‘The undiscovered country’: Oscar Isaacs in ‘Hamlet’

Oscar Isaac in character in “Hamlet” at the Public. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times. Image  here .

Oscar Isaac in character in “Hamlet” at the Public. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times. Image here.

I am a collector of “Hamlets.”

My first stage experience of Shakespeare’s best play occurred when I was 15 and saw the now-defunct American Shakespeare Festival’s production with Brian Bedford in the title role. It was striped tights, codpieces and an emphasis on Hamlet’s friendship with Horatio. I can still see Bedford, whom I would later interview about the part, being carried off the stage at the end – his head thrown back, his long, dark hair cascading. I loved it, though that may not have been my first “Hamlet” experience.

I can’t remember when I first saw Laurence Olivier’s classic Freudian interpretation in the 1948 film he directed. But I do remember the Scholastic book I had that retold the great Shakespearean tragedies. It spoke so poignantly of a noble youth cut down in his prime that I fell in love with him. I still am.

Over the years, I have tried to see every “Hamlet” I can and collect related books and paraphernalia. (My latest acquisition is Dominic Dromgoole’s “Hamlet:  Globe to Globe,” whose subtitle says it all about the Globe Theatre’s commemoration of the Bard’s 450th birthday – “Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play.”)

I know what I would’ve found on that journey:  Each production, each performance, each individual is different, and each Hamlet/”Hamlet” does something better than any other.

That’s true of every theatrical work, you might say. But more than any other, I find “Hamlet”/Hamlet to be what he says of actors – “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time,” the mirror held up to nature.

I have seen classic Hamlets in the classic Olivier mode (Derek Jacobi in “The Shakespeare Plays” on PBS in 1980, Kevin Kline at The Public Theater in 1986); Hamlets as abused children (Ralph Fiennes on Broadway and Liev Schreiber at The Public, both in the 1990s); Hamlets whose rationality spurred their exasperation (Jude Law on Broadway in 2009, the last performance I saw with my beloved Aunt Mary); and Hamlets whose intensity was so febrile as to defy rationality (Mel Gibson in the 1990 film and David Tennant, my personal favorite along with Jacobi, as part of PBS’ “Shakespeare Uncovered” series in 2013).

And I’ve seen Hamlets whose performances crystallized the play’s essence, which is “this quintessence of dust” (Kline again on PBS’ “Great Performances” in 1990).

Which brings me to Oscar Isaac’s lucent performance in Sam Gold’s current sold-out production at The Public. More than any production I have seen, this “Hamlet” emphasizes the decay it speaks of – political, social, psychological and physical. Characters eat lasagna and drink wine (Claudius and Gertrude). They carry on conversations while on the toilet (Polonius) and retch in the same bowl (Ophelia). Dead flowers and uprooted plants serve as King Hamlet’s funeral bier and Ophelia’s gravesite. (A shout-out here to the stage crew,  which comes in at intermission to wage a valiant effort against dirt and debris with two small carpet sweepers.)

Any “Hamlet” rests, however, on Hamlet and the actor who plays him. I have said that any actor – no matter how good or bad as Hamlet – does one thing better than any other. Apart from emphasizing the clarity of the text, Isaac shows us the regret and remorse that shade grief.  Much has been written about this Hamlet’s relationship with his father (a superb Ritchie Coster, who does double duty as Claudius, shifting his body language and vocal inflections to the arrogant setting and reminding us that “Hamlet” is about the ultimate game men play, power.)

In the end, however, Isaac – supported by a stellar company – homes in on Hamlet and “Hamlet” as a study of death and dying. The key here is Ophelia’s burial. When Hamlet tells her hot-headed brother Laertes, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum,” it can feel perfunctory, as if the character and the actor are just checking off a box.  Clasping Ophelia’s body and cradling her head as he rolls on the flower-strewn ground – a union consummated in death – Isaac’s Hamlet at last makes you understand the love whose recognition comes too late and yet haunts like a ghost.

It’s telling that his performance is dedicated to his mother. He told The New York Times he read Hamlet as she lay dying. I did the same with Aunt Mary.  (There’s a whole book on “Hamlet” and grief – Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye.”)

As directed by Gold and acted by Isaac and company, “Hamlet” is every dying parent and grieving caregiver, every child who slips away while his devastated parents hold his hands.

Hamlet is all of us, who must of necessity journey to “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”