Let me begin at the end.
Place: Central Park. Time: almost 11:45 p.m. Play: Hamlet. Spirits: low.
Fortinbras and his army have entered Denmark at last, signaling the end. Hamlet has just died—poisoned in the duel scene—and is probably glad to be out of it. The king, the queen, Laertes, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—all now dead. Only decent Horatio survives—someone, according to W. H. Auden, who’s “not too bright, though he has read a lot and can repeat it.”
Oskar Eustis’ disappointingly literal production had been an uphill slog, and I mistakenly assumed the director would end in the conventional way: At Fortinbras’ command, four captains bear the body of Hamlet away like a soldier. (“The soldiers’ music, and the rites of war/ Speak loudly for him.”) They exit carrying Hamlet in stately procession as a volley of gunshots is fired in ritual tribute. (“Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”) Sometimes, funereal drums are heard instead. Then the curtain comes down, the actors take their well-deserved bow, and we all go home.
But Mr. Eustis changes the end—and belatedly gives the evening its single imaginative flourish. Hamlet’s body isn’t carried off. Instead, on Fortinbras’ last line, “Go, bid the soldiers shoot,” good Horatio is shot, his blood spattering on the wall behind him like a slasher movie. And … curtain!
The sensational ending reverses the meaning of Shakespeare’s text: The gunshots are clearly intended as a salute to Hamlet, a traditional mark of military honor. When Ingmar Bergman’s admired, experimental Hamlet (1986) first changed the ending by having Horatio shot, the legendary Bergman had re-thought the entire play. He had transformed Hamlet into a modern parable: The Prince of Denmark wore black leather and sunglasses; a deranged Ophelia hovered in every scene; and the nightmare appearance of Fortinbras at the 11th hour represented the murderous precipice of a totalitarian future. His army blasted everyone away to deafening hard rock music, the corpses were tossed into a pit and the preening despot used the horrific scene as a photo-op.
In Mr. Eustis’ plodding production, however, nothing prepares us for his borrowed ending. Until then, the director—who’s also artistic director of the Public Theater—had studiously tried to avoid the conceptual tricks that invariably mar productions of Shakespeare in the Park. But in honorably doing so, he’s ended up staging an awfully pedestrian Hamlet. This is basically a flat, straightforward reading, except for the Basil Twist puppets sawing the air in the players scene. The Fortinbras moment isn’t earned: Mr. Eustis has tacked onto the play a empty political statement.
HOW CAN ANY director bring anything new to Hamlet: That is the question. Why Mr. Eustis chose to stage it today is another; how many times we can see it is still another. (And if you haven’t yet seen it, do not pass go and proceed directly to jail.)
Which Hamlet is Mr. Eustis directing? Jacobean revenge drama, tragedy of love, ghost story, philosophical and political discourse, morality play, lethal game of playacting, prototypical Oedipal analysis, cosmic statement about the ultimate meaninglessness of existence—or all of the above?
And who—or what—is Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, but an unsolvable mystery and unconquered Everest for every actor—even the greatest—who dares to play him?
Hamlet must be a poet and a prince, a philosopher and a scholar, a quicksilver genius, a brooding public figure in trauma, a horribly indecisive private man, an actor who cannot act, a neurotic adolescent, a university student driven to madness who feigns madness, a tender and cruel melancholic, a potential suicide who sees through the rottenness of the world and is consumed by it, a man born to play a princely role miscast by fate as the avenging murderer.
We might conclude that the impossible role is unactable in its entirety—certainly uncapturable—and that the play is ultimately unknowable. That is to say, only the most audacious, or the most foolhardy, would take the great, inexhaustible play on.
OSKAR EUSTIS’ PREDECESSOR at the Public, George C. Wolfe, is a natural director rather than producer; Mr. Eustis is a natural producer rather than director. His choice of Hamlet for only his second directorial assignment at the Public, after a mediocre debut with Rinne Groff’s The Ruby Sunrise, appears immodest. At any rate, he’s overreached with Hamlet.