Eddie Izzard’s ‘Hamlet’

I don’t quite know whether to applaud Eddie Izzard’s “Hamlet” as a remarkable dramatic achievement or lament that the famed British comedian, actor and activist has bitten off more than he can chew. Maybe both.

In any case, the single show at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, here three times for a very brief period between an extended New York run and a London transfer, is certainly a theatrical event. Izzard played 23 roles in the two-hour and twenty-minute play (including intermission), which his brother, Mark Izzard, adapted and trimmed from the original play of approximately four hours. Just remembering is a great achievement.

Directed by Selina Cadell, and wearing leather-like pants, a dark damask jacket and high heels, she plays both men and women without any costume changes and using virtually no props. Tom Piper’s beautiful design is essentially a rectangular box painted white with marble with two windows and no immediately visible door, which emphasizes Denmark’s – or the Danish court’s, at least – idea of ​​a prison. . Tyler Elitch’s lighting brings any color, including the light green when the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears. Eliza Thompson contributes medieval music intended to evoke royalty, although jazz is played during intermissions.

Izzard changes characters mostly by turning from side to side, moving forward a few feet, or walking around the stage. (The director of movement is Didi Hopkins.) With rare exceptions like the First Gravedigger, she doesn’t create very specific voices for the characters, and most of the time the tone is kept surprisingly similar. Perhaps she is heeding Hamlet’s advice to the players (don’t get too emotional, don’t look to the wind, etc.), but the result is that unless you know the game well, it can be hard to tell what’s going on at any given time. Who should it be until you figure out the context?

The difficulties reach their peak in Act 5, when Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, and Horatio are all on stage together – and all but Horatio die. Without swords in the fight, it is impossible to see the point at which the exchange occurs between Hamlet and Laertes, so they poison each other.

Other group scenes are also frustratingly confusing, including a performance of the play-within-a-play that enrages Claudius. In general, the format of “Hamlet” is fairly traditional, so I’m not sure about the point beyond Izzard’s willingness to tackle this famous tragedy.

On the other hand, some parts of the performance really work, especially those involving humor. To portray Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Izard uses her hands (think Shari Lewis’s Lamb Chops without the hand puppets) and has them utter “My Lord” at key moments. The ongoing gag gets a laugh every time, although more could have been done given the King and Queen’s inability to tell the pair apart.

Hamlet’s conversation with the Gravedigger is also extremely funny, although his sharp wit in dealing with Polonius falls short. The fewer characters there are on stage at any one time, the more understandable the action will be.

I also liked the fact that the script clearly establishes the political context of the play, drawing parallels between Old King Hamlet and Old Fortinbras, the King of Norway he defeated, and his sons, Prince Hamlet and Prince Fortinbras , who comes in and finally takes charge.

There may be no successful way to present “Hamlet” as a one-man show (although the phenomenal “An Iliad” at Court makes me wonder), but if Izzard continues performing his eccentric version indefinitely , as he suggested in a brief opening night address to the audience, you’d probably be happy if you could say you saw it.