by Irene Backalenick
It is a packed house at Yale Rep’s University Theatre, where “Hamlet” -- and Hamlet --are holding forth. And no wonder! The noted film/theater actor Paul Giamatti plays the lead. Any one who recalls Giamatti’s moving performance in the film “Sideways” would walk a mile to see him once again, but in the flesh.
In that too, too solid flesh, as it happens. Here is a chubby, balding middle-aged player who portrays the youthful Hamlet just home from his German university. At the least, they could have given Giamatti a youthful wig and young clothes, but, alas, they did not. Giamatti must deal with his physical self, and one needs a large-sized suspension of disbelief to accept this casting.
However improbable director James Bundy’s choice would seem, it works. We are soon won over, as Giamatti works his magic. He gives a very physical performance, bouncing about the stage -- and becomes very antic once he puts on the mantle of madness. His voice has the ring of passion and pain in every line. And those lines are indeed glorious, as speech after speech ripples off the tongue. Though he does not get brilliant support from the rest of the cast, Mark Kudisch, as the nefarious King, is a worthy foe. And Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio is ably played by Austin Durant.
But what a wonderful role for Giamatti! Shakespeare’s play throws open the problems of procrastination, skepticism, and inadequacies. No wonder we can relate to these issues, and endlessly debate the meaning of “Hamlet.”
Briefly, Hamlet meets up with his father’s ghost, who informs him that he has been murdered by his brother Claudius. Moreover, Claudius has ascended the throne and married the Queen. Hamlet must avenge his death. Hamlet then spends the next five acts deciding when or if or how he will commit the murder. Was the ghost “an honest ghost” or a devil from hell? Is he certain of his uncle’s guilt? Is he himself up to the job?
Of course, if Hamlet had made a quick decision, followed by action, there would have been no play. Nor would there have been such subject for discussion. The best of plays are those which have an element of mystery, which supply material for debate. And, in this respect, “Hamlet” is the best of the best.
This review also appears on nytheaterscene.com