Theatre Review: Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre

Something’s out of focus in the state of Denmark

Director: Robert Icke

Starring: Andrew Scott (Hamlet), Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude)

Grade: B

There’s nothing quite like the Dane, is there? It is possibly the role for Serious Ack-torrrrs to attempt, at whatever point in their career, and at least as many Hamlets as there are Hamlets-in-waiting to play them. The man playing Andrew Scott’s televisual nemesis, Benedict Cumberbatch, gave the role a go three years or so back. I didn’t watch it, because I carelessly omitted to consult Old Moore’s Almanack ten years before I was born to set aside time to queue up for tickets online the nanosecond they were released. But I have been able to catch Moriarty in action as the Prince, in the transfer of Robert Icke’s acclaimed production to the West End. With some misgiving – as I have mentioned before, I found Scott’s Moriarty so insufferable that some part of me will always want to heave a brick at him.

Thankfully, however, his Hamlet washes the taste of his gurning jackdaw Moriarty clean out my mouth. Scott turns in an intelligent, satisfying performance as the Prince. He has Hamlet’s irony and gifts as a parodist down. He nails Hamlet’s refinement and his shuddering disgust at any and all excess, almost equally offended by Laertes’s (Luke Thompson) hysteria at Ophelia’s graveside as his mother’s (Juliet Stevenson) abundant sexuality. He – or rather Icke – stumble, though, at the question of Hamlet’s own sexuality. The production seems to suggest at a profound and mutual attachment between Hamlet and Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) that neither the text nor performances can really sustain. And this brings me to my biggest problem with this production: while its atmospherics are excellent, it doesn’t seem to have a conceptual anchor.

Let’s talk atmospherics first. Icke’s production – and Hildegarde Bechtler’s clean, intelligent design – suggest a claustrophobic kingdom of constant surveillance. Everyone is watching, eavesdropping, listening in. Which is all in the text, and intelligently realised with CCTV cameras and news footage and people being taped and mic’d without their knowledge. Icke even gets Hamlet in on the action, eavesdropping on Polonius’s (Peter Wright, excellent) warning to Ophelia to stay away from the ‘out of [her] star’ prince. It’s a neat touch, grounding Hamlet’s (justifiable) paranoia early.

And here’s another neat touch: as Hamlet watches his ‘uncle/father’ Claudius (Angus Wright) praying and talks himself out of killing him, Claudius delivers his confession to the prince, eyeball to eyeball. The play doesn’t really need the additional reminder of Hamlet’s self-induced paralysis, but I like the merciless, inescapable weight of the moment.

Otherwise, though, I never really get a sense that Icke has a point of view about Hamlet apart from -you know – Hamlet. He doesn’t seem to have a perspective on whether Hamlet infects the court, or it him. There is unnecessary confusion (not ambiguity, but confusion) about how complicit Ophelia actually is, or feels herself. Findlay suggests a simmering rage throughout, which works well and unsettlingly during Ophelia’s breakdown but doesn’t seem integrated anywhere in the rest of her performance. And Icke uses a truly grotesque and club-footed insertion of text to give Gertrude information that she doesn’t, dramatically speaking, need to have at all. And frankly, I could have taken or left the Bob Dylan musical incurses.

But go for Scott’s performance. It’s not perfect – his bursts of rage leave me profoundly unmoved, for example – but his wincingly sensitive, delicate Dane reminded me of why this play was the soundtrack of my adolescence.

Hamlet runs at the Harold Pinter theatre until 2nd September.

5 thoughts on “Theatre Review: Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre

  1. Saw it on 28 June. Sorry but can’t agree. I actually thought the production and design were good, though I was a bit queasy about the hints of sexual tension between Rosencrantz and the female Guildenstern. Andrew Scott was probably good too. I say “probably” because he clearly subscribes to the Poldark school of diction. I was in the third row of the royal circle, and in spite of my advanced years came through a hospital hearing test with flying colours just five months ago. And still I could hardly hear a word he said. Juliet Stevenson was, of course, superb.

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    1. There was also sexual tension between Guildenstern and Hamlet on the night I watched it – 23rd June. And heh, yes, I completely understand the take on the production. I liked the design myself, but I thought the production didn’t have a lot more to offer than design and one or two nifty scenes. I didn’t care for Scott’s ‘starfish’ gesticulation (particularly ironic during Hamlet’s instructions to the players!) but I liked the irony and relative stillness he brought to the role otherwise.

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      1. You’re right of course – the sexual tension I referred to was indeed between Guildenstern and Hamlet. However, on more than one occasion on the night I was in, Rosencrantz took the bait and moved in between them in a proprietary manner. I don’t think Shakespeare really intended that! I too liked the design – particularly the multiple screens. But the whole thing was ruined for me by the persistent mumbling of the younger actors. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy was entirely inaudible and Scott’s hand signals made it look as if he was interpreting in sign language. For perhaps the first time in my life I was grateful for the fact that I’d been obliged to recite it on a near-weekly basis in another “incarnation” so knew it off by heart!

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      2. Yeah, I understand the impulse to give Hamlet some reason for his brutality towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but I think it’s unnecessary. And hah, yes, Scott’s fluttery fingers were rather distracting. I liked him best when he suggested the ironic remove I like best about Hamlet. The most recent Hamlet I saw was rather too ranty for my taste. And I wonder how I would feel about this production if i wasn’t basically reciting Hamlet’s soliloquies internally. Maybe I liked Scott’s inaudibility precisely because I could overlay it with my own internal monologue!

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