I’ve been trying to see this for nearly a year, since it was at the Almeida. It was worth the wait.
Andrew Scott, one of my favourite actors, gives what I can only describe as a true Irish Hamlet: sad, bittersweet and quietly, heartbreakingly funny.
He sees the irony through the madness and the sorrow, yet his grief is always just behind his eyes. This is a romantic hero of legend, Scott brings a childlike sweetness to the role and thus he makes us care for Hamlet all the more, even when he is at his most irresponsible.
The setting is modern, innovative and intriguing. The play begins with coverage of the King’s state funeral straight from a cable news channel, albeit in Danish. CCTV is everywhere, the ghost first appears on a control room screen, and everyone is being watched and spied on, as they are in the play. As are we.
Ian Rickson’s 2011 Hamlet emphasised the madness within the play by setting it in an asylum, the audience even entering the theatre after walking through the set. Robert Icke’s production in contrast focuses on surveillance. Britain has more security cameras than any other country in the world, we are all being watched. The same, it seems, is true of the ‘state of Denmark’. Is this what is ‘rotten’?
The play within the play takes centre stage, while the cast sits in the front row among us, their faces thrown by live camera onto screens around the auditorium and above the stage. A clever use of old and new, theatre and video, where Claudius’ reaction is ‘caught on tape’, before he storms out of the theatre. It strikes true in today’s society, where it seems as if nothing is real unless shown on screen.
This also means that the subtle looks from the actors, such as Hamlet’s eye rolling at a Claudius soundbite, is not missed. Indeed such moments give this production a lot of humour that I haven’t seen since David Tennant’s version.
In other resonances to modern times, Polonius seems to be suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, Rosencranz and Guildenstern are a couple, and both Hamlet and Gertrude (A loving yet still sexual Derbhle Crotty) are the only characters that speak with Irish accents, which subtly evokes the mother/son bond.
For me, Michael Sheen is still my favourite Dane, but Andrew Scott is but a hair’s breadth behind. My only criticism would be his foot-stamping, which brings out the ‘little prince’ in the character, but is over-used. He makes the words his own, and shares his feelings only with us.
Jessica Brown Findlay is a sweetly sensual Ophelia, crushed by heartbreak, Angus Wright’s Claudius has more smarm than Tony Blair, Joshua Higgott’s Horatio is a true friend of Hamlet, but it was Peter Wright’s performance as Polonius that most caught my eye.
Switching from caring father to tyrant, from accomplished fixer to absent minded rambler, hinting at some form of dementia, Wright subtly makes him all too human.
The trouble with this play is that often you have a great Hamlet but not a great production, or vice versa. Here, for once, you have both.