Hamlet: to be or not to be?

Review by Sabine Koch  – aka the bee

Andrew Scott has been a champion of contemporary theatre for all of his career. I have been fortunate enough to have seen him in three productions and there was no way that I would miss out on him finally tackling the Bard. Contrary to other plays, I never really connected with Hamlet and not even the grandiose spectacle of Cumberbatch at the Barbican from 2015 changed my mind.  (review here)

Now comes a different take from director Robert Icke who manages to transport the play in a modern setting without it feeling pretentious, but rather lays open the timelessness of the text and the story. The use of filmed bits and live camera footage intertwined in the action on stage feels organic and really serves a purpose here.

I and my companion were seriously creeped out by the appearance of the ghost. And watching Claudius in close-up when confronted with his evil deed by the play in the play makes the audience an accomplice in a cat-and-mouse game, giving us the chance to dissect every eye-twitch of Angus Wright.

Relegating Fortinbras and all the Norway action from the stage to news reel footage and interviews on screens was ingenious and made the political part of the play more accessible to current audiences, who know their politics mostly from TV.

What else stood out?

The character of Polonius being this warm and loving father to Laertes and Ophelia, not only the proud, controlling parent. After seeing a wonderful Peter Wight exuding heart and overflowing love for both his children, there is another dimension to his actions towards them and one can really relate to their anger and despair upon his death.

In Ophelia’s flower scene,  Jessica Findlay Browne is just marvellous in the underwritten part and especially heartbreaking in this scene.

The wit. There are really funny moments in the play, with Andrew Scott and Peter Wight being especially adept at milking their parts and their scenes together to the utmost comic effect.

The whole production is top notch. Where the Cumberbatch/Turner version had the lead actor and a fabulous stage design as the most interesting elements while the rest was rather mediocre, Robert Icke has assembled a team of outstanding collaborators to help him realise his vision. Front and centre are the excellent actors. But the other creatives shine as well.

The Almeida is a rather small theatre (325 seats), so it doesn’t lend itself to theatrics on a larger scale. But the sparse set design of Hildegard Bechtler made great use of the tiny space with the sliding doors and curtains adding dimension and depth. The video components by Tal Yarden were clever in their use of iconic images and made the venue feel much larger than it actually is.

The only quibbles for me where the sound and light design. I didn’t get the music by Bob Dylan in this context and on the day I saw the performance, the playback of all songs was way too loud. Where the sound was too much, the light was too little. Everything happening on the back part of the stage had beautiful, warm lighting – the front not so much. While I understand the reasoning behind the different concept for those parts of the stage, watching from the Circle, it was at times hard to make out specific details.

But as I said, those are minor details that can’t take away from the triumph that is this Hamlet.

Because in the end, it all comes down to the central character and in the hands of Andrew Scott, in his performance, I finally got it. I am no Shakespeare expert, on the contrary. And for us neophytes it is vital, to understand the line reading. There are not many actors, that can make Shakespeare sound like someone actually conversing instead of proclaiming. Andrew Scott belongs to that category.

If you are apprehensive about sitting through almost four hours of iambic pentameter, this is the production for you. Andrew Scott is a towering presence on stage despite his lithe build and his Hamlet is like a live wire about to explode. At times clasping his face and flailing his arms, he feels like a person whose body can hardly contain the inner turmoil. But the protagonist is also a quiet entity, and in these moments he is all raw emotion and lonely desperation.

Through this performance I am finally able to relate to the melancholic Prince with all his bursts of rage and inexplicable, enigmatic cracks. He makes the 400-year-old play relevant and current and a production not to be missed.

The play runs through 15.04.2017 at the Almeida theatre (https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/hamlet/16-feb-2017-22-apr-2017) and although it is sold out, there are day tickets available at the box office and the odd return tickets here and there.

It is well worth standing in line to be one of the few to have seen it. Good luck!

HAMLET logo

 UPDATE

Following a sold-out run at the Almeida Theatre, Olivier Award winning director Robert Icke’s new production of Hamlet transfers to the West End for a strictly limited season this summer at

The Harold Pinter Theatre

Panton Street, London, SW1Y 4DN

The below site has all the show information for the Harold Pinter Theatre production:
https://seatplan.com/london/hamlet/

 


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