‘More things in heaven and earth’: Hamlet @ the Almeida Theatre

Where to begin.. This production was just so good. A Hamlet with a highly capable lead, great supporting actors, a clear vision, a soundscape of Bob Dylan covers, a modernisation in set and costume that worked, and a delivery of Shakespeare so clear it rendered an audience of teenagers captivated and, during the applause, on their feet – what more could one want from a new production of one of the Bard’s most-produced plays?

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Andrew Scott was a wonderful Hamlet, funny yet devastating. His mercurial temperament (just a little reminiscent of his Moriarty) made his performance captivating, and I think everyone felt his pain in grieving for his father. He was surprisingly cheeky, occasionally giving the audience an eye-roll, a raised eyebrow or a pointed stare to indicate his mirthful disbelief at the behaviour of other characters, usually Ed Wight’s terrifically bumbling Polonius. This style of breaking the fourth wall could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn’t – instead, it set everyone giggling. His soliloquies too were delivered unashamedly into the auditorium, displaying an astonishing ability to be vulnerable. An obvious but hilarious critique of stereotypical Shakespearean actors came in the form of his speech to the players about how to perform their show. The performance that players then delivered, almost entirely in mime, was so touching that it brought tears to my eyes.

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Scott was accompanied by a highly talented supporting cast. Porcellainic Juliet Stevenson (I feel I’ve stolen that description from somewhere, but it really is the perfect adjective) was a strong and beautiful Gertrude – none of that ‘frailty thy name is woman’ nonsense. Her confrontation with Hamlet after his murder of Polonius was highly charged and gripping to watch. Having seen Angus Wright as O’Brien in the Almeida production of 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre, his portrayal of King Claudius seemed all the more menacing. The scene in which Hamlet contemplates killing him while he is at prayer was unusually staged – Hamlet and Claudius were onstage together, seeing and yet not seeing each other. Chillingly, Claudius looked directly at Hamlet as he taunted, ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’ Jessica Brown Findlay surprised me. Perhaps it is an avid theatre-goer’s prejudice against actors I’ve only seen on the telly, but I wasn’t expecting anything amazing from her Ophelia. Of course, I was proved wrong. Her Ophelia was endearingly youthful at first, but especially compelling to watch in her later madness. Her initial interactions with Hamlet, Laertes and Polonius were entertaining, well-thought out and believable. I only wished that her transition into insanity had been better constructed – there was no indication to the audience that she would come back haggered and strapped to a wheelchair after the interval.

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Hamlet was enriched by my having seen Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic not long ago (read my review here). Those two characters, highly important but often overlooked, gained great depth for me because I had just seen a whole play about them. I was intrigued to see that director Robert Icke decided to intimate that Guildernstern, played by actress Amaka Okafor, is Hamlet’s ex-girlfriend, now in a relationship with jealous Rosencrantz. This creates a sort of love-triangle between Hamlet and the pair, a constellation no doubt inspired by Guildenstern’s line, ‘My lord, you once did love me’. Productions of Hamlet are often adapted based on new readings of specific lines, but I had not yet heard of such attention being payed to those particular words.

Hamlet-bodyIt wasn’t just in close reading of lines that this production displayed great attention to detail. For example, the TV news reports that served to introduce King Hamlet’s death were captioned in Danish. Also, most of the characters were wearing a watch during the play, but took it off and handed it to the ghost when they died at the end. Scott made direct reference to this, fingering his watch as he spoke the famous words, ‘the time is out of joint’. I wondered why Hamlet, dressed all in black for the first two parts, came back dressed in off-white after the second interval. No doubt much thought was put into this decision, but I couldn’t quite decipher the meaning.

Jessica-Brown-Findlay-Ophelia-and-Luke-Thompson-Laertes_credit-Manuel-HarlanHildegard Bechtler’s excellent set greatly enhanced the play. Many screens were intelligently made use of in this show. They shifted between displaying TV news, surveillance footage and live camera transmittance. A few panes of sliding glass divide the stage in two, downstage and upstage. This clever glass, when charged with an electric current, is opaque – when the current ceases, it becomes immediately clear (or it might be the other way around; I don’t remember). This device allowed for seamless transitions between scenes – something would be happening downstage, for example, and then, suddenly, another room would be revealed behind it, upstage. The main playing area resembled a sort of official lobby. The direction echoed this idea – everyone was always passing through; no one ever really lingered or settled there. It’s always great to see a set and performances that are mutually informed and work harmoniously.

Juliet-Stevenson-Gertrude-Luke-Thompson-Laertes-and-Daniel-Rabin-Reynaldo_credit-Manuel-HarlanI saw Hamlet twice at the Almeida – for free, thanks to the wonderful Hamlet For Free festival for under 25s that took place from April 10th to 13th. I am seriously considering going back to see it after the imminent West End transfer. The friend I brought with me was initially sceptical – about the many screens, about the lead actor.. I was less sceptical, having enjoyed the Almeida’s last contemporary stagings and always having had a soft spot for Scott. However, both of us left utterly blown away and very happy that we’d experienced such a great piece of theatre.

Hamlet 4Hamlet played at the Almeida Theatre until April 15th. It will be playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre from June 9th. For more information and tickets, click here.

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