Hamlet (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Posted: July 2, 2017 in Theatre


In many years of theatregoing, I have seen Hamlet portrayed as intellectual, warrior, lunatic, cheeky chappy, gay, to name but a few. I have seen him in period costume, modern dress, a straitjacket and naked, but I cannot recall ever seeing him played as superbly as by Andrew Scott in Robert Icke’s stunning production, here transferring from the Almeida Theatre. Following the “Sherlock” Hamlet, seen in Lindsey Turner’s overblown, numbingly ordinary production at the Barbican in 2015, this “Moriarty” Hamlet is a revelation, controlled but amiable, with only occasional glimpses of Scott’s excitable, manic television creation.

Icke strips the play of excess baggage, leaving barely any superfluous insights into Hamlet’s psychology. The Prince does not imagine his father’s ghost, he sees and hears it; so the play has paranormal elements, get over it! The setting is completely modern, a luxury apartment of the privileged elite, with security guards and various helpers fussing around. Television screens show news reports of the Danish Royal Family, prying into their lives and assessing political developments. When Hamlet needs to defend himself, the weapon of choice is not a dagger but a gun.

Most modern of all is the language. Shakespeare is spoken without the exaggerated actorly tones of, say, Olivier, but as if it is everyday English and, if the beauty of the Bard’s writing is diminished, the clarity and meaning of his words are enhanced. At this performance, how wonderful to hear a diverse audience reacting spontaneously to Shakespeare, because they can really understand what is being said. For the famous soliloquies, Scott steps forward to the front of the stage and enters into quiet conversations with the audience, not debating with himself but asking advice; is it worth his bothering to slog on through his endless depression or should he put a stop to it all there and then?

Scott’s Hamlet typifies young men who are uncertain about how to face up to the many challenges that lie ahead and are daunted by them. He is witty, educated and charismatic, but tormented by the ruthless ambition of Angus Wright’s authoritative Claudius and by the cold duplicity of his mother, Juliet Stevenson’s sophisticated Gertrude. Peter Wight’s nosy, bumbling Polonius is an irritant and a figure of fun to him, but his daughter, Jessica Brown Findlay’s frail, girlish Ophelia is an object of desire, unattainable for reasons that he cannot quite figure out.

Hamlet is a play of many contradictions and it seems unlikely that any interpretation of it could ever fall perfectly into place, without leaving some loose pieces. By focussing on the play’s essentials, Icke’s version feels perfect for about three-quarters of the running time, but loses some of its sharpness in the melodramatic final scenes, particularly after an oddly placed late second interval. That said, this remains as gripping and lucid a production as any that I can remember.

Performance date: 29 June 2017

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