Hamlet review – one-woman juggling act exposes limits of Eddie Izzard’s acting ability

<span>Izzard frustratingly uses the same tone for every character, not helped by a near-empty stage design.</span><span>Photograph: Amanda Searle</span>
Izzard frustratingly uses the same tone for every character, not helped by a near-empty stage design.Photograph: Amanda Searle

Has the solo star-vehicle as epic monologue theatre reached its peak with Eddie Izzard’s one-woman Hamlet? Isabelle Huppert, Sarah Snook and Andrew Scott have all performed their own turns, of late.

This is, in fact, Izzard’s second such dramatic juggling act. The first was the charmingly performed Great Expectations in which she played every part. But where Dickensian drama suits picaresque characterisation and cute delivery, here Izzard, wrestling with 23 Shakespearean roles on an empty stage, butts up against the limits of the form – or perhaps the limit of her own acting skills, which are badly exposed.

Directed by Selina Cadell and adapted by Izzard’s brother, Mark Izzard, the production is fresh from New York, where it was extended three times. It is perplexing to see why, even for this self-proclaimed Izzard fan. As a standup stalwart, Izzard knows how to hold a crowd. Stage presence is not the problem and she looks the part, starkly melancholy in black jacket and leggings with a blaze of red lipstick. Here, the play’s the thing, except it feels entirely eclipsed by the circus trick of Izzard’s endeavour.

She switches places to play characters in conversation, skips across the stage in Hamlet’s antic state, gurns when Claudius makes his confession, twirls as she transforms from Polonius into Laertes, holds up invisible hand puppets for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and sword-fights awkwardly to the bloody denouement.

It is certainly a marathon achievement but more a feat of memory (bar a few fumbles) than performance. Izzard weaves through the audience occasionally but walks up and down the stage for the main, so it feels in essence like a reading, with little compelling movement or emotional purchase.

She whizzes through lines too, not breathing enough life into them and throwing out meaningful looks when the play’s “big” lines are spoken. Is Izzard’s a philosophical Hamlet, an oedipal or suicidal Hamlet? The prince seems too skin-deep to be any of those iterations, Izzard diligently channelling words rather than any meaningful interpretation of the role. The speed means you cannot absorb the verse or even follow the change in mood and action. Some of the soliloquies carry conspiratorial outrage or a dancing delivery, and it comes to feel like a shallow impersonation of a profound play.

Hamlet’s women are hardly prominent figures but here they feel especially shadowy. We gain no insight into the queen and her “too hasty” marriage, nor feel Ophelia’s tragedy as she unravels.

At times it looks like avant-garde cabaret, other times like “bedroom mirror” Shakespeare that should perhaps have stayed that way. There is humour, but this comes from Izzard’s comic gesturing or added lines (“tedious old git” Hamlet says of Polonius) rather than Shakespeare’s acid satire of Polonius or Hamlet’s wordplay and antic disposition.

None of it is helped by Tom Piper’s near-empty stage design, gesturing at a modernist Helsingør with slits for windows and little else. There are no props or scenery, only light changes in Tyler Elich’s design – so bilious green when the king’s ghost appears and white for the soliloquies, which seems effective at first but gradually turns crass in its signposting.

Most frustratingly, Izzard uses the same tone for every character, from Claudius to Gertrude to Hamlet himself – and unlike Scott’s one-man Vanya, she gives characters no idiosyncrasies so that those who do not know this text well may well be left at sea.

Never mind the murder at the heart of Hamlet. This production feels like its own massacre.