A nebbish of a Hamlet is making his way around the world

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Naeem Hayat as Hamlet
  • Cathy Taylor
  • Naeem Hayat as Hamlet
In honor of the Bard's 450th birthday last April, Shakespeare's Globe in London put together a traveling production of Hamlet that's scheduled to hit 205 countries by birthday number 452, in 2016. That's a dozen more countries than are members of the UN. The United States is country 28 on the itinerary, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater is the second stop here after the Folger in D.C. The troupe end their three-day stand tonight.

Given the nature of the effort, the ensemble is appropriately diverse. On the evening I saw the show, a Hong Kong-born actress was performing the part of Rosencrantz (or maybe it was Guildenstern), a Maori New Zealander took on Polonius, and Hamlet himself was played by Naeem Hayat, a British artist who claims "basic Urdu" as one of his skills. Hayat alternates in the role with Nigerian Ladi Emeruwa.

Also onstage that evening was Keith Bartlett, whose CV gives his "appearance" as "white." Among other things, Bartlett played the ghost of Hamlet's father, which made for a vivid statement in his scenes with Hayat. Hamlet is basically the story of a son who has to prove himself to his successful (and, still more daunting, dead) father, even though he's spectacularly ill suited to the task: verbose where he should be silent, ironic where he should be blunt, angry where he should be strategic, meditative where he should act. Seeing Hayat's dark-complected prince alongside Bartlett's pale king makes the gulf between them unmistakable.

But Hayat pushes things well beyond relative melanin levels. His Hamlet isn't a merely melancholy Dane—he's a nervous, nebbishy, scrawny one as well, full of OCD-ish tics that include rubbing his head, pulling at the hem of his jacket, and, particularly, biting his thumbnail. His voice cracks a lot, and his swordplay, even when it's effective, is comically graceless. At times he seems to be channeling Jerry Lewis by way of Woody Allen and Arnold Stang.

It's a interesting notion, this worst-case Hamlet, this almost complete disappointment attempting to redeem himself. Hayat makes him funny and frustrating and way too self-aware for his own good. Surprisingly, he makes him charming, too, in a candle-under-a-bushel sort of way. You can see why a soft touch like Ophelia would have loving feelings for him.

But the conceit fails in the end because Hayat and his codirectors, Bill Buckhurst and Dominic Dromgoole, haven't figured out how to get this Hamlet down out of the tree of his eccentricity and back on a path that leads to his transfiguration into a tragic figure—a job that has to be done if the exercise is going to matter. Hayat's solution is to slow down in the late passages of the play, staring bleakly out into space as he gnaws his thumb ever more compulsively and contemplates the fall of a sparrow. It isn't enough, though. Hamlet's death in a rather jumbled version of the Danish apocalypse of act five is sad, sure, yet it doesn't signify. He's still just a nebbishy kid, playing hard but out of his league.

Hamlet, Wed 8/30, 7:30 PM, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $65

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