‘Hamlet’ Theater Review: Ruth Negga Delivers Bard’s Danish Prince as Joker Jr.

The Oscar-nominated actor pulls a Sarah Bernhardt in her American stage debut

Last Updated: February 10, 2020 @ 6:01 PM

He’s black and he’s female, but the real stunner is how young this Hamlet appears to be.

The Gate Theatre Dublin’s production of “Hamlet” opened Monday at Off Broadway’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, and Ruth Negga’s performance is alternately impetuous, hot-headed, giddy, silly, petulant, but always really, really boyish. Like 16- or 17-years-old boyish. This is Hamlet as Joker Jr.

It’s an accomplishment that no teenage male actor would have the technique to pull off, but being a 38-year-old talented female actor (Oscar-nominated for her “Loving” performance in 2016), Negga makes that interpretation work.

This Hamlet keeps rubbing his butch haircut, unable to get over the fact that the king and queen finally let him cut his long Danish pageboy. He’s most at home on stage when in the presence of his father’s ghost (Steve Hartland), perhaps after dropping acid for the first time. His relationship with Ophelia is an absolute mess, with way too many hormones on both sides of that love affair. He happily treats “The Mousetrap” as the biggest goof of his life. And like a very underage criminal, he bungles one murder only to end up killing the wrong guy.

What’s missing is gravitas, that tragic element. Is what this Hamlet does much different from a 13-year-old stabbing a Columbia University student in Morningside Park? It’s shocking, ghastly, profoundly sad and pathetic — but is it tragic? Director Yael Farber attempts to make up for that missing ingredient by turning her “Hamlet” into an extremely dark and foggy affair. John Torres’ lighting continually offers exquisite moving sculptures of mist. (Among all the fog, carbon, incense and burning herbal cigarettes, I regretted not bringing my face mask from a recent 13-hour airplane ride from overseas.) Susan Hilferty’s sleek black-lacquered set presents a series of doors that open to other doors leading nowhere. And if all that weren’t baleful enough, Tom Lane’s original music underscores almost every word. Imagine a Kaddish “Carmina Burana.”

Negga’s take on the Dane rivets because it’s so unique. But after the thrilling fiasco that is “The Mousetrap,” with Hamlet not killing Claudius (Owen Roe) and then killing Polonius (Nick Dunning) by mistake, the supporting actors fail to engage in scenes when Negga disappears from the stage, as Hamlets are prone to do in the play’s second half. Except for Gaynor’s powerful Claudius and Aoife Duffin’s very grating Ophelia, they lack Negga’s idiosyncratic energy, and, in the end, deliver standard-issue performances that wouldn’t be out of place in the most ordinary of “Hamlet” productions.

After a visually stunning first half, Farber and her design team also run out of visual tricks. Duffin’s full-frontal nudity for her mad scene doesn’t entice or shock. The three Players and Gravemakers (Will Irvine, Ger Kelly, Gerard Walsh) wear white makeup and derbies in a nod to Laurel & Hardy, an absurdist trope that became an instant cliché as soon as Buster Keaton starred in Samuel Beckett’s only screenplay, “Film,” in 1964. And a floating translucent curtain makes a repeat appearance at the play’s conclusion, delivering considerable less visual impact than when it first appeared to envelop the Ghost in Act 1.

Nothing here comes close to the breathtaking moment in Sam Gold’s 2017 staging of “Hamlet” at the Public Theater when Ophelia morphed into one of the Gravemakers — or when Oscar Isaac made an unexpected trip to the john.

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