BWW Review: HAMLET, Harold Pinter Theatre
Following a sold-out Almeida run, Robert Icke's thoughtfully contemporary take on Shakespeare hits the West End, with its original cast mainly intact (Derbhle Crotty succeeds Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude on 4 July). The big draw, of course, is the superb Andrew Scott in the title role, but Icke's production is just as considered in every supporting part, resulting in a wonderfully rich experience.
The running time has come down slightly, but this three and a half hour evening still includes oft-omitted parts - which, together with some fascinating recontextualising, creates a layered, quietly radical version. The text is given endless room to breathe and strike anew, Icke using production elements astutely to underscore and colour rather than command it; the articulacy of silence, too, is afforded real respect. It's occasionally wearing, yes, but worth the investment.
Hildegard Bechtler's modern Scandi noir design is sleek and steely. Sliding glass doors are used effectively to separate and mirror: Hamlet adrift from his mother and uncle's celebratory party, and then a mournful reflection as he too slow dances, but while weeping into Ophelia's hair. Violence intrudes upon this stylishly monochromic world, a smear of blood on the glass a constant reproach.
The supernatural element is also brought up to date, with a ghostly form, in horror movie fashion, invading the CCTV, while the surveillance state manifests in multiple ways - from woeful spy Polonius muttering into the microphone on his lapel while assessing Hamlet, watched by the royal couple, to the media-savvy Claudius creating a happy family image for the cameras.
The latter backfires in electrifying fashion when Hamlet confronts him with The Mousetrap. We see the players on stage, while a handheld camera fixates on Claudius's face - and then on his empty chair after he storms out of the theatre. It's a scene with peculiar resonance given the current Trump/Julius Caesar uproar.
However, this is not a Hamlet of tricks, but of emotion. Scott's prince is genuinely bewildered that his mother, who seemed so besotted with his father, could remarry immediately, while Angus Wright and Juliet Stevenson's newlyweds are giddily, swooningly in love; in fact, this could be interpreted as their tragedy, lovers torn apart.
Claudius's explanation of their "defeated joy" seems reasonable - a compassionate balance between the pain of grief and the necessity of moving forward. Time moves differently for Hamlet, though, trapped in the immediate aftermath of loss (watches, passed down from father to son, are a recurring motif). His first response on seeing the ghost is to desperately hug him, as though reclaiming a missing piece, and he keeps trying to rejoin his parents' hands.
Scott has the gift of spontaneity - his soliloquies lucid, seemingly artless intimacies - and of tonal variation, ramping up from soft-spoken wryness to howls and roars of rage. The latter transition can occasionally feel artificial, but otherwise reads heartbreakingly as the overflowing passion of a brilliant, sensitive man who feels too much and is unable to control it in the wake of this loss.
Polonius and his children are that enviable family unit: Laertes offering awkward brotherly relationship advice to Ophelia, the siblings rolling their eyes at their father's laundry list of instructions, but touched by his efforts. Hamlet's scorn of Polonius is also laced by affection - and Peter Wight's Polonius evidently a bumbling pedant with kindly intentions, as well as memory difficulty that hints at the sad diminishing of his faculties.
Jessica Brown Findlay's Ophelia is initially infantilised in dresses with bows, but by her final appearance has discovered her power, albeit in tragic circumstances. She strides in a tight circle, "He is gone" repeated like a mantra.
Wright, if sometimes too cool, creates an interestingly ambiguous Claudius, while Stevenson's eloquent reactions are worth the price of admission alone. The extraordinarily moving climax suggests the tragic erosion of trust and affection among this close-knit group, with Luke Thompson's similarly bereaved Laertes visibly reluctant to use the poisoned rapier.
There's excellent support from David Rintoul as the ghost and, together with Marty Cruickshank, a performer who encapsulates the court's emotional bent; the players provide a touching relationship montage that recalls the beginning of Up. Bob Dylan is used frequently and with great care, adding to a memorable production brimming not just with intellect, but with tangible feeling.
Hamlet at Harold Pinter Theatre until 2 September. Book tickets here from £20
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan