Eddie Izzard on Bringing the ‘Poetry’ of Hamlet to Solo Show

“Just doing Hamlet on my own, I suppose, is pretty weird,” Eddie Izzard says. It’s a drizzly Tuesday afternoon and the British comedian and actor is backstage at the Orpheum Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village, trying to articulate the thought process behind her decision to tackle William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy as a one-person show. “I come up with these plans, and then I go for them hell for leather, just to see if I can pull them off,” adds Izzard, who uses she/her pronouns.

Indeed, Izzard’s take on Hamlet is not short on ambition. Wearing her version of theater blacks — in this case, a cinched, diamond-patterned blazer, shiny leather leggings and platform heels — the genderfluid comedian performs Hamlet in all its glory, from “To be or not to be?” to the final, fateful confrontation between Prince Hamlet and Laertes and all the murder, manipulation and monologuing in between, with nothing but a bare stage and a spotlight.

Izzard effortlessly inhabits more than 20 characters over the drama’s two-hour-plus run time: sending the titular prince on a quest for revenge as the ghost of his recently murdered father, plotting a malfeasant regime change as the newly-crowned King Claudius and his calculating minister of state Lord Polonius, and being driven mad by grief as Lady Ophelia. Izzard parries, threatens, schemes and sword-fights. She digs graves, barters with pirates and backstabs friends — all without relying on a single prop or costar.

The result is a truly original interpretation of Hamlet made all the more impressive by Izzard’s ability to memorize 14,000 words of Shakespearean language. And audiences can’t seem to get enough. In New York City alone, Izzard’s show has been triple-extended after moving from the Greenwich House Theater to the larger, Off-Broadway Orpheum, where it runs through April 14 before transferring to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier and Riverside Studios in London.

With a resume stuffed with two Emmy Awards, a Tony nomination, two seasons headlining FX’s criminally underrated drama The Riches opposite Minnie Driver and roles in films like Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen, Valkyrie and The LEGO Batman Movie, Izzard’s choice to headline Hamlet actually ties back to some of her most formative experiences doing theater while in boarding school in the south of England. One of her very first roles was in a school production of Shakespeare’s early farce A Comedy of Errors.

“It was a small role,” she remembers. “I was handcuffed to the lead role as a jailer. Did I want to play the jailer? Not one of the leads? Oh, bloody hell. But being handcuffed to the lead role meant that wherever they went, I went… and I managed to get laughs out of that.”

When it came time to approach bringing the script (adapted by Izzard’s elder brother Mark Izzard) to life, the comedian leaned into her background in sketch comedy, street performance and stand-up, and also took a page from the playbook of late, trailblazing icon Richard Pryor.

“I saw Richard Pryor do this in his first stand-up film, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert,” she says. “He just had this quarter-turn that he did and, I thought, ‘Oh yeah, you could do it that way.’” Adapting Pryor’s physicality allowed Izzard to meld a standup mentality with the work of portraying multiple characters, who are often in dialogue with one another, rather than playing straight to the audience.

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Still, some characters’ shoes proved more difficult to step into than others in Hamlet’s sprawling saga of greed, power and unseen machinations. Take, for example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s childhood friends who are tasked with secretly spying on him and reporting back to King Claudius.

The pair are relatively minor characters in the grand scheme of the tragedy, though they always appear together and often tag team their dialogue in conversation with Hamlet or Claudius. To make the duo translate properly on stage while alternately playing the prince or the king, Izzard had a flash of inspiration during rehearsals: The Muppets.

Izzard grew up loving The Muppets and even had the opportunity to work with The Jim Henson Company on Puppet Up! Uncensored, Brian Henson’s improv show starring the adult-friendly MISKREANT puppets, where she got a crash course on the basics of puppeteering. She’d also guest-starred in the past on History Told By Socks!, the French YouTube series from Yacine Belhousse that achieved cult status in the late 2000s. So drawing on those experiences, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern suddenly became hand puppets.

Initially, Izzard admits the duo were “not terribly accurate” as she tried to memorize all of their lines. Eventually, though, she cracked the code by pitching Rosencrantz’s voice slightly higher than Guildenstern’s and utilizing a technique where Rosencrantz would only speak while she was looking at Guildenstern and vice versa.

“It’s quite a simple technique to make them look even more alive,” the actor says, while confessing she had to rein the gimmick in after early audiences would be in hysterics over the duo. “You know, this is a serious version, this is Shakespeare’s Hamlet and not my weird twisted comedy version,” she adds. “So I wanted them to laugh at the places where they were encouraged to laugh in, but sometimes people were just getting the wrong idea.”

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Izzard is equally serious when it comes to the historical intricacies of Hamlet’s plot. While preparing to take the stage, she would fixate over details others might brush off as merely extemporaneous.

“It’s basically set in the 1000s — I don’t know if people realize that,” Izzard says of Hamlet’s story, and goes on to explain that Claudius’ lines, “He shall with speed to England/For the demand of our neglected tribute,” provides the single clue. According to history, the Danegeld was a tax imposed on vassal states by the Vikings for protection. (“Basically, the Mafia just copied the Vikings,” Izzard says. “‘Just give us your money and then we won’t come and kill you.’ That’s Danegeld.”)

Similarly, Izzard often found herself wondering what Shakespeare was thinking while writing the play, attempting to tap into the Bard’s unknown inner mind. “Hamlet’s mind, he’s too analytical for his own good,” she says. “And I had wondered whether Shakespeare put his own character into Hamlet. ‘Cause I think Shakespeare was hyper-analytical.”

“It’s difficult to work out the proof from the myth,” Izzard continues. “I found the history of when it’s placed all very interesting. So I analyze the crap out of it. [Laughs] I think Shakespeare analyzed a lot and certain bits flow beautifully. Certain bits feel bolted on.”

It’s safe to say that Hamlet is also now cemented into Izzard’s own mind, a feat that she hopes will serve her career long past her stints in Chicago and London. “It’s good that it’s poetry, because poetry stays in your mind a lot longer than prose,” she says. “If I can keep those 14,000 words in my head in the right order, then I can just do them at the drop of a hat in the future, which would be nice.”

Tickets for Eddie Izzard: Hamlet are available at Ticketmaster.

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