How many times does a cultured adult see Shakespeare plays in their life? Why keep going back to the same ones? You already know the story, the outcome. Language is splendid of course, but it’s a company, a director, performance that attracts. Almeida Theatre/Robert Icke’s Hamlet is another iteration that adds contemporary aspects (other than updated costumes) to the classic. I find myself surprised that much of it works.
Well crafted video, for example, doesn’t swallow actors (remember West Side Story?) or plot. Surveillance cameras in the castle (as opposed to the modern, hotel-like interior where primary scenes take place) reveal the ghost of Hamlet’s father (on screens) in empty, eerie, stone space effectively reminding us everyone is spying on everyone else. Even the static contributes atmosphere. Tom Gibbons’ sound design uses a foreboding electronic hum. Natasha Chivers’ lighting subtly airbrushes one minute, then jarringly flashes as doors open and close the next – insidious (apt) manipulation.
Ross Waiton and David Rintoul (Players)
Watching the projected faces of Claudius (Angus Wright) and Gertrude (Jennifer Ehle) as audience to the traveling player’s accusatory speech manifests intimacy on a distant stage. (And there’s a replay!) Adroitly created newsreel footage of the royals parallels today’s politics. (Designer Tal Yarden) Newspapers confirm the impression.
Other notable choices: As the wedding celebration rolls on upstage, Hamlet’s (Alex Lawther) glum homecoming plays out in front of massive sliding, glass doors. We see both. Hildegard Bechtler’s set often becomes convincing counterpoint. Guns manifest immediate, relatable threats – shots understandably make us jump. Casting the accomplished David Rintoul as both ghost and Player King is ingenious. The newly minted King and Queen are offered playful, suggestive scenes (albeit carefully clothed) – a glimpse of Gertrude’s attraction to her brother-in-law.
Kirsty Rider( Ophelia), Peter Wight (Polonius), Jennifer Ehle (Gertrude), Angus Wright (Claudius) and Luke Treadaway (Laertes)
Introduction of discord and doubt to the characters of Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay) and Guildenstern (Tia Bannon) successfully makes them more engaging and credible. Hamlet’s relationship with the latter volubly changes because there’s a woman in the role. His dragging Polonius’s (Peter Wright) body off wrapped in the bloody curtain is as artful as it is pragmatic. The young prince’s confrontation scene with Gertrude, a highlight, is physically rougher than I’ve ever seen.
On the other hand, stylizing has its cons. The Bob Dylan soundtrack is just odd. “PAUSE”, “STOP” signs to indicate ends of Acts are gimmicky. Soliloquies address the audience with lights slightly up, increasing awareness of surroundings, halting momentum. Ophelia is strapped into a wheelchair. There’s no opportunity to witness palpable movement frenzy and confusion. You win some, you lose some.
Alex Lawther (Hamlet), Jennifer Ehle (Gertrude)
Everything revolves around the mournful, temperamental Dane, of course. I find Alex Lawler appealing. He’s young, slight, and extremely expressive, involving every part of mind and body. We feel him struggle, see him think. Over the course of the play, Hamlet seems to grow from an angry teenager, through ambivalent revenge, to mature resignation.
Jennifer Ehle, of whom I’m a fan, seems restrained here – as if natural theatrical instincts had been denied. Only in the wrangling scene with Hamlet does she become unmistakably wretched. Angus Wright’s Claudius is satisfyingly imperious. As Ophelia, Kirsty Rider goes through the motions until her mad scene. Peter Wright’s Polonius is rightly pompous but not droll, a missed opportunity. Joshua Higgot’s Horatio, Luke Treadaway’s Laertes, and Ross Waiton’s Gravedigger are solid characterizations.
Director Robert Icke manages to weave then and now with a steady, imaginative hand. His use of the large staging area and relationship change is both dexterous and character specific. Pacing is good – though the play is looooong. I was, if tired, engrossed.
Photos by Stephanie Berger
Opening: Alex Lawther (Hamlet)
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
A Park Avenue Armory and Almeida Theatre Production
Directed by Robert Icke
3 hours 40 minutes with two intermissions
Through August 13, 2022
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue at 66th Street