In South Coast Rep’s impressive new “Hamlet,” the prince (Hamish Linklater) is above all a man of letters — not only in his delivered missives and the volumes he pores over for answers, but also in the leather-bound journal that contains his private thoughts but fails to protect him when the world of action demands his engaged attention. Destined in its essentially intellectual conception to inspire more austere admiration than pity or terror, production possesses the not-inconsiderable virtues of being swift, clear, always painstakingly thought-through and never dull.
Linklater’s hangdog self-effacement and drolly ironic delivery suit this notion of Hamlet as perpetual undergraduate, humbly seeking truth while superiorly certain that he possesses more truth than his elders. Thesp brings all of youth’s mercurial energies to bear on the prince’s mien whether feigning madness or coining aphorisms, many of which (“Frailty, thy name is woman”) he hastily jots down for future reference. He approaches the soliloquies with the cerebral defiance of a student determined to teach us something, though in fairness none of the famous speeches ends without Hamlet’s being overcome by the grief or anger of the moment.
This prince might be insufferable but helmer Daniel Sullivan possesses a nuanced understanding of character, unearthing the underlying humanity to present this all-too-familiar work in fresh ways. He insists, for instance, that Hamlet demonstrate as much fondness for his hoped-for father-in-law Polonius (Dakin Matthews) as contempt. Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia (played with unusual robustness by Brooke Bloom) teem with shared backstory; he pointedly takes back his engagement ring when declaring “no more marriage.”
Relationships are laid out with specificity and weight. We can readily imagine Wittenberg bull sessions with Rosencrantz (Henri Lubatti) and Guildenstern (Jeff Marlow), their camaraderie adding poignancy to Hamlet’s gradual realization (perfectly charted by Linklater) of their treachery. Since everyone in his peer group betrays Hamlet except for Horatio (Michael Urie), that character takes on greater importance than usual as the mirror of his friend’s emotional descent and destruction.
It’s a necessary mirror, because Hamlet’s perpetual retreat into ideas to escape the world’s evil — ever present in the Brueghel painting of hell on earth that Ralph Funicello has designed as prod’s backdrop — literally keeps pulling him out of the play and reducing our involvement, especially in the second half when his words and actions indicate his capitulation.
Linklater strains for laughs rather than tension or pathos in the advice to the players, and his prior certainty of the outcome renders the play-within-a-play all but perfunctory. Determined to avoid an Oedipal reading of the closet scene with Gertrude (Linda Gehringer), thesps and helmer find nothing as trenchant to substitute.
And though we expect a profound change in the prince when he returns from his sure death in England, the banterer with the gravedigger (Hal Landon Jr.) and the baiter of Osric (Louis Lotorto) is the same antic schoolboy of act one. Notwithstanding a tender recollection of old companion Yorick, Linklater is not enough infected by the fatalism that leads this natural-born individualist finally to accept a divinity shaping his end.
Ironically, it’s those getting their hands dirty in statecraft, however maladroitly, who make the greatest impression. Denmark’s ruling class is drawn with intended analogies to the present, with Claudius (the superb Robert Foxworth) naively trusting that his sincerity and iron fist are adequate to control the body politic. No dodderer, Matthews maintains serene command of his worldview and the prolixity with which he expresses it, and Gehringer’s Gertrude startlingly and ruthlessly aligns herself with husband over son, in her red gown conjuring up Nancy Reagan’s famous standoffs with her own “royal” brood.
Together they represent formidable, reality-tested antagonists to Hamlet’s idealistic and intellectually-based humanism, leading to the odd sensation of our becoming more caught up in Claudius and Gertrude’s plight than Hamlet’s.
Play receives South Coast’s typically impeccable physical production, with lighting designer Pat Collins intensifying whatever horrors the Brueghel painting fails to emphasize and Ilona Somogyi’s costumes affirming that apparel indeed “oft proclaims the man,” subtly but unmistakably conveying class differences.
Despite periodic confusion as to whether stage left and right playing areas are a part of the main platform action, Sullivan scores numerous coups throughout, including a stunning staging of the closet scene from doomed Polonius’s viewpoint and the canny usage of streaks of blood, starting with an oddly corporeal Ghost (Richard Doyle) whose oozing ear serves to anoint Hamlet with the red mark of Cain. There’s enough blood on his person, but he could use more in his veins.
Early in act two there’s a gasp-inducing moment when, goofing around with the Players’ prop crown, the prince is suddenly dumbstruck by a reflected image of his royalty and responsibility. He soon returns to his bipolar veering between deadpan wit and choked-back anguish, but if this Hamlet reached more often for that glass and less often for his journal (at which Linklater grabs even in death), perhaps by the end we would truly react to his tragedy as if it were our own.