July 17, 2017, by Peter Kirwan

Hamlet (Almeida) @ The Harold Pinter Theatre

My expectations have, over the last few years, been set very low for West End Shakespeare; a result of sitting through so many celebrity-headed, bland and conservative productions. An Almeida transfer of a Robert Icke production, however, and one that prompted such divisive reactions, is a different matter and, even transplanted to a more unfriendly space, I could see what the fuss was about. While not without its flaws and indulgences, this was a surprisingly fresh and consistently interesting Hamlet, with a stellar central performance and ideas to spare.

The indulgence was the length. At 3 hours and 40 minutes, with two intervals, the company took its time. While the pacing worked well for the first couple of acts, by the play’s second half it had lost a lot of my goodwill. I was reminded of Sergio Leone’s claims that he had choreographed Once Upon a Time in the West to the rhythms of a heartbeat slowing down to death, and while that had some thematic heft here (particularly in the careful pace of the final sequence), for too much of the production the slowness became deathly dull. Andrew Scott, in particular, used slowness to variable effect. His strength as Hamlet was delivering his speeches in a manner that always felt discovered rather than recited; he paused as he waited for the words, he waved his arms as if trying to conjure up the right idea, he expressed each idea as a brand new inspiration. This came at the cost of variety; it worked best in soliloquy and in his serious conversations with Horatio, but less well in some ponderous mad scenes (with the rest of the ensemble falling too often into my most hated of West End tropes, being stood around doing nothing while they waited for him to finish), and most abysmally in the Gravedigger scene, which despite the best efforts of Barry Aird’s quiet, amiable Gravedigger, was an interminable sequence of ‘long pauses’. With perhaps one exception – the flashlights and sirens as Claudius’s men hunted down Hamlet after the murder – the production seemed to steadfastly resist any sense of urgency, and the stakes were lowered throughout as a result.

What the languid pace did allow for was a huge deal of attention to language; there was a pleasing confidence in a production that was in no rush. Scott’s natural rapport with the audience and his restraint throughout (barring a sudden and incongruous explosion in ‘How all occasions do inform me’ which felt artificially induced to provide a climax before the second interval) created a thoughtful, logically cohesive arc for the central figure. Scott was introduced already at the point of giving up, leaving with suitcase in hand, as if he had passed through the most emotional stages of grief and was sleepwalking through his existence. His slumped body and reluctant walk complemented his hesitant speech, as if constantly screaming a silent ‘Why?’ To see Hamlet articulating for what seemed to be the first time his thoughts of suicide, his imaginations of death, his anger at his uncle, was always thrilling. Scott’s particular brilliance was in allowing words to trail away without losing their significance; during the Yorick speech, his ‘I knew him’ was followed by a long pause before a whispered, barely heard ‘Horatio’ as he sank into reverie. At such moments, the production’s slowness justified itself.

Scott’s Hamlet was most firmly anchored by Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia. I found Findlay’s performance unremarkable in itself; of all the cast, her verse speaking was the least natural (she managed to pack twelve syllables into ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown’), and her physicality long before her madness suggested levels of confidence and maturity ranging from small child to imperious adult; her standout moment was in a wheelchair during her madness, when released from her restraints she thumped her chest with terrifying force. But when paired with Scott, the relationship felt both fun and significant. A genius original decision saw Hamlet hanging around onstage, hiding behind a couch, for Ophelia’s scene with her brother and father; Ophelia worked throughout to make sure neither of them saw him, and Hamlet stood up in her line of sight smugly as Polonius forced her to tell him how she had received Hamlet’s love letters. The good humour of this scene established a strong connection during the first half, although a silent image of a naked Ophelia sprawled in a bathtub (modelled, presumably intentionally, after The Death of Marat in a foreshadowing?) seemed unnecessary. The nunnery scene was the best I’ve ever seen it, reorganised to take place several scenes after ‘To be or not to be’. In an earlier sequence, Peter Wight’s Polonius had interrogated Hamlet during his madness while Gertrude and Claudius hid out of sight with earpieces; Polonius whispered into his lapel like a spy, an act which Hamlet caught and mimicked. During Ophelia’s interview, however, Polonius and Claudius hid much more effectively. Hamlet laughed at Ophelia’s return of his letters, and began searching the stage for the hidden eavesdroppers. Only when he couldn’t find them did he start taking her seriously, and Scott movingly captured the moment of heartbreak and despair as he lost his one point of connection. At this point a subtle underscore kicked in, and Hamlet began showing, momentarily, more awareness of the theatre, aligning madness with metatheatre in a motif that I’d have liked to see more consistently explored, but which was effective in dissociating Hamlet from his immediate environment.

Elsinore was Danish, and modern, dressed in IKEA furniture. News footage with Danish subtitles played across the stage’s video screens (rather disappointingly constructed in its superimpositions of actors against planes taking off), and Elsinore itself was closely monitored through CCTV. The CCTV screens made for one of the most effective jump scares I think I’ve seen onstage; when Hamlet finally saw David Rintoul’s Ghost, the screens fuzzed, and jump cuts suddenly brought the camera right up to the monitors, staring and beckoning through the screen. Live camera footage was used throughout as the new Royal Family asserted its strength and unity, with Claudius and Gertrude pulling Hamlet close for photo opportunities. Hamlet got his revenge during the opening of ‘The Mousetrap’, forcing Claudius in particular to expose himself in front of the whole Harold Pinter Theatre audience, trapping his imminent victim. The politics worked fantastically at this level, when Angus Wright’s oily, brisk Claudius was forced to concentrate on his public presentation of himself; the glimpses of the broader political picture looked tacky, and the return to cheesy pictures of the royal family at the play’s end rather undermined the more powerful image of Hamlet dying in Horatio’s arms.

Scene to scene, this was a deeply intelligent production, and less was always more. The production’s weakest moments came when Icke sacrificed internal logic for an attempt at spectacle or disruption. I didn’t particularly mind the first interval – Claudius got up and walked offstage (presumably, two hours in, he needed a break as much as the rest of us), and the rest of the company waited in silence until a stage manager came on, announced a break, and the house lights went off. This was a lovely little coup, even if it sacrificed the usual chaos of this moment. Far less successful was the scene in which Hamlet considers killing Claudius while he is praying, a scene that has been much discussed due to Claudius’s acknowledgment of Hamlet’s presence at the end of the scene. For me this didn’t work; to suddenly introduce an abstract spatial arrangement (the two separated by different lighting states at the start of the scene) into a production which everywhere else was entirely literal in its use of the space seemed designed to set up an entirely gratuitous visualisation of a confrontation (Hamlet pointing his gun at Claudius, who had his arms spread waiting for it); the theatrical equivalent of something filmed for a trailer. The fact that this moment had no consequence only heightened this feeling for me.

But the constant discoveries in the subtler scenes were innumerable. Scott’s reaction to Polonius’s body after the Ghost’s departure in the closet scene, where he seemed to see it for the first time and roared, was stunning. A lovely moment in which Hamlet got too close to Madeline Appiah’s Guildenstern for the comfort of her jealous lover, Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay), led to a beautifully awkward stand-off between the three of them that Hamlet was forced to break with a mutual welcome. [a sidebar – what was the logic in the curtain calls in grouping Rosencrantz with the supernumaries and Guildenstern with the main supporting characters? I will never understand West End hierarchical calls]. Derbhle Crotty was a dignified, warm Gertrude, and the incorporation of the Q1 scene between her and Horatio allowed her to develop a clear arc of panic followed by decision following the closet scene; and Hamlet had an agonising moment trying to join his mother’s hand with that of the Ghost, pressing them both tightly into his own hands.

The production also used silence (as opposed to long pauses) to focus attention on emotion as expressed through gesture, in two notable instances: the dumbshow beginning ‘The Mousetrap’, in which Rintoul and Marty Cruickshank established a tender and fleshed out relationship through mime, and the final fencing sequence, which had all of its dialogue removed from the beginning of the duel until the Queen’s collapse in favour of a loud Bob Dylan overdub. This worked really nicely, helped by an electronic scoring system, with the company still managing to highlight the significant details (Laertes and Claudius double taking as Gertrude took the cup; the two fighters noting the effects of their rapiers). The only point that jarred here for me was Laertes asking to see another rapier but then both he and everyone else ignoring the request.

Following the gravedigger diversion, the production picked up pace and intensity. Laertes’ (Luke Thompson) return to court had earlier been diminished by some abysmal blocking (given that there were two guards holding machine guns onstage, the standoff had no urgency or basic logic to the positioning of characters), but Thompson came into his own during Ophelia’s funeral, leaping down into the grave and holding his sister’s body close. Hamlet’s subsequent jump into the grave resulted in the desperately sad absurdity of the two men tussling in a space they could barely move in, with Ophelia’s body shuffled back and forth between the two; Hamlet’s howl of anguish after Laertes had managed to climb out was riveting. The conclusion was driven further by one of the production’s secret weapons, Daniel Rabin as Reynaldo. Reynaldo took over several parts, most notably that of Osric, to create a character who seemed to be a general court fixer, working for both Polonius and Claudius (he reminded me of Bosola). Reynaldo’s appearance with other courtiers to bring Hamlet to the duel had a threatening feel to it, and Horatio (Joshua Higgott; a dead ringer for Scott himself, which presumably makes understudy performances interesting) became an audience surrogate, pleading for Hamlet to exempt himself from the battle.

The stage was set for the production’s final coup, a beautiful afterlife scene, imagined from Hamlet’s point of view in a way that allowed its reality to remain ambiguous. As Hamlet passed, the lights rose upstage, behind a glass screen, to reveal dancers; an image that evoked Act 1 Scene 2, where Elsinore had been introduced at the wedding dance for Claudius and Gertrude. The Ghost stood sentry between the world of the living and that of the dead, taking everyone’s watches from them in reference to a repeated emphasis on timepieces throughout the production. As Hamlet watched, Laertes got up from his dying position and went to join his father and sister. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were dancing together. Claudius and Gertrude went through – and, fittingly, Gertrude acknowledged the Ghost before walking past him to dance with Claudius. Hamlet himself approached, and was acknowledged by Ophelia, who raised her veil before returning to her family (personally, I’d have found it more fitting if she’d have blanked Hamlet, but that’s my own view of the character). Hamlet didn’t get to go through himself; the stage returned to the more prosaic image of him performing death rattles in Horatio’s arms, the ending of the production I choose to remember as opposed to the family portraits playing on the screens.

Icke’s Hamlet was predominantly Scott’s; but despite my reservations this was never less than interesting, and full of close attention to text and individual moments, creating a Hamlet fresher than most and revelling in the words. Even if I’d have preferred less space between those words overall, it’s pleasing to see the Almeida showing West End Shakespeare how it’s done.

Posted in Theatre review