Ian W. Hill's Hamlet
nytheatre.com review by James Comptois
June 15, 2007
As part of the Brick Theatre's Pretentious Festival, Ian W. Hill directs, designs, and stars in an ambitious new version of Shakespeare's famous play, Hamlet. However, since this isn't named the Pretentious Festival for nothing, this production is actually called Ian W. Hill's Hamlet. I can't deny I'm impressed by the level of chutzpah.
Unfortunately, I had no clear take on what Hill's concept for Hamlet is or where it was going.
The style and look is too inconsistent. Big band music, along with punk rock and pieces by Phillip Glass, plays on the soundtrack. One actor speaks in a slight British accent, another in what sounds like a Brooklyn dialect. The clothes range from early 20th century garb to sneakers, T-shirts and baseball caps. Is this supposed to be during the 1930s, the post-World War II era, or present-day? Is it supposed to be a deliberate jumble, a la Terry Gilliam's Brazil? If so, why?
Also, it's a very good thing I've seen and read the play; otherwise I'd be totally lost. You need to be at least somewhat familiar with the story or have seen one of the film versions to have any clue as to what's going on.
A prime example of this is the scene where the ghost of Hamlet's father explains his death (a pretty crucial scene for understanding the story) through multiple overlapping voices spoken live over a prerecorded voice, which renders the monologue garbled, and thereby the entire scene—and play, for the matter—incomprehensible.
Hill plays the melancholy prince of Denmark mourning the loss of his father and wanting revenge on his murderous uncle as a bitter and aging sprite with a prankster's sensibility. Sometimes, this works, such as when he verbally bullies Polonius. Other times, it does not, such as when he tells his girlfriend Ophelia to get lost (his Hamlet seems too smug and self-absorbed to convince me that he'd ever give her the time of day, let alone love her).
In one sense, it's unfair—if not outright snobbish—to compare one production of a Shakespeare play to another. But at the same time, I can't pretend I've never seen nor read Hamlet. Maybe I just took it too personally that Ian W. Hill's Hamlet undermines so many of its characters.
For example, I can't help but be curious to see how Claudius is portrayed. Sinister? Guilt-ridden? Cold and ambitious? A mixture of all of these, or something else? I got no read on this production's Claudius. He didn't seem like a villain, nor did he seem like a sympathetic person overwhelmed with guilt. Just as I didn't buy here that Hamlet loved Ophelia, I didn't buy that Claudius loved Gertrude or felt uncomfortable when he said, "Give me some light. Away!" I never realized until seeing this show how entrenched the characters of Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius and Ophelia are in my imagination and psyche.
Although the final tableau of the production reveals a distinctive look and style, not only does it feel out of place with the rest of the play, it falls within the "too little, too late" category.
Impressive chutzpah and admirable ambition aside, with a runtime of nearly three hours, I found Ian W. Hill's Hamlet to be overlong and incoherent, being neither quite Hamlet nor its own unique version of the play.