If a director of Hamlet wants to signal to a contemporary audience that “something is rotten in the State,” she could hardly find a more efficient shorthand than to evoke the Trump family. Last year on Broadway, Glenda Jackson’s King Lear appeared to rule from the faux gilded lobby of Trump Tower. The Public Theater’s 2017 Julius Caesar featured a tweeting emperor in a too-long tie. So when, in the current production of Hamlet at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, Gertrude — once and again the Queen of Denmark thanks to a hasty marriage to her husband’s brother/murderer — appears on stage in a replica of Melania Trump’s powder blue inauguration outfit, viewers may suspect that director Yaël Farber’s vision will join the recent spate of theatrical indictments of White House corruption. As if a play truly were the thing to catch the conscience of a would-be king.
But in fact this Hamlet, imported from Dublin’s Gate Theatre with an Irish cast led by Ruth Negga, is more personal than specifically political. Farber, taking mostly seamless liberties with the text, has excised the character of Fortinbras, eliminating the war-with-Norway subplot. She instead establishes an intimate tone by inserting a wordless funeral tableau ahead of the play’s first scene, a reminder that the sweet prince is, before anything else, a son in mourning, with death front of mind.
Negga, an Oscar nominee for 2016’s Loving making her American stage debut, does not play Hamlet as a woman. In close-cropped hair and androgynous modern suiting, her Dane struts, he man-spreads, he bro-hugs Rosencrantz and Gildenstern. Yet for all the male-signaling, there is an unavoidable physicality at work. Negga is slight of frame — it surely does not take those two burly guards to hold this prince back from the Danish cliffs. Wide-eyed and baby-faced, Negga’s Hamlet is boyish. Making an asset of her appearance, she leans into this portrayal of a bereft young man as a put-upon millennial, a choice that works well to explain Hamlet’s indecision and inaction. She is particularly successful with an ironic reading of the “what a piece of work is man” monologue, but also handy at delivering the cutting insults of his mother and stepfather/uncle; this Hamlet is both grieving and aggrieved. The sullen huffing was perhaps less welcome when Hamlet groans at having mistakenly murdered Polonius, a moment that elicited an awkward laugh.
Negga’s Hamlet toys with Ophelia (Aoife Duffin) who, matching in generational tone, frequently sounds exasperated with her father’s and brother’s unsolicited advice. Duffin luxuriates in Ophelia’s later madness; did she need to flash the audience to convince us of her unhinging? Probably not. The company is stacked with fine performances, notably Nick Dunning’s well-meaning Polonius, and the three bowler-hatted players of the play within: Will Irvine, Ger Kelly, and Gerard Walsh, who double as gravediggers.
Where this production most impresses is as a ghost story. Much of the Elsinore action takes place in a castle room framed by 12 slamming doors, made to be haunted. Floorboards gape to reveal gravesites. (The sets and costumes are by Susan Hilferty, a Tony winner for Wicked;
the well integrated sound design and ominous music are both by Tom Lane.) Effective use of a scrim creates an otherworldly atmosphere during a meeting between Hamlet and the King’s ghost (Steve Hartland, excellent creepy in what appear to be separate vocal and physical performances). The striking if simple effect reappears toward the end, a coda to the early funeral rite. Absent Fortinbras to wrap things up, Hamlet — and death — get the final word. B