In the new solo production of Hamlet, now playing a twice-extended mostly sold-out limited Off-Broadway engagement at Greenwich House, stage and screen star Eddie Izzard has taken Shakespeare’s cogent advice to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Under the active direction of Selina Cadell, Izzard takes on the roles of 23 disparate characters – male and female, royals and courtiers, ghosts and gravediggers, family, friends, and foes – in elder brother Mark Izzard’s new adaptation of the historic revenge tragedy (the Izzards and Cadell previously collaborated on last year’s critically acclaimed sold-out run of the one-person Great Expectations at the same venue), with individualized voices, accents, and speech patterns to recount the timeless narrative, combined with readily legible facial expressions, gestures, and movement (movement direction by Didi Hopkins) that visually and physically bring the storytelling to life.
With nearly 30,000 “words, words, words,” Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and Izzard’s feat is monumental. Though there were still some flubbed lines at the press preview I attended (from which the veteran performer recovered quickly and smoothly), the action – whether surreptitious, explosive, idling, or fatal – was flawless and it was all masterfully accomplished without the use of props, costume changes, or a furnished set, on a mostly bare bilevel stage with just three variegated beige walls, three vertical window openings, a narrow strip of raised floor across the back, and downstage steps to the theater aisles (set by Tom Piper).
Moving around the space and, at times, into the audience, Izzard fluidly shifts back and forth from one character to the next, from soliloquys to dialogues, conversations to combats, with non-stop precision, drawing everyone in and characteristically injecting humor into the performance, including silently reflecting on some of the play’s most pithy comments (e.g., “To thine own self be true,” Act I, Scene 3) with a pause and a pensive look, using bare-handed puppetry to represent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern talking, and fully embracing the comic relief of the gravediggers’ sardonic witticisms on life and death – all of which elicited big laughs from the appreciative crowd.
Among Izzard’s other impressive characterizations are those of Hamlet’s feigned “antic disposition” (a madness to which, Polonius notes, there is method); his fight with Laertes, with Izzard exhaustively battling on both sides with mimed rapiers, breathing heavily, and providing the whooshing sounds of the swords (fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth); the grave pronouncements of the apparition of Hamlet’s father, murdered by his own brother Claudius, to usurp both the throne and Gertrude, his queen; and the beautifully captured softness and vulnerability of Ophelia. But, while the production includes the scene of her distributing herbs and flowers in her disturbed state, it surprisingly omits her brother Laertes’ inspired touching eulogy (Act V, Scene 1: “Lay her in the earth/And from her fair and unpolluted flesh/May violets spring”). There is also an abridged version of Hamlet’s iconic monologue “What a piece of work is man” (Act II, Scene 2); the addition of some timely disparagements (referencing “the irrational masses”) that make Shakespeare’s universal content even more immediate for our present time of socio-political divisiveness; and the multi-lingual Izzard’s choice to adopt a Cockney accent for the lower-class workers and an Irish brogue for the Norwegians, to distinguish their outsider speech from the greater refinement (linguistic, if not behavioral) of those at the Danish court (all, of course, speaking heightened Shakespearean English).
The changing moods of the play are enhanced by evocative lighting by Tyler Elich, which ranges from bright daylight to frightening flashes to sinister darkness with directed spotlights and looming shadows, and emotive colors saturating the walls and throughout the space (the green ambiance for the spectral presence of Hamlet’s father is particularly creepy). Original period-style music by Eliza Thompson sets a courtly tone, with a scary soundscape that underscores the drama. Izzard’s costume in shades of black, with Piper and Libby DaCosta serving as stylists, is current, though vaguely reminiscent of the historical past (but, for me, I found the bright red lipstick and nail polish an unnecessary anachronistic distraction).
In the director’s program notes, Cadell observed the importance of a cast’s fundamental connection to the audience in the shared experience of theater, both in Shakespeare’s time and today. Izzard makes that connection. For those not well-versed in Hamlet, keeping up with the changing characters and locales of the story could be challenging (so read at least a synopsis before you go), but everyone will surely appreciate Izzard’s singular talent, individualized portrayals, and engaging performance.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Eddie Izzard’s Hamlet plays through Saturday, March 16, 2024, at Greenwich House Theater, 27 Barrow Street, NYC. For tickets (starting at $77, plus fees), go online. No refunds or exchanges. For sold-out performances, you can check back the day before and the day of the show, in case tickets become available.