Peter Sarsgaard is a very good actor, and he shouldn’t be ashamed of his unfortunate and dreadful performance in Hamlet, since the role has swallowed up greater performers than he. Still, the production currently running at the Classic Stage Company amounts to an embarrassing three hours, full of mistakes both slight and glaring.
Mr. Sarsgaard, for example, clearly does not yet have the text in his head. Perhaps we could forgive him for stumbling over the line, “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,” since there is some textual dispute over the word “solid,” and he may have also been thinking of the alternate “sallied” or “sullied.” But he soon trips when he comes to “But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue,” and has trouble with “I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student,” all within the first hour or so.
This may seem like quibbling: Hamlet speaks almost fifteen hundred lines in Shakespeare’s uncut text, and Mr. Sarsgaard coasts through most of them without any trouble. But in a part so complicated, an actor shouldn’t be worrying about flubbing; he should be worrying about interpretation. Mr. Sarsgaard, though, always sounds like he’s remembering instead of speaking, like he’s quoting Shakespeare rather than enacting him. I have often found it baffling how frequently actors disregard Hamlet’s (and, I believe, Shakespeare’s) own advice for performing his lines, “Nor do not saw the air too much with your hands,” but it is even more so when an actor, like Mr. Sarsgaard, commits this crime immediately after advising the player against it. Apart from being far too reliant on his hands, he takes a meat cleaver to Shakespeare’s rhythm, never speaking like a real person but like the caricature of a classical actor, alternately rattling through soliloquies and stretching out random phrases for emphasis. His shaved head also offers him the opportunity to rub his cranium in angst whenever his Dane becomes particularly melancholy.
A weak Hamlet can torpedo any production—how are other actors meant to perform when their center is so askew?—and with the exception of Stephen Spinella’s prissy, buffoonish, hysterical Polonius and Glenn Fitzgerald’s sympathetic but too-old Laertes, the rest of the cast sleepwalks through this as well. Director Austin Pendleton also makes some unusual and ineffective choices: he cuts the ghost of Hamlet’s father altogether and ends the play almost fifty lines early, on Horatio’s (Austin Jones), “Why does the drum come hither?” so that there is no moment of repose after Hamlet’s death and before the curtain call. which is admittedly consistent with a staging that always feels like it began off-beat and never recovered.
I cannot imagine the difficulty of mounting or playing Hamlet, and no matter the result, I always have some sympathy for those involved. They have taken a work as sacred to the secular as the Holy Bible, fiddled with it, rewritten parts, and ultimately offered an interpretation that simply cannot live up to the near-divine genius of Shakespeare’s text. While a good Hamlet can illuminate and a great Hamlet can transcend, there is always the nagging sense that the play will always be degraded by its performance—who, after all, has ever been able to assemble eleven actors worthy of the major parts? So no matter how flawed Mr. Sarsgaard’s acting is, he does nevertheless deserve the applause that comes fifty lines too early at the end of this Hamlet.