by Rachel Beaumont

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Characterization, characterization, characterization: Hamlet at the Almeida

Almeida Theatre
17 March 2017
Circle E9, £20

I love Hamlet. Who doesn't? But I have to admit it seems to be difficult to stage. Every production has to be assessed on the basis of how much it manages to make sense of the characters, or perhaps rather how much it doesn't screw that up. In this sense Robert Icke's production succeeds as no other I've seen, and if you'd asked me at the first interval I would have argued that there's much about it which is basically definitive, or, at least, which reaches my ideal.

That doesn't follow through to the end of the play, but characterization and motivation are still this production's great strength. Claudius (Angus Wright), Polonius (Peter Wright), Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson), Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Laertes (Luke Thompson) are all fully rounded, credible characters, given focussed portrayals that are fully in harmony with the text. This is no mean feat. Icke even manages to achieve what I would have thought impossible, and give individual, distinguishable, memorable characteristics to Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay) and Guildenstern (Amaka Okafor) (the female Guildenstern is Hamlet's friend, Rosencrantz her long-standing boyfriend whom nobody likes and can't understand why she's with him, and who is full of bitter rage as a result). Icke doesn't make much of Horatio, but all the rest of the supporting cast are so successfully interpreted, as David said, it makes you wonder why it isn't always done like that.

I've loved Andrew Scott since Emperor and Galilean at the National, which remains one of the best theatre experiences I've had. I think he's excellent as Moriarty in Sherlock, a show that has otherwise worn thin, and I'm glad that his excellent work is widely recognized and he's now properly famous (although if he could be slightly less famous, so it could be easier to get tickets for this Hamlet, that would be good too). I always find Hamlet sympathetic but Scott's is particularly so. In the long first part (up to Claudius walking out of the play) there is remarkable clarity around what we are to understand Hamlet is thinking, and in his relationships with the other characters. This carries through the rest of the play, where even the histrionics in Gertrude's bedroom and by Ophelia's grave are delivered with great simplicity as the behaviour of someone acting out in increasingly traumatic circumstances. Scott traces a consistent character arc throughout Hamlet's many transformations, even to his final peaceful self-abnegation.

The production I separate into two halves. I enjoyed Icke's use of video throughout – particularly in the nightwatch scenes, firmly presenting Hamlet as a ghost story; and in the play within a play, making it easy even on the back row to see both play and reaction. He makes great use of Hildegard Bechtler's set of sliding glass panels which, similarly to Oresteia, can be made opaque; showing us Hamlet's first aggression towards Ophelia in this way, a scene usually left offstage, was particularly effective. The first part, in all other ways excellent, was marred only by appallingly loud booms and feedback loops on the sound system; the actors carried on unperturbed which made me wonder if they weren't accidental, but, either way, they were unwelcome.

I have more uncertainty in the play's second and third parts. In situ, I was unsure about Icke's staging of the scene of Claudius's prayer as a kind of joint dream, where Claudius and Hamlet are both aware of each other's lines throughout the scene. But talking it over in the interval it seemed to make more sense: it's such a bizarre, dramatically convenient scene that perhaps there is a kind of rightness in treating it with such blatant artificiality. I remain less convinced by some of Icke's more fanciful innovations in the final part. There's so much of the gravedigger scene cut that it seems barely more than an excuse for the Yorick speech. It's a good speech, but so's the rest of the scene; and the gravedigger had been instructed to mutter such that I could barely hear what few lines he had. Much more annoying was the treatment of the final scene. As Hamlet collapses the glass set reveals a heavenly party, where Ophelia and Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dancing. One by one the already murdered characters rise from their death postures and cross the threshold, as they do so passing their watches to the ghost of Hamlet's father, who stands guard. Eventually Hamlet will also pass him his watch, although this time collapsing and dying in Horatio's arms, the heavenly party disappearing. On the video screens the word 'STOP' and the stop-sign square appear. Whether the party is a subjective dream or not, surely this is all simply naff? Icke has been so sure-footed, so insightful in so much of this production that I think there must be a better explanation, but I've not been able to find it.

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