Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 9 September 2017
Hamlet may or may not be Shakespeare’s magnum opus, but the Dane is unquestionably one of the greatest roles in the English language. Theatre’s pop star Robert Icke, what with his reputation for hot takes on the classics, no doubt found the play’s allure irresistible. This Hamlet, freshly transferred to the West End from the Almeida, is a slick, beast of a production surpassing three hours. Undeniably contemporary, it does its best to smash the restrictions of the proscenium arch with a celebrity cast and achingly cool, Scandi/corporate design. His casting of Andrew Scott in the title role and subsequent character choices makes this a Hamlet for cool young people on the hunt for profundity, depth of meaning and instagrammable aesthetics.
How is Andrew Scott? He excels as an underplayed, dry-humoured hipster with a turbulent inner life. His delivery has a subtle, sarcastic edge, with a sea of troubles aching for comfort and attention. He is a Hamlet for millennials, which explains the younger audiences’ love for him and the elders’ lack of patience. Were he a real person, he’d be the sort that goes to quirky, overpriced bars and complains about how too many people know about these places now. He’d holiday in Thai eco resorts, wear designer shoes, and charity shop trousers. He would have gone to a top private school, but moans daily about the ruling elite. He’d dream of slumming it in a bedsit in a rough apart of town, but would still take Ubers everywhere and have his supermarket shop delivered from Ocado. But, a warning – you wouldn’t want to date him. He’d be the sort of guy that would make you believe you are the most special person in the world, and you would want to fix his poetic, troubled soul. He’d write you poems or songs accompanied with his ukelele and make sweeping romantic gestures. After months, maybe years, of heated arguments followed by achingly passionate sex, he would grow distant and cold – because you don’t really understand him you see, and there’s someone younger and prettier and more interesting hanging about the periphery that has captured his waning attention.
Jessica Brown Findlay is a contemporary Ophelia, and as much of an independent young woman as she can be. But the character remains fundamentally weak and problematic. Her madness is still a stretch after her brother’s death, and she is still continuously at the mercy of men’s decisions. I’ve long thought physicalised/mimed transitions depicting her deterioration would go a long way, and in productions as modern as this one, her struggle against male authority would, too. There are hints of it here in her body language, but not enough to convincingly fit into modern life.
Gertrude and Claudius are blandly apolitical, the most frustratingly boring characters in this production. Juliet Stevenson gives Hamlet’s mother more personality than Angus Wright endows on Claudius – he totally lacks any sort of high status or power in his characterization, and is frightfully dull. Gertrude, similar to Ophelia, doesn’t have any power in the text or original context anyway – she would have only married her dead husband’s brother as an act of self-preservation. As a pair, they are reminiscent of contemporary Western monarchs who are figureheads rather than the wielders of political influence – the choice makes sense in context, but is painfully untheatrical.
The rest of the cast are generally good, though there are plenty of examples of fragmented delivery that cause the pace to wobble. Taking out the mid-line pauses across the entirety of the production would cut a good chunk off the total running time and keep energy up. The stakes often feel too low for the story.
The Scandi/corporate cool design is all grey floor tiles, glass sliding doors and minimalist furniture. The use of an inner chamber is a great nod to Elizabethan theatres, though it’s underused – fair dos what with difficult sight lines. The giant CCTV screens that raise and lower as needed are impressively sinister in our world of constant government surveillance and police violence towards civilians. They introduce a desperate paranoia and underlying Big Brother system to the sleekly casual set, and their presence is domineering and aggressive – a great contrast to the otherwise casually domestic look.
For the most part Icke serves the script and his direction is subtly naturalistic, but there is one distinctly baffling staging choice that makes no textual sense. When Claudius kneels in an attempt to pray for forgiveness and believes he is alone, instead of being unaware that Hamlet has discovered him, Icke puts Hamlet in his eye line. Claudius directs his speech to Hamlet and any question of this being non-literal vanishes when Hamlet raises his gun, and Claudius lifts his arms in surrender whilst admitting that he is unable to commit to an admission of guilt. Hamlet’s choice to not shoot in this context seals his tragic fate and underlines his inability to commit to action, but within the moment it doesn’t suit the text whatsoever. In addition, Wright’s flat delivery dissolves any tension Icke tries to create. Though I normally endorse directors pushing past the limits of the text, this is so far in contradiction to it that it is a sin against Shakespeare practice. It’s awful.
Did this Hamlet blow my mind? No. But it’s certainly not a bad production. It has its flaws, but it doesn’t feel it’s length and the production concept is sound. Scott’s character choice makes a fine Hamlet, and the prodution’s appeal to younger audiences is clear and commendable. But no pros arch Shakespeare in a big house has the dynamism of a thrust stage and shared light. Not that everything has to be staged at the Globe, but a dark house and a fourth wall goes totally against the theatrical conventions for which the play was originally written, and many of Shakespeare’s textual devices struggle in more modern theatres. Icke does a fantastic job at overcoming these obstacles. But the only aspect of the show that makes this any sort of seminal production of our time is Scott’s characterization.