Something’s Thrilling in the State of Denmark: Eddie Izzard’s Hamlet Shines

Photo by Carol Rosegg.

After taking her curtain call at the end of Saturday’s performance of Hamlet, Eddie Izzard returned to the stage to briefly thank the audience for attending. She remarked that anyone familiar with her career should know that nobody would ever say “We’re going to build a Hamlet around this person,” so she had to do it herself as a solo performance if she ever wanted to play the Dane. Chicago audiences should be thankful that she did and that Chicago Shakespeare Theater managed to secure her for an engagement between the New York and London runs of the show. In her hands, the play unlocks some of the purest and most elemental appeals of the theategoing experience.  

Anyone familiar with Izzard’s comedy won’t be surprised to find that her verbal dexterity as a stand-up performer means she’s an able interpreter of Shakespeare’s work. The single most important quality an actor brings to Shakespeare is the ability to make the language clear and precise — speaking it “trippingly on the tongue,” as Hamlet advises the players. Here Izzard’s performance shines, achieving superlative clarity despite playing more than 20 characters single-handedly. From the confluence of linguistic acumen and performative virtuosity derives the show’s appeal: the primal power of her storytelling ability.

Most theories of drama’s origins trace its roots to pre-literary oral traditions that include storytelling. Perhaps somewhat similarly, we soothe babies through singing and reading to them. At the risk of oversimplification, humans seem to be captivated, in individual lives and across history, by the process of hearing and telling stories. There is something deeply pleasurable about hearing another person talk. Izzard’s Hamlet taps into that innately human desire, achieving an almost hypnotic effect. She moves the story along with a quickness that belies the old saw about how Hamlet can’t make up his mind — her Hamlet is plenty decisive, making a rash choice for vengeance that will eventually doom the entire Danish court.

Still, this play is famous for having a handful of the most famous speeches in any piece of dramatic literature, a collection of introspective soliloquies that plumb the existential depths of the human condition. They form the spine of the play, and Izzard digs into them with great relish. You’ve likely heard these words (words words) dozens of times, but never quite like this, never quite so careful. Through the soliloquies, Izzard allows us a window into Hamlet’s inner life. Contrasted against Hamlet’s interactions with the other characters, we see the dilemma of a man who can’t quite reconcile his beliefs and desires with the reality of the world. 

That all this is rendered by a single performer works on two levels. In the fictional world of the play, it heightens the dilemma Hamlet faces in the disjunction between the ideal and the real. In the space of the theatre, it’s a thrilling testament to Izzard’s virtuosity.

But what’s most striking is the sense of lightness that pervades the piece. The set is minimalistic, the lighting serviceable, and the sound relatively straightforward. The text, adapted by Izzard’s brother Mark, is a smart cutting that streamlines the action without losing anything vital. (Purists may balk at the excision of the “There is special providence in the fall of a sprarrow” speech, but it felt like a wise choice to me). Izzard’s performance is the focus, and a lesser actor could easily get bogged down in showily articulating each of the characters in broad strokes to distinguish them from one another. Eschewing such histronics, Izzard captures each of the 23 personas she plays here with subtleties of characterization that make them each distinctive without resorting to tricks. Also, though the play is a tragedy, Izzard brings her distinctive comedic style to the piece in multiple scenes to lighten the mood. The scenes with the play-within-a-play and the gravediggers in particular feel like Izzard routines as much as they do Shakespeare, to the benefit of both performer and material.  

Although Hamlet is a showcase for Izzard’s vocal abilities, she also displays impressive physicality throughout the evening. This is most evident in a recurring gag in which she depicts the hapless duo of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with her hands as a pair of puppets. Her physical quickness onstage also ensures the storytelling remains clear and focused and further draws distinctions between the play’s various personae. The one moment in which the entire evening falters, perhaps, is the climactic duel between Laertes and Hamlet, which doesn’t quite reach the swashbuckling heights of fancy it might. That’s a quibble, though, when everything else is so finely wrought.

Hamlet is an interesting choice for such a solo piece. The play, much like the character at its core, is haunted. In the four-plus centuries since its debut, it has become regarded as the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies and possibly the greatest English-language play of all time. Leaving aside such barroom debates, the role of Hamlet inarguably carries weighty baggage for any actor, with its psychological depth and flights of philosophical reverie anticipating much of modernity. As such, it’s often seen as the ne plus ultra of the canon. In this century alone, it has inspired performances iconic (Olivier’s Oscar-winning version), iconoclastic (the underrated but messy Ethan Hawke take), and self-mythologizing (Kenneth Branagh’s frustratingly uneven “uncut” adaptation). (For my money, the best film version of the role is Luke Kirby/Paul Gross in the first season of Slings and Arrows, but that’s another argument best had over a cocktail). Since at least the eighteenth century when Shakespeare acquired his especial status amongst his peers, Hamlet has been the role in which actors prove their mastery of the craft. 

That, ultimately, is the takeaway from this production. We live in an age when art is increasingly commodified and “contentified,” which is to say, treated as little more than a vehicle for the delivery of plot points. In achieving the clarity I’ve praised here, Izzard and director Selina Caddell accomplish that goal admirably. But everyone in the audience almost certainly already knows what this play is about. Boy sees ghost, boy talks to ghost, boy thinks a bit, tragedy ensues. So why see yet another Hamlet?

Because what this review can’t capture is the experience of hearing and seeing a masterful live performer command an audience. You can look at a picture of the Mona Lisa on Google and get the idea, but only up close can you appreciate the brush strokes. In tackling a play with as much history and critical legacy as Hamlet, Izzard stakes a claim to a piece of that legacy with as much care and craft as anyone in the play’s storied lifespan. 

Read in this light, Izzard’s closing comment about the likelihood of her being cast as the Danish prince, lamentably true, is on one level a damning indictment of the lack of imagination with which most producers and directors approach their work. But it also speaks to what makes this production so effective: it’s a piece of theatre that someone obviously cared a great deal about making. So much theatre, and almost all Shakespeare today, feels like little more than a perfunctory exercise in paint-by-numbers stagecraft with less life than a ghost floating over the caste walls at midnight. Izzard’s Hamlet is a labor of love. 

In an era when the entertainment industry is filled with product extruded to fill the hours between dinner and bar time, when acting is largely reduced to marketing signifiers, and when the Shakespeare industrial complex is more leaden than ever before, the rarest thing of all is something different. See it up close when you can.  

Hamlet is presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and is now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Avenue, until May 4. Performance times vary; check the website at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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