Hamlet. Directed by Robert Icke, for The Almeida Theatre, London. Seen 1st March, 2017.
By Dr. Eleanor Rycroft, Bristol University
Robert Icke has developed a reputation for shedding light on classic plays as Associate Director at the Almeida in recent years, notably through productions of Uncle Vanya, Oresteia, and a crystal clear version of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart which I saw at the end of 2016. Now he has taken on Hamlet – that behemoth of theatrical traditions and assumptions – and, once again, has pared the play back to its essentials. In doing so he has created a fresh, urgent, and contemporary production.
The word ‘strange’ rings out in this nearly four hour, two-interval version of the play. It is a production which takes as long as it needs; each and every scene is made to matter. Giving the play space to breathe has the effect of thrillingly reorganising the text, and moments I had never taken in before, such as Hamlet’s interrogation about the whereabouts of Polonius’ body, were riveting. I was surprised when the gravedigger scene came along – I’d forgotten all about it. The production forces us to see anew what a very peculiar story Hamlet is, how perverse its abuses, murders, incest and betrayals, barely concealed beneath the façade of royal respectability.
Icke’s Hamlet is fundamentally a family saga, with all the Nordic weight that ‘saga’ invokes. If it weren’t for the sheer, pulsing liveness of the event, the evening could be compared to binge-watching a Scandi-noir boxset – it is Festen and Borgen rolled into one. Despite the cold and stony corridors of Elsinore projected onto a number of screens above the stage, at the heart of the castle is a home with elegantly-appointed floor lamps, a corner sofa, occasional tables, and tasteful drapes. But it is a show home. It lacks the personal touch. There are no family pictures, no clutter, just brushed steel and neutral hues. The sole feature of domesticity – a sprig of flowers in a half-pint glass – only foreshadows Ophelia’s death when the water is chucked in her face. By Act 4 all homeliness has been swept away and Elsinore has become a sterile asylum.
Paying such careful attention to the text of Hamlet enables it to be reimagined in a way which materialises Freud’s principle of the uncanny, in that what is familiar becomes unfamiliar, what is homely, unhomely. Hamlet’s Ghost slides between such designations of course. When he is first glimpsed on screen, walking slowly down the corridor towards the camera, it is genuinely unsettling in the way that only the uncanny can be. But it is also Andrew Scott as Prince Hamlet who defamiliarises the play by delivering speeches so immediate, so inventive and natural, that it stops your breath. Ideas deadened through repetition feel newly-coined as Scott pulls them from the air in front of us. Never has Hamlet’s black dog felt inkier, or his grief more devastating. It is almost impossible not to run on stage to hug the man appealing so directly to us for help. When he clasps the too, too solid flesh of his dead father to him and sobs, it shatters your heart. What would we not give for one last embrace with someone we have loved?
The production’s simplicity is underscored by modern costume and unfanciful lighting, yet this only heightens the complexity of what is material and immaterial in Hildegard Bechtler’s design. The French windows that line the back wall are sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque, and sometimes shiny – reflecting back the fleshy ghost on-stage, or rendering us, the audience, translucent. This playfulness with what is substantial and insubstantial contributes to the production’s exploration of death – the sudden snatching away of a person’s essence, the cloak of invisibility that dying confers. Such ideas are complicated, however, by the lifeless but corporeal trunks that start to pile up on the stage: a conspicuously bulky Polonius (Peter Wight) whom Hamlet must lug off with considerable effort, and the shocking reappearance of a dead Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) when Laertes (Luke Thompson) hauls her from her grave, grasping and pawing at the floppy corpse.
It is a sickening violation, and indeed this Hamlet is characterised by horror and revulsion. Worms, pestilence, and maggots are never far from the carefully manicured surfaces of family life. To see Hamlet toy with a skull full of holes where once nerves and arteries, eyeballs and a spinal cord dwelt is nauseating. Death is the antagonist of the play, the ‘common theme’ (1.2.103) which must be mastered, and Scott expertly manages Hamlet’s trajectory from someone who cannot and will not imagine ‘what dreams may come’ (3.1.66), to someone able to see the ‘special providence’ in a sparrow’s fall (5.2.215). The precision and authenticity with which Scott performs this gradual acceptance of mortality mark his Hamlet as a classic incarnation of the role. But his performance is not isolated in terms of its intelligence, and is matched by the restrained but profound concern of Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) for her son, the keen loyalty of Horatio (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) for his friend, and the subtly intimated backstory of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and a female Guildenstern (Calum Finlay, Amaka Okafor) which hints at a Wittenberg love triangle. In fact the only slightly incongruent performance is Angus Wright’s smooth Claudius, whose villainy is so buried that it becomes difficult to imagine how Hamlet might take him ‘in his rage’ (3.3.90).
There were some questionable decisions in this production: to recuperate Gertrude through additions from the Bad Quarto, for instance, as well as the vision of the afterlife as an endless, inclusive wedding reception, which seems at odds with the cosmology of heaven and hell – or abject nothingness – carefully traced elsewhere. The Bob Dylan soundtrack was occasionally obtrusive too, although used to fabulous filmic effect in the final scene when it drowned out the dialogue of the fencing match. Any problems, however, were largely consequences of the boldness, honesty, and open-heartedness with which Icke and his company have approached the play. Because of this they tell a very strange tale of Hamlet indeed; one that I have never experienced before.