He begins his production on an uninspiring interpretive note that sends a predictable message: The figure of a brooding Hamlet is seen kneeling by a memorial flame—for his murdered father, we assume.
The Prince is in modern dress, though the sense of any specific period isn’t consistent (it never is at the Public). Gertrude is costumed like a perfectly coiffed 1950s Douglas Sirk heroine, whereas the bemedaled ghost of the king is Gilbert and Sullivan or from the mythical kingdom of Ruritania.
The featureless steel set behind Hamlet is a cold eyesore. It vaguely represents either the facade of an anonymous ship or a postmodern prison with a forecourt of gray slate. When Michael Stuhlbarg’s Hamlet speaks the line “Denmark’s a prison,” he tips us off by tapping the wall of the set.
“Who’s there?” are the key first words of Hamlet, yet they’re delivered by the castle sentinel Barnardo with no particular sense of urgency—least of all of terror. For two consecutive nights he’s seen the ghost of the murdered king!
Midnight has just struck. But as the production opens, it’s still light (the natural, soon fading, light of Central Park). Mr. Eustice’s grasp of mise-en-scène looks ominously shaky: He’s forgotten to establish darkness and the spookiness that accompanies it. Even darkness must be staged and “performed.”
Then the ghost is seen by Marcellus. (“Look, where it comes again!”) But it doesn’t actually appear. Then it eventually appears in full military regalia in a token puff of smoke to speak to Hamlet. It stands, for some reason, behind him—leaving the son to address the ghost of his father clumsily over his shoulder. Later, Hamlet turns his back on the audience to face the ghost. (Claudius and Gertrude also turn their backs when watching the “mousetrap” scene.) These are elementary mistakes and bewilderingly unnatural moves, cutting us off from any emotional connection.
There are more lapses, alas. This is a production that emphasizes the obvious—the pedant Polonius lecturing everyone at a lectern; the obviously nuts and disheveled Hamlet cavorting barefoot in a clownish replica of his dad’s military uniform. Mr. Eustis all but puts a red nose on him.
Michael Stuhlbarg is unquestionably one of our finest actors, and I regret to report that his Prince of Denmark is mostly frenetic. Hamlet the tragic hero isn’t for him. His tenor voice lacks lyrical range over the long haul; his foot-stamping, hyperactive Prince is too much the adolescent throwing a temper tantrum. On three occasions, words literally fail this enraged Hamlet when Mr. Stuhlbarg blows raspberries at no one in particular. (Better to leave the raspberries to me.)
Mr. Stuhlbarg is at his most convincing in self-loathing sexual frenzy during his later scenes with abused Ophelia. (The violent molestation of Gertrude in the bedchamber scene is more pro-forma stuff.) But Margaret Colin’s Queen Gertrude has no impact or definition, and the Claudius of Andre Braugher is all bluster.
Among the few consolations, there’s Lauren Ambrose’s Ophelia, muted early on in her mortally wounded innocence and more effective and convincing in her mad scene, though she’s been transformed into a neo-punk in oversize army boots. Sam Waterston’s pompous old bore Polonius not only manages to land dead on Gertrude’s bed, but steals the show. Worse, we miss him when he’s gone.
Let me end at the urgent beginning: “Who’s there?”
We are! William Hazlitt, for one, had the answer: “It is we who are Hamlet.”
But not, I’m sorry to say, this unworthy time.