The Almeida Theatre, London
The play’s the thing and never more so than in Hamlet, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play.
Here murder, death and deceit; love, loss, what is real and what is imagined; the very meaning of life and life’s consequences are confronted in Hamlet’s struggle against his fate. His is a fight to the death and death is part of the Dane’s journey. Hamlet’s is a disappointing world: ‘weary, stale, flat and unprofitable’.
In Act I we confront a dispossessed, poisoned king, poisoned politics and a prince devoured by grief. Hamlet is haunted and prompted by his father’s ghost to avenge his ‘foul and most unnatural murder’ at the hand of his uncle, Claudius, newly installed as his mother’s lover and husband. Robbed of his sovereignty and his wits, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Elsinore is a veritable castle of doubt and double dealing.
Robert Icke is the director du jour and his production of Hamlet at the small Almeida theatre does not disappoint. It dazzles – all four hours of it. Icke’s daring direction includes a modern day staging replete with high def CCTV surveillance screens of the Ghost; Claudius skyping Fortinbras as he prepares to invade Poland; newsreels, a wiretap on Polonius’ lapel and a soundtrack from that other Bard, Bob Dylan. Alas, there is no shelter from the storm on this stage. A techno trap where Claudius is tricked into revealing his murderous guilt is especially, cunningly staged.
Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, ‘pale as a shirt, his knees knocking each other’ gives a moving, intimate performance of the prince, by turns cruel and cold hearted, crushed and cracked. Scott held me spellbound as he uttered Hamlet’s innermost thoughts and philosophical meditations, revealing an all too mortal man and his moral struggle ‘to be or not to be’. I quivered at the directness and solemn delivery of his soliloquies, which are some of the most moving monologues in all literature and for which the play is famous. Shakespeare is the poet; Scott the player extraordinaire amid the pretenders. We see his heart wander. We feel his doom and darkness. We suffer with him as he debates ‘whether ‘it’s nobler in mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles? ‘. We stare deeply into his human self.
Icke’s production is a straightforward rendition of a personal and historical tragedy. This Hamlet tells a tale of deceit and obsession; of good against evil. There is no method to the madness here, nor any overwrought oedipal philosophising. Icke’s Hamlet is simply doomed to remember what he desires to revenge.
At the end of the final Act ‘death lies on all sides’. In his dying moments Hamlet speaks to his audience. ‘We are all that’s left’ as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are exposed as spies and dispatched to their deaths; the ill-fated Ophelia is drowned; Gertrude dies drinking from a poisoned cup; Laertes from a poisoned rapier. Hamlet calls on us to be his confidantes. We are all Horatios now. We must live to retell the tale.
Juliet Stevenson is very good as Gertrude, all sexual awakening in the initial throes of her marriage to Claudius, by turn a suspicious She Devil upon discovering Claudius’ treachery. Peter Wright is a terrific Polonius – all wind bag and bore. Jessica Brown Findlay’s excels as the desperate, virtuous, virginal Ophelia. Angus Wright, the villainous Claudius, is a cool cookie as the cold blooded murderer.
When Scott took his bow I shed a tear for his Hamlet, for his railings and for the sheer, profound beauty and splendour of Shakespeare’s verse. This production rendered the play better than I remembered and better than I could ever have hoped for.