The Almeida’s new staging of Hamlet is set in contemporary Denmark. The set is flanked with TV screens and looping news broadcasts, the spectre of media saturation possibly suggesting an overlap between Shakespeare’s cloistered, paranoiac courts and modern society, where we too submit to the relentless scrutiny of strangers. Despite the flashy revamp, however, Robert Icke’s production feels relatively conservative, dutifully adapting the source material and making few cuts to the text.
It takes time for the production to find its feet. Once the novelty of modern dress and live video feeds wear off, the opening scenes feel somewhat turgid. The appearance of the ghost on malfunctioning security cameras, for instance, comes across as almost hokey and undercuts the disquieting nature of the scene. Indeed, throughout the play, some of these staging innovations do more to obstruct than enhance. During the Mousetrap scene, we are led to believe that we are watching the event unfold live on the news; the media fanfare doesn’t quite fit the play’s actual narrative. Throughout the show, a jarring folk soundtrack is blasted between (and sometimes over) scenes, which seems ill-suited to both the play itself and also this particular staging.
That said, Andrew Scott’s performance quickly develops into something breathtaking. His embodiment of a sulking youth feels awkward at first (at one point, he bites his nails striding back and forth almost pantomiming adolescent angst) but matures into an electrifying spectacle. His soliloquies are delivered with an unhinged intensity so that Hamlet’s raw vulnerability, rather than his philosophical prowess, take centre stage. Some of his volatile bursts of energy leave audience members literally gasping in their seats. By the end of the play, even some of the most well worn speeches feel fresh and utterly compelling.
Equally impressive is Jessica Brown Findlay’s performance as Ophelia. Ophelia can be a difficult character to translate, relying on outmoded tropes of femininity, she is often reduced to Hamlet’s acquiescent foil. Findlay’s textured performance manages to find something rebellious in the character; some of the most throwaway lines come out defiant and challenging. Even in moments of florid madness, there is something caustic and dangerous about Findlay’s Ophelia. She remains savvy, oddly powerful: a renaissance heroine, given a contemporary London edge.
Indeed, across the board, Icke’s production manages to make some of the play’s most innocuous characters strangely distinctive. Amanda Okafor, for instance, packs a lot into Guildenstern, suggesting conflict and ambivalence surrounding her relationship with the king and achieving this mostly through silent gestures and double takes.
More could be done with Claudius (Angus Wright) who is played as merely slimy and opportunistic, and Horatio (Elliot Barnes-Worrall) who is played as merely nice and accommodating. However, the four hour run time moves briskly (no small feat) and some of the scenes achieve rare poignance. 4/5
Review written by Sean Gilbert.
Hamlet is currently showing at the Almeida Theatre until Saturday 15th April. For more information on the production, visit here…