"The remarkable thing about Shakespeare," said Robert Graves, "is that he is really very good?in spite of all the people who say he is very good." Even Shakespeare has prestigious detractors, though, among them Tolstoy, who once wrote after seeing King Lear and Hamlet: "If I had any doubts at all about the justice of my dislike for Shakespeare, that doubt vanished completely. What a crude, immoral, vulgar, and senseless work Hamlet is. The whole thing is based on pagan vengeance; the only aim is to gather together as many effects as possible; there is no rhyme or reason about it."
Now, unless you're prepared to believe?and I am not?that Andrei Serban sympathizes with this opinion and has therefore directed Hamlet purely as an act of egomaniacal spite, there must be another explanation for why his nearly four-hour production is so thoroughly unpleasant and obnoxious. My guess is that this director, famous for his eclectic style (although much of his best work, such as Happy Days and Fragments of a Greek Trilogy, isn't in that style), simply allowed his signature to overwhelm his wisdom. Tolstoy (the namesake of Serban's lead actor, Liev Schreiber, incidentally) thought that Hamlet was primarily an asinine mishmash of vulgar effects, but, perhaps, if he lived in the age of postmodernism, he'd have talked himself into seeing that as a virtue.
Serban has deliberately suppressed as much subtlety and sincerity as he can, in this supremely subtle play full of tactical insincerity, by imposing clownish costumes and puppet-like behaviors on his actors, which stiffen all but one of them to the point where their full characters are inaccessible. The set (by John Coyne) is a visually inert and awkward assemblage of splotchily painted folding screens, a gold-stuccoed back wall containing an inconvenient veranda and a sunken-floor area downstage center that sometimes trips up the actors. On top of all this, the action is overlaid with distracting, simplistically explanatory music by Elizabeth Swados, which removes all remaining interstices during which spectators might have mused over the lines and let their minds wander into more complex territory.
Happily, Schreiber is interesting as Hamlet. I hope he'll get to play the role again some day with another director. He has an easy access to silliness and a slightly pudgy, roundish face with boyish narrow sideburns and eyebrows that rise into tall, sharp arches, all of which naturally equip him to convey Hamlet's "antic disposition" with a certain truth and depth. His "get thee to a nunnery" interview with Ophelia (played with winning cluelessness by Lynn Collins), for instance, is punctuated with wide, instantaneous mood shifts that would probably be fascinating if his partner were allowed to react with equal whimsy. Such adolescent-impulsive alternations between inner darkness and light are the crux of the performance?exaggerated twitches, grieving grimaces that slide off into broad smirks, angry scowls suddenly wiped away by the lure of a dumb joke?and they wouldn't seem nearly so overworked in a production whose vision reached beyond antics.
As it is, Serban has conceived Elsinore as a nightmarish Wonderland (yes, that reference again), which cartoonishly reflects only the surfaces of Hamlet's "madness." Rosencrantz (Jeremy Shamos) and Guildenstern (Jonathan Fried) are actually dressed as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and just in case you miss the point about their bad faith, the King is seen handing them dollars, then later crimson bags of cash. Claudius (Colm Feore), for his part, presides in an outsize ermine-pattern collar over a fawning court that dances around in grotesque gold masks and ridiculous red teabag-like outfits (costumes by Marina Draghici) while a bored dauber paints a royal portrait on an easel to the side. Thus the parade of cliches begins?garnished with the spectacle of Hamlet puking as soon as we meet him?and ends only with the curtain call.
It's shocking to see how little confidence Serban has in this play's ability to communicate through acting, candid human interchange or the force of its poetic language. He seems to have convinced himself?like Joanne Akalaitis and a host of other avant-gardists who have swallowed the postmodern piglet whole?that eclecticism is permanently interesting in itself, as a theory, and doesn't need to be tested anew on every project. His profusion of fussy gimmicks and tricks?some designed to emphasize obvious questions of being and seeming but many wholly gratuitous?thus grossly underestimates both Shakespeare and the audience, since even the sensible gimmicks are for the most part redundant.
A constant flow of spies peers through peepholes and jots in notepads, recalling ad nauseam that Claudius runs a police state. After Claudius and Polonius (Richard Libertini) announce that they will eavesdrop on a discomfited Ophelia, she ensures we don't forget by reading her initial lines to Hamlet from a card. The Gravedigger (George Morfogen), dressed as a clown (like at least a dozen other people), has the word "CLOWN" printed on his chest, and Osric (Francis Jue), the "waterfly"-like messenger who invites Hamlet to the deadly duel with Laertes, flies in on a wire wearing a top hat adorned with skull and crossbones. These are merely selections from the lucid tedium. The fatuous tedium includes: a stiff-armed fascist salute from Claudius when mentioning "Wittenberg," a displaced "To be or not to be" speech delivered while Hamlet feels the pulse of Ophelia, who has fainted, and Hamlet's departure for England while cradling a turkey leg like a baby in an apron soaked with Polonius' blood.
There are a few potentially compelling ideas about appearance and reality?Hamlet seeing several different ghosts and then running off after the shrinking image of his own shadow, for instance, and Claudius suddenly taking the part of the Player King when the latter falls ill?but these hardly add up to a comprehensive concept. The much-publicized scene in which actors file in holding up posters of famous Hamlet productions is an embarrassing image of desperation and artistic abdication, and the show's general reference to children's theater is deeply condescending. Children deserve much more clarity than this; their attention is limited, but they know the difference between a story told with purpose and an avalanche of giddy idiocies.
But of course, if you truly believe that we live in a world of overwhelming giddy idiocy, and that the public can't concentrate on anything serious in art until lip service has been paid to its crude taste?postmodernism turned ally of Madison Ave.?then perhaps you will find this avalanche necessary. To me, it's more flotsam on a sea of murk that obscures pearls and swine alike.
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. (betw. E. 4th St. & Astor Pl.), 239-6200, through Jan. 9.
Waiting in the Wings by Noel Coward
Several weeks ago, a piece ran in the Sunday New York Times by Philip Hoare, a Noel Coward biographer, who quoted Frith Banbury, the intended first director of Waiting in the Wings, as having "loathed" the play due to its "most ghastly sentimentalizing of old age." Hoare's quick dismissal of this remark was unconvincing, and now that I have seen the work, I declare myself a confirmed Banburyist.
Written in 1960, Waiting in the Wings is an occasionally charming but ultimately insipid story about a group of old actresses who live together in a charity retirement home, where two of them overcome a long-running feud and several others are borne away by death or senility. Comparing this piece to Pinter, as Hoare does, or to any other drama in which the presence of death is truly frightening, is the height of absurdity. It is fluff tricked up to look rueful, and not even the best example of that by Coward.
The only decent reason I can think of for reviving it is that it provides work for a stageful of fine, overlooked, aging actresses. Rosemary Harris is the picture of proud elegance as May Davenport, and Rosemary Murphy, Elizabeth Wilson, Victoria Boothby, Helena Carroll and Dana Ivey are all sharp as well. Lauren Bacall, alas, her face a frozen mask, phones in her performance as Lotta Bainbridge. The role seems to hold as little interest for her as the plot does for the audience. Intended to celebrate Coward's 100th birthday, this production is more likely to make everyone who sees it feel his age.
Walter Kerr Theater, 219 W. 48th St. (betw. B'way & 8th Ave.), 239-6200.