Photo: Carol Rosegg
By Brian Scott Lipton
Eddie Izzard has been defying expectations (great and otherwise) for 30 years, so it should not be altogether surprising the British actor and comedian has done it again! This time, Izzard is enacting over 20 speaking parts all by herself – without a single prop or costume change, no less -- in a somewhat abridged version of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, “Hamlet,” now on view at The Greenwich House Theatre. As odd it may sound, this production turns out to be a consummation devoutly to be wished for.
To be clear, this is no “Hamlet” for beginners. The adaptation, by Izzard’s brother Mark, flits from speech to speech and locale to locale with a kind of theatrical shorthand that would probably make following this complex work difficult for anyone completely unfamiliar with the play. Moreover, it is almost 2 ½ hours of non-stop, rather serious talk (with a few bits of action here-and-there, including a truly remarkable duel at the end that I found physically exhausting just watching as an audience member). In short, please don’t go if you’re sleepy.
True, Izzard wisely shows off his comic chops when he can, whether using just his hands to “portray” Hamlet’s treacherous friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, giving much-needed levity to the minor characters of the gravedigger and his assistant, or occasionally shooting knowing looks into the audience. But laughing matters are few and far between in this tale of betrayal, palace intrigue, and feigned madness which is mostly played, you should pardon the expression, straight.
Indeed, Selina Cadell’s direction is laser-focused on using her commanding star to her ultimate advantage. Izzard – now resembling a middle-aged Judi Dench and attractively costumed in a patterned peplum jacket, skinny leather pants and knee-high boots, and bright red lipstick and nail polish – is admittedly less-than-ideal in physically differentiating the play’s many personae. Fortunately, she makes up for that with a concentration on how each character speaks, both in vocal tone and cadence.
As a result, even relative neophytes will be able distinguish Hamlet from his evil stepfather/uncle Claudius or his foolish advisor Polonius. (Frankly, I’d pay double to see Izzard portray Polonius in a traditional production!) Further, Izzard has also clearly put great thought into how to effectively recite Hamlet’s great soliloquies – such as “To Be or Not to Be” or “What A Piece of Work is Man.” And there’s even considerable craft in how Izzard handles even the smallest conversations, including one between Hamlet and Polonius on what a certain cloud looks like.
Still – and this may be the production’s biggest drawback -- Izzard has not been completely successful in crafting a full arc for Hamlet. There’s never one second where we’re not aware that he’s feigning madness, and it sometimes feels surprising that anyone in the play – especially his mother Gertrude and would-be inamorata Ophelia – are falling for this act.
Still, whether this is your first time seeing Izzard or your tenth, you’re likely to fall in love with this truly singular performer.