Review- Hamlet

I haven’t had the easiest time coming up with a response to Robert Icke’s Hamlet for a number of reasons. First, I hadn’t really wanted to see it in the first place. When it had its initial run at The Almeida, I thought I’d dodged a bullet.  The last Icke production I’d seen at The Almeida was Uncle Vanya, arguably one of the most ponderous, tedious, and cruelly long evenings I’ve ever spent in the theatre. Telling tales out of school, I sat near the actor Stephen Mangan, who, swearing under his breath, left in a hurry at the first, (or was it the second?) interval.  The ingredients in Uncle Vanya were all there for Hamlet: long play, lots of text, speeches galore, gloomy central male character, endless pontificating about life and man’s nature, Robert Icke directing, and Jessica Brown-Findlay.  So I was hesitant. But when the invitation came through for the West End transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre, I snapped it up, because an overwhelming amount of critical praise  had been heaped upon the production at The Almeida. I then had another moment of doubt after coffee with an actor friend, who pointed out that not only did I have serious reservations about Icke, I also did not particularly care for the lead actor, Andrew  Scott.  Granted, I had only ever seen him in Sherlock, as a twerpy, psychopathic sort of Moriarty, but it was enough.  I groaned at my ordeal. Thee plus hours of things that surely cannot, would not, come to good!  So I went along, more in sorrow at myself than anger, and lo, was hoisted by my own petard. For I have  been to a production of anything, let alone Hamlet,  which was so alive to each and every actor  onstage.  From the electrifying moment a security guard shouts the famous first line (“Who’s there?”) to the equally famous  last, I was gripped. I had such trouble coming to grips with the emotions from the play cluttering up my brain that it took a great deal of time to actually be able to sit and write them all down.

I had done a disservice to both Icke and Scott. This is one of the most stupendous things I have seen onstage. I have never, even knowing the story well, had so many moments where my heart was in my mouth, laughter on my lips, or tears pricking my eyes. Shakespeare’s words leapt from the page and became (too, too solid) flesh, and the whole thing seemed so vital, so alive.

The wedding  party is in full swing when Hamlet darkens the stage, fresh from travel. In the background, a gentle, throbbing baseline is heard, and balloons and streamers crowd the dance floor, as Gertrude and Claudius nuzzle each other, for one  more slow dance.  The famous lines in Hamlet come thick and fast, but never were they spoken in a more natural, unaffected way as here, particularly by Scott.  I have written before about a problem actors have with Shakespeare: how if you don’t fully and completely understand each and every word you are saying, it comes out as a sort of beautiful word salad, but that if the person understands his speeches, their meaning then  becomes clear to the audience. There was literally none of that here.  Icke has teased out  excellent performances from each of his players. So when Scott strolls on stage and plays verbal tennis with Claudius, uttering the refutation “A little more than kin, a little less than kind,” the rebuke is as stinging as a slap, but not half so showy.  And when Hamlet enters into his first soliloquy, it is so natural, so funny, so mournful, that I forgot he was the Melancholy Dane, and was  rapt.

The relationships here are one of the many things which stood out. Everyone seemed so much closer in this production, so when it all goes wrong it’s truly horrifying. Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude, leaves all of the one-note performances of that unfortunate lady behind with her kind, desperate, lustful Queen.  Her relationship with Hamlet is clearly one of great mutual respect and concern (though not, as some have attempted, an incestuous one,) so when the scale of her folly is revealed, you feel Hamlet’s horror for her as well as her own. And Ophelia, poor, sexy, sacrificed Ophelia, is ruined and driven to suicide by Hamlet’s antic disposition (and the murder of Polonius.) Brown Findlay plays her straight, a young woman in love, and in thrall to her father and brother. The visual impact of her transformation from dewy ingénue to ruined madwoman could not have had a more unsettling effect.

For all of the death and navel-gazing, one of the more surprising things about Icke’s production was how funny it was.  Polonious might categorise it as a “Tragi-Comedy.”  There has always been an archness to Hamlet’s character, but Scott really subtly inhabits his dry, amused nature. There were many, many, laugh-out loud moments. The most famous of these often involve Polonius, and here he is ingeniously given bits of business in his spying and meddling which adds both to the overarching theme of surveillance in the play and to its comedic heart.

But, naturally, what Shakespeare does best is tragedy. And  in Hamlet, famously, there is a lot of tragedy to go around.  Without giving too much away, the final act, the duel, is so tightly crafted  with suspense and horror that I was speechless at the end of it. Where Laertes was once Hamlet’s willing killer, here he is, after a time, reluctant, almost begging to switch swords. When the end has come for all, up comes the slow thrum of the wedding reception, and each character is welcomed back to the eternal party.

I’ve never been so affected by anything in my theatre-going life.  Bravo to all involved. It is a masterpiece.

Hamlet is at The Harold Pinter Theatre until 2nd September 2017.

Review- Sand in the Sandwiches

John Betjeman is one of those seemingly ubiquitous figures, beloved by history, who appears here and there to add a bit of comforting familiarity to a story, or a soupçon of rightness to a cause.  Any number of biographers ascribe to him a quality of lovelorn hopelessness in his romantic affairs, and he is forever associated with lending his name to causes devoted to saving bits of Britain’s architectural history.

 

Betjamin is, of course, one of Britain’s best-loved poets. My personal favourite is “A Subaltern’s Love Song”, where the narrator rhapsodises about Joan Hunter Dunne, “Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun.” His work is light, whimsical, harmless. It’s nostalgic, and often comforting. And so is “Sand in the Sandwiches”, the one-man play written by Hugh Whitemore to celebrate Betjamin’s fusty, avuncular appeal.

Edward Fox is Betjamin. There’s no one quite like Fox.  His voice is so plummy, his face so  singularly creased, his presence so large, it’s almost difficult to see beyond the Edward Fox-ness of him. But he becomes Betjamin, and several other characters besides.  He recites with great passion (or as he would say “pyashion,”) even as he strolls casually about the stage. He takes obvious pleasure in the jokes, japes, and anecdotes which litter the script, and where other actors might teeter over into hamminess, Fox steers his performance into something more pleasingly real. He looks so at home in a linen three-piece you can believe it’s what he wears at home. It’s a treat and a pleasure to watch him.

The play itself is insubstantial. An ode, a puff piece. The biographical bits on Betjamin are interesting, and the anecdotes ( like what Churchill reportedly said when he heard Tom Driberg was to be married,) are funny, but the whole effect is more cozy armchair evening and less theatrical event.  There is a great deal of Betjamin’s verse, as you would expect, but this too, is much of a muchness after a while. There needs to be more Betjamin, less Betjamin’s poetry. (Heresy!  But it is a play. Arguably there should be less recitation and more drama.)

But whatever the shortcomings of the script, an evening with Fox is a gift.

 

Sand in the Sandwiches is at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 3rd June.