I got far too hyped discussing the last big Hamlet and, worst of all, it ended up not being that big—Cumberbatch was competent, but the production didn’t generate discussion beyond theatre demography and the post-show ‘fuck the politicians’ appeal. This one, in the Almeida’s tight proscenium, is far larger, in thought rather than aspect, and it’s often a piece of low-key magic.
Before we mention Andrew Scott, we have to talk about Robert Icke. Icke’s my favourite director in the UK: if there exists a theatrical language, he’s fast approaching fluency, and crucial to that is his mastery of the formal and colloquial, which he’s improving with every production. But formal and colloquial appear mutually exclusive. While 60’s-set The Red Barn doesn’t count, the tension of these two forces applies to Icke’s Uncle Vanya and Oresteia and now to this.
With classics come convention, and not just the stuff embedded in the text, but performance history as well, and Hamlet carries the most baggage of any play ever (for some reason, the Mark Ravenhill lecture where he interrogates Hamlet’s performance history is no longer on Youtube, but the thrust of it is there’s too much expectation of the play that’s got little to do with the text itself). Icke has said he’s on a mission to make classics (not great again but) ‘electric and dangerous’ (well, maybe that means great again); I believe ‘electric’ over ‘dangerous’, but that’s an artefact of our time: People will riot over the regressive rather than progressive, so we can never get a first-showing-of-The-Seagull event in UK theatre. But that’s okay, because—at the clash of formal and colloquial—there are electric moments in this Hamlet, and the best thing is that they happen at times of low energy rather than high.
Side note: I think I’ve gotten over the Headlong-inflected Massive Visuals And Sound To Underscore Big Moments technique, which happens in this during the meeting of young and old Hamlet, and makes the scene more ‘okay, sure’ than ‘wow, that’s spooky’ (but I guess there’s only so much anguish that can be communicated with Inception-like BONGGGGs).
No. It’s the quiet, colloquial parts which open the prospect of revelation.
I’m conflating colloquial with naturalism and formal with non-naturalism, but there’s method in it. There’s a complex of formal elements in Hamlet that are hard to avoid: Seeing the King’s Ghost; Hamlet eavesdropping on Claudius; all soliloquies (people don’t tend to reveal their pure thoughts to others, least of all in complete, gorgeous verse). If you were a director and hidebound in modernising, you’d try to naturalise all of this convention seen as clunky to a modern audience; if you didn’t care, you’d leave all of the stiffness in; if you were daring, you’d try to fuse the two and, in that, form some non-cliched bridge between classic and contemporary.
It was in one of my first reviews where I claimed Icke’s Oresteia lacked enough formality. I was dumber back then, but at least I spotted a tension between theatrical registers—though still, I never got into why formality is important. After all, it’s rarely ever there in TV and film. Why should I care? The problem is that, for Hamlet, recognition of performance is a key part of the text: Claudius holds court, Polonius speaks in aphorisms (whereas Horatio doesn’t), The Players play, and Hamlet can’t decide, among other things, whether to play his role or not (‘To be…’). To chuck the formal out is to miss something, but then to keep it in is to risk oddness. And there are odd scenes in Icke’s staging: Claudius’ confession is directed to Hamlet, which raises it beyond the cold-blooded murder that he describes later; Polonius conspicuously speaks into a hidden microphone for his encounter with Hamlet and far too openly for even a senility angle to work. I’m not cavilling here: when naturalism is applied in key scenes, it’s impossible to not to apply its logic to the rest. But then there are moments of the production where natural and nonnatural harmonise. When Claudius holds court in the beginning, it’s warm and homely and yet the sense of courtly hierarchy is never lost, and you can parallel this with the show’s end: Laertes and Hamlet’s fencing match is a formal, performative game, yet Icke injects chaos between the rounds, turning the inevitable and formalised (by convenient poison) deaths into something much, much realer.
An example. Now, the following is probably ineffable, but I’m going to try: The quintessence (not of dust, but) of the show is in the tiniest moment of it at the end, when Hamlet moves to drink Claudius’ poisoned cup but Gertrude stops him and drinks it all herself. This action, and the way Juliet Stevenson conveys it, is the great moment of the night: What she does is simultaneously non-textual, as Hamlet declines the drink normally, but also perfectly textual, as Gertrude is set to die anyway. The look she gives Hamlet and her husband is so sad and quick and yet lingers there until the show’s end. Though even the above isn’t enough to explain the reaction this part generates: Read other reviews, because for some inexplicable reason many other commentators have highlighted the moment, despite it being such a narrow part of a four-hour production. It’s ultimately a mystery, but if there is any explanation for it, it probably starts with the formal-informal tension I’ve outlined.
So we now get on to Andrew Scott, whose low-key delivery is revelatory. Everything he says through his lilt comes out shockingly contemporary, and particularly with the Famous Lines, where he seems to ignore all expectations of cadences and the like in favour of 21st-century-style delivery. BUT DO NOT THINK ‘YES, A HAMLET FOR OUR TIMES’. I’ve tried to stress there’s no massive contemporary grounding to the production: while there’s a programme essay about contemporary psychology and scientific theories about voices in one’s head, Scott doesn’t take in his dad’s apparition like a modern-day male would. It seems as though he will, after his first encounter with the Ghost, but the ambiguity of his madness gives the lie to that.
You could pick out two levels at which his Hamlet operates: the soft-spoken introspector and the loud agitator. ‘Introspector’ will harken the Classic Performance Hamlet—pensive, philosophic, fist-on-chin—yet Scott doesn’t lay out neat premises and entailments so much as playfully speculates, and by speculating produces meditations the way we all would: spontaneously. However, I need clarify the difference between his performance’s naturalism and the non-naturalism re the reaction to the ghost, which also introduces my big criticism of Scott’s delivery. His Hamlet moves from introspector to agitator at the drop of the hat, and it’s the same soft-to-loud delivery we’ve seen Scott do as Moriarty (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pno-QZRmmyk). Not to cheapen his skills, but that clip summarises his Hamlet well: at an arbitrary spot, he’ll switch from soft to loud, and the harder to guess the point at which it happens, the greater the subversion and disruption. But the arbitrariness of it is crucial to knowing his portrayal because if this Hamlet can change his emotional appearance at will, there’s a core to his being that we’re missing: if there are two levels of him that he navigates, we never the witness the man that controls these levels, even in his soliloquies, because as natural as his introspection is, his Hamlet is burdened with the ability to turn big and small at will. Of course, this is done on purpose, as it means that the enigma of his character (which may be an artefact of our presentism, though Eliot’s objective correlative etc.) is sustained. Even in his soliloquies, we’re distanced. Which could be a Romantic sign of respect in that we’ll never know the Dane’s true internal self, but this still doesn’t signify madness or the mental shock of a massive hallucination, as he appears to have far too much agency for those reactions (this is through my verisimilitude filter at least; maybe he’s an accurate portrait to other people). The problem with the volitional switching is simply a sympathetic one: there’s no chance to cry for this Hamlet because he’s too calculated. The peaks of his energy stop that, even if his reserve approaches it.
Reserve is more generally where the the production’s subtleties and changes play out best. The action is set in a monarchical modern Denmark, with two different modes by way of Hildegard Bechtler (Set and Costumes) and Natasha Chivers (Lighting): the surveillance nexus at the ramparts, bathed in blue light and the glow of many monitors, and the castle, with long, flat Scandi furniture set against the warmth of fairy lights and Easy Listening (courtesy of Tom Gibbons). The warm court is remarkable, as it characterises Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) and Claudius (Angus Wright) so favourably. When it’s not looking like a police state, Elsinore is homely, and to some extent suffused with genuine love: the king and queen hold each other fast and snog like teenagers but show something more than adolescence, as it appears they’re genuinely perfect for each other—like Gertrude’s previous marriage was a political move whereas this is something else. Wright is suave, authoritative and not in the least bit evil, and so affable, in fact, that his villainy never sticks, particularly in the confession scene. Stevenson, for her small stage time, nails her love for Hamlet, particularly in the tiniest expressions captured in the recorded parts of show (Joshua Higgott’s Marcellus films certain sections with a live feed to the constellation of screens above the stage). Uncanny in her affection during the interjection of the finale and her reactions to the Mousetrap, she equally perfects her horror at how far gone Hamlet is following Polonius’ murder.
Oddly enough, compared with the Barbican Hamlet where I complained about character arcs and less acquainted with the play, here I could clearly see the natural poverty of the smaller roles; and I could certainly see the justification for Ophelia’s Zimmer and the like. Ophelia, of whom Jessica Brown Findlay pitch-perfectly turns the affection for Hamlet from doe-eyed admiration into a complex friend-partner dynamic, can’t avoid her grief’s exploitation in the text. Even when she’s in a wheelchair as opposed to rabidly thrusting about, her breakdown doesn’t hit us and distances instead. Stoppard aside, Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay) and Guildenstern (Amaka Okafor) get a fair treatment, particularly through Icke’s intervention of making the latter a former partner of Hamlet and the former an apparent 70’s-dressed Marxist who won’t shake the hand of the king. It seems minor, but differentiating the two (which makes the joke that Claudius can’t differentiate them even better) means they seem like they and Hamlet were actual friends and students at Wittenberg. I would like to add to this list Horatio (Elliot Barnes-Worrell), but unfortunately he appears edited out a lot, most annoyingly in a truncated Gravedigger scene which could have been four hours longer for how wonderfully matter-of-fact Barry Aird’s eponymous man is; I should also add Hamlet’s calculatedness doesn’t gel well with Horatio’s friendly faith and makes him appear a bit gormless.
I’ve waxed lyrical over the quietness of the production; in fact, drawing out the natural impulses of the play explains (partly) the use of Bob Dylan for the soundtrack—Scott’s not a folksy Hamlet but the production certainly pits the organic, unstudied self against the constructed version. Then again, the scaffolding that supports the totalitarian aspect of the play is undersupported: as it makes clear from the blue-light, CCTV-and-screen mode, there’s an extension of Claudius’ surveillance of Hamlet into the realm of a panopticonic state. But the means of spying on the prince don’t add up: Polonius uses a basic lav to record Hamlet when he appears to have the full capabilities of Marcellus and Reynaldos’ equipment. That’s a carp, but it goes to show that the angle Icke presents is nowhere near as totalising as it needs to be and rather appears like a limp holdover from his 1984 work. Also, guns on stage always look ridiculous (and I don’t think I’ll ever be convinced otherwise).
Actually, the guns’ loudness (of appearance, not sound) is a problem, and this opens up the production’s greatest weakness: it’s bad when it’s loud (sight and sound included). It’s fine for Scott to aleatorily shout, but when everyone’s also highly strung the thing loses power. Despite edits, this Hamlet’s four hours long, with Icke’s idiosyncratic division of parts (105, 35 and 55-minute sections with 15-minute intervals). The length shouldn’t worry, but ironically for a director trying to compete with the excitement of TV & Film, his work suffers from Late Act Two Problems, or in Shakespearean division, Act Three and Four Problems. Everything from Polonius’s death to the Gravedigger’s scene betrays the Almeida’s delicate character, and the tension, rather than building to catastrophe, dissolves amid the tumult and necessity of setting up the fencing match, which may work in a cavernous West End venue but crumples everything here and nullifies anything Luke Thompson’s Laertes presents (who has an impossible part to begin with, but cannot avoid the seductive histrionics of the son’s return and anger).
So, there’s Icke’s Hamlet. I’ve spoken many words about it: Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief: it’s electric, overcharged at parts, yet alive in ways many Hamlet‘s have never been.