It’s fair to say that nowadays Robert Ickle is one of the finest British theater directors. He doesn’t give us time to catch our breath, presenting a new theatre hit after hit. Only in 2016 he directed ‘Uncle Vanya’ by Chekhov in Almeida, then staged magnificent adaptation of ‘Red Barn’ by Simenon in National Theatre, presented a gripping adaptation of ‘Mary Stuart’ by Schiller in Almeida and now opened new 2017 theatre season with a unique take on Shakespeare’s masterpiece ‘Hamlet’ starring Andrew Scott.
Andrew Scott is best known for his genius portrayal of Moriarty in BBC hit tv-series ‘Sherlock’. Unfortunately, he is less known for his theatre works which are truly outstanding ( Scott appeared in ‘Birdland’, ‘The Dazzle’, ‘Emperor and Galilean’ and many more brilliant plays). Having already seen theatre titans such as Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Jude Law, David Tennant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Rory Kinnear playing Hamlet, Andrew Scott was definitely an unexpected choice for the role of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. But his portrayal is actually incredibly satisfying.
We meet the characters at the party celebration, though Andrew Scott’s Hamlet is not jolly, but confused and miserable. He is trying to rationalise the recent death of his father and the rapid remarriage of his mother Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) to his uncle Claudius (Angus Wright). Hamlet is very delicate and when he meets his father’s Ghost and learns that he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet’s sanity shatters.
Scott’s Hamlet is charismatic and mesmerising, he brings fragile intensity to his role, creating an intimate connection with the audience. He speaks beautifully, but his monologue feels raw. It’s a stream of his consciousness as if he is saying the lines for the first time.
If Hamlet is very timid and lethargic in the beginning when we meet him, as the play unfolds the Prince of Denmark becomes very emotional, raging with anger at times, suffering indescribably, then coming to his senses all calm and morose again. The famous «to be or not to be” comes quite early and sounds melancholic and warm. Scott’s Hamlet is indeed a soft-spoken and sweet Prince.
Scott’s Hamlet is in doubt on whether Claudius did, in fact, kill his father. Even though he overheard Claudius’ confession, Ickle presents it as Hamlet’ hallucination. The play wears a sense of anxiety, as Hamlet is haunted by the chance that he might be wrong about Claudius. Scott’s character is torn between desire for revenge and self-doubt, and until the end, it is unclear whether the murder did take place. After all, Gertrude and Claudius look genuinely in love.
Robert Ickle’s new play is very tech-y and modern. Every character is dressed in modern clothes and uses all the advantages of modern gadgets, such as surveillance cameras, wires, recording cameras, and microphones. I always find these modern twists a bit too tacky, updating a classic play to a modern setting is a popular way of engaging the audience, though I must admit, most of the scenes here are beautifully staged. For example, the play opens with a live broadcast on a large screen, covering the recent death of the King of Denmark, then the war with Norway is reported on the news. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father is first seen by the Prince through surveillance cameras of the Danish security guards, Polonius wears a wire and the ‘Mousetrap’ play scene is staged so that the royal family is seated in the front row of the Almeida theatre before the audience and news cameramen keep track of their reactions. Claudius’s face is captured in close-up, when he watches the re-enactment of his crime. It looks like the camera freezes and his image gets stuck on the screen, flickering above the stage. Claudius walks away from the play and the production pauses. It looks as if something has gone wrong and both Hamlet and the audience are left confused. The four-hour play has two intervals filled with Bob Dylan’s songs that work a treat.
Everything is brilliant about this production except for a few details. It is very long and sometimes loses its focus, although it’s quite difficult to say what part of it should have been shortened or cut out completely. Andrew Scott’s performance is incredible and different to what we’ve seen so far, Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia is childishly bald and very fragile, ending mad in a wheelchair, Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude is full of motherly love yet failing to protect her child being distracted by her new love, unfortunately, the portrayal of Claudius by Angus Wright, Horatio by Elliot Barnes-Worrell and Guildenstern by Amaka Okafor did not quite work for me.
The final scene is very different from what we can expect. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and all those who have died during the play pass him their watches as if they ran out of their time in life. Hamlet can see them all from the distance, dancing in the slow motion on the other side of the stage, perhaps, in heaven, his mother dancing peacefully with his uncle, as well as Ophelia with her father and Rozencrantz with Guildenstern. As they move in a slow motion, we can hardly hear the gentle music, everything looks like a dream, a very sad but soft and satisfying dream for a tormented soul of Hamlet finally finding its peace.