Andrew Scott as Hamlet, image by Manuel Harlan
Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Almeida Theatre, London
On the basis of his Hamlet at the Almeida, Robert Icke’s fast-growing reputation is more justified. The 5am ticket queues are due to the Sherlock factor, but the real reason to do anything it takes to see Andrew Scott is for the quality of the production as a whole. Too often Hamlet is all about the star, but Icke has pulled off a remarkable reappraisal of this best known of dramas by looking beyond the actor and seeing a play.
The setting is ultra-modern – a minimal, intensely expensive hotel lobby palace, watched over by a CCTV screen bank. However, the updating is not a loosely imposed a conceptual add-on, but inherent to the whole production. The scenario makes complete sense, from the YouTube horror of the Ghost on surveillance camera to the handheld cameras shooting awkward footage from the front row of the Player’s performance for Danish TV. There is no disjunction between eras. Hamlet and Laertes carry guns, but when it comes to the fencing match at the end, it is just that – a contest with masks and electronic scoreboards.
Icke’s close reading of the text strips away the assumptions about staging Hamlet. For a start, he puts the politics back in and it becomes hard to credit that Shakespeare’s greatest work is still performed in a mutilated version, as though we are living in the 1880s. The parallel Fortinbras plot – Hamlet senior killed Fortinbras senior in combat and took his lands, and now his son wants them back – is barely known, but it counter-balances the personal corruption with a political dimension that adds layers to the individual struggles among the political elite. It’s not hard to see why Hamlet might be unsure of a father with such a dubious legacy.
The utter confidence of the production allows the performers to shine, and what emerges is the emotional devastation caused when family and politics collide. Angus Wright is a commanding and fragile Claudius; Peter Wight a loving father and the dangerous fool that Hamlet observes; Jessica Brown Findlay a young woman chewed up by the system. Juliet Stevenson, as Gertrude, is riveting, heart-breakingly aware of the younger generation collapsing around her.
And Andrew Scott is a real prince, suffering from real depression, his world falling away from him, laying his emotional turmoil at our feet. He and the cast deliver their lines at conversational pitch, the audience hanging on every word. When David Rintoul’s Player King arrives, his actorly tones come as a surprise – we’ve not heard anyone before speaking the way actors are supposed to. It is Scott’s ability to engage directly with the audience, making these familiar lines fresh, that seals the production’s success. For once, believe the hype: Icke is making production styles of the recent past seem as outdated as Victorian melodrama.