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Transferring to the West End, Robert Icke's Andrew Scott-starring production of 'Hamlet' remains remarkable
There’s one final chance to see ‘Hamlet’: it will screen on BBC2 at 9pm on Saturday March 31
Moving seamlessly from the Almeida to the West End, Robert Icke's production of 'Hamlet' remains extraordinarily, heartbreakingly beautiful.
Though it must be pretty brutal up in the nosebleeds, the Harold Pinter Theatre is basically pretty intimate, and very little has been changed or lost in the move to the 800-seater - designer Hildegard Bechtler has even made the walls look like the tiny Islington theatre's rough exposed brickwork.
It's been slightly trimmed and there's a couple of cast changes, the most notable being the imminent departure of Juliet Stevenson as Hamlet's deeply, dangerously loving mother Gertrude (Derbhle Crotty takes over the role from July 4).
But star Andrew Scott is here for the long haul and remains startlingly fresh in the title role, his desperately vulnerable Danish prince sobbing out the soliloquies as if he was thinking of the words for the very first time. It’s the strength of the ensemble – and the sense that these characters are a community – that makes the three-and-a-half-hours zip by, though. Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia as a passionate posh girl Ophelia whose feeling for Hamlet are clearly reciprocated; Peter Wight as a startlingly potent Polonius, his rambling implied to perhaps be the first stages of dementia.
It’s a production marked by constant quietly radical choices - what the hell is going on in Claudius's now deeply ambiguous confession scene? - but second time around it was the final scene that really floored me. Far from the usual brutal bloodbath, it shimmers with warmth and companionship and the heartbreaking sense that Hamlet and extended family are good friends who've misunderstood each other, not mortal enemies (in another audacious intervention from the director, Luke Thompson’s Laertes appears to try to get out of using the poisoned rapier).
It does not end happily, but as the assorted dead drift off to an elegant, otherworldly cocktail party, the lingering feeling is not horror or reproach, but love; endless, complicated love
This is the original review from 'Hamlet's Almeida run, posted March 2 2017
Star director Robert Icke’s achingly compassionate take on ‘Hamlet’ presents Shakespeare’s masterpiece as a shimmeringly sad vision of love. The play is always morally ambivalent, but here it’s a world free of heroes and villains, in which nobody really means badly, but everyone is damned by their passions and frailties.
Admittedly most of it is one man’s passions and frailties. When we meet Andrew Scott’s Hamlet he is confused and miserable, blinking back tears and barely functional as he tries and fails to rationalise the recent death of his father and the rapid remarriage of his mother Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) to his uncle Claudius (Angus Wright). But when he apparently sees his father’s ghost, who tells him he was murdered by Claudius, this withdrawn young man starts to drift in a dangerous direction. Desperate to find sense in his father’s death, he starts to tear down Elsinore.
Icke is famed as an avant-garde director with a European bent, but it’s striking how little he tries to foist a big concept on ‘Hamlet’. Instead his main innovation – aside from adding a bunch of Bob Dylan songs – is to cast serious doubt on whether Wright’s Claudius did in fact commit the murder. Scholars of the text will be aware Hamlet does in fact overhear Claudius confessing to the murder, but Icke smartly – and audaciously – presents this as though it might be a hallucination of the declining Danish prince. Right to the end of this production of history’s most famous revenge thriller it remains unclear whether there is actually anything to take revenge for. And if there is, Gertrude and Claudius’s love for each other is shown to be absolutely genuine and true, and Hamlet’s poisoning of it as great a tragedy as anything else that happens.
Scott speaks the verse beautifully, conversationally. It sounds like he is saying everything for the very first time, that these timeless soliloquies are his unfiltered stream of consciousness, that almost anything might happen. One moment he is calm and morose, the next he is in a genuinely frightening rage. It is livewire, edge-of-the-seat stuff. Clearly this Hamlet is not in his right mind, but as the play wears on you sense a terrible anxiety propelling his actions, a fear he isn’t right about Claudius, the tragic sense that his eloquent existential dread has nowhere legitimate to ground itself.
Icke’s production is stripped back and unhurried (a watch is a recurring motif); the only person in a hurry is Hamlet, desperate to do something – anything – to make sense of his dad’s death. It’s a long but uncluttered production, giving plenty of room to the words, letting the family relationships spool out gracefully. It’s also intimate and wryly comic, warmed by the rustic Dylan songs – a world away from the misguided sturm und drang of London’s last major ‘Hamlet’, the 2015 production starring Scott’s mucker Benedict Cumberbatch.
The cast is strong all over: Wright’s Claudius is a brilliant study in ambiguity; Stevenson offers an increasingly harrowing vision of fierce, instinctual maternal love; Peter Wight’s Polonius is less light relief than usual, more a powerful patriarch whose powers are starting to fail him; Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia is painfully gawky and innocent, collateral to Hamlet’s greater passions for his parents.
The fireworks come from Scott, but he’s a long ways from his Moriarty ham mode – he is playing a bright, brilliant, sensitive young man suffering indescribably. Though Icke avoids the whizbang conceptualising of so many productions of this play, the sheer tenderness of his staging consistently and brilliantly wrongfoots us. Even the climactic fight scene is presented as warm and companionable, one last poignant glimpse of love, one last rattle of the minute hand, before silence descends.