foul death. Who knows what happened? Yet even in spite of removing the ghost’s dialogue, the running time still exceeds three hours.
Those unfamiliar with the play would surely be confused, but even those who do know it will still be confounded by this strange production, which uses modern dress but takes place in a sort of dreamscape. By comparison, Pendleton’s successful productions of Chekhov plays at Classic Stage (including Denis O’Hare in Uncle Vanya, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Three Sisters and Ethan Hawke in Ivanov) were relatively straightforward.
The black-and-white set design evokes the recent wedding of Hamlet’s mother to his uncle. A round banquet table dominates the stage, full of bottles of wine, with a large tiered wedding cake next to it. Characters deliver their dialogue while lounging around the table, simultaneously drinking liquor and doing drugs. Some stick around when they’re not technically part of a scene, for no apparent reason. For instance, Ophelia (Lisa Joyce) often sits silently as Hamlet rhapsodizes about his melancholy. It’s an intriguing approach, but it removes any sense of structure or dramatic movement from the play.
Sarsgaard, wearing a flashy collared shirt, looks like he is about to go clubbing. He plays Hamlet like a whiny spoiled brat. Why should the audience care when Hamlet is so unsympathetic? Spinella makes for a comically uptight Polonius, and Allen is quite harrowing as Gertrude. The bed chamber scene between her and Sarsgaard is probably the best part of the production. Yulin is an unusually reserved and inactive Claudius, not much of an antagonist.
Whereas New York has received quite a few productions of Macbeth and King Lear in recent years, there have been comparatively few of Hamlet – and certainly no definitive production. The last major staging of the play was in 2009, when Michael Grandage’s production with Jude Law came to Broadway for a short run. There was also a rather poor Shakespeare in the Park production in 2008 directed by Oskar Eustis with Michael Stuhlbarg. In spite of Jack O’Brien’s curiously disappointing Macbeth with Ethan Hawke last year, I would be very interested in seeing O’Brien take on the play at Lincoln Center Theater.
In the meantime, the National Theatre’s upcoming production with Benedict Cumberbatch will be screened in U.S. movie theaters as part of the NT Live series. Perhaps a Broadway transfer will follow.