Review: Hamlet, Almeida Theatre

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” 

The enduring image of Robert Icke’s Hamlet is family – the repeated motif of group of three cleaving together haunts the production as much as Hamlet’s father himself. From the instant and intense bond established between Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes, Icke makes striking emotional sense of the respective grief and ferocity of the latter two, powerfully played by Jessica Brown Findlay and Luke Thompson against Peter Wight’s twinkling charm as their father.

And Icke also gives the tragic visual of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet trying to rebuild his original family unit, joining hands with his mother and the ghost of his father in the midst of the closet scene, willing Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude to see what he sees, to put things back the way they used to be. And in a stunning montage for the final scene, these trios reform, emphasising the innate happiness of one and the deep tragedy of the other. It is deeply, deeply felt.

So much so that you almost don’t feel the four hours of the running time. The first part is the longest, setting up this modern-day Elsinore with its CCTV (for seeing ghosts), 24 hour Danish news channels (for keeping us up to date with that pesky Fortinbras), and fencing pistes (for duels). But it is the second, a swift half-hour or so that utterly, and unexpectedly, invigorates the play into a contemporary thriller that is as surprising as anything I’ve seen so far this year.

Creatively it is on point. Hildegard Bechtler’s elegant design captures the all the froideur of palatial grandness and how easy it is to feel alone there; Tal Yarden’s video is spaaringly but wisely used, live relay giving us the reactions of the royal family to The Mousetrap, seated as they are in front row of the audience at this point; and Tom Gibbons’ rumbling soundscape delivers the requisite atmosphere of increasing menace, disquieted further by Ophelia’s song, composed here by Laura Marling. 

And as Icke’s repertory company of sorts continues to develop, the performances it conjures are superlative. Stevenson and Angus Wright’s Claudius are electric together and thoroughly believable (you’d believe they’d been having a long-running affair…), Thompson and Brown Findlay are beautifully intense, and Amaka Omafor’s Guildenstern has the interesting suggestion of a previous sexual history with Hamlet which spices up the interplay with Calum Finlay’s hilariously sweary Rosencrantz.

Then there’s Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, hypnotically mellifluous in breathing pained fragility into every line and as mad a Dane as we’ve had for a while. It’s a star performance but one which never pulls focus, thoroughly integrated as it is into the ensemble. This production will doubtless have its detractors – it’s not spoken precisely enough, it doesn’t smell of war enough, there’s too many watches – but for me, it is as exciting and engaging as Hamlet gets, the best I’ve witnessed out of the 15 I’ve watched.

Running time: 3 hours 45 minutes (with two intervals)
Photos: Manuel Harlan, main show image by Miles Aldridge
Booking until 15th April

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