Paul Giamatti came home to ravish the stage he plundered as a wunderkind to tackle the Mount Vesuvius of acting roles, Hamlet.
Having a local star on the marquee made Hamlet the hottest ticket in the city in years. But it wasn’t only the Hollywood factor that was so alluring. The essence of Giamatti, an intense, smirking, glaring, let-it-all-hang-out actor, inhabiting Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark, a traditionally brooding, internal character, made for an intriguing match. What would he do with one of the most prized roles in all of western drama?
Well, if you’ve seen Giamatti in Sideways, Barney’s Version, American Splendor, Big Fat Liar, etc, etc., he is all of that in the sold-out production now playing at the Yale Rep. Physically, he looks surprisingly small on the big stage, while somehow at the same time an overwhelming presence. Hamlet the character is the center of the universe, and, in this, Giamatti easily rises to the challenge.
He writhes on the floor sobbing in grief after his father’s death early in Act I. He screams, he spits (a lot), he sticks out his tongue. He often seems mad for the hell of it, and sacrifices some of the quiet contemplation that has made the character so magnetic over the years.
Some 35 years ago I went through a Hamlet phase and saw some excellent productions. Stacy Keach at the Delacorte Theater. Nicol Williamson on Broadway. In the era before Netflix, I sought out screenings of the film version starring Sir Laurence Olivier. I will say this: I have never seen a Hamlet like that of Giamatti.
Give the man credit for reinvention. Director James Bundy places this Hamlet in contemporary times. One of the watchmen carries a machine gun. King Claudius could be a dice roller from Guys & Dolls. Hamlet himself spends much of the time prancing the stage in red sneakers, a few scenes in bathrobe and boxers. At one point Rosencrantz and Guildenstern carry coffee mugs emblazoned with the Danish flag. A nice, whimsical touch.
I’m not sure what to make of the modern context. What is Bundy trying to say?
He doesn’t give away his game in the program, though there is a nice essay on the tradition of performing the play in contemporary clothing. Such an approach might explain Giamatti’s petulance – reflecting the attitudes of today’s wealthy teenagers, more than the stoic, heroically inclined princes of yesteryear. If there are some inferences to be drawn on the nature of modern adolescence, they are hard to garner when your main character is graying at the temple.
The mix of guns and swordplay could, in other hands, be a bit off-putting, but here we suspend disbelief. Why? Because the language is just so damn fun, and, to some extent, any Big Lessons are secondary to the poetry.
I have always found the language of Hamlet accessible as far as Shakespeare is concerned, and the players do a great job of speaking plainly. Hamlet is full of verbal jousting, plays on words (even on the word “act” itself – to take action or to play a role; that Shakespeare was such a cutup!) and mobius-like turns of phrases.
At three and a half hours the play would normally have me squirming, but it’s the “words, words, words” that entrance, and Bundy displays a great knack for finding the cleverness that other productions take for granted to focus on the soliloquies. (“To be or not to be” is spoken in a doorway almost off stage, a signal that this Hamlet may be focused on other matters.)
Polonius in particular, often portrayed as a bumbler, here is a knowing (yet long-winded) flatterer. The very gallant Gerry Bamman plays Polonius as if he held the DNA of some Oxford Revue and Cambridge Footlights alums, better known as Monty Python. (As does the gravedigger, but that’s more obvious and common.)
Meredith Ries’s set design perfectly complements Bundy’s vision, skillfully straddling the old and new, complemented by Sarah Pickett’s compositions, which blended traditional-sounding Elizabethan melodies with just enough off-notes to sound as 21st century as Giamatti’s suit and high tops.
So, does the production, and Giamatti’s Hamlet, live up to the expectation?
It does play a little like that breath mint/ candy mint argument. The ancient story, told in centuries-old idiom, yet with modern sensibilities. I am a cultural Luddite by nature, so I’ll take men in tights over Shakespeare in Converse anytime. And I do prefer a more traditional, muted Hamlet. But Giamatti’s petulant prince is worthy of his legacy, and certainly of an evening at Elsinore Castle.