'Hamlet' review or 'What a thing is man!'

Hamlet – William Shakespeare
Almeida Theatre, 28th February 2017

Laughter is a brilliant indicator of the relative bravery and success of a Shakespearean production. The more surprising and spontaneous the laughter, the bolder and brighter the show. In Robert Icke’s thrilling new take on Hamlet – which is set in the modern day, with Shakespeare’s original text almost completely intact – all the laughter comes in the ‘wrong’ places. Sorrow pulses through you when you least expect it and laughter bubbles up in scenes that, until this very night, you would’ve sworn were deadly serious. Everything is up for grabs and all expectations confounded in this most rare of beasts: a brand new take on Hamlet.

This is Shakespeare without the shackles. In fact, this might be the most un-Shakespearean Shakespeare I’ve ever seen – and it is so much more, well, Shakespearean for it. There are moments throughout Andrew Scott’s spellbinding soliloquies – forever burned into my brain and etched onto heart – that the stage, actors and time itself seems to slip away. We are plunged into that dazzling black hole that opens up in those rare and brilliant moments at the theatre, when it feels like the world has disappeared and we are hearing Shakespeare’s words for the very first time; that he has written those words today, and he has written them for us.  

The production is audaciously low-key – a ‘refusal’ to perform scored into every line, every acting tic, every costume, and every prop. Hildegard Bechtler’s elegant set looks like a refined penthouse, decorated by someone so rich they need not show it. The main scenes play out on the front stage, whilst ‘extra’ scenes play out on the back stage, separated by large glass doors. This is a production of rippling textures. Beyond those glass doors, relationships build and crumble, parties rumble and the afterlife itself flares up, then disappears.

A block of screens hang above the stage – smaller ones scattered throughout the audience – and it is here that the framework of Denmark is quite literally installed. Regular news segments flicker up and the text and spoken word is in Danish; a little touch but one of endless little touches that bothers to establish and sustain a convincing reality, rather than lazily nod at an assumed one.

On this screen we will see Claudius (Angus Wright – frighteningly composed and coiled as ever) watch the play-within-a-play, his guilt forever captured in a frozen image. Those screens will transmit security footage and we will watch the ghost of Hamlet’s father stalk through Elsinore, lurch up to the camera and confront us all. We will watch Fortinbras and his men lay down their lives for a tiny plot of land as Hamlet looks on, utterly removed from the action and frozen to the spot.

The screens are highly effective, yet they are never used merely to create an effect. Any ‘effect’ we experience in this production has been achieved with exacting precision, and every embellishment (be that a live-recorded scene, a flourish of Andrew Scott’s hand, or a Bob Dylan song layered over a fencing match) feels like a more realistic version of reality, a truth discovered, rather than nifty effect layered on top of that which we already know to be true.

That same refusal to embellish is particularly apparent, and admirable, when it comes to the acting. None of these brilliant performers are trying to give us ‘their’ Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia or Hamlet. Instead, it feels like every actor has managed to start with a blank page, as if approaching a script that has no history and no precedent. Every actor in this production – and they are all superb - has had the courage to create not a ‘definitive’ role but an absolutely dynamic and unstable one.  

Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude is a fascinating chameleon who keeps the audience guessing until her dying breath. There are endless ‘background’ scenes, which play out behind the glass doors, in which Gertrude and Claudius flirt, dance, embrace. These two are not just hot for each other; they might just be in love. It is impossible to know how much Stevenson’s Gertrude knows. When Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her closet, she seems shocked when he suggests Claudius’s role in her husband’s death. When Gertrude agrees to help Hamlet – who waves a gun around like a man possessed – she is quite clearly saving herself, and not her son. And yet by the time that devastating fencing scene arrives, Gertrude’s decision to down Hamlet’s poisoned drink feels entirely altruistic. Bob Dylan plays over the scene so loudly that we cannot hear what Gertrude says. There is a scorching inevitability to Gertrude’s death as she toasts Hamlet’s health and the music pulses on, and on, and on.

The other performers are equally brave and unpredictable.  Peter Wight’s Polonius is no buffoon and he gets far fewer laughs for it. But when the laughs do come they are genuine rather than affected. And when Polonius’s death comes, it is a real and flawed father we see killed – rather than forgettable figure of fun.

Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia is bright, sparky and defiant – and very much in love with Hamlet. Ophelia and Hamlet share a tender dance, a moment in the bath, many gentle kisses and endless loving glances. There is so much love in this intimate and deeply personal take on ‘Hamlet’. The Nunnery scene, when it comes, is brutal – but only because it is so tender. This is not a cruel Hamlet but a Hamlet so broken that he cannot will the love of his life to stay alive, to procreate, to carry on.

And then there is Scott’s Hamlet, who is absolutely convincing and devastating at every moment – yet utterly different from one second to the next. There are later scenes in which this tortured, thoughtful and broken man suddenly feels dangerous. Hamlet turns on Gertrude with a gun and we cannot be sure he will not shoot. There is a moment when the music, which quietly haunts the entire production, goes silent as Horatio asks Hamlet what has become of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And in that piercing silence Hamlet becomes, for just a second, a remorseless and vindictive man.

Scott’s Hamlet can be very funny, and there are some quips that feel so spontaneous they could’ve been ad-libbed. Imagine that! A performance so fresh it feels as if Shakespeare might be scribbling behind the curtains, amending the script as the night races on.

Above all, Scott’s Hamlet’s is very, very sad – and Christ how we feel that sadness within us. There is something so vulnerable and exposed about Scott’s acting; it is almost elemental. He burns on stage. His pain is our pain and it scorches our skin. When Scott’s Hamlet steps to the front of the stage, it feels like he is standing right next to every single one of us. He feels dangerously, painfully close.

Scott’s Hamlet is driven by fear: fear of the depths of his sorrow, fear of loneliness, fear of the futility of existence, fear of death. All those soliloquies, which almost melt with meaning – so fluid and tangible and lucid are they - are the thoughts of a man wracked by grief. They do not feel like soliloquies. They feel like the mumblings of a supremely thoughtful man, unable to sleep.

The gravedigger scene is not funny - but it is brilliant. It is the realisation of Hamlet’s nightmares, his fear of death come to stalk him during the day. Hamlet asks the gravedigger, ‘Whose grave is this?’ and the man replies ‘Mine sir.’ But we feel like it is Hamlet’s. When Claudius calls for Hamlet to fight Laertes in a duel, Hamlet turns to Horatio and says: ‘The readiness is all.’ But it is not revenge that Hamlet is finally ready for. It is death. And when Hamlet ultimately falls silent – as we do all, hushed and heartbroken - it feels like a little part of us has lied down with him.   


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