For this year’s Free Shakespeare in the Park, director Kenny Leon has set his modern dress Hamlet in what looks like the same Georgia estate as his acclaimed 2019 production of Much Ado About Nothing. However, Beowulf Boritt’s set this time around looks as though the Georgia suburban mansion has been destroyed by a hurricane with the main house off its foundation and the main room missing three of its walls. The set also features two American flags, a partly buried “Stacey Abrams 2020” poster (used in the Much Ado) and a jeep nosed into a huge puddle with an Elsinore license plate. While the production is chock full of ideas (too many of them), it creates the new problem that Shakespeare’s Hamlet doesn’t make much sense set in America. After all, when is the last time we had a king and queen? Obviously, the parallel is that something is rotten in America but where is this Never Neverland?
Not all of Leon’s many ideas and updates work. The play begins with a new scene of the military funeral of Old Hamlet, the dead king, and a barbershop quartet as a praise team singing three new songs by Jason Michael Webb taken from the Bible as well as Lord Burgess’ “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” associated with Harry Belafonte. Then Ophelia (though we don’t know it yet) appears and sings “You and Me (No Love Stronger)” for the wedding of the new King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, the widow of Old Hamlet, who is also Claudius’ sister-in-law. What follows this prologue is an edited (almost three-hour) version of the text which eliminates all references to Denmark and Norway as well as the threat from Prince Fortinbras and reduces the parts of Horatio, Laertes and Ophelia.
The Royal family is all played by black actors, Polonius and his family played by white actors, which is consistent casting. The courtiers are all black though the gravedigger and his assistant are both white. Hamlet’s school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played as white and black, respectively. The scene where Hamlet tries to get them to play the pipes (as he feels they play upon him) is treated as a bawdy comedy scene and doesn’t jive with Hamlet’s behavior up until then. Claudius and Gertrude are very demonstrative, making it clear of what has brought them together.
When we first meet the Players on the way to the palace, the Player King performs the speech about King Priam and Queen Hecuba in rap, which works. However, the new rap version of “The Mousetrap,” Hamlet’s play-within-the-play that he devises to catch the king’s reaction to see his crime reenacted, does not tell us what we need to know – showing how Claudius killed his brother. Hamlet appears to hand his friend Horatio a smartphone to tape his uncle’s reaction which is clever updating. (Cameras have been used in past productions.) In the scene that follows, after Hamlet tells mother that she is married to the murderer of her husband, she becomes an alcoholic noticed by Claudius which is an interesting and novel concept.
When Hamlet first appears he is wearing a military uniform but he is usually thought of as a pacifist who doesn’t act until it is almost too late. Hamlet is usually played as an intellectual, not a soldier. After all he is still in college at age 29. So much of the opening scenes have been cut that we are in the presence of the Ghost (Old Hamlet) come to tell his son he was murdered by his uncle, the king’s brother, almost immediately. Voiced by Samuel L. Jackson and seen in video on the back wall of the room, the Ghost is partly lip-synced by Hamlet as though it has taken possession of him. What is this play without a memorable Hamlet? Here Ato Blankson-Wood (Slave Play and Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Minetta Lane Theatre) is first melancholy and then angry and sarcastic but it is not a consistent portrait.
Best is John Douglas Thompson as Claudius, a long veteran of Shakespeare plays and it shows, whose rich baritone wraps itself around the poetry and sounds more intellectual and philosophical than Hamlet himself. Lorraine Toussaint is fine as Gertrude, at first perplexed by her son’s actions and then brooding over what he has told her. Daniel Pearce plays the prime minster Polonius as a comic figure of fun which is how Hamlet treats him.
Nick Rehberger as his son Laertes, expected to revenge his father’s death, is a rather thin portrait though he does not get much stage time. Solea Pfeiffer is an excellent Ophelia though her two mad scenes now come one right after the other. Warner Miller’s Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend, has so little stage time that we get little sense of him or Hamlet’s good opinion of him. Dressed in sport clothes in the royal court, he seems to have wandered in from another play. Greg Hildreth’s Gravedigger is comic though he seems to be doing stand-up rather than being really witty or sardonic.
Boritt’s scenic design leaves more questions unanswered than it explains as to where this all takes place: the fragmentation of the set is never explained unless it is meant to be purely symbolic. The lighting by Allen Lee Hughes is rather theatrical, dimming the lights for moments like the soliloquies which draws attention to itself rather than highlights them. Costume designer Jessica Jahn has put Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia in formal clothing, while almost everyone else except for the courtiers in either red uniforms or black suits, are in casual clothes which makes this look like a court where anything goes.
The sound design by Justin Ellington (Delacorte Sound System design by Gabriel Bennett for Charcoalblue and Arielle Edwards) is generally suitable, but at times words are garbled. Camille A. Brown’s choreography carries on the contemporary vibe while the song settings by Webb appear to have come out of a different play. The fight choreography for the duel between Hamlet and Laertes in the final scene looks vigorous without being memorable.
The problem with modern dress productions of Shakespeare is how to make the Elizabethan actions, language and behavior fit today’s world. While some updated productions of Hamlet have succeeded using high-tech concepts (like Robert Ickes’ production brought to the Park Avenue Armory in 2022) while others like Austin Pendleton’s production for the Classic Stage Company which attempted to put the entire production around the funeral breakfast fell on its face. This Free Shakespeare in the Park production can be enjoyed as entertainment but does not solve all the problems of updating Hamlet.
Kenny Leon has obviously spent a great deal of time planning his production but it is only partly successful with too many ideas falling over each other that do not further the overall concept. The cast is also rather uneven, partly due to the cutting and the contemporary ambiance. The language which has been tweaked for modern audiences is fine but famous phrases no longer exist.
Hamlet (through August 6, 2023)
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan
Free tickets distributed at Noon at the Delacorte Box Office to those on prior line, Downtown Distribution Lottery at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place, or by Mobile Ticket Lottery powered by TodayTix at http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes including one intermission