Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 22, 2001
edition of U.S.
1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Jared Harris, who is making his New Jersey Shakespeare
Festival debut as "Hamlet," has a distinct advantage over
other actors who have stepped into the coveted role. When he sees
the ghost hovering over Elsinore Castle (through the magic of digital
wizardry), he recognizes him not only as the father of Hamlet but
as his own real-life father — the renowned Irish actor, Richard
Harris. His formidable image and voice — a most imposing
— is a nice jump start for the younger Harris who has formerly
cut his teeth in "Hamlet" by playing Fortinbras with the Royal
Shakespeare Company in 1990. Harris also previously impressed this
critic with his excitingly idiosyncratic performances with the New
York Shakespeare Festival (particularly in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2).
Now he energizes Hamlet with a thrust of unexpectedly disorienting
This may not be enough to make the young man the enigma he is meant
to be. And those famed soliloquies on his mind, notably "To Be
or Not to Be," are disposed of as if induced by a form of
schizophrenia. I suspect that the brooding Dane’s disposition will
survive Harris’ substitution of petulance for nobility, cynical
for melancholia, and willfulness for ambiguity.
All variables, except perhaps the loss of nobility, are welcome, as
long as they are eventually validated. Unorthodox as many of them
seem, I believe Harris does eventually validate his choices as a most
unusual Prince of Denmark.
It is certainly easy to accept this Hamlet’s defect — his slowness
to act — given Harris’s almost playful wallowing in the intrigue
that will ultimately lead him and those around him to tragedy. That
we can sense the terror in Hamlet’s confrontation with the ghost (it
was a familiar face, after all) is easy to accept. Harris is
effective revealing his distrust of and disillusionment with Ophelia,
his discovery of the intentions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Jackson and Adam Stein), and, indeed, his deranged mental state. They
are all, under the circumstances, more indicative of this decidedly
neurotic, but not particularly morbid, Hamlet.
Some of the undercurrents of doom and gloom may still be perceived
by those who dig deep enough into William Shakespeare’s famed tragedy.
Harris, under the crisp and clean direction of Tom Gilroy, chooses
to wade schematically through Hamlet’s initially immature
while wearing his inner anguish on his sleeve. Director Gilroy, who
is making his festival debut, is a co-founder and co-artistic director
(along with Lili Taylor, who plays Ophelia) of the theater company
Machine Full. He seems to have focused most of his attention on
Hamlet’s basically unstable nature.
Gilroy has also seen to it that the Danish establishment
is simply but effectively entrenched within set designer Michael
vision: A huge full moon is projected onto a black background, set
within a pale, abstractly washed picture frame. A pair of red
curtains is used to excellent effect for casting shadows, indicating
scene changes, and even occasionally upstaging Hamlet’s petulance.
Rottenness in Denmark, after all, needn’t be confined to any century,
so long as there’s a monarchy around willing to act rotten. Gilroy’s
staging is exceptionally fluid, transporting us quickly to the
throne rooms, and churchyard. The duel scene, with its gathered
is realistic and quite thrilling, helped by the fine work of fight
director Rick Sordelet.
While designer Miranda Hoffman’s costumes, particularly Hamlet’s black
boatneck T-shirt and pants, make everyone look like they’re at a
party, it is the blank verse and prose spoken by other members of
the cast that tend to be a little sleep-inducing over the play’s three
and one-half hour course. However, Harris’s bravely idiosyncratic
behavior (he moons Polonius), if not so much his often garbled speech,
should work wonders with audiences who are apt to be too much in awe
of the play and the role.
The perennial wonder of "Hamlet" is that it gives the actor,
as well as the director, choices. Apparently Harris and Gilroy have
made a great effort to bridge the antiquity of the play by emphasizing
the abstract and hallucinatory. Only in the second (and better) half,
and specifically during the duel with Laertes (Jason Weinberg), do
we see Hamlet resort slightly to ease and guile in support of his
agenda. Whether or not Harris enters the ranks of great Hamlet
he is always ready with the unexpected, thereby keeping us involved.
Making their festival debuts are Maggie Low, who succumbs to the
side of Gertrude, and Lili Taylor, who goes off her rocker with a
caseload of ticks, fits, and starts, as Ophelia. Taylor, it should
be noted, is not your everyday actress (Broadway’s "The Three
Sisters;" film "I Shot Andy Warhol") and she is no
Ophelia, finding, as she does, refuge in enough quirky body language
to indicate Ophelia’s serious physical and mental abnormalities.
Bill Raymond’s vaguely sinister take on Claudius, "a king of shred
and patches" grows on you. But this cannot be said of William
Bogart’s Polonius, whose famed advice to his son and others gets
off without the prerequisite wit and humor. Of the two gravediggers
— Eric Hoffman and Jay Leibowitz (who doubles as Bernardo) —
Hoffman also plays the role of the Player King with panache and
Other players are less interesting than they should be, allowing us
to concentrate on a very interesting Hamlet.
Whatever it is that Gilroy has pulled off, we are certainly pulled
less into the disintegrating political aspects of a royal family than
into the emotional turbulence of madness and tragedy. Would that he
could have used a little more digital wizardry to replace some of
the supporting cast.
— Simon Saltzman
36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $18 to $38. Performances
continue through September 2.
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