To note that people have a lot to say about Hamlet is akin to noting that the title character is rather talkative or that Shakespeare is a well-known English playwright. But Shakespeare’s and Hamlet’s popularity — and thus familiarity — gives them an interpretive dimension that extends beyond quality of script and production, and many talented artists have taken advantage of this to present an unconventional reading of the play with the confidence that the audience will recognize its conversation with the original. From the moment one enters the lobby of the Wilma Theater — filled with a history of actresses performing the title role, layers upon layers of street art, and notes about inspirations for the setting — it is clear that they too have a lot to say about Hamlet, and the result is a thought-provoking, if occasionally puzzling, production.
Zainab Jah follows in the footsteps of centuries’ worth of actresses portraying Hamlet, but her performance is uniquely her own. Jah’s Hamlet is earnest and decisive, trying his best to manage the multitude of external conflicts besetting him. Though his soliloquies reveal he is not free from internal conflict, it is not his driving force. Jah imbues Hamlet with an infectious energy and loosely-leashed hyperactivity; combined with her diminutive stature and the excision of references to Hamlet as a thirtysomething, her Hamlet seems very young. But apart from his first appearance, where the revelation that his mother will not let him return to school prompts a wordless gesture of shocked teenage outrage, it is clear this Hamlet has been forced by events to grow up too quickly. Jah’s performance highlights the tragedy that Hamlet will never have a chance to enjoy the maturity he’s been thrust into.
Jah is a good example of director Blanka Zizka “anti-psychological” style — acting that focuses on “ he imagination of the body” rather than the psychology of the character. On the other end of the spectrum is Ophelia, in a well-executed but ultimately confusing turn by Sarah Gliko. The court of Denmark seems fond of highly stylized movements (somewhat jarringly accompanied by very loud New Age-y voice modulation), and at first it seems like Ophelia has simply absorbed this as proper behavior. In scenes with the court and her father she proceeds around the stage in a stately glide, a façade she drops when playfully farewelling her brother. However, following Hamlet’s offstage visit to her closet, her conversations with Polonius and later Claudius are punctuated by compulsive demi-pointes, swings, and slow-motion spins and falls somewhere between interpretive dance and catatonic waxy flexibility. One assumes her bizarre routine is her response to the stressful circumstances — except that none of the other characters react as if her behavior is anything but completely normal. Even in the depths of her madness, they are more shocked at her disheveled appearance and disordered speech than the fact that she can only stay upright with the help of a dance partner. Gliko’s performance is even odder alongside the largely conventional performances of the rest of the cast, like Joe Guzmán’s excellent Polonius: while his funny and overbearing personality informs his actions in the play, her actions do not seem to inform her character arc at all.
Vasilija Zivanic’s costume design establishes the modern setting and subtly underscores the production’s themes. The nearly monochromatic color palette hints at Denmark’s unbalanced nature, and shifts alongside the play’s trajectory: at the beginning, Hamlet’s black shirt, pants, and boots stand out against the white, silver, and grey formalwear of the court; by the end of the play, nearly everyone appears in black, either in mourning or in the foreign uniform of Norway. Zivanic’s costumes for Ophelia and Gertrude draw on elements from haute couture to interesting effect. The former’s flared cocktail dress has a distinctly modern collar and cut-out bodice, but its white color and silhouette, in combination with Ophelia’s braided hair, suggests she still possesses a childlike innocence. Meanwhile, Gertrude’s dresses combine the businesslike cut of a suit jacket with an appropriately regal cape, of the sort featured by designers like Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren; her in appropriately high leg slit, however, seems to owe itself to her ill-advised and highly public passion for her new husband.
Nosing around the lobby of the Wilma provides context for the set design by Matt Saunders: on a recent trip to Greece, Zizka was inspired by the political nature of street art and graffiti, created by citizens protesting the state’s decline. With the help of Cera and other local street artists, Saunders recreates that protest on the imposing walls lining the stage. Within these walls, unsheathed swords are plunged into the dark gravel that fills in the lower level of the stage and spills from the ceiling during the initial act breaks, delivering an evocative impression of a nation disintegrating into anarchy and violence. The closest hint of order is Hamlet’s almost throne-like chair, downstage right amidst toppled piles of books, under a bare-bulb lamp. However, rising above this is the portion of the set representing Claudius’ court: an enormous circular thrust stage extending from an imposing set of doors, panelled in dark gold and drenched with light whenever the action takes place there. The truly massive set embodies the play’s theme of order surrounded by — and succombing to — chaos, a visual representation of something rotten in the state of Denmark.
The set also embodies one of the unintentional themes of Zizka’s production: an intriguing concept with an underwhelming follow-through. The gravel stops falling from the ceiling in the second half of the play, though Denmark is in just as much danger of collapse; meanwhile, Zizka cuts both Laertes’ reintroduction with his mob of supporters and Claudius’ assessment of Hamlet as “lov’d by the distracted multitude,” eliminating a significant part of the textual evidence for the widespread political unrest. She does add some dystopian politics with the introduction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, thrown onstage with bags over their heads and clearly unaware that they were kidnapped by order of the King. The subsequent breakdown of their relationship with Hamlet finally leads to outright violence when they physically subdue him after Polonius’ murder. However, instead of using this to establish them as either Claudius’ unwilling pawns or like-minded allies, their last scene onstage is ambiguously spent trailing after Hamlet in weary exasperation, undercutting any resolution when the audience learns that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. The production suffers from an artificial emotional distance, caused by such dropped storylines, mystifying character traits like Ophelia’s, or technical complications: the otherwise compelling interaction between the Ghost (Lindsay Smiling, with a striking disconnect between the passion of his voice and a ghostly immobility of features) and Hamlet is marred by the fact that thanks to the sheer size of the set, dramatic lighting, and an obscuring fog, Hamlet is basically invisible and the audience must deduce his reactions solely from Jah’s voice acting.
On the other hand, Jah’s voice acting is quite good — there is no denying the quality of the production as a whole. While Zizka’s directorial choices occasionally prove frustrating, it is because they stifle the development of the intriguing concepts she has introduced. The Wilma Theater’s production of Hamlet is an ambitious attempt to push the bounds of Shakespearean theatre to new heights of relevance and technique; though the delivery may falter, it is well worth listening to what it’s trying to say.