Like two teenagers at the prom, New York’s embrace of Shakespeare is at once touching and ridiculous: Intense ardor gives way to urgent fumbling. I’ve sat through some dozen homegrown Shakespeare productions in the past few years, and not one has been especially satisfying. Some fell to bad casting (Peter Dinklage, Denzel Washington), others to cramped circumstance (Lincoln Center’s squishing both parts of Henry IV into one impressive if disappointing night), still others to feeble directorial high jinks (most of the rest).
Brian Kulick’s Hamlet succumbs to a combination of all three. The stage features an abstract set of white paper walls (which will soon be spray-painted, punctured, and crumpled), but the action within them is relentlessly natural. The clash of styles robs the abstraction of any great resonance, signifying only that someone will need to do a lot of cleaning up afterward.
It’s true that Michael Cumpsty is forceful, lucid, settled: in many respects, a model Horatio. Unfortunately, he’s playing Hamlet. “Now I could drink hot blood,” he observes. Really? His unwavering sanity may not suit the most famous nut job in world literature, but it does preserve the actor’s dignity. That’s more than can be said of Robert Dorfman, whose flouncy Claudius is like the villain in a Mel Brooks movie.
Lately my favorite Shakespeares have all been British. Save your postage: I say this not from Anglophilia but from frustrated patriotism. For though the Brits may get Shakespeare wrong as catastrophically as we do, they more often get him right. David Farr’s Kurosawa-inflected Coriolanus in 2003 needed no movie stars to be thrilling. Ed Hall’s all-male Midsummer Night’s Dream last year may seem high-concept, but it actually relied on a spare athleticism to unlock the play’s hilarity. This summer, Nicholas Hytner’s two-part Henry IV embraced the play’s full epic reach, with majestic, heartbreaking results.
In each case, directors treated style not as a set of gimmicks piled atop a text, but a way to highlight what is most vital in plays that, after all, need less punching up than just about any in the language. Compared with these understated triumphs, Kulick’s cute opening— herding the audience onto the stage for the play’s first scene—seems the height of wrongheaded lily-gilding. Stripping layers off instead of piling them on: Any promgoer can vouch for that approach’s desirability.