Theater review by Raven Snook
A depressed adolescent Hamlet, armed with a handgun and grappling with loss, feels uncannily suited to the cultural moment. When English director Robert Icke's production of Shakespeare’s tragedy premiered to acclaim in London five years ago, Andrew Scott's middle-aged Prince of Denmark cut a very different figure. But in the production’s New York engagement, with perennial troubled-youth portrayer Alex Lawther (The End of the F***ing World) as the great Dane, Shakespeare's ghost story becomes an unsettlingly contemporary tale of insurmountable and all-consuming grief.
Clocking in at almost four hours, this Hamlet shows us the full monarch. Surveillance screens are everywhere in designer Hildegard Bechtler grayscale, warehouse-chic Elsinore; the spirit of the recently deceased king (David Rintoul) reveals himself to Hamlet, his mourning son, in a jump scare conjured chillingly by Tal Yarden's video design. Already cursing the hasty remarriage of his mother Gertrude (a sympathetic Jennifer Ehle) to his uncle Claudius (Angus Wright), Hamlet is sent into a tailspin when the ghost demands revenge for his murder. The rest is tragedy, as Hamlet's erratic behavior destroys everyone in his path.
Lawther’s youthfulness—he is 27 but reads a decade younger—helps make him a remarkably legible Hamlet, with a quaver in his voice, a nervous physicality that seems always on the verge of explosion, and a mindset that makes you question what's real. When played by older actors, the character can seem callous and murkily motivated. But teenagers are naturally volatile and capricious, and in times of crisis they can be downright dangerous—to others and to themselves. In Lawther's tormented performance, familiar soliloquies take on fresh urgency. "To be, or not to be" is no longer just a meditation on mortality, but an anguished cry for help.
Lawther’s audacious turn makes up for the production's longueurs. Some of Icke's innovations are clever: Kirsty Rider's heartbreaking Ophelia is a cutter, and Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are reimagined as Hamlet's ex-girlfriend (Tia Bannon) and her dubious new beau (Calum Finlay). Other choices are less successful, such as the dementia-stricken Polonius (Peter Wight)—which robs the character of his pompous humor—and the protracted play-within-a-play that ends awkwardly at the first intermission. There are also more moody Dylan songs than in Girl From the North Country. Yet it's a testament to Lawther’s breathtaking commitment that even though you know where Hamlet is headed, you may feel an urge to jump on stage and try to stop the insanity.
Park Avenue Armory (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Icke. With Alex Lawther. Running time: 3hrs 45mins. Two intermissions.
Note: This production plays in rep at the Park Avenue Armory with Icke's Oresteia.