We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Hamlet is one of those roles frequently cursed to be occupied by actors who are too old for it. This longevity gap between the part and its occupant is not as vast nor as chronic as is typical of most Romeos and Juliets, but it persists.
The least fanciful interpretations of the text indicate the melancholy Dane should be about 30, and one wonders if age-appropriate talent is too often perceived as lightweight. Naturally, there’s a range: Ben Whishaw was a mewling babe of 23 when the 2004 Old Vic production announced the arrival of a major artist who would one day become the voice of Paddington Bear. Laurence Olivier was 41 by the time he directed himself on film in the part. (And age 41 in 1948 would be at least 60 now, adjusting for inflation.)
Thirty-seven appears to be the magic number. Jude Law donned Hamlet’s “inky cloak” at that age. So did David Tennant. Kenneth Branagh directed himself in his movie version (all four hours of it) at 36, though he’d already played the role at 28 and 32. Mark Rylance did it at 28 and 40. Benedict Cumberbatch was 39. Richard Burbage would’ve been in his early thirties when he became the first actor to play the conflicted prince as we’ve known him. (There was a Hamlet before Shakespeare’s, now lost.) Three centuries later, Sarah Bernhardt was praised for the youthful vigor she brought to the blue-chip role at the tender age of 55.
Anyway, Michael Urie—a stage veteran most famous for the 2006–2010 ABC series Ugly Betty, and now the anchor of the last Hamlet that Shakespeare Theatre Company head Michael Kahn will direct before his announced retirement next year—is 37. He looks younger. And the biggest bummer about the Hamlet Kahn has built around him isn’t Urie’s twitchy but inviting performance, which seems calibrated for maximum legibility—it’s everyone else’s. The director appears to have issued standing orders that the company temper their wattage so as not to outshine the star, whether he’s in the scene they’re playing or he isn’t. Kahn notes in the program that he taught Urie at The Juilliard School, and that he’d privately resolved to direct Hamlet again when and if his former pupil became available to do it. That’s quite a compliment, but Kahn does Urie no favors by giving it publicly, because it primes us to expect some revelatory interpretation that just isn’t in the cards.
Kahn has reshuffled the first act slightly so that the show now opens with the first of Hamlet’s seven big soliloquies. Don’t bore us, get to the chorus, as another balladeer (probably Kit Marlowe) once mused. But you wonder, as the long evening snaps back to its familiar shape, if the “too too solid flesh” is not the play itself. Sure, it seems vaguely topical, with the adulterous, openly untruthful, thrice-married patriarch of a family of infighting snakes occupying the White House. A discreet poisoning just seems so dignified now, especially when the king could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and he wouldn’t lose any subjects. Claudius, that usurping kingslayer, is played by Alan Cox, and he alone manages to subvert expectation just a little. Elsewhere, this is the Hamlet you remember. Or rather, all the Hamlets you remember. Never seen a Hamlet? Go with God. This production would be an excellent My First Hamlet.
Robert Joy, who was superb in STC’s King Charles III at this time last year, feels doddering and inert as Polonius, the interfering father of Hamlet’s lover Ophelia. Oyin Oladejo, a regular on Star Trek: Discovery, makes Ophelia less simpering than in some portrayals, but she and Urie just don’t spark off of one another; the mutual wounds with which the play credits them seem out of reach. As Gertrude, Madeleine Potter seems like she hasn’t decided whether or not the queen knows that Claudius offed her former husband.
The production’s present-day techno-authoritarian motif doesn’t go far enough, either. Scenic designer John Coyne’s Elsinore looks like a prison, with the guards wearing windbreakers and police-style equipment belts, guzzling coffee and staring at closed-circuit monitors. (Jess Goldstein designed the costumes.) It’s via these screens that the ghost (Keith Baxter, who also plays the Player King and eventually, the gravedigger) makes his first appearance. He’s very scary. But a scene in which Claudius orders Hamlet bound and tortured dismisses the threat as quickly as it is introduced.
On a brighter note, Ryan Spahn and Kelsey Rainwater bring a smiling malice to their roles as as a male and female Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively, snapping selfies in Claudius’ anteroom before he emerges to brief them on their mission to betray their friend the prince. I missed them every time they left the stage. Someone should write a play about those two.
610 F St. NW. $44–$125. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.