Hamlet is a play that I’ve wanted to see since I, like many young people in the UK, studied it as an A-Level text at school. However, its productions tend to feature very popular male actors, making getting tickets a pretty crazy challenge. So I was very pleased when my housemate managed to get hold of tickets to the intimate Almeida Theatre’s production, starring Andrew Scott, of Sherlock fame.
If you’re not familiar with the plot of Hamlet, its the story of the title role (Scott), the Prince of Denmark, who is grieving the death of his father which is at dramatic odds with the mood in court, as his mother Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) has recently remarried, to his father’s brother Claudius (Angus Wight). When he is visited by the ghost of his father (David Rintoul), who claims that Claudius murdered him, the action of the play really begins, as Hamlet struggles to decide how and when to avenge his father.
This production is one that retains virtually the entire play text, which means that Robert Icke’s (the direct, not the man who believes politicians are lizards) show lasts for almost four hours, including two intervals. Whilst I would say that the first act does feel it’s length, the others really do seem to zip along, as the plot begins to get darker and darker.
Icke has also modernised the setting, to contemporary Denmark. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is reminiscent of a Scandi apartment, and is flanked by multiple screens; with CCTV being used by the watch to track the Ghost through the castle, and 24 hour news cameras being present to watch the reactions of characters to the events on stage. This, along with some other tricks which I don’t want to spoil, does feel really quite innovative, especially within the small Almeida space.
Hamlet is a play that holds grief and depression at its heat; one of Claudius’ first lines is to criticise Hamlet for having ‘unmanly grief’. What I did really enjoy about this production was how grief was writ large across numerous characters; Ophelia (Jessica Brown-Findlay) ultimately turning to madness, Laertes (Luke Thompson) showing his own ‘unmanly grief’ to brilliant effect toward the end of the play. This was directly intersected with the power play that is approaching, led by Fortinbras, whose military prowess is shown on the faux news screens.
The performances are almost all wonderful, the acting throughout feels very natural, helping make the characters feel ever more real. Stevenson’s Gertrude is wonderfully played, especially as she begins to release her new husband’s flaws with tragic results towards the end. Brown-Findlay’s Ophelia feels a lot more in control of her destiny than the role usually is (and has a wonderful wardrobe), making her ultimate descent into madness all the more painful. Even characters that are sometimes slightly annoying a well-drawn here. Peter Wright’s Polonius combines his over-protectiveness as a father towards Ophelia and Laertes, with a bumbling humour and undercuts it with an apparent move toward senility. Even Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay) and Guildenstern (Amaka Okafor) feel like individual personalities, who have their own histories with Hamlet. The only person whose performance felt a bit flat was Angus Wight’s, who never really seemed dangerous enough as Claudius.
Really though, as the title of the play would suggest, the show rests on the shoulders of Andrew Scott, and he carries it brilliantly. You could hear a pin drop during his soliloquies, which are delivered just so naturally, and which run from humorous to ferociously angry to raw emotion, a refreshing change to the detached nature that the role is sometimes played with. He is hugely engaging to watch, and his raw grief, and desperation to cling to what he knew (his parents relationship for instance) is heart-breaking to the end.
Tickets to this seem very firmly sold-out, but if you can manage to grab a day seat, I would really very much recommend it.