A Hard Dane’s Night

In Search of the Perfect Hamlet (Or Just a Good One)

Kevin Kline, for instance, was widely seen as the victim of Romanian auteur Liviu Ciulei's adventurous 1986 production at the Public, where the action was set in a seemingly capricious Bismarckian style. In a Sunday essay for the Times, Frank Rich, trying "to understand the extent of the waste," wondered why Kline, "having decided to pour himself unsparingly into the most demanding role in our literature, should be repaid for his efforts by having his performance thrown to the wolves of Mr. Ciulei's bizarrely populated Elsinore." Backed by Rich's column and Joe Papp's unswerving support, Kline valiantly took another crack at the role four years later, this time unimpeded by obtrusive Eastern European concepts. The actor directed himself. The results, however, were decidedly mixed. Though a cleaner, more pellucid version of Hamlet has yet to appear subsequently in New York, Kline's performance this time had a disappointingly narrow scope, as though an opera singer with a one-and-a-half octave range was forced to stretch his way through the insane peaks and valleys of Wagner's entire Ring Cycle.

A most recent case of directorial obstruction involved Andrei Serban's notorious millennial production at the Public, which featured Liev Schreiber in the title role. Schreiber had already won an Obie for his role as Iachimo in Serban's Central Park Cymbeline, and his earlier turn as Banquo at the Public had made Alec Baldwin's Macbeth look like a green boy unsifted in such perilous circumstance. Schreiber seemed primed to play the Danish Prince. Delivering his opening monologue like a swallowed sob—"Seems madam? nay it is, I know not seems"—he kept having to stifle his mourning from turning into outrage. Here was an actor evincing rare comfort with Shakespeare's cognitive music. The verse seemed poised for contemporary incarnation.

Unfortunately, Serban began to riff wildly on the seems/being dichotomy in the play, exploring the falsifying nature of representation, which eventually led to the trundling out of old Hamlet theater posters, including Ralph Fiennes's 1995 Broadway dud and Diane Venora's cross-gendered 1983 performance under Joe Papp's apparently gaga-eyed direction. It quickly became clear that the production was about Serban staging Hamlet, not about his actors finding the visceral truth of their roles. Claudius was forced to don a pig mask, Ophelia acted like an X-rated geisha, and Gertrude (Venora again) seemed a close kin to the Bride of Frankenstein. By the time Fortinbras arrived on the scene as twin aliens from outer space, few in the audience were alert enough to register surprise. Sadly, the casualty in all of this was Schreiber, whose performance grew more rigid with every turn of Serban's cartoonish wheel.

Illustration by Jeff Crosby

Of course, it would be easy to lay the blame for all the Hamlet flops at the feet of rambunctious European directors, but this would belie the fact that the most visionary of modern Hamlets was produced by the king of auteurs, Ingmar Bergman. The 1988 Swedish production (the only Hamlet to receive an Obie for its director) comes closest to fulfilling Polish critic Jan Kott's ideal of being simultaneously most true to Shakespeare and most contemporary. For Kott, the genius of the play lies in its mirrorlike nature, and Bergman's version, in addition to telling the story in the most theatrically vivacious terms, flickered with nightmares of the 20th century.

Peter Stormare's Hamlet, dressed in black leather and sunglasses, had the petulant glamour of a Prince who knows he's not only the richest and smartest bachelor in town, but also the most self-observing. Something's indeed rotten in Bergman's Denmark, though none of the other characters seem to notice that the fetid smell is coming from them. Gertrude and Claudius were portrayed as sex-crazed lovers, snarling over each other in their raucous pursuit of carnal pleasure. Polonius made the CIA look like a band of amateurs, so adept was he at espionage and rhetorical smoke screens. Ophelia, barefoot and half-mad from the start, haunted the periphery of later scenes like the scar of mutilating injury. Meanwhile the ghost cried out to his living son from another realm. Hamlet Sr. has to do more than simply urge his son to kill, however. In the climactic moment, the specter returned to hold his usurping brother for the reluctant knife. This was a Hamlet that required not just supernatural prompting but another pair of muscular arms. When Fortinbras arrived in a thunderclap of heavy metal music, he had Horatio peremptorily shot offstage (history, after all, is written by the winners) and launched directly into the most popular (and debased) form of modern theater—the press conference.

Never frozen in a particular period or style, Bergman's Hamlet had the confidence of its own fluid audacity. What distinguishes it from other productions was not only the rigor of its interpretive engagement, but also the respect it showed its actors. Heightened theatrical choices didn't mock the performers so much as liberate them into a higher level of aesthetic existence. Directing and acting were, at long last, in collusion, not collision. Though Stormare's daringly over-the-top (and even faintly homoerotic) Hamlet wasn't to everybody's taste, it was a performance in perfect sync with Bergman's revitalizing vision.

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