We gave it a B
[Ed Note: Spoilers lieth within this review—both 16th century and current of nature.]
There are few undiscovered counties when it comes to Hamlet. Short of portraying him as an extraterrestrial, there isn’t much to reinvent the role that doesn’t seem to be done simply for reinvention’s sake. On that measure, director Austin Pendleton’s Hamlet, starring Peter Sarsgaard and playing through May 10 at the intimate, 199-seat Classic Stage Company, is a half-success. The production presents Hamlet as a flip, petulant man-child—not a fresh idea—but in a more interesting slant, it views the drama not through his eyes but often from the perspective of those around him. This provides a context for Hamlet’s bratty posturing (if not necessarily pleasure, as Sarsgaard spits and shouts 80 percent of his lines), and also a fascinating revision of the play’s primary antagonist.
The Ghost flies out the window, so to speak, in Pendleton’s imagining. Hamlet’s father, who sets the play in motion when he arrives in spectral form, is only spoken of here but never seen. The production opens evocatively with the entire first scene performed in almost complete blackness. It then cranks up the lights brightly as the players take their places in what looks like a hotel ballroom. Claudius (Harris Yulin), Hamlet’s uncle and murderer of his father, is celebrating his marriage to Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Penelope Allen, resembling Nancy Reagan at an Inauguration Ball). Claudius’s consigliere Polonius (Stephen Spinella, misguidedly fussy and dressed like Mr. Monopoly) is there with his adult children Laertes (Glenn Fitzgerald) and Ophelia (Lisa Joyce). By the end of the play, of course, they’ll all be dead. The plot’s magnificently precise blueprint still astonishes even when the production feels, as this one does, like a long sit.
But for one extraordinary detail. Upon learning early in the play the truth about Claudius, Hamlet famously says, “One may smile and smile and be a villain.” However, Pendleton’s masterstroke is to paint Claudius less like a scheming egomaniac and more as a mournful, moribund old man. And as played with a remarkable sense of quietude and remorse by Yulin, one of the marvelous character actors of our time, we actually feel sympathy for him. It’s been long debated whether Gertrude knows if the chalice is poisoned when she takes a swig from it, but about Claudius, Shakespeare is very clear. Hamlet impales him and then forces the wine down his throat. But Yulin’s Claudius is not stabbed and calmly drinks without putting up a struggle, and slumps over on the spot. So much of him has been morally dead for such a long time that the poison simply finishes the process of decay. His suicide is a deliverance—and casts a sliver of vivid light onto this classic tragedy. B