Robert Icke’s Hamlet, at Almeida Theatre, has been eagerly anticipated, particularly since the announcement that Andrew Scott would be playing the lead.
Icke’s productions of Oresteia and Uncle Vanya at Almeida Theatre tore apart the texts, suggesting his production of Hamlet might similarly dispense with conventions. The story is moved to a vivid contemporary setting and depicts a world wrapped in wealth and violence. The production is ultra-modern and sleek, yet in many ways still a traditional one.
Aspects of the staging and sound design are ambitious, and the success of these parts of the production ensures this modern setting fits the text effectively. The production did not in any way disappoint, as neither did Andrew Scott’s captivating performance of a softly spoken, frequently sarcastic Hamlet.
Only four scenes into the play, Hamlet pulls out a gun and indicates a repressed violence which runs through the first half of the play – a violence only fulfilled in the third act. Icke’s production was very good at accentuating stifled tensions between Hamlet and Ophelia, and laying fuses for a direct confrontation between Claudius and Hamlet much later in the chapel.
Angus Wright expertly toed the line between playing Claudius as a smooth politician and an unnerving sociopath. Hildegard Bechtler’s stage design perfectly portrayed the claustrophobia of Elsinore by creating a glass wall of doors which cuts the stage in half laterally. The effect of this is to imply a world in which characters are continuously and passively aware of one another.
Old Hamlet’s ghost was doubled up with the player King, indicating that this is a production very interested in the performativity of the text. Cameras were turned on the characters while they watched the internal play and this footage projected directly onto the screen above the stage. TV screens placed around the auditorium also diminished the distance between the stage and the audience. The cameras which were used to scrutinise the emotional reactions of the King and Queen were reminiscent of Ostermeier’s Hamlet, and effectively ramped up the tension of the show at its midway point. But the modern newsreels which indicated the gradual advancing of the Norwegian army seemed to unnecessarily defuse the tension of the off-stage action.
The use of modern technology is tied up in an interpretation of the text that stresses the existence of the lenses through which the characters view one another. The set also served this purpose. The division of stage allowed a simultaneous view of on-stage and off-stage Elsinore.
Playing Ophelia, Jessica Brown Findlay was frequently just out of sight and glimpsed waiting at the periphery of the action. The child-like nature of her character and her use as a ruse by the men around her was emphasised by this placing; and by the decision to put her in a wheelchair following Polonius’ murder. This, and the audience’s laughter, as Hamlet confidently tells Gertrude “You cannot call it love, for at your age / The heyday in the blood is tame” is testament to the production’s modernised view of Elsinore’s gender politics.
Juliet Stevenson played Gertrude with a quiet control which emphasised the limits of the character’s power. Peter Wight as Polonius perfectly captured his eye-rolling comic persona, and scenes between he and Scott were particularly well received. Scott’s presentation of the rapidly transforming Hamlet was effective, but it was his very quiet, front-of-stage monologues that gave the character an extremely striking vulnerability.
Tom Gibbons’ cinematic sound design was wonderful. The Bob Dylan soundtrack was intricately woven into the show and subtly challenged the absolute modernity of the setting – as did the use of a VHS-style aesthetic. The use of sound to create a montage-like sequence in the final scene did well to compensate for an often anti-climactic faceoff between Hamlet and Laertes. It then gave way to a very slow and enthralling ending which generously gave Hamlet the suggestion of a happy death.
In moments such as this, Icke makes clear the clarity of his vision for Hamlet, but he crucially refrains from needlessly interfering with the text. The sensitivity of Scott’s performance meant well-known lines felt new once again. It is a production steeped in tension, which never loses its grip.
Hamlet is playing at Almeida Theatre until 15 April. For more ifnormation and tickets, see here.