An atmosphere of fearlessness hangs over the new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at Classic Stage Company. Star Peter Sarsgaard and director Austin Pendleton take a naturalistic approach that proves a good fit for the relatively loose, sometimes almost improvisatory flavor of the play. The central role can strike more fear into an actor’s heart than any other, but Sarsgaard’s Hamlet wriggles from scene to scene like a fish in a scalding but frictionless sea.
The production emphasizes the psychological depths in Shakespeare’s classic story of murder, indecision and revenge. It dispenses with the voice of the Ghost, and thus, it would seem, with the very impetus for the whole plot, a murdered father’s charge to his son to avenge his death by killing his usurping brother. But the effect is to suggest that Hamlet conceives the mission himself, the “Ghost” a product of a spasm of mass hysteria that the prince’s mind bends to its own bitter end.
I had to think about it for a while. I’ve decided it worked. With a Hamlet less driven from the beginning as we’re used to, the first stretch of the drama has a bit less intensity, with a more rounded perspective on Hamlet himself and more focus on the psychologies of Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia.
Instead of the Ghost’s charge to Hamlet, Pendleton and scenic designer Walt Spangler give us a wedding cake. The initial, ghostless ghost scene gives way to the tail end of the celebration of Claudius’s wedding to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. One round table is elegantly set as though for a modern-day wedding, with a large, apparently untouched wedding cake behind it. The table stays at the center of the action for much of the play, its landscape and position changing as needed. The never-moving cake stands as a reminder that the “incestuous” wedding is what has really set the action in motion, not a supernatural appearance.
Gertrude and especially Ophelia get more stage time than usual, appearing in the background at times when they’re not present in the script, and even, in Ophelia’s case, after her death. Lisa Joyce is the most affecting and appealing Ophelia I’ve ever seen, owning the stage even in her modest earlier scenes and practically burning it down in her mad ones. Yes, some of this flaunts the relative naturalism established by Sarsgaard’s Hamlet, Harris Yulin’s stolid Claudius, and other characters. On the other hand, it matches the fearlessness of Sarsgaard’s take on Hamlet.
The same holds for Penelope Allen’s memorable Gertrude, who intones her lines as if each had to be decked in extravagant finery before being given voice, yet whose persona I believed in as much as any on the stage.
The absence of an audible or visible ghostly presence also leaves more room for attention to the comedy of Polonius. Stephen Spinella (Angels in America) makes this inveterate windbag and schemer a loving father and devoted minister of state as well. This Polonius made me briefly forget how much was at stake, just as Yulin’s Claudius fooled me, now and then, into believing that his purported concern for the well-being of his nephew had no ulterior motive.
Sarsgaard’s exhilarating if occasionally frustrating Hamlet, magnetically quirky, soulfully fey, could almost be an irony-clad character out of a Beckett play or a Lars von Trier movie. The raw awareness of self, the sense of existential displacement, the broken family ecosystem are all right there in Hamlet.
The frustration, for me, came in a few scenes, especially Hamlet’s confrontation with Gertrude in her bedroom, when his emotions came to such a pitch that, funneled through Sarsgaard’s dangerous delivery, I couldn’t make out some of his lines. That was all the sadder because in most scenes, including the famous soliloquies, his naturalistic phrasing is refreshing and even revelatory of levels of poetry and meaning that more high-toned and declamatory portrayals can obscure. It’s as if Hamlet’s instruction to the Players to “o’erstep not the modesty of nature” is the guiding philosophy of CSC’s production.
The surprising gentleness of this Hamlet carries through to its end, with, first, an unusual interpretation of Claudius’s death, and then the abridgment of Fortinbras’s closing scene. The foreign ruler’s appearance is enough; the downfall of this Danish royal family needs no postscript.
Hamlet plays at Classic Stage Company through May 10. See CSC’s website for schedule and tickets.