Robert Icke's Danish prince has all the media attention of modern royals with Andrew Scott, once Moriarty, upstaging the Sherlock incumbent...
“Death the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”
Note: This is my original review of Andrew Scott and Robert Icke’s production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet. It transferred to the Harold Pinter theatre and was also streamed live to cinemas.
It is much anticipated, the sellout ticket of the year, with no live stream to cinemas or West End transfer yet announced (and indeed would Andrew Scott, who has a burgeoning movie career as well as theatre offers, be free to commit to a West End run?) So you combine the pulling power of Andrew Scott’s compulsive Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock with hot British director Robert Icke and this modern dress interpretation of Hamlet is set under the scrutiny of the red top press and television newsreel reporting. Before the play televised news footage with Danish headlines shows the funeral cortege of King Hamlet (David Rintoul — the pre Colin Firth Darcy before he was parted from his hair) with his widow Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) and her son Prince Hamlet (Andrew Scott).
Cut to the modern policing of Elsinore’s battlements and we have closed circuit tv screens in black and white showing the figure of the ghost (David Rintoul) on Kamera 7 to the security guards, Marcellus (Joshua Higgott), Francisco (Barry Aird) and Bernardo (Matthew Wynn). Horatio (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) joins them before conveying the ghostly presence to his friend Hamlet.
The wedding party is in full swing with fairy lights and balloons and close up dancing. We see Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) and Claudius (Angus Wright) all over each other like a rash in a new relationship with the early thrill of sexual discovery. Gertrude’s presence doesn’t have the gravitas of an “imperial jointress” instead she is sexually joined. In fact when the Norwegian ambassador arrives they are caught in flagrante delicto on the sofa. I am now thinking of a gender change Hamlet where Diana is murdered by Camilla and Charles marries the murderer o’erhastily leaving William as our prince.
Hamlet (Andrew Scott) looks sulky and is informally dressed in black. His uncle Claudius seems totally reasonable and not at all sinister as Hamlet twitches angrily, his hands very expressive and scratching at his face as he goes into the first soliloquy, “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt.” This Hamlet is close to self harming were he allowed a dagger rather than a revolver.
Hamlet is concealed behind the sofa when Laertes (Luke Thompson) speaks to his sister Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) about Hamlet’s pursuing her and her honour. “Ophelia Fear It!” he says. Peter Wight’s Polonius is at times jolly, very huggy feely with his children but switches suddenly into irascibility or forgetfulness in the well known advice to his son speech. As if not trusting his son, we later see Polonius send a servant to spy on Laertes in Paris and to report back. This underlines Polonius’ role in spying on Hamlet using Ophelia as the lure.
The modern setting makes Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost less chilling than it can be and they embrace in a non ethereal way. Gertrude and Claudius roll around on the floor and Ophelia is visited by Hamlet and almost pulled out of her bath by him. Hildegard Bechtler’s set has glass doors revealing all happening behind the immediate playing area. Polonius is speaking into a concealed microphone to Claudius by lifting his shirt to his mouth and Hamlet apes him showing his awareness of the spying by also directing his words into his shirt.
David Rintoul arrives as the Player King but we cut to Hamlet’s “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” as he plans the play. Hamlet works himself into a rage against his villainous uncle and takes it out on Ophelia in the diatribe against women, while trying to wipe off her lipstick. His advice to the players strikes up with a delicious irony as they are instructed, “Nor do saw the air with your hand thus, but use all gently;” this coming from a Hamlet with ever soaring arms!
I loved Robert Icke’s setting of “The Mousetrap” in a Royal Variety performance with the royals entering the theatre and CCTV projecting close-ups of all their faces above the players who mime a loving royal marriage, devoted to their small son whom we see grow up. I wanted to watch both but found myself looking more at Claudius and Gertrude and missing some of the mimed play. I suppose one of the issues with such a well known text is the lack of surprise as the king rises. This version has Claudius getting up as soon as the poisoner appears with his phial of poison and with Gertrude staying put, but cutting immediately to a pause or interval as if the television director had pulled the incriminating footage.
In an unusual scene Claudius confesses to Hamlet face to face, “My offence is rank”, and again although this is a confession to murder, Angus Wright’s mesmerising Claudius seems not at all villainous. Hamlet hesitates with his revolver and misses the opportunity to kill Claudius until he is praying and sure to go to heaven rather than purgatory.
So to the bedroom scene where Hamlet delights everyone sexually active over the age of 35 with his, “Ha! Have you eyes/ You cannot call it love, for at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble/ And waits upon the judgement.” But of course we note that Hamlet’s view of his father may be coloured with filial love as he attributes Hyperion’s curls to bald headed David Rintoul’s King Hamlet and not curly haired Angus Wright’s Claudius. Pulling the corpulent Polonius’s corpse off stage takes a supreme effort from Hamlet and no one in the audience can conceive how he could get it up the stairs for the later scene.
Hamlet’s relationship with a female Guildenstern (Amaka Okafor) is seen as probably that of boyfriend and girlfriend from university. On his way to England he sees the news channel about Fortinbras’s (John Macmillan) battle for that strip of land.
A second interval and we see Ophelia’s madness scenes in rapid succession. At first, she is restrained with wrist ties in a wheelchair but Laertes wielding a revolver arrives and holds Gertrude as hostage while Danish security guards stand off with machine guns. In maybe a reference to the earliest folio, Horatio tells Gertrude that Hamlet is safe — a scene I never remember seeing before.
The graveyard scene is played almost in the dark. Another of Bob Dylan’s songs, “Not Dark Yet” is chosen, the lyric, “Shadows are falling and I been here all day / It’s too hot to sleep and time is running away/ Feel like my soul has turned into steel / I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t let me heal.”
We lose Osric the gadfly and the opportunity to experience Hamlet’s lighter side and go into the duel to the death. Then, as if in a scene from a compelling Punchdrunk production, a door behind opens and we see Polonius dancing with Ophelia, King Hamlet arrives and Laertes joins them. Rosencrantz and Guidenstern join this dance of death as they hand their watches to Gertrude, their time being up and leaving Elsinore as an unpeopled court with no-one there. The tribute from young Fortinbras is a televised tribute and obituary to Hamlet.
So what is the verdict on Andrew Scott’s softly Irish spoken finger twitching Hamlet? He is a prince caught up in events which he is unable to influence. He is fully informed, sees all the plotting, the confessions of guilt. His mother ignores his advice to keep Claudius at arm’s length and people are too willing to attribute Hamlet’s actions to his feigned madness being real. His prince is thoughtful and at times enthralling. I’d really like to see this again to allow the Icke transformation to fully sink in.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Icke
Jessica Brown Findlay
Appearing on video:
Father Roy Pearson
Director: Robert Icke
Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting Designer: Natasha Chivers
Sound Designer: Tom Gibbons
Video: Tal Yarden
Video Associate: Mikaela Liakata
Fight Director: Kevin McCurdy
Running Time: Three hours 50 minutes with two intervals
Closed at the Almeida on 15th April 2017
London N1 1TA
Phone: 020 7359 4404
Tube: The Angel Islington
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Almeida on 1st March 2017