Ralph Fiennes makes a respectable, if not completely impressive, Broadway debut as a most melancholy Dane. Under Jonathan Kent’s direction (he was also responsible for last season’s “Medea,” a surprise click for Diana Rigg), this “Hamlet” unfolds briskly, without any pandering to the audience. Moreover, it offers, in the beautiful, tormented Gertrude of Francesca Annis, almost a fresh vision of the play.
Fiennes, whose roles in “Schindler’s List” and “Quiz Show” have conferred on him the status of movie star on the ascent, is a very physical prince. Hamlet wrestles with Gertrude in the bedroom scene, where the tension between son and mother is at once erotic and full of confusion and rage; and the final sword fight with Laertes (Damian Lewis, all posturing and grimaces throughout) is deftly played.
The scene that stayed with me came early on: I’ve rarely heard Hamlet’s “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I” so movingly spoken, or made so clearly a personal revelation, as he ruminates on the tears of the Player King (Terence Rigby). “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,” Hamlet wonders, and his soul seems truly tortured.
Rigby had something to do with this, as well. His Player King wears a bowler hat over a shaven head, and smokes a cigar, but when he’s in the spotlight, he’s all business. No rude mechanical, he even seems slightly taken aback at Hamlet’s advice to the troupe, his look saying, “We’re professionals, you know.” Nevertheless, there’s something going on between the two actors, and it’s reinforced by having Rigby triple as the Ghost and the Gravedigger.
Still, Fiennes is otherwise notparticularly interesting to watch. He lacks a star’s charisma; the air in the Belasco isn’t electric with Hamlet’s tormented indecision. Kent imposes all sorts of distracting business on the proceedings, and they only make it seem all the more earthbound: “Speak the speech, I pray you” is delivered almost comically broken up as Hamlet hauls in chairs for the evening’s entertainment; Polonius (Peter Eyre) inexplicably fiddles with his pince-nez as he delivers his advice to Laertes; “To be, or not to be” is delivered so off-handedly you don’t know what to make of it.
This Hamlet literally wears his angst on his sleeve. His clothes get progressively grungier, his stringy hair more unkempt, until he looks so depressed you half expect him to pull out a guitar and begin singing Jackson Browne songs. Peter Davison’s ugly, gloomy castle setting doesn’t help matters. Still, no one could accuse this Hamlet of lacking spirit.
Where Kent and company fail to measure up is in the casting of the secondary roles. Nobody seems to have paid much attention to Tara FitzGerald’s Ophelia; the actress seems at sea in a role that ought to break our hearts. And the actor playing Claudius has to be a formidable match for Hamlet, which James Laurenson is not; it’s hard to imagine what Gertrude sees in him.
But the overriding problem is that efficiency is about the best thing one can say about this “Hamlet.” It doesn’t offer any particular point of view on the play, and so it isn’t especially involving. Those drawn to the theater because of the star are likely to be disappointed. Those drawn by Shakespeare are, too.