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Eddie Izzard: Hamlet

Shakespeare's "Hamlet" performed as a one-person show is a tour de force but the question is why?

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Eddie Izzard in a scene from her one-person show of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at the Orpheum Theatre (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

After having performed in a solo play of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations last season, British stage and screen star Eddie Izzard has attempted that pinnacle of acting in English: Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a one-person show. Having played for two months at Greenwich House, the production has moved to the Orpheum Theatre for another month. Obviously a tour de force with Izzard playing 23 parts, but the real question is why? Of interest to people who know the play very well, it will be caviar to the general and incomprehensible to those who don’t know the play at all.

Nevertheless, the production has some interesting elements and clever ideas from director Selina Cadell. Using a white-pink marbled set with a pedestal step and three long narrow windows, one on each wall, designed by Tom Piper, it is brilliantly lit by Tyler Elich who makes use of the light through the windows as well as creating shadows and silhouettes on its walls. The stage is alternately turned white, blue, red, orange depending on the action and the mood. Eliza Thompson’s original music includes several trumpet blasts which contribute to the mood and tension. No props are used but some are pantomimed, like the swords, poisoned chalice, letters, etc. Izzard is dressed in black leather or vinyl pants, a blue-black checked, flared at the waist jacket with a V-neck, and high leather boots. The only mistake is the long red fingernails which are inappropriate for an Elizabethan play with 20 male characters.

Eddie Izzard in a scene from her one-person show of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at the Orpheum Theatre (Photo credit: Andrea Searle)

Cadell moves Izzard around the stage so that various scenes are placed in different places. The soliloquies are presented facing the audience head on; Izzard exits at the end of the first part and returns via the central aisle of the theater. The set is up one step which is made use of for scenes that are meant to be private. Playing 23 characters, Izzard usually turns to the right or the left in dialogues. Some scenes have been turned into monologues. The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern scenes are amusingly performed with Izzard’s two hands representing puppets, one for each.

In this tour de force, Izzard has come up with a different voice and stance for each character: King Claudius is a baritone, Lord Polonius has a limp, Lady Ophelia has a somewhat breathy speech pattern while Queen Gertrude is very emotional. The gravediggers are given two different lower class accents and the humor in the scene is still very vivid. The courtier Osric, who is usually played as somewhat fey, waves his hands around a great deal. The duel scene between Hamlet and Laertes in the last act is mostly successful but eventually it becomes difficult to figure out who is winning and who is losing. Adapted by Izzard’s brother Mark, the script has been somewhat condensed with a very few characters eliminated (Bernardo, Cornelius, Reynaldo) and some speeches abridged to make them monologues instead of dialogues.

Eddie Izzard in a scene from her one-person show of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at the Orpheum Theatre (Photo credit: Andrea Searle)

While the show is always engaging, the purpose of this exercise is not clear. Whereas each new Hamlet production normally offers its own interpretation of the hero’s character and motivation, there is none here. It is as though Izzard has spent so much time learning the lines and the staging, that there has not been any time spent on what the play means. Definitely a tour de force to learn so many lines and create so many characters but what does it do for the play? It is more an endurance test than anything else, and Izzard seems tired and out of breath towards the end of the two and half hours. Of course, the audience that has followed all evening has had a unique theatrical experience.

Eddie Izzard: Hamlet (return engagement: March 19 – April 14, 2024)

Orpheum Theatre, 120 Second Avenue at 8th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (969 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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