Sunday 12 March 2017


Almeida, London
11th March 2017, matinee

In an age where diversity, modernity and innovation seem to carry the majority of critical clout in theatrical circles, not to mention my disinclination to be lumped with the doddery, backward views of some critics (see Michael Billington’s article – unfounded, imo - lamenting the lack of ‘classics’ at the National Theatre), I can’t help but think it is pretty uncool to be a fan of Shakespeare. Clichéd, stuffy (I overheard two audience members discussing the need for a ‘Shakespearean voice’(???), a detractive notion which no doubt puts people off engaging with older plays), and lacking a ‘real’ knowledge of theatre (and by that I mean a broad knowledge of playwrights with an inclination toward the contemporary) – all insecurities I feel as a result of a personal partiality to the Bard.

Yet, honestly, I adore Shakespeare. And as a self-confessed Literature swot, there’s nothing I love more than analysing 16th Century drama. Yes, the theories are usually timeworn and oft repeated, but I’m still young, so they’re new to me (something I feel more seasoned theatre-goers should remember when criticising revivals of plays they’ve seen numerous times as being old-hat), and I find them oh-so-fascinating! I could spend pages proclaiming the beauty of the slightest deviation from iambic pentameter, the significance of sexual/animal/planetary imagery (take your pick!), or the intricate mechanics of tragedy with a capital ‘T’, throughout many of Shakespeare’s plays, and thus I wear my fan status with pride. However, I have recently found myself at a crossroads. Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet at the Almeida has dumbfounded me. Why? Because for once I find no inclination to analyse. It seems futile to attempt to bestow any sort of intellectual grandstanding onto his production because it is so profoundly moving, intimate and humane it would feel wrong to do so.

Icke’s production is one of painful intimacy. Although aware of the outer world and political on-goings in Denmark, this is very much outside and separate – the Fortinbras/Norway conflict is relayed through news reports on screens – laying bare the bones of Shakespeare’s text as a tender family drama. This may be a royal family, but we get the sense that this could easily be any family dealing with the anguishes and throes of mortal life. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is furnished simply with modern yet homely décor, and we become witness to the inner workings of domesticity in crisis. Tender moments, such as Claudius and Gertrude’s dancing before falling asleep on the sofa show theirs to be a marriage of love rather than convenience, humanising the characters in a way that is often overlooked. While I found Angus Wright’s Claudius a little too understated, bordering on the monotonous, Juliet Stevenson is a very sympathetic Gertrude; her panic attack following Polonius’ murder is believable and places her in a position of conflicting loyalties. From the initial seeds of doubt planted by her son, when the magnitude of the familial breakdown eventually dawns on her, her actions are understandable, but nonetheless distressing.

The driving force behind the tragedy in this case is grief. The family is torn apart and turned against each other by an overwhelming sorrow. Hamlet (an extraordinary Andrew Scott) is quietly intense, coming across as both ordinary (mortal) and exceptional (certainly in regards to feeling/emotion) with natural ease. The softness with which Scott speaks brings a prosaicness to his philosophising while simultaneously radiating an exquisite truthfulness. The soliloquys were fresh, Scott’s nuances making me wonder why Hamlet hasn’t always been performed like this, it was as if I were hearing these words for the first time and understanding them with a profound clarity. ‘To be or not to be…’ seemed so natural, obvious (in an enlightening way), and true. Similarly, the utter weariness with which he resigns himself to death – ‘the readiness is all’ – is both heartbreaking and feels like an organic progression within the character’s journey. We feel his sense of futility and his sheer exhaustion through which he has doggedly continued despite spending all his available energy on mourning the loss of his father and sense of familial belonging. Introducing an element of personal experience and perspective, I couldn’t help but consider Scott’s Hamlet as a man suffering from a deep and profound depression. I welcomed the toning down of the ‘antic disposition’ – aped or no – as this felt like a more concrete and relevant approach to Hamlet’s mental state. His tearful breakdowns were poignant and his quietly dejected speech all too familiar to those with experience of depression.

Never before has the Ghost (David Rintoul) felt more tangible. The bond between father and son is to the fore, from holding hands with the lost and despairing Hamlet, to the aching beat with which Hamlet briefly recognises something familiar in the leading Player (also David Rintoul). Similarly, the affection between Hamlet and Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) is genuine, they kiss and caress and care about each other; parental intervention seems the ultimate tragic force in their doomed relationship. Further adding to the domestic tragedy is the subtle insinuation that Polonius’ (Peter Wight) famed misnomers and forgetfulness may be a result of some sort of degenerative illness, such as Alzheimer’s – his pauses just a little too long, his stature a little too pitiable to feel fully comfortable in ridiculing him. This afforded his scenes a poignancy beneath the humour.

One of the most striking alterations made by Icke is Claudius’ confession/prayer. Usually uttered alone in the presence of God, here Hamlet appears onstage in front of him, creating the impression of his confessing to Hamlet. While the staging is ambiguous – does Claudius ever look Hamlet in the eye? – and I’m still unsure whether the scene was wholly real, a dream, or some sort of split frame reference, it’s something to ponder…

The culmination of such a sympathetic and humane interpretation of the text and character’s motivations and states of mind is realised in a scene of dazzling emotional beauty. The Ghost reappears to guide his family into the afterlife – visually reminiscent of the earlier wedding party: balloons, fairy lights, a warm bliss peopled by old friends (Polonius, Ophelia). On paper this seems incredibly mawkish, but in Icke’s hands it is anything but. Cynical critics and academics may shy away from it, but ‘sentimentality’ is not a dirty word. This ending is sentimental in the best sense; moving, compassionate, satisfying, and it fits the production direction to a tee. By being so recognisably human it feels thoroughly fresh and vital, and thus relevant to all our lives.

There is a tendency for an overreliance on technology to feel cold and gimmicky, while reductively distancing us from the human contact unique to live theatre. Yet Icke’s use of a live video feed, transmitted to screens throughout the auditorium and a large multiplex of screens onstage actually enhances the drama. Nuances of expression are captured and magnified – we see Claudius’ minute reaction to the play, we see the second Gertrude resolves to die in the steadfast glimmer of her eyes – all details that may otherwise be missed by those at the back of the theatre (as I was). Furthermore, the omnipresence of the camera concentrates the sense of voyeurism, as every detail of the family’s lives is broadcast in every unflattering angle. Icke has managed to unite modern cinematic techniques and live theatre with startling efficacy, and I’m entirely won over by it! The action is played out to a soundtrack of Bob Dylan classics – another triumph - a subtle reference perhaps to social disorder and political unrest, but the main point I got from it was the folk aspect; the generational effect, the passing on of stories and the roles our predecessors play in our lives. Plus, it’s just great music!

While I imagine Icke’s production is not without its detractors – some of his decisions may be controversial to purists – I loved it. Clear, compassionate and modern, Icke has transformed a well-worn, ubiquitous classic ‘Tragedy’ into a contemporary family drama that wouldn’t feel out of place on the ‘new releases’ shelf of any bookstore. But, for me, his greatest coup de theatre lies in his ability to make this academically minded blogger abandon thought and embrace feeling. I doubt I will ever see Hamlet the same again.

Hamlet plays at the Almeida until 15th April.
Andrew Scott as Hamlet. Credit: Manuel Harlan

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