A review by Dr Emily Garside
Hamlet is a play that is familiar even to those with no direct experience of the play – whether it’s a general knowledge of a much-adapted plot or the countless lines that have made it into common usage. So it is an achievement of a director and cast to not only make the production feel fresh and innovative but also for lines so often uttered they are virtually cliché to sound new.
Robert Icke, former artistic director of Headlong, now associate of the Almeida inserted new life into Oresteia last year, and it’s in a similar vein he has approached Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott as the Danish Prince. The production is modern dress and makes use of video technology but it’s period is indistinct, at times feeling in the present moment, others having a slightly futuristic air.
The major change it feels Icke has made is a shift in pace to the expected ebb and flow of the piece. Gaining infamy for a nearly four hour running time, it doesn’t feel like the theatrical marathon it is. There is a natural pace to the overall piece, and within each scene, down to each line that Icke seems to have taken apart and put together again. Although the first segment is familiar in its staging, approach and length, there is a clattering towards a finale that despite some additions – some from the first Quarto lines, some dialogues additions to staging – that give this take a freshness.
The contemporary staging – so often nothing more than some suits and contemporary furniture – is woven into the staging effectively. The play opens with news footage of King Hamlet’s funeral, and across the play video is used, from a Skype meeting with the ambassadors, to filming The Mousetrap, through to war footage and final evocative images that show integration and addition of film and stage at their most effective. Most engaging of this is the staging of play-within-a-play The Mousetrap in which when Claudius storms out, disrupting both the staged performance and the filming of the royal family, the ‘Pause’ created is so realistic for a moment it feels like there is something genuinely wrong. These elements of meta, thrown back onto the audience across the play, make for an engaging and challenging reading of the well-worn Hamlet.
Of course, any Hamlet is only ever as good as the actor playing the title role. And again, Andrew Scott brings to light elements of the part that even in those moments that usually feel so familiar, there is a different slant to Scott’s performance that creates a freshness. The early and end scenes are emotionally charged and made for the most moving portrayals of the part in memory. In the early scenes, Scott veers from quietly grief stricken to unhinged and over the top from moment to moment. Scott’s balancing of the two elements of grief stricken and depressed works, and although at times the moments of exuberant grief and madness may seem ridiculous, it is because Hamlet himself is indeed at times ridiculous. The intimacy of the venue works in favour of this portrayal as well, with the loud, abrasive Hamlet feeling too close to be comfortable, and the quiet, reflective Hamlet feeling intimate and moving.
Robert Icke’s production has successfully re-invigorated Hamlet in his staging, using the contemporary elements rather than simply creating a backdrop of them. Meanwhile Scott’s Hamlet offers a different take on the classic role, and perhaps one unexpected from the actor. He is a contemplative, but emotional Hamlet, caught in a changing world on both a personal and political level. It’s an intellectual challenging Hamlet for the audience, but also one which resonates with the underlying emotion of the piece.