jakub | February 26, 2024

Eddie Izzard Used to Be a Busker. Now She’s Playing Hamlet


Eddie Izzard first came to fame as a stand-up comedian in the early 1990s after appearing on the televised Hysteria 3 AIDS benefit, performing a seemingly stream-of-consciousness storytelling bit now referred to as “Raised by Wolves.” She has since flourished in a career that includes solo stand-up tours and Emmy-winning filmed specials, comedic and dramatic roles in film and television, and theatrical work in the West End and on Broadway (even receiving a Tony nomination for 2003’s A Day in the of Joe Egg). It is a long and varied career. But before all that, Izzard spent a lot of time in the streets—as a busking performer.

From Covent Garden in London to the Edinburgh Fringe to Washington Square Park in New York City, Izzard used to draw in passersby with unicycle tricks, escape acts, and sword fighting. That was also the first time she’d ever done any solo work, having until then concentrated on sketch comedy in a group. She’s now reaching back to those beginnings to inform her solo Hamlet, running at Greenwich House Theater through March 16. And, in the show’s second extension, it will transfer to the Orpheum Theatre for an additional four-week run March 19–April 14.

“I was quite sure that I was not designed to do solo work, then suddenly I was doing it, performing on my own at Covent Garden to people who are wandering around. It’s a massive piazza, and no one wants to watch you,” recalls Izzard. “That’s where I lost all my confidence and then rebuilt it. The confidence I developed has taken me all the way from there to New York—to Izzard’s Hamlet.” And similar to her busking days, Izzard is doing some solo sword-fighting in Hamlet.

Hamlet isn’t Izzard’s first foray into the solo show arena. Last season, she performed Charles DickensGreat Expectations as a one-person play, bringing to life 21 characters in a script adapted by her brother Mark Izzard and directed by Selina Cadell. She’s assembled the same team for Hamlet. 

“When [Eddie] rang me up and said, ‘I want to do Hamlet. On my own.’ I had to sit down. I was on my own in a department store in London and I sat down on a bed,” Cadell laughs. It didn’t take her long to come around on the idea, though. “I mean, how could you turn that down?”


Eddie Izzard in Hamlet
Amanda Searle

In Hamlet, Izzard takes on 23 roles in a version cut down from Shakespeare’s scripted four hours. Izzard points out that the show has not always been performed in its entirety. “We went through choosing what we wanted for a two-hour play—as street performer for four years, I know how long people can stand on their feet. That’s what the Groundlings did. We wanted it to play like it would have been in the 1600s,” says Izzard.

During the show, as Izzard jumps from the stage and walks through the aisles and even into the balcony, she begins to create a 24th character: the audience itself, another trick she learned from interacting with those who gather round her on the streets. “I should be talking to the audience when I do the soliloquies. Most actors would talk at an audience,” she says. “There is a difference.”

It's that street-theatre approach that director Selina Cadell believes makes Izzard’s connection to the audience special. “That lack of a fourth wall makes everything twice as thrilling,” she says. “We do have a way of contacting the audience that’s really unusual—it makes it really clear this production is only done because you're here. It’s not done for the award-winning set designs or costumes. It's not about that. It's about the experience you have with us together that night.”

It's been a long road for Izzard to Hamlet, who wanted to be an actor since she saw the Christopher Fry play A Boy With a Cart at age seven. “It took me so long to get right. And I was trying to act at school trying to get into school productions, dyslexic, not very tall, couldn't do sight readings, so they didn't give me any roles. Then I go to comedy, because ‘Oh, you can do comedy.’ Well, forget the drama, do comedy,’” she recalls. Once she had the success in comedy, she got a separate agent for dramatic work and built two careers simultaneously. 

But why Hamlet? “It’s the one,” says the performer.

There’s something about the way that Izzard talks about her own career that mirrors the way she talks about Hamlet. They both want something, but the path isn’t straightforward. “He’s an accidental hero,” Izzard says of the Danish prince. “He doesn’t choose to kill Claudius, not even at the end. If you look at the technicalities of how he gets there…Hamlet a lot of the time is saying ‘What am I doing?’…He overthinks ev-er-y-thing.”

For Cadell though, it’s Hamlet’s all-consuming analyzations that even more aligns the character with Izzard, specifically when it comes to gender. Izzard first came out as trans in 1985, identifying then as straight transvestite. She has now adopted she/her pronouns and considers herself a gender-fluid trans woman.

“Hamlet is a man who is troubled in a way that in the 1600s a man should not be troubled,” says Cadell. “This thinking, feeling, almost woman-like man—not to say that he can’t actually be very male—he almost has a woman’s sensitivity and emotions. It’s interesting that Eddie’s transgender. Hamlet’s quite capable of killing someone, as you can see at the end. But the idea of killing his dad somehow triggers something much deeper and more profound.”

And through this more simplified staging, one that takes her close to the audience, Izzard hopes that the beauty of Shakespeare’s language will shine through even brighter. Izzard and her brother have made sure to create an adaptation that is accessible for modern audiences. 

“I don't think Shakespeare said, ‘I wanted to write something that's very elitist and very obscure.’ He wanted to make money. He was a guy who had to fight hard, right?” says Izzard. “So we want people to come in and say, ‘I get it.’ Not that we're changing the poetry. But keeping that, we make it accessible, grab-able, intelligent, beautiful, dark, twisted, and everything I can bring to it.”


Eddie Izzard in Hamlet
Carol Rosegg





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