Shuffling off ‘this mortal coil’

Isaac at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International promoting Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Photograph by Gage Skidmore.

Every “Hamlet” and Hamlet is different. And every one does something better than any other no matter how good or bad the production and the performance.

Director Sam Gold’s current sold-out interpretation at The Public Theater in Manhattan, featuring a lucent performance by Oscar Isaac in the title role, emphasizes the decay the play speaks of – political, social, psychological and physical – more so than any other production I’ve seen. Characters eat lasagna and drink wine (Claudius and Gertrude). They carry on conversations while on the toilet (Polonius) and retch in the same bowl (Ophelia). Dead flowers and uprooted plants serve as King Hamlet’s funeral bier and Ophelia’s gravesite. (A shout-out here to the stage crew, which comes in at intermission to wage a valiant effort against dirt and debris, armed with two small carpet sweepers.)

Any “Hamlet” rests, however, on Hamlet and the actor who plays him. Apart from emphasizing the clarity of the text, Isaac – who played embattled Yonkers Mayor Nick Wasicsko in the 2015 HBO miniseries “Show Me A Hero” – shows us the regret and remorse that shade grief. Much has been written about this Hamlet’s relationship with his father (a superb Ritchie Coster, who does double duty as Claudius, shifting his body language and vocal inflections to the arrogant setting and reminding us that “Hamlet” is about the ultimate game men play, power.)

In the end, however, Isaac – supported by a stellar company – homes in on Hamlet and “Hamlet” as a study of death and dying. The key scene here is Ophelia’s burial. When Hamlet tells her hot-headed brother Laertes, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum,” it can feel perfunctory, as if the character and the actor are just checking off a box. Clasping Ophelia’s body and cradling her head as he rolls on the flower-strewn ground – a union consummated in death – Isaac’s Hamlet at last makes you understand the love whose recognition comes too late and yet haunts like a ghost.

It’s telling that his performance is dedicated to his mother. He told The New York Times he read Hamlet as she lay dying. (There’s a whole book on “Hamlet” and grief – Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye.”)

As directed by Gold and acted by Isaac and company, “Hamlet” is every dying parent and grieving caregiver, every child who slips away while his devastated parents hold his hands.

Hamlet is all of us, who must of necessity journey to “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

“Hamlet” continues at The Public Theater through Sept. 3 and, while it’s sold-out, you can buy expensive Public Theater resale tickets here.

 If you’d like to see The Public Theater in action but don’t have the bucks, the company presents Free Shakespeare in the Park with “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through Aug. 13. 

Don’t forget to support your local Shakespeareans. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison is not only doing the Bard’s “Twelfth Night and Love’s Labour’s Lost” but “Pride and Prejudice” in honor of the 200th death anniversary of Jane Austen.

— Georgette Gouveia

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