Broadway review

Thrilling ‘Hamlet’ in Central Park is hiding a Hollywood star

The Daily Beast

June 28, 2023

In this excellent Public Theater “Free Shakespeare in the Park,” Ato Blankson-Wood is commanding as anti-hero Hamlet—but the Playbill doesn’t mention the show’s A-list star.

The voice of Hamlet’s dead father, goading his son to vengeance, booms forth from the speakers in the Public Theater’s excellent production of Hamlet (to Aug 6)—part of New York City’s “Free Shakespeare in the Park”—its spookiness reflected in the warping projections on the brick walls of a modern Elsinore. In the Playbill, the role of the dead king’s ghost—and whoever’s voice it is—go uncredited. On Thursday afternoon, prior to this evening’s official opening of the show, the Public revealed that it was Samuel L. Jackson—a major Hollywood star hiding in plain sight, and a perfectly executed PR coup.

Even when the production isn’t great, Shakespeare in the Park is pleasurable—and an idea and ideal worthy of celebration. You’re in the middle of Central Park, watching the Bard as the sun sets and night falls. If it isn’t pouring with rain, it’s pretty lovely just to be there (the buzzing helicopters overhead notwithstanding). There are plastic cups of frosé and good popcorn for sale. A looming cradle of trees sway gently beyond the Delacorte Theater’s stage. The spirit of the city is visible and audible on stage and off. The stratospheric ticket prices of Broadway are absent. This is culture as it should be: open to all.

The experience is even better when the production is as good as this Hamlet, with Ato Blankson-Wood commanding and magnetic in the title role, and director Kenny Leon overseeing an engaging production that makes this most familiar of Shakespeare feel fresh and vibrant. The secret casting of A-lister Jackson, and effectively concealing him, is a mischievously positioned cherry on top.

After the Pulitzer-winning, Broadway-transfer success of the Hamlet-reimagining Fat Ham—also from the Public—Blankson-Wood and Leon show there remains a reservoir of vitality in the original. The setting is Atlanta, 2020, “after the start of the pandemic, a little bit after George Floyd’s murder and the racial reawakening,” Leon told the Atlantic. Leon said he wanted Hamlet’s side of the family to be Black and Polonius’ (Daniel Pearce) side white or mixed race: “That was important, to just get that race dynamic in there.”

The set evokes this contemporary moment—with a torn-up Stacey Abrams campaign sign, and a smart SUV seemingly stuck, crashed, to the left of the stage that contains the shells of two houses—but the play leaves Shakespeare’s words unchanged; the modern, very beautifully sung songs are notable additions, but otherwise the production doesn’t ring with any overt comment around racism and/or the Trumpian political age. The cluttered, puzzling décor feels extraneous.

Still, the exterior of Elsinore is used as a vivid canvas for Jeff Suggs’ projections of the ghost of Hamlet’s father egging him on to avenge his death at the hands of his brother, Claudius (John Douglas Thompson, both avuncular and menacing), now married to Hamlet’s mother, and his brother’s none-too-merry widow Gertrude (Lorraine Toussaint). We see Hamlet both scared of the ghost, and then begin to accommodate and channel him.

Playbills will not be updated to include Jackson’s name now the secret is out, a Public Theater spokesperson told The Daily Beast. The projected faces we see when the doctored and technically tweaked voice of the ghost booms are not images of the famous actor, the spokesperson said. The first is the face is of a portrait of Hamlet’s father that’s in the set. That portrait was created by the Public’s props team and isn’t a specific person. The second is live video projections of Blankson-Wood.

The first act of this production is particularly sharp—both in terms of the acting, but also in its propulsive clarity as we chart Hamlet’s bitterness and desire to avenge his father’s death, and how his behavior becomes a source of concern and puzzlement to those around him. Pearce plays a particularly wily and witty Polonius, an audience-pleasing center of any scene he is in, as he meddles making everything worse while attempting—usually wrongly, but plausibly wrongly—to decode Hamlet’s behavior.

In the second half of the play, the excellent Solea Pfeiffer gives a piercing full-throttle to Ophelia’s tragic breakdown that Leon lets consume the whole stage, Toussaint beautifully evoking the circumstances of Ophelia’s “muddy death” with its detailing of surrounding nature—the “grassy stream,” “fantastic garlands,” “crowflowers, nettles, daisies and long-purples”—that is her passing’s mournfully beautiful audience.

Thank goodness for Pfeiffer, and Greg Hildreth’s Gravedigger, merrily tossing up clods of earth and skulls, including famously poor Yorick’s, because the second act feels grindingly procedural after the fast-paced excitements of the first. After the intermission, Hamlet and his allies and opponents spend minutes upon minutes plotting where he should be in order to orchestrate vengeful confrontations. It’s all a bit olde-worlde Google Maps, “You go there, he goes there, I’ll go there.”

The final duel, with poison-tipped swords, is suitably energetic but does not come close to matching the thrill of the words around it. Blankson-Wood does not just have a handle on Hamlet, he astutely inhabits one of Shakespeare’s most famous antiheroes: wronged, wrong, mad, sturdy, capricious, deluded, and very right. The actor has a supreme charge of Shakespeare’s most famous words, which in this play rattle off one after the other sometimes in the same passage—the “To be or not to be” speech also includes “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” As a greatest hits, Hamlet is ridiculously overflowing.

Blankson-Wood brings not just clarity but consideration to every word he utters. Watching his navigation of this totemic role—and its mesmerizing mixture of arch wit, fury, and gravity—is both a pleasure and privilege. Go now while it’s free; this Hamlet is so good it deserves to be—with paid-for tickets and without the swaying trees and inky night skies—on Broadway, maybe with its secret A-list star brought center stage.