It was a balmy night in Central Park, and it must have put me in a ruminative mood. As I wandered back toward the West Side after three-plus hours of Hamlet at the Delacorte, I couldn’t help wondering what someone who’d never seen or heard of the play would make of Oskar Eustis’s production. And I worried—I tend to worry when I get ruminative—about what these innocents would think of the show. They might be considerably puzzled about what happens in it—and why it’s generally thought to be so great.
These innocents might imagine, looking at David Korins’s massive, unwieldy white elephant of a set, that Hamlet takes place on a rock outcropping, alongside the walls of a Bakelite hydroelectric plant. I suspect they would often be confused as to whether the action occurred inside or outside these walls, what era it took place in, and exactly what sort of government or corporation operated the plant, since Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes scoop up a range of styles and periods so random that even the guards on the battlements of Korins’s monstrosity seem to belong to different armies.
Once the action gets going, too, I suspect the unschooled might have a rough time figuring out who’s who and how they relate to each other. The opening scene of Hamlet begins just before midnight, with the guards changing shift on the battlements. Eustis begins with Michael Stuhlbarg’s Hamlet, carrying his coat and a large suitcase, breaking down in tears on the rocks below; it might easily be Death of a Salesman reset in Wittenberg. Hard as it is to imagine this weepy creature as the prince who envies an actor’s ability to shed tears on cue, it becomes even harder after we’ve watched David Harbour’s lumbering, thick-witted Laertes embark for Paris, with half a dozen servants hurrying his luggage up the gangway.
Obviously, this long-headed, big-framed Laertes is the real son of the dead king, played by long-headed, big-framed Jay O. Sanders; the royal family just palmed him off on Sam Waterston’s twittery, servile Polonius because the boy was such an evident retard. (This is the only production I’ve ever seen in which Hamlet’s description of Laertes as “a very noble youth” seems absurd.) And until the closet scene, where matters get excruciatingly Oedipal, it’s hard to perceive any relation between Stuhlbarg’s Hamlet and his mother—although that must be blamed on Margaret Colin’s unfathomably peculiar rendition of Gertrude, whom she and Eustis apparently envision as a heavily medicated Connecticut matron out of a John Cheever novel. Perhaps the idea is that Andre Braugher’s Claudius keeps her drugged so that she won’t notice how perfunctory their relations have become; Hamlet’s comments to the contrary notwithstanding, this royal honeymoon has clearly been over for some time.
The irritation, for those of us with some knowledge of Hamlet and a little common sense, comes from our awareness that Eustis has perpetrated this muddle on actors whom we know to be capable of much better, in Shakespeare and out. Braugher, pacing wishy-washily and occasionally pausing to orate, is a painfully ineffectual Claudius, but the fault is in the casting, not in him: This actor’s power lies in his sincerity. His Henry V, a revelatory piece of work, is one of the gems in the history of Shakespeare in the Park. Claudius is King Henry’s antithesis, a devious person, always “politick” (a word that to Shakespeare meant “Machiavellian”) in his thinking. Braugher only comes close to the character in the prayer scene and in “Do it, England,” the two places where Shakespeare leaves the villain alone with the audience to display his true feelings—and, incidentally, to let us see how much they have in common with Hamlet’s.
Because, after all, the king’s designated successor, as other parts of the play show, has his own knack for “politick” scheming; he also could play the royal game, if he weren’t both too alienated and too schooled in philosophy to take it seriously. Instead, he ironizes it into a joke. Birth and death are meaningful; politics is merely another of the follies with which we waste the time in between, on our way to visit “a certain convocation of politick worms.” As Caroline Spurgeon pointed out long ago in Shakespeare’s Imagery, rotting flesh and the creatures that feed on it—mice, rats, maggots, worms—make up the largest single cluster of images in Hamlet. “Your worm is your only emperor for diet.” The thought neatly encapsulates the absurdity of power and humanity’s inevitable fate in one eight-word sentence.
The sentence is also a joke, though not as Stuhlbarg says it. The relative absence of humor, of the dancing intelligence that can make a joke out of anything, is this Hamlet’s greatest shortcoming. An articulate and accomplished actor, Stuhlbarg has a lot going for him here. Because of the distance Hamlet keeps between himself and the courtly schemers surrounding him, the actor can dodge many of the obfuscations of Eustis’s staging. (Though not all: He’s stuck with the unhelpful notion that his madness involves running around in a ragtag parody of the Ghost’s Ruritanian military uniform.)
When Stuhlbarg speaks directly to us, with simple gravity, the evening rises to a poetic plane that makes the embarrassing rubble of the rest almost forgivable. If he could convey his own feelings the way he does the fall of a sparrow, this would be a Hamlet to cherish. But Stuhlbarg, or whoever guided him, is smitten with the tearful mama’s-boy side of Hamlet. In every soliloquy, he finds some point at which to careen into vocalized hysteria, pulling the verse out of shape and smearing the emotions all over the stage. Even so, he towers over the confusion around him. Rather than conceive his own interpretation of Hamlet, Eustis seems to have made a selection of favorite bits from other directors’ renderings. Unfair to his whole cast (Lauren Ambrose’s promising Ophelia is a particular victim), this miscellaneous approach is ultimately hardest on Stuhlbarg, whose single, highly arguable idea of the role deserves a supportive context in which it could receive a fair test. Without that, even the best Hamlet is no more than a prince of shreds and patches.