Handsome Hamlet is a fast talker
If Banana Republic or the Gap want to launch an ad campaign around the prince of Denmark, they would do well to enlist Hamish Linklater, who’s as fetching a Hamlet as you’re likely to find outside of a modeling agency. In fact, few beyond Ethan Hawke and Liev Schreiber, who brought a sultry swagger to the role in their respective screen and stage outings, could compete with him -- though Tyra Banks would surely crown Linklater America’s Next Top Hamlet.
Enhancing the visual package of South Coast Repertory’s production of Shakespeare’s classic, which opened Friday under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, is Hamlet’s studious sidekick Horatio, who’s played by “Ugly Betty” star Michael Urie. Just imagine all the great photo spreads that could be devised with tortoise-shell eyewear and tight-fitting cardigans, tagged with the question, “To be or not to be fabulous?”
But while youth may have the advantage in looks and style, it’s the veterans, Robert Foxworth as Claudius and Dakin Matthews as Polonius, who show how Shakespeare should be done. Their singular advantage is one that hopefully will come to their greener cast members in time: an ability to speak Shakespearean lines as though they were emanating from their hearts and minds rather than the pages of a dog-eared script that won’t ever seem to end.
Sullivan appears to have stressed speed in his staging. Pausing over words isn’t permitted, and as the play already stretches past the three-hour mark, one should perhaps be grateful for small mercies. But the cost of this kind of plowing forward is the loss of psychological and poetic nuance.
Foxworth and Matthews have a technical facility that allows them to impart distinctive personalities without any self-indulgent shilly-shallying. Linklater and his peers (in particular, Urie and Graham Hamilton, who plays Laertes) have a tendency to sprint breathlessly through a speech, stopping to italicize a thought or image that they deem especially important. These moments are given an extra dollop of realism, delivered in the voice of modern-day twentysomethings, who are more than a little peeved that they have so much on their plates.
Hamlet is a brilliant graduate student whose mourning has mutated into melancholia. Linklater’s Hamlet is more of an arts school dropout who can’t quite figure out his next career move. The philosophical depth isn’t there, which isn’t to say it won’t develop. But Hamlet’s soliloquies should never just be words, words, words. They’re searching investigations into the rock bottom of human experience, as one of literature’s most intellectually acute characters disputes suicide with himself and wonders about the meaning of this “quintessence of dust” we call humanity.
The action traipses across an unencumbered wooden stage, marked by the occasional chair for sulking or divan for decadent lounging. In the background hangs a giant reproduction of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting “Dulle Griet,” in which a female figure in a soldier’s breastplate charges through a havoc-strewn landscape.
Around the perimeter of the playing area, the actors are allowed to congregate in a kind of visible offstage limbo. From this vantage, Hamlet spies on Claudius contemplating his sinful soul after storming out of “The Mouse-trap” (this is before the dilatory prince enters his stepfather’s chamber and restrains himself from taking vengeance on a villain in prayer). And while in transit from one scene to the next, Hamlet clasps the hand of Ophelia (Brooke Bloom), making clear his love for her just in case we have any questions later when his sanity becomes suspect.
This extra-textual activity isn’t particularly enlightening and at times distracts from the story proper. Sullivan, who’s one of the most trusted stage directors working today (his Broadway productions of “Rabbit Hole” and “Major Barbara” were close to flawless), isn’t operating with his customary smoothness here. But then, Shakespeare’s lengthy masterpiece has a way of turning even highly skilled auteurs into traffic cops.
One curious thing about Sullivan’s Elsinore is that the men have the upper hand not just in political power but also in fashion. While Gertrude (Linda Gehringer) and Ophelia are dressed like the dowdier figures in “Dulle Griet,” Hamlet and his buddies are ready to stride the catwalks. Foxworth’s Claudius is no longer the “bloat king” but a suave playboy whose clothing reveals he’s still in fighting trim. And Matthews’ portly Polonius has all the signs of an unregenerate fop.
Foxworth and Matthews are the acting high points in an ensemble that is otherwise disappointingly erratic. The color they bring to their roles works in tandem with the meanings they derive from their lines. Plot, language and character are in sync -- a basic requirement, it would seem, but with Shakespeare such capacity is born only through steady practice.
Few Hamlets can be expected to possess the emotional intelligence of Simon Russell Beale (who, as the ironical gods would have it, was physically wrong for the part when he toured with the Royal National Theatre production in 2001). But Hawke’s intense inwardness and Schreiber’s palpable grief provide reassurance that the profundity that’s required isn’t beyond the current generation.
Linklater brings an athletic grace and an eagerness to convince us that the fancy utterances falling from his lips are natural. This isn’t his first crack at the role, but let’s hope he’ll try it again and endow his handsome portrait with more anguished reflection and precocious maturity.
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: July 1
Price: $28 to $60
Contact: (714) 708-5555
Running time: 3 hours, 5 minutes