Hamlet in the age of Twitter and Snapchat
To be or not to be.
Is that really the question a twitchy millennial — a man-child with little self-awareness and a slippery grasp on reality — might be asking himself in the midst of existential angst? Apparently not, if Michael Kahn’s uneven wreck of Hamlet, onstage at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through March 4, is to be believed.
And that’s why we see the Danish prince toss off the Bard’s immortal soliloquy as if it wasn’t even important enough to bother tweeting. No, it’s flicked off as an afterthought as the troubled heir-not-so-apparent toys with a handgun. Life, death. What’s the diff? At least he didn’t take a selfie while contemplating existence.
A contemporary take
Of course, the key to Shakespeare’s immortality is that his words have layers upon layers, enough depth that we can always find something new to plumb. So there is no need to treat them as sacrosanct, to be delivered with ancient solemnity. There’s always a new way to handle it.
And that’s been one of the reasons this production has been eagerly anticipated. It’s Hamlet in a contemporary setting, promising a gift from the Shakespeare Theatre’s guiding light, Michael Kahn, as he transitions into other adventures.
I love seeing Shakespeare’s plays made timeless by being staged in eras other than Will’s. And there’s much here that could make the production fulfill that promise.
The current assault on the institutions of democracy, from the judiciary to the free press to the government itself, cries out to be put in stark relief with this play. Except. Except that actor Michael Urie’s performance as Hamlet is treated as a star-turn, a self-indulgent wallow that reaches only the shallowest of the depths Shakespeare provides.
And the other actors are mostly forced to mirror his superficial shtick in the service of uniformity. An opportunity lost. Or as Claudius (Alan Cox), Hamlet’s murderous uncle (and sudden step-Dad) says in a slightly different context, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
This Hamlet takes place in the Age of Now, a time of cell phones and selfies, with self-obsessed millennials the stereotype du jour. When Hamlet speaks his enduring soliloquy in Shakespeare’s time, he thinks he is alone (although Ophelia — Oyin Oladejo — is actually eavesdropping). But here he has to suspect he is being overheard, even if he does rip out one of the omnipresent surveillance cameras.
See how that offers up whole new worlds of intrigue and consequence? The concept is great; execution, not so much. And “not so much” is one of the numerous contemporary-sounding asides this half-baked Hamlet tosses off.
Hamming up Hamlet
Urie, who has been making his mark on Broadway of late, gives us an insufferably neurotic Hamlet. Is he lacking in self-awareness, or is he overly aware?
It’s hard to tell with the self-referential nature of his playful delivery. He flutters about the stage, putting the ham in Hamlet, eyes rolling along with florid vocalizing. That does give us some laughs, something Shakespeare did not invest in heavily here. That’s OK.
But this Hamlet is fixated and overanxious, a neurotic mess that undermines his schemes to wreak revenge on Uncle Claudius, the man who killed his brother — Hamlet’s father (Keith Baxter) the king — and usurped both the throne Hamlet is entitled to and Hamlet’s own mother, Gertrude (Madeleine Potter).
Hamlet’s plan depends in part on his convincing his enemies that he is insane, which seems pointless if he has already made us all think he’s rather unstable. Playing the millennial stereotype to excess, he completely lacks the introspection that makes the character so interesting. He’s all impulse. Or so it seems.
There are many hints at what this production could be. Cox’s Claudius is a smooth modern politician, the devious inner workings hidden by a salesman’s veneer. One can see that this could have been an exploration of a figure all the more terrifying because of the banality of his evil.
John Coyne’s vivid scenic design of a metal-gray, post-industrial world with security cameras keeping a watchful eye creates a mood that is unfortunately compromised by Hamlet’s flamboyance.
When the dead king’s ghost wants to reach back into this world, he does so by appearing on a security monitor, as the other screens flicker out. It’s startlingly effective, as his spirit takes over the electronics we all sometimes think of as other-worldly.
Then there’s Oladejo’s strong performance as Ophelia, both nuanced and unfettered. It’s bracing.
And Ryan Spahn and Kelsey Rainwater offer us a new male-and-female version of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, which manages to be great fun without pushing the play farther off track.
Kahn is a great director, who rarely makes a misstep. Thus, the pacing never lags in this three-and-a-quarter hour play. And, as I said before, the hints of What Could Have Been are evident throughout.
Kahn deserves much credit for trying. He may have been gambling when he placed his bet on Urie’s odd performance. And it’s not too late: he can still rein in his star for the remainder of the run. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Hamlet continues through March 4 at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harmon Hall, 610 F St. NW, Washington, D.C. Ticket prices range from $44 to $125.
There is a 10 percent discount for patrons 60 and older. Those tickets must be purchased by calling (202) 547-1122 or visiting the box office. Full-price tickets can be ordered online at www.shakespearetheatre.org.
In addition, any unsold seat, regardless of location, is available for $25 starting two hours before show time, at the box office only.