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.