Bear with me, gentle reader, as I try to do justice to the Almeida’s production of Hamlet. I am really, genuinely, not sure I have the words. A review where I told you everything and everyone was amazing would be truthful, but not particularly illuminating!
Firstly, a word of warning. I have no previous experience of Hamlet (bar a late-night, dimly remembered viewing of a film – so dimly remembered I can’t even recall which one it was) to compare this to, and it might not have been as good as I thought. I’ve seen enough theatre, though, to be confident this was an unusually deft and powerful production.
Set in modern dress, this Elsinore was a maze of glass walls, floor-length curtains, and tasteful Danish design – surprisingly easy to see how Hamlet could see it as a prison. The setting was resolutely modern – a ghost caught on CCTV, video-conferencing with ambassadors, and a Bob Dylan soundtrack that brought back childhood memories (we had unusual car sing-songs…) but didn’t necessarily seem to be adding anything specific to the setting. Crucial scenes, such as the play, were presented both in person and via live video (the sort of effect this production of Measure for Measure was aiming at and failing) – a pleasing reminder that this is a court, and demonstrating what was at stake.
One slight flaw with this modern setting was a repeated issue with the feedback on the systems which deafened the audience on three separate occasions in the first part of the show. The cast coped with it so well we weren’t sure (the first time it happened) whether it was a mistake or a sign of Hamlet’s madness – but by the third time there was a certain air of frustration that the problem hadn’t been identified and fixed…
On to the cast. Angus Wright was a Claudius hiding his evil behind a mask of banality. He reminded me of John Major at his greyest (this is not to suggest that John Major was hiding evil) – but more deliberately bland, nothing to catch hold of until Hamlet managed to get under his skin with the play-within-a-play. A running joke about his incompetence with technology left us with a repeated, twitchy image of his guilty face, hovering above the action. Then he revealed himself, becoming more openly malevolent – but still, apparently, very much in love with Gertrude – seeking bodily to stop her from drinking the poison meant for Hamlet. Juliet Stevenson was a clearly passionate Gertrude – almost always touching Claudius, the two were caught in flagrante repeatedly. But she also had a large capacity to love – her boundless hope and fears for her son, the great and obvious affection for Ophelia. The one thing I couldn’t work out was whether she had loved Hamlet’s father or not – she seemed oblivious to any moral to herself in the play, unable to tear herself away from Claudius even as she realises what he is.
There were so much love too between Polonius (who in Peter Wight’s skilful hands was foolish but good-natured – worthy of respect for his heart if not his brains), Laertes (Luke Thompson – and isn’t it a good thing Laertes isn’t on stage more since he’s clearly one of those characters who’s annoyingly good at everything), and Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia. She came across as touchingly, heartbreakingly young and vulnerable – very childish with her father, trying to be more grown-up, but really hugely out of her depth, when dealing with Hamlet. There was, I think, an implication that Hamlet raped her which sat uneasily with me – both as something he wouldn’t do and as something that Polonius (and Ophelia herself) would not forgive. Her madness was also her growing up – brought in tied to a wheelchair, beating her own breast, she finally commanded a place and the full attention of the court. Rosemary for remembrance indeed – I don’t think anyone could forget her.
The third affectionate grouping was that of Hamlet’s friends. Elliot Barnes-Worrell as honest lieutenant Horatio trying to keep up with his friend. David Rintoul and Marty Cruickshank as the Player King and Queen, clearly old acting buddies of the Prince who didn’t know why they were there but were going to do their best (and it was a stonkingly good dumbshow and play – it’s a mystery as to why they didn’t have a better job elsewhere). Calum Finlay and Amaka Okafor were a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern couple – the hint that Guildenstern was perhaps Hamlet’s ex helped to explain why Rosencrantz at least might have been willing to take Claudius’s orders to kill the prince.
But all of these, wonderful as they were, were merely orbiting Andrew Scott’s Hamlet. He was a really incredibly sweet prince (for all the subject matter) – willing to laugh at himself whenever the mood risked getting too heavy, his madness born almost as much out of his own anger and impatience at the grief he alone seemed to feel as out of the Ghost’s revelations. It was clear he loved dearly his mother, Ophelia, his friends, and would have loved to be able to join their happiness – he was not seeking to bring them to his grief though, that, of course, through the rottenness of the court that turned all affections astray, was his end. In a similar vein, two of the funniest moments were the ones that could have been most awful: his “Good night, mother” as he dragged the body of Polonius off-stage; and the tit-for-tat wounding of Laertes – having been struck across the hand, Hamlet walloped him on the arse.
Hamlet’s great thumping soliloquies were lightly, conversationally, almost playfully delivered to the audience as his intimate confidants, trusted to know the doubts and fears that tormented the poor boy. It was a delight to have an actor (a whole cast, in fact) who trusted the audience to be listening to every word, even when delivered at normal speaking tones, and who did not believe that drama relied on volume. The heart of the piece, really, was his interaction with his father’s ghost (also played by David Rintoul) and two particular scenes stood out. In the first, when the Ghost to appears to Hamlet in Gertrude’s presence, Hamlet tries to join their hands together, like a marriage ceremony. It’s an effective extra little twist of the knife in Hamlet’s heart. The second is the Ghost’s unscripted appearance at the end, giving us all hope that perhaps the undiscovered country is more forgiving than this one.
It’s a long production (just under 4 hours) and it’s taken me even longer to write this review. Longest for sure will be the time I spend reliving it. The play’s the thing indeed.