Eddie Izzard’s solo Hamlet is an endurance test – taking on all the roles with wit and subtlety

Eddie Izzard's Hamlet
Eddie Izzard's Hamlet - Carol Rosegg

Hamlet is a daunting role for any actor, even if that’s the only part you have. Eddie Izzard, in a new solo show, tackles not just Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane but also Ophelia, Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude… right down to the first and second gravedigger.

The premise may suggest a zany night of stand-up spoofery, but it’s actually an absorbing, intimate production in which the trans actor and comedian (who favours female pronouns) plays 23 characters large and small. This Off Broadway production, running at New York’s cozy 199-seat Greenwich House Theater, offers no radical interpretation or modern reimagining, instead focusing on Shakespeare’s words and Izzard’s relationship to them and the audience, not unlike Izzard’s recent solo Great Expectations, which the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish called “as glorious an evening of singularly rendered Dickens as I’ve encountered.”

Surprisingly, this adaptation, by Izzard’s brother Mark (who, along with director Selina Cadell, also collaborated on Great Expectations), includes characters like Fortinbras that could have been axed to streamline the performance, which clocks in at just under two and a half hours with an interval. Aside from some minor tweaks – such as Claudius saying, for example, that Hamlet is “loved by the irrational multitude” rather than “of the distracted multitude” – this is a faithful rendering.

It is an endurance test – and there’s no water placed around the stage for quick quaffs. Veering from Polonius to Ophelia, Izzard twists and spins, but uses only a flapping hand each for the duplicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (a definite crowd pleaser). The ghost of Hamlet’s father speaks with an imposing, sonorous voice and its presence is accentuated by Eliza Thompson’s haunting underscoring and Tyler Elich’s eerie lighting. Not surprisingly, there’s also a movement director, Didi Hopkins, whose choreography is brought to a grand finale in which Izzard duels as both Hamlet and Laertes, while also switching back and forth to play Claudius and Gertrude in the crowd.

Eddie Izzard's Hamlet
Eddie Izzard's Hamlet - Amanda Searle

All decked out in black — including leather leggings and a peplum blazer that flares when pirouetting from one role to the next — Izzard develops characters with an economy of gesture and movement, and without skull, sword or any props. Even designer Tom Piper’s austere set offers no ornamentation aside from a few narrow windows.

Coming from a comic background, Izzard knows how to connect to a crowd. But though there’s humour to be had, this impressive, sweeping performance is at its best when played straight, nearly whispering Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” monologue to us from the edge of the stage, or roaming through the stalls and up into the balcony for the character’s “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy. Later, Izzard ventures into the house as the delicate, mad Ophelia, delivering a tender and subtle portrayal.

Izzard’s big, black-lined eyes do much to convey the characters’ struggles, and absent other bodies onstage, we are privileged to be partners in the drama.

Until March 10: eddieizzardhamlet.com