What a piece of work is Robert Icke. After a glorious Mary Stuart, he brings to the Almeida a harrowing, astonishing, mercurial, lustrous, energised, and transformative production of Shakespeare’s best loved play. No matter how many times you have seen or read or skipped by Hamlet in the past, this is the production which will make you think afresh about the Danish Prince and his tempestuous struggle. Andrew Scott is electrifying – and impossibly tender – in the title role and he has the benefit of a first rate cast around him. Icke’s approach is fresh and revelatory, proving that there are more things in Hamlet than are dreamt of in anyone’s philosophy.
Robert Icke’s sensational production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, now playing at the Almeida, requires two things from its audience: willingness and an open mind. If you are the sort of person who “knows how Hamlet should be done” or has fixed views about the way characters should be played, then this is not a Hamlet for you. If you are the sort of person unwilling to sit still and pay attention to live theatre for more than 80 minutes at a stretch, then this is not a Hamlet for you.
But, if you are the sort of person who approaches each production with an open mind, who doesn’t bring personal joys, hatreds, irritations or expectations with you, and who is willing to let the director decide how and how much of your time is spent, then this is a Hamlet for you. It can safely be said that you have never seen any Hamlet quite like this and, without the presence of the quite extraordinary Andrew Scott, you are never likely to see one like it again.
This is an event version of Shakespeare’s famous play. It is, by a very long mark, better than the Cumberbatch version at the Barbican, not because of that star but because of the production which did not suit the play or players. All that glitters is not gold. It is a very different beast than either the Tennant Hamlet or the Essiedu Hamlet, both extraordinary in their own ways, but, on any view of it, more traditional productions. It adopts some of the tropes from the Kinnear version at the National, but is far more cogent, polished and surprising about dealing with them.
In a decade, though, this is the most revelatory, startling, and affecting Hamlet London has seen. Icke tells an intricate, complex story in painstaking detail, with mood and motive just as important as madness and monarchy. He is unafraid of a leisurely, exacting pace, willing to play the long game, and prepared to surprise, take chances and blindside. This is not a traditional Hamlet by any means, but it is an exhilarating one. More than any other in recent years, it seems to embrace modernity as a means to illuminate meaning and motive.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set is sleek and features a glass box – as seems compulsory for modern productions of classics these days. But, in truth, this particular set works perfectly – indeed, Icke truly out-Van Hoves the lauded Ivo Van Hove. This production really shows up Hedda Gabler at the National for the shallow, dull production it is. The simple items of furniture play multiple roles; the separate spaces have distinct functions; the multi-media sensibility is ever present, with hand-held cameras and big multi-screens providing visual insight and context to well known narrative devices.
I cannot remember a spookier opening to Hamlet than this one. Barnardo on watch duty, in a tiny control room, a bank of cameras playing their feed onto a bank of monitors. After Horatio arrrives, there is a flicker on a screen, and suddenly the Ghost of Hamlet’s slain father is present there. The audience knows a camera can’t detect a ghost, so what magic is this? It’s marvellously unsettling.
When Hamlet orchestrates the performance of The Murder Of Gonzago in an effort to prove Claudius’ guilt, the principals all sit in the auditorium, their backs to the audience, cameras giving close-up attention to their responses. It makes for a taut and suspenseful reckoning; the perspective problems inherent in the scene are comprehensively solved. Equally, the use of broadcast images makes the Fortinbras sections, so often unwieldy and frankly boring, seem more urgent, more gripping.
The technology works with the narrative, smooths rough passages and heightens and informs others. For the most part, this serves to underline the drama. Occasionally, such as when Polonius wears a wire and reports his conversation with Hamlet to Claudius, technology is a pivot point for comedy. Critically, though, its use is seamless here – there is no clunky imposition. Icke and Bechtler have thought everything though carefully and it all pays off.
The final scenes, after the Laertes/Hamlet grudge match commences and the serious body-count begins, see Icke and Bechtler achieve a coup de théâtre which is both brutal and exquisitely beautiful. This may offend traditionalists, but to my mind it is a superb way to do justice to Shakespeare’s admonition: the rest is silence.
Natasha Chivers achieves superb lighting effects. There is a burnished, almost nostalgic feel to some aspects and when Hamlet is soliloquising it feels as though there is no one in the room except Scott and you. Tom Gibbons provides masterful sound; there is a lot of music, some of it Bob Dylan, but all of it is part of the hypnotise whole. Some sequences contain no dialogue, just action, even inaction, with music playing – but all convey meaning and purpose. Ophelia’s song, when it comes, a nice piece of writing by Laura Marling, is disturbing as well as elusive.
At about three hours and forty five minutes, including two intervals, Icke’s production is no longer than either the Kinnear or Cumberbatch versions – but, unlike on those occasions, here the time passes effortlessly. It is completely, utterly invigorating and fascinatingly absorbing.
Partly, this is about the way that Icke has ordered the scenes, interpolated scenes long discarded from modern productions and presented new ideas. Quite soon after this Hamlet begins, you realise that it is a different telling of the tale. To Be Or Not To Be comes early; Hamlet and Ophelia are shown being intimate in secret, making it clear that they have had a real, passionate and sexual relationship; Hamlet hides behind a couch and listens to Polonius and Laertes warn Ophelia against him, as well as hears first hand how a father talks to a son he idolises and adores. These simple matters cleverly change a great deal: you see clearly what Hamlet has lost and what motivates his acute grief.
Later, there is a scene where Gertrude realises Claudius is guilty of the murder of her first husband because Horatio tells her of his plan to murder Hamlet. This is a scene long cut, possibly not even written by Shakespeare. But it works incredibly well here. With one short moment, Gertrude’s innocence is established and her fate sealed. When she drinks the poisoned cup, she knows exactly what she is doing and why.
Inspired readings of the text abound. Between the first and second intervals, Icke runs the tense, dramatic (essentially) two-handed scenes which ratchet up the tension. This hones the unrelenting drama incredibly sharply.
The Claudius confession scene is presented as an imagined moment in Hamlet’s feverish mind. He is agog with what he thinks the play-within-a-play sequence has proven and he imagines what comes next. It is hair-raising to watch, brilliantly terrifying, with Hamlet gun in hand, an executioner in waiting, and Claudius, scotch in hand, a possible wronged man weary and ready for his fate. I have never seen that scene work to such incredible effect.
The cast whole-heartedly embrace Icke’s vision for Hamlet. Juliet Stevenson is phenomenal as Gertrude, a woman who, for reasons never disclosed, is totally, passionately in love with her first husband’s brother and he for her. The intense physical bond between Gertrude and Claudius is tangible; they frolic together like giddy first loves. Her maternal feelings for Hamlet are just as strong, and through a graceful and incisive performance, Stevenson’s Gertrude is puzzled and confused, then appalled and deadened, by the machinations of Claudius and the reactions of Hamlet.
Stevenson has a marvellous capacity to convey fastidious pain, blistering confusion, and serene compassion, and her Gertrude showcases this ability. The Closet scene is phenomenally affecting, a torrent of fear and disturbed sanity; her delivery of the news of Ophelia’s death accomplished, chilling and loving. Her silences speak volumes, every nerve of her face and her remarkable eyes always in play.
Matching her every step of the way is Angus Wright’s fastidious, urbane and detached Claudius, the Francis Urqhuart of Denmark. He beautifully dismisses Hamlet as a childish irritation in his first scene, and he never gives away whether or not Claudius is truly evil until the last possible moment. His subtle, implacable reaction to The Murder Of Gonzago is deliciously ambiguous; his mastery of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is complete; his soft spot in Gertrude, the aching melody of a life long desire.
Wright is sensational in his confessional confrontation with Scott’s Hamlet – a smooth and studied exercise in taunting an unhinged aggressive gnat. Later, his svelte assassin mode is dangerous and seductive, whipping Laertes into a murderous frenzy without raising a single bead of sweat himself. The look on his face when Gertrude defies him over the poisoned chalice heralds the shattering of his personal House of Cards in a life-before-your-eyes kind of way. Wright misses no beats. A silky, sly and sensational Claudius.
Hamlet is a tale of three murdered fathers and the reactions of their sons. With the Fortinbras angle reduced to minimum newsheadline status, greater time and effort can be spent on the Polonius/Laertes position and the pivotal and pivoting role of Ophelia. This production sees the best Polonius family for many a year. Their scenes are rewarding rather than necessary; each character is deeply and deftly conveyed.
Peter Wight is a brilliant buffoon as Polonius, convincing as a make-do courtier and the best father he can be. His foolish attempts to get the better of Hamlet are seen as the folly of a loyal servant, and Wight aces many laughs in the role. But his strength lies in the bond he establishes with his children, so when he is inadvertently murdered by Hamlet, he is mourned. Many versions of Polonius are not.
Luke Thompson is a virile, attractive, and intelligent Laertes, and he seems a much more three-dimensional character in Thompson’s hands than is often the case. A background with Hamlet is hinted at – young men who grew up together, Ophelia a common love.
Thompson establishes a strong, believable bond between his Laertes and Jessica Brown Findlay’s wonderful Ophelia. He spins the plates in the final Act very well – a desperate need to avenge his father’s murder against his loyalty and love for Hamlet. Thompson’s energy in the climactic fencing scene is startlingly effective.
Brown Findlay shines as Ophelia, helped in no small measure by the fact that the audience sees Hamlet’s true, tender affection for her. She is totally believable throughout, and especially when Hamlet rails against her. It is inspired to have her confined to a wheelchair when she is thought mad – the sense that her insanity is caused by forces outside of her control is potent.
The acute signs of madness – the singing, the distribution of herbs, the blank faced stare of incomprehension, the volatile mood swings – are sewn into the very fabric of this Ophelia. Brown Findlay is tender and traumatised, alluring and lost. She is savagely sweet, sweetly savage – and never anyone’s plaything. An independent, splendid force of nature crushed by circumstance. It’s a truly affecting Ophelia that Brown Findlay captivatingly presents.
There is excellent work too from David Rintoul as the Ghost and Player King, Barry Aird as a particularly funny Gravedigger, Elliot Barnes-Worrell as a solidly loyal Horatio, and Amaka Okafor as a gender-switched and canny Guildenstern. “My lord, you once did love me” had a very different resonance with Okafor. John MacMillan is an impressive Fortinbras despite being relegated to video screen presence only.
This is not a production where the beauty of the language, the glory of the verse speaking is given pride of place. There are exquisite passages, unarguably, but great effort has been made to render the verse comprehensible rather than beautiful.
Only Calum Findlay, though, as a whiny Rosencrantz, really misses the mark in terms of vocal delivery. But it’s not fatal, it’s little more than irritating. Given the loquacious nature of the staging, and the many examples of pristine delivery, the fact that an accessible way into the language has been preferred over an utterly beautiful one is both understandable and forgivable.
This splendid fusion of classical delivery and the immediate language of 2017 is most prevalent in Scott’s virtuoso Prince. His soliloquies are a marvel, intimate, refreshing, soul-searching studies of pain and self-knowledge. They all seem like sudden inspirational contemplations rather than big set-piece goals to be kicked into touch. Other passages scream today, as speed equates with feeling and effort, and less, in terms of articulation, is considerably more. Whether he quakes and rages, or shivers and simmers, the meaning of what Scott says is never, ever in doubt.
Scott is electrifying – and impossibly tender – in the title role and reaps the benefit of a first rate cast. He is exactly as you would expect him to be as Hamlet, and nothing like you expect, all at once; regal, passionate, funny, fragile, stern, and ablaze with mad revengeful thoughts, a lonely little boy who loved his Dad and can’t face the world without him. The extremes are extreme indeed – never has a Hamlet cried hot tears of broken pain of inconsolable loss like this and rarely has a Hamlet been as fragile or as quicksilver cerebral.
Using his hands to communicate a sense of frustration, rage or contemplative fury, Scott orchestrates Hamlet’s self – contained one moment, fulminating the next, smiling in crumpled disarray, grimacing with contempt or concern. Mercurial is an understatement, but also inadequate.
Scott is an endlessly revolving prism of emotions and failings, real and imagined. He brilliantly anchors his Hamlet against the certainties of the other principal characters, making their performances all the crisper, more complete. Pauses and evocative silences are as important to his Hamlet as eloquent, cogent rhetoric or impassioned tumult. He is self deprecating too, making light of his foibles to encourage laughter. He is magnificent.
Scott’s performance is a real blaze of extraordinary talent. A Hamlet for every age, every generation.
In years to come, this will be considered a celebrated, possibly controversial, production of Hamlet. It seems to me to be a beacon of theatrical acuity in a time when, generally, form is celebrated over substance. Icke is a genius, and this production is his greatest work to date. It is completely, utterly invigorating and fascinatingly absorbing. An easy five stars. A glorious, exciting evening of theatre.
The Almeida right now is more of a national theatre than the National Theatre. Robert Icke and Rupert Gold are prodigious talents, ones that put Rufus Norris’ questionable skills into sharp perspective.
Nothing should stop theatre lovers seeing this.