Newcomer Ben Whishaw’s cheekbones fairly ache with grief in the title role of Trevor Nunn’s new “Hamlet,” which marks this director’s third engagement with the play. (Nunn directed his first at age 17, when he was six years younger than his current anguished Dane.) Youth is both the virtue — and, at times, the defect — of this production. Taking his solo bow to rapturous cheers on opening night, the little-known Whishaw (he had a supporting role in “His Dark Materials” at the National) looked visibly, and rightly, overwhelmed by the response, not least since he is treading the same Old Vic stage whose previous Hamlets have included Olivier, Gielgud, Michael Redgrave and Peter O’Toole. But rather than hark back to that tradition, Whishaw, I suspect, points a way forward: His is a very 21st-century, barely post-adolescent Hamlet, prone to indrawn, pouty sorrow and sudden bursts of rage.
Those wanting nobility of bearing (think Ralph Fiennes) or spirit (for that one, Simon Russell Beale’s your man) should look elsewhere. It’s pointless to criticize an unformed actor for what he doesn’t possess when the raison d’etre of Nunn’s casting is what Whishaw uniquely provides. This Hamlet is no Everyman or vengeful warrior or even a dry, acidic wit; what Whishaw offers is an impetuous and unkempt youngster, forlorn and bereft, whose androgynous, even anemic looks — somebody take the guy to McDonald’s! — tally with the modern age. One could just as easily imagine him slumming it in the corridors of CAA as considering various methods of suicide during “to be or not to be.” (Will it be the knife or the pills?)
Several days later, I spotted Whishaw in Covent Garden and was struck by the pained expression he sports even crossing the street. (Then again, so do most of us, confronted with London traffic.) The actor wears petulant sadness like your typical sulky teenager’s badge of honor — Whishaw looks even younger than he is — and isn’t afraid to show his sensitive side. His is easily the teariest Hamlet in my experience: More than one soliloquy is either delivered through choked sobs or ends with the performer thrashing himself in despair to the ground.
The gain, I suppose, is an immediacy of feeling: After all, losing a father at such a young age, as Hamlet has, doesn’t prompt the sorts of emotions you leave pent up. And first appearing in a woolen cap, his black clothes at odds with the white party togs of his celebrity-conscious mother, Gertrude (Imogen Stubbs), and her bleach-blond amour, Claudius (Tom Mannion), Hamlet occupies the necessary remove from the carnal goings-on at court that cause him to avert his gaze.
Rarely, too, has Hamlet’s cavalier treatment of Ophelia (played by a slouchy Samantha Whittaker, 19) made so much sense. Sex isn’t something in which Hamlet has exactly been sensibly schooled, so it seems fair enough that he should prefer the male bonhomie of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (here exceedingly genially played by Edward Hughes and Kevin Wathen) than some shy, smitten rock-and-roller who leaps around her room to the Strokes.
After a while, however, the teariness does pall. Whishaw is so busy exhibiting every possible emotional response that he preempts the possibility that the audience might have one of its own. And as if to prove the theatrical dictum that stage crying almost always leaves the audience dry-eyed, this “Hamlet,” for all its exhibitionism, isn’t remotely moving: Never once does one feel the force field of sorrow that Russell Beale, say, wrapped around him like an invisible cloak.
The production’s assets, then, are highly specific, and they include, as with almost all Nunn’s classical work, the remarkable lucidity that is this director’s greatest gift. It’s not just the modern-dress apparel and contemporary attitudes that commend this staging to students who surely will eat it up.
For all the fuss surrounding Whishaw, some of the senior actors are actually more startling. As Polonius, Nicholas Jones isn’t just a silly buffoon but an amiably dim man who does at least mean well. His quietly affecting work contrasts well with Whishaw, who, for someone so young, can be surprisingly actorish. The physical mannerisms, for instance, with which he plays at being young seem unnecessary given that Whishaw actually is young.
And as a Gertrude who gradually turns away from her lover to find herself haunted by the behavior of her son, Stubbs (aka Mrs. Nunn) gives a career-best perf, her sad-eyed chic a study in the way in which carefree insouciance can upend those of a certain class. While Whishaw cuts the kind of Hamlet who has to pull up his pants before battling Rory Kinnear’s rabidly distraught Laertes, Stubbs finds the inherent drama in composure. She knows enough, as Hamlet so simply puts it, to “let be.”