Eddie Izzard’s Hamlet

Shakespeare, adapted by Mark Izzard
Studio 2 Riverside Studios

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Eddie Izzard's Hamlet Credit: Amanda Searle
Eddie Izzard's Hamlet Credit: Amanda Searle

The press release calls it Eddie Izzard’s Hamlet, but she’s performing her brother Mark’s two-hour adaptation, one aimed at those who don’t know Shakespeare’s masterpiece. If it leads to a curiosity about Shakespeare and his works all the better; if it breaks the spell that Shakespeare is not for me, I’m all for it, but… it has to be captivating.

I am late to review, held back by illness. Reviews were in a week ago. Apparently, they were not good. Which explains Izzard’s defiant post-curtain-call speech to the audience. It is not for the “elite” who do not like it, she says, but they won’t stop her doing it. So please put your likes on social media, she pleads. The audience loves her; gives her a standing ovation. The theatre is half-full.

I suspect they have come for the stand-up comedian rather than Shakespeare. The man next to me has never seen Hamlet before and is enjoying this, because it’s clear, he says. The two young Russian-speaking women the other side of me do not come back after the interval. Evidently Izzard’s Hamlet divides opinion.

How does one define elite? I come from a deprived background, yet I have been a Hamlet groupie since studying it for A-level. I have seen numerous versions in several languages, in the theatre, on film, in dance form and opera. I have read it in Boris Pasternak’s translation and André Gide’s. I like language. I was told I couldn't do English A-Level because I was foreign.

Izzard’s Hamlet is not for me. The feat of memory is astonishing, but the delivery is not. Intonation is odd, and the soliloquies massacred, their music wasted. My ears are offended. Izzard has a well-established stage presence, but spinning round and round, taking on twenty-three characters, is not acting. It’s a bit of a hammy ‘Carry On’: a travesty, a parody, characterisation hasty and amateurish with a touch of buffoonery and The Muppet Show: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are her hands.

I have seen men and women play the lead role, transcending gender. Izzard has already transcended gender. In statement heavy false eyelashes, lipstick and long red talons, tight black PVC trousers, waist-fitted jacket free of lapels and clumpy boots, she is all things to all men and women… But not the most elegant of movers.

I think she would make a fine Osric, but it’s with the First Gravedigger that she comes to life. The vernacular suits her, and there is some ad-libbing (“very slippery in here, sir”; “do come in, the more the merrier”). Rapport with the audience comes naturally; her excursions round the front stalls bring the lights up.

Tyler Elich’s lighting assists the pinpointing of the scenes, especially with the Ghost when the stage turns green. Tom Piper’s set is a simple but effective peach white box with three slit windows. There is a movement director (Didi Hopkins), Selina Cadell directs and Eliza Thompson’s music composition is unobtrusive.

Yet it feels as if Izzard is a law unto herself. Camp, cartoonish, schoolboyish, graphic novelish, this simplified production comes across as a form of music hall. She calls herself a travelling player, a street performer, as were Shakespeare’s. So that’s all right then.

She licks her bloody fingers after killing Polonius, comically stabbing him again just to make sure when she discovers him dead behind the arras. The grunting sword fight is too long; Ophelia’s mad scene, thumping her chest, is thankfully kept short.

The noble prince is o’erthrown by pace, which strips drama and soul-searching—there’s no time—from the play. Hamlet should grip the soul—it is about grief after all (it sustained me after my husband died)—not that you’d know in this caricature. Is Izzard taking the piss, to use her words?

Making its European première after a triple-extended run in New York City, Hamlet is Izzard’s second stage solo after her 2023 Great Expectations adaptation. She is a fine marathon runner (131 marathons for charity), has performed stand-up in several languages and has gone into politics. Indomitable, admirable, in all her uses, maybe Hamlet is a challenge too far… But what do I know, the people like her, fingers to the rest of you…

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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