Review: Solo ‘Hamlet’ at Chicago Shakes is from an Eddie Izzard unwilling to compromise

CHICAGO — Back in 2010, Eddie Izzard sold out the United Center in Chicago. The trailblazing British comedian told me at the time of a burning need to prove comics could fill arenas. I first wrote about Izzard in a solo show called “Dressed to Kill” at the New York’s Westbeth Arts Center in the late 1990s and I’ve reviewed her, to use the recently preferred pronoun, in seven different Chicago shows over the past 20 years, mostly at the Royal George and Chicago Theatres, but it was the United Center gig that stuck in my head as I watched Izzard perform a one-person “Hamlet” to a couple of hundred folks at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Friday night. (I saw it a few days late; I’ve been off covering the Broadway crush.)

I suspect one gig paid rather better than the other, which had a decent audience but was not sold out. Good for Izzard for not following the money. Most folks do.

Not only was Izzard one of the very few comics who could fill arenas, she is one of an even more rarified group: stand-ups who not only can do a very credible one-person “Hamlet,” but who also have the chutzpah to say to their fans, this time I’m doing Shakespeare, suckers, not telling jokes. And while Izzard does find some laugh lines that eluded Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson, as one would hope, she is not effecting some kind of reduced Shakespeare parody here. Not at all. For those of us who know “Hamlet” like the back of our hands, there are revelations on tap. Far more than I anticipated.

In a sweet little post-show speech Friday night, Izzard allowed that Lincoln Center or wherever was not about to build a “Hamlet” around Eddie Izzard as the Moody Dane, so she got her brother to do a crisp cutting (it’s 2 hours and 20 minutes, so a hefty slice of the text), found a director (Selina Cadell) and played all the roles herself on an otherwise empty stage. She kisses off Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as sock puppets, but when it gets to the famous soliloquies, Izzard toddles down front, as she does, and smashes all three of the great ones with genuinely startling alacrity.

Izzard is a gifted improviser, of course, and a comedian who long has kept the job interesting by challenging herself to see how many rhetorical balls can be kept in the air (very much like the great Scottish comic Billy Connolly) and she’s been able to translate that into creating the illusion of freshly minted Shakespeare (the take on “to sleep perchance to dream” was especially cool). I’ve always been fascinated, sitting in the dark, watching Izzard’s mind and memory work and she clearly has thought through everything in what was a near-flawless textual performance. Izzard nails the pomposity of Claudius particularly well, and the gravedigger, as you’d expect, but her Ophelia is poignant, too and the Gertrude monologue, which always comes out of nowhere anyway, is really rather lovely. There are a tiny number of non-Shakespearean lines. I don’t think they are worth the laughs; the deeper ones come from watching Izzard interact with the Bard. (I’d read the play before you go, if you haven’t had the pleasure.)

This Hamlet is quite the dry wit, although all Izzard is doing is explicating what already was there: “I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already, all but one, shall live. The rest shall keep as they are.”

Funny stuff when spoken by a comedian. When Hamlet is at his lowest point, he notes, “I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth.” A look shoots across Izzard’s face there, a shadow perhaps of an unwelcome future but then, as she well knows since she keeps speaking the line, death “will come when it will come” and “readiness is all.” Shiver.

Plenty of life left, though, and marathons to run. Izzard already has worked against gender stereotypes and, harder yet, made Brussels EU politics accessible for an American audience. Maybe Shakespeare was no great shakes. Still, Izzard choose not to keep cracking gags for the punters at the Chicago Theatre, but do a “Hamlet” instead.

I suspect a good portion of Izzard’s audience has not been to Chicago Shakespeare before. One reward was a chance to see Izzard up close in a way that would have attracted security in 2010. Another is to see an artist who deeply believes in taking risks and who loves to share the rewards with Chicago.



4 stars (out of four)

When: through May 4

Where: Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.

Running time: 2:20

Tickets: $35-150 at 312-595-5600 and