I didn’t think I’d be able to see Hamlet at the Almeida. Tickets flew out of the door and I thought I had no hope unless there was a live screening of some kind. Thankfully, and rather wonderfully, the Almeida had put on an extra four performances especially for 14-25 year olds FOR FREE. That’s right – absolute no pennies were spent. How incredible is that? It felt amazing to be sat in a room with fellow students and young people interested in theatre (see also: Andrew Scott fangirls). The buzz in the room was electric and I felt I truly was part of something special.
I’m going to be completely honest and say I was quite anxious about the performance. I think it’s this idea that as it’s a long show (almost four hours) I was worried I’d be bored and feel restless, as I did when watching the live screening of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican in 2015. I could walk out, I suppose, but my morals wouldn’t have allowed me.
Luckily, this was not the case. Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet was moving, subtle, and attention-grabbing without shouting at you to pay attention. Icke appears to be setting up a little rep company, too, employing a lot of the same creative team he has worked with multiple times in the past – and that established working relationship really pays off.
Every single actor on that stage pulled you in, not just reciting the lines but knowing exactly what they meant, speaking each word afresh, and I listened intently. Scott’s Hamlet is remarkable, not heroic or a moody teenager, but showing that raw emotion of a man who has lost his father and is going through that emotional turmoil of seeing his mother marry his uncle. Scott played Hamlet exactly as a human would react to seeing the ghost of their late father – overwhelmed, shocked, confused. Too often Hamlets are portrayed as some kind of hero who seems to know what they are doing, but Scott uses his dialogue as a thought process, really questioning himself and what he should do, his soft-toned, comforting Irish accent pulls you in, then suddenly roaring across the theatre with immense power.
This production seems to be about love. At least, in my opinion, this was a theme that was highlighted. A beautiful set design by Hildegard Bechtler splits the stage with a transparent screen, through which we see the engagement party of Claudius and Gertrude in this production’s act one. There is no denying that the couple are in love; constantly slow dancing, kissing, and rolling around together, it’s no wonder Hamlet feels a bit sick. But it’s actually rather endearing, and leads Angus Wright’s Claudius to not be the stereotypical villain at all, but human. The look in his eyes when Gertrude drinks the poisoned cup in the final scene is one of a man who knows he has f*cked up and lost everything.
Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship is also incredibly interesting to watch. You can tell they really do like each other, and that Ophelia is rather head-over-heels for the Prince. A beautiful little scene where we see Gertrude and Claudius slow dancing whilst behind the screen, Ophelia (in a bath) is grabbed repeatedly by Hamlet on the arm, before being kissed takes place, adding that extra context and character relationship depth which sometimes feels missing, particularly where Ophelia is concerned. It’s haunting, and a clever move to see the moment Ophelia then speaks about to her father moments later. Brown-Findlay’s Ophelia is strong, she has banter with her brother Laertes (Luke Thompson), and her song (composed by Laura Marling) is haunting. However, I was disappointed with the choice to have her in a wheelchair, bound by shackles, in her final scene. It felt so odd to have her seem hospitalised and in a wheelchair, which she easily freed herself from and climbed out of, and a bit too predictable.
But it is Gertrude who I want to talk about. Juliet Stevenson’s performance as Gertrude didn’t show a passive queen like other productions have. A scene, which I am told by a friend, which is only in the Q1 version of Hamlet and is rarely performed, was placed in this production. This scene shows Gertrude has become aware of Claudius’ plan, and this gives her an edge and incentive to take the poisoned cup from Hamlet and drink it herself. A slick choice by Icke. Her delivery of the news of Ophelia’s death was also herartbreaking – I could hear a pin drop the audience was so absorbed.
I was also in love with the use of technology in the performance, too. Starting with news reports of King Hamlet’s funeral, and having the watch looking at surveillance cameras. The only thing I was unsure about was the use of the screen to televise the fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet. It felt kind of Wii Sports. However, the decision to set it to music with minimal dialogue was a great one which I enjoyed very much, as it zoomed in on the event and created a cinematic climax which had been slowly building with Tom Gibbons’ sound design.
I adored the use of a live-feed camera during the Mousetrap scene. Projecting the royal family’s live reactions onto the screen behind the Players was ingenious. The slow zooming-in of Hamlet’s reaction to Polonius’ awful amateur acting is superb and very Office-like, a lighthearted moment needed in the sudden acceleration of tension in the production. In fact, there are a lot of funny moments highlighted in the play, mostly from Peter Wight’s Polonius (who somewhat reminded me of Robbie Coltrane?).
There was an interesting symbol of watches through the performance, which I felt possibly needed to be developed more. Polonius gives his departing son a watch as a gift, and the dead give King Hamlet their watches in exchange to entry to the golden party that is the afterlife, as opposed to a mass of bodies littering the stage. I guess it was symbolising how time catches up with you, and is so prevalent in the play, but I would love to hear more about this choice.
In short, Robert Icke’s Hamlet at the Almeida is stunning, and the best I think I’ll ever seen. It is carefully crafted, engaging, and I feel lucky to have seen it. I’m intrigued to see how it will differ when it transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre in June – maybe I’ll just have to see it again.