By Bob Shuman

In Act 3, Scene 2 of Hamlet, the melancholy, introspective Dane instructs the newly arrived players, who will be acting before his new father’s court, “to hold the mirror up to nature.”  For Eddie Izzard, whose one-person show (which runs approximately two hours and twenty minutes, with one intermission, now at the Greenwich House Theater, at 27 Barrow Street, extended through March 16), this means reflecting at least twenty-three characters and two genders. Throughout the performance, she wears black leather pants and beneath a matronly bosom, covered in low-cut black lace, a green-black patterned schoolgirl’s pouf dress.  To show the change between characters, she twirls in it (the costume stylists are Tom Piper and Libby da Costa).  The fashion ensemble’s center is a large button, silver or gold, depending on Tyler Elich’s, Lightswitch’s, lighting design, and the boots are platforms.  Her hair is dirty blonde and short–in a ruminative moment, Dame Judi Dench’s “look” (an actor she has starred opposite) may come to mind, as a comparison (albeit with the addition of extended false eyelashes and long blood red nails and lips).  In short, Izzard is not simply binary, or trans, or female–she can’t be held to any sex.  Instead, she is Shakespeare’s “theatre of others.”

Here, apparently, is what Izzard and her director, Selina Cadell, see when they hold their own mirrors up to reality at the Greenwich House: A solo show clearly makes economic sense, and working minimalistically is supported by the dislocation from unpredictable COVID variations, which can impact a cast and its audience. The set uses white and oatmeal-colored walls, which under certain lighting look weathered (for those who know it, compare  Piper’s set design with the way the BAM Harvey was remodeled, in Brooklyn).  Izzard, who had early experience in street theatre—and who was trained at the University of Sheffield, before receiving two Emmy Awards and Tony and Olivier Award nominations, makes use of a platform, walks and jogs among the audience, in the orchestra, and, inclusively, climbs the stairs to play in the balcony.  Yet she is also giving a streamlined summary of the tragedy, which is much more understandable than enduring multi-performer productions, overwhelmed by great acting (of course, we get the word “ham” from this play) and directorial visions and set pieces. Our sleek technological world has replaced highbrow experts, with the Web and AI, so academics, writers, visionaries, and auteurs now hold on to less power (think of the recent fates of the presidents of Penn, Harvard, and MIT, who weren’t allowed their academic condescension anymore); the questioner, with the right prompt, now holds sway—and is less confused and can be more fully informed. Likewise, Izzard’s Hamlet, won’t get away from you, and the audience will be surprised at how much of the play they really do know, that, culturally, they understand it so well that it can actually be looked at as a lineup of famous quotations. Whether you find that notion appealing or not, this is what democratization looks like, and it is the vision Izzard creates.

Current theatremakers must still battle enough old school obstacles, however, to make their work formidable—finding money and a theatre, dealing with the personalities in a company, complying with union rules, setting ticket pricing, the list goes on.  Izzard has attracted a trendy audience, in early stages of graying hip hair, to this production, pronounced by the naked light during intermission.  A jazz, instrumental version of “Autumn Leaves” helps surround the evening with sax, bass, trumpet, and piano, among other selections, and drinks from the bar are allowed in the auditorium.  Incidental music (by Eliza Thompson), sound effects, and lighting changes, punctuate the recitation. Consider that Stephen Sondheim only became a lyricist and composer because he could not, even in the 1950s, see himself battling to success, as a playwright, his original aim.  He also felt, in the current theatre environments, going back into the twentieth century, that all creators for the stage do not now have enough opportunities and time for commercial practice–and failure—which are required to learn and integrate the lessons of the craft. When those who love the stage feel stymied by the powerful forces at work:  the gatekeepers, swamp, and politics of its world, the bitter pill is that theatre is auxiliary, for everyone, not on a Great White Way or an exclusive vehicle of truth, as proclaimed so many years ago, when there were less diverse options in the arts. Perhaps that is why there is such an incessant cry to see its art as only entertainment, its powerful societal influence, like Hamlet’s real father, only a ghost.     

Izzard uses his opening and closing hands, as if she were playing with puppets, to portray Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s old friends. The simplicity of the childhood activity is an example of what Peter Brook identified as the Theatre of the Rough. Izzard gets laughs from the pantomime—as she does with repeating the Bard’s perfunctory lines, “my lord, my lord,” which she throws away.  In fact the six deaths at the end of the play are staged with grimace and observation (Didi Hopkins choreographed the movement and J. Allen Suddeth is the fight director).  Making each character completely individual is impossible and a role like Marcellus, a soldier on the castle watch, is lost, although his famous line about Denmark is intact. Yet Izzard uses hand gestures and a variety of accents, such as cockney and a Scottish brogue to differentiate and offer variegation—perhaps you will never appreciate the Gravediggers as much as you will here. Recall that at over 4,000 lines Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and even skillfully edited, by Mark Izzard (just as a comparison a traditional version of the drama would last over three hours), the immensity of the current endeavor is worth every clap it receives at curtain.  The production is not for cheap laughs, just as the encompassing gender advanced is not synonymous with a drag performance. Hamlet is too pivotal, too entrenched in the Western Canon, for temporal standards of dramatic acceptability to dislodge it. What Izzard’s reflection shows, instead, is a forcible push, from culture to pop culture.

Visit Eddie Izzard Hamlet

© by Bob Shuman. Written without AI.  All rights reserved.  Photo credit: Carol Rosegg. PR: Jackie Green, BONEAU/BRYAN-BROWN.

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