"The remarkable Now, unless Serban has Happily, Schreiber As it is, Serban It’s shocking A constant There are a But of course, The Public
thing about Shakespeare," said Robert Graves, "is that he is really
very good–in spite of all the people who say he is very good." Even
Shakespeare has prestigious detractors, though, among them Tolstoy, who once
wrote after seeing King Lear and Hamlet: "If I had any doubts
at all about the justice of my dislike for Shakespeare, that doubt vanished
completely. What a crude, immoral, vulgar, and senseless work Hamlet
is. The whole thing is based on pagan vengeance; the only aim is to gather together
as many effects as possible; there is no rhyme or reason about it."
you’re prepared to believe–and I am not–that Andrei Serban sympathizes
with this opinion and has therefore directed Hamlet purely as an act
of egomaniacal spite, there must be another explanation for why his nearly four-hour
production is so thoroughly unpleasant and obnoxious. My guess is that this
director, famous for his eclectic style (although much of his best work, such
as Happy Days and Fragments of a Greek Trilogy, isn’t in
that style), simply allowed his signature to overwhelm his wisdom. Tolstoy (the
namesake of Serban’s lead actor, Liev Schreiber, incidentally) thought
that Hamlet was primarily an asinine mishmash of vulgar effects, but,
perhaps, if he lived in the age of postmodernism, he’d have talked himself
into seeing that as a virtue.
deliberately suppressed as much subtlety and sincerity as he can, in this supremely
subtle play full of tactical insincerity, by imposing clownish costumes and
puppet-like behaviors on his actors, which stiffen all but one of them to the
point where their full characters are inaccessible. The set (by John Coyne)
is a visually inert and awkward assemblage of splotchily painted folding screens,
a gold-stuccoed back wall containing an inconvenient veranda and a sunken-floor
area downstage center that sometimes trips up the actors. On top of all this,
the action is overlaid with distracting, simplistically explanatory music by
Elizabeth Swados, which removes all remaining interstices during which spectators
might have mused over the lines and let their minds wander into more complex
is interesting as Hamlet. I hope he’ll get to play the role again some
day with another director. He has an easy access to silliness and a slightly
pudgy, roundish face with boyish narrow sideburns and eyebrows that rise into
tall, sharp arches, all of which naturally equip him to convey Hamlet’s
"antic disposition" with a certain truth and depth. His "get
thee to a nunnery" interview with Ophelia (played with winning cluelessness
by Lynn Collins), for instance, is punctuated with wide, instantaneous mood
shifts that would probably be fascinating if his partner were allowed to react
with equal whimsy. Such adolescent-impulsive alternations between inner darkness
and light are the crux of the performance–exaggerated twitches, grieving
grimaces that slide off into broad smirks, angry scowls suddenly wiped away
by the lure of a dumb joke–and they wouldn’t seem nearly so overworked
in a production whose vision reached beyond antics.
has conceived Elsinore as a nightmarish Wonderland (yes, that reference again),
which cartoonishly reflects only the surfaces of Hamlet’s "madness."
Rosencrantz (Jeremy Shamos) and Guildenstern (Jonathan Fried) are actually dressed
as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and just in case you miss the point about their
bad faith, the King is seen handing them dollars, then later crimson bags of
cash. Claudius (Colm Feore), for his part, presides in an outsize ermine-pattern
collar over a fawning court that dances around in grotesque gold masks and ridiculous
red teabag-like outfits (costumes by Marina Draghici) while a bored dauber paints
a royal portrait on an easel to the side. Thus the parade of cliches begins–garnished
with the spectacle of Hamlet puking as soon as we meet him–and ends only
with the curtain call.
to see how little confidence Serban has in this play’s ability to communicate
through acting, candid human interchange or the force of its poetic language.
He seems to have convinced himself–like Joanne Akalaitis and a host of
other avant-gardists who have swallowed the postmodern piglet whole–that
eclecticism is permanently interesting in itself, as a theory, and doesn’t
need to be tested anew on every project. His profusion of fussy gimmicks and
tricks–some designed to emphasize obvious questions of being and seeming
but many wholly gratuitous–thus grossly underestimates both Shakespeare
and the audience, since even the sensible gimmicks are for the most part redundant.
flow of spies peers through peepholes and jots in notepads, recalling ad nauseam
that Claudius runs a police state. After Claudius and Polonius (Richard Libertini)
announce that they will eavesdrop on a discomfited Ophelia, she ensures we don’t
forget by reading her initial lines to Hamlet from a card. The Gravedigger (George
Morfogen), dressed as a clown (like at least a dozen other people), has the
word "CLOWN" printed on his chest, and Osric (Francis Jue), the "waterfly"-like
messenger who invites Hamlet to the deadly duel with Laertes, flies in on a
wire wearing a top hat adorned with skull and crossbones. These are merely selections
from the lucid tedium. The fatuous tedium includes: a stiff-armed fascist salute
from Claudius when mentioning "Wittenberg," a displaced "To be
or not to be" speech delivered while Hamlet feels the pulse of Ophelia,
who has fainted, and Hamlet’s departure for England while cradling a turkey
leg like a baby in an apron soaked with Polonius’ blood.
few potentially compelling ideas about appearance and reality–Hamlet seeing
several different ghosts and then running off after the shrinking image of his
own shadow, for instance, and Claudius suddenly taking the part of the Player
King when the latter falls ill–but these hardly add up to a comprehensive
concept. The much-publicized scene in which actors file in holding up posters
of famous Hamlet productions is an embarrassing image of desperation and artistic
abdication, and the show’s general reference to children’s theater
is deeply condescending. Children deserve much more clarity than this; their
attention is limited, but they know the difference between a story told with
purpose and an avalanche of giddy idiocies.
if you truly believe that we live in a world of overwhelming giddy idiocy, and
that the public can’t concentrate on anything serious in art until lip
service has been paid to its crude taste–postmodernism turned ally of Madison
Ave.–then perhaps you will find this avalanche necessary. To me, it’s
more flotsam on a sea of murk that obscures pearls and swine alike.
Theater, 425 Lafayette St. (betw. E. 4th St. & Astor Pl.), 239-6200, through
As it is, Serban
There are a
But of course,
the Wings by Noel
Several weeks Written in The only decent Walter Kerr
ago, a piece ran in the Sunday New York Times by Philip Hoare, a Noel
Coward biographer, who quoted Frith Banbury, the intended first director of
Waiting in the Wings, as having "loathed" the play due to its
"most ghastly sentimentalizing of old age." Hoare’s quick dismissal
of this remark was unconvincing, and now that I have seen the work, I declare
myself a confirmed Banburyist.
1960, Waiting in the Wings is an occasionally charming but ultimately
insipid story about a group of old actresses who live together in a charity
retirement home, where two of them overcome a long-running feud and several
others are borne away by death or senility. Comparing this piece to Pinter,
as Hoare does, or to any other drama in which the presence of death is truly
frightening, is the height of absurdity. It is fluff tricked up to look rueful,
and not even the best example of that by Coward.
reason I can think of for reviving it is that it provides work for a stageful
of fine, overlooked, aging actresses. Rosemary Harris is the picture of proud
elegance as May Davenport, and Rosemary Murphy, Elizabeth Wilson, Victoria Boothby,
Helena Carroll and Dana Ivey are all sharp as well. Lauren Bacall, alas, her
face a frozen mask, phones in her performance as Lotta Bainbridge. The role
seems to hold as little interest for her as the plot does for the audience.
Intended to celebrate Coward’s 100th birthday, this production is more
likely to make everyone who sees it feel his age.
Theater, 219 W. 48th St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.), 239-6200.
The only decent