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FringeReview UK 2017


Almeida Theatre

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Almeida Theatre


Low Down

Robert Icke re-inhabits Hamlet in a tiny space in a set designed and costumed this time too, by Hildegard Bechtler, Natasha Chivers’ lighting around Tal Yarden’s suspended video and Tom Gibbons’ sound.


Robert Icke’s now synonymous with much of what’s made the Almeida’s revival of classics exceptional. Fresh from Mary Stuart, Uncle Vanya and 2015’s Oresteia, Icke re-inhabits Hamlet in a tiny space. It’s a conception technologically at war with itself, scaled to a nutshell with the media kings of infinite space whistling through.


Intimacy’s key to the soft-voiced collisions in this textually full production: surveillance and family are scrutinised in a set designed and costumed this time too, by Hildegard Bechtler, mostly a hospital-green opacity; panels further screen the limited stage, rendering a shallow foreground even more oppressive. Natasha Chivers’ lighting softens around Tal Yarden’s suspended video, which blows a Danish-language TV hole into proceedings with Tom Gibbons’ sound – a modernity many recent Hamlets embrace.


It’s also used to press further in, a multi-screened surveillance using Almeida brickwork where guards spot David Rintoul’s later magisterial Ghost. This internalising of ‘Denmark’ in all its meanings is how Hamlet seals himself off by the end of Act One, becomes the conscience of the King, old Hamlet, whose cellarage ‘swear’ is omitted. Later on Polonius is wired up too. Icke’s direction manages this containment more completely than any recent production.


There’s paradox: it’s a study of families chafing at such high-tech intrusion, almost to self-sabotage. Claudius has himself and Gertrude boggle close to cameras but they’re also so enwrapped they’re often dangerously oblivious – forced to unravel from a sofa with ambassadorial arrival. More than any Claudius/ Gertrude before them, you believe their reckless amour fou.


Mostly they waltz upstage in a glittery world beyond reach to anyone else till the end. Juliet Stevenson’s rapture – she’s clearly been attracted more than two months – only slowly turns to conflicted love, finally shuddery recognition of Claudius where she shrinks to herself. Angus Wright chisels his words just as the video catches his profile – once memorably in a freeze. Coiled in his height Wright’s lithe, never exudes a restless will to power, his sotto voce nudged further into blood after one momentous act releases quick-eyed venom. You wonder if Gertrude after all wasn’t the prize, Denmark secondary.


Despite gestures to wider Denmark, impress of soldiers and other flickering reaches of Scandi-Noir invoking The Bridge, it’s the perilous collision of two families that slants this Hamlet to memorability.


Rarely has Hamlet proved so tactile: Polonius’ family touching, entwining, so familiar with Polonius’ precepts for Laertes to chorus them alongside Peter Wight’s by no means footling father; fond, and failing, his voice reminds one his counsel was sought after. Wight clouds and clears, with one astonishing pause where clearly dementia’s clawing his mind. Luke Thompson’s anger-management Laertes is warm in his admonitions. Jessica Brown Findlay’s a more Hamlet-colluding Ophelia than memory serves; spirited, cleaving to Hamlet (as he to her in kisses) her final unhinged grief as a mentally distressed patient in a wheelchair flares from these earlier fires, as parodically (and sexually) violent with her brother latterly as her former embraces.


Hamlet’s displacement over-arches all. All dark-side comparisons with Benedict Cumberbatch (221B or not…) or others recede in the Almeida’s écorché world. Andrew Scott’s quietly-spoken Prince digests or hesitates speech as if prelude to the non-act of vengeance thrust upon him. He’s Prince of Pauses but this production’s arched with them, even so labelled, trip-wiring the audience into two intervals. Sometimes a ruminant beat – more liberal than Pinter in a zealous reading – crumbles momentum.


The improvisatory discoveries where Scott appals himself are palpable. If he drops the arc of his vocal covenant and we drag, it’s often those production pauses, nagging his earth. The revealed mineral though, gleams into Scott’s soliloquies. Scott’s fully human engagement is only compromised by a lack of varietal timbre with energy to convey bleached-out traumas without mimicking them so absolutely. By Act Five his revelations come blanched, a dead mind walking. At other times Scott roars disjunct from his surrounding self, as if key family traumas trigger him with an extraordinary roar of ‘frailty thy name is woman’.


That can’t be Ophelia’s. Hiding with her loving connivance he overhears her family’s concerns. Later Ophelia signals her father’s wired presence. In a rare reveal upstage you see him touch her as she rises from a bath. It’s the most painful wrenching apart of intimacy imaginable, as she gathers up letters she only pretends to return to him.


By this time Hamlet’s position, compromised by Rintoul’s Ghost, enforces the ritual of revenge as if Hamlet observes his conscience stalking separately from himself yet contained in his silence over the Ghost. As if to underline that, in the most powerful exchange in this production, Hamlet and Gertrude end up in a family huddle with a very tactile Ghost entwining their hands, even if Gertrude can’t sense him.


It’s this Hamlet’s observing himself in role that eddies purpose, flaked from him in words words words as he welcomes Eliot Barnes-Worrall’s quickly-empathic Horatio as his one intimate, welcomes and dismisses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, here differentiated so the latter’s more frank, more affectionate: Amaka Okafor’s warmth contrasts with Calum Finlay’s panicky Rosencrantz. But Hamlet’s welcome to the players particularly Rintoul’s Player King releases not only the Mousetrap but the impro of observing.


The play-within-a-play’s close-up cameras on the Royal couple is the reward of this device, where Claudius stalks off, the audience anxiously ushered out. Elsewhere the device of Young Fortinbras and others on screen deflects from the thin suspended atmospheres this production affords. Barry Aird’s gravedigger anchors it at a much-needed point, with his crunchable skulls.


Again it’s as if Hamlet’s watching his own body, which lends the end more credence. Rarely has serenity – despite the indulgent hell-bent Bob Dylan blast-overs – visited Elsinore like this. Even poisoned scratches are scratches, the conversings genteel and the end quite extraordinary in its ritual. It’s unlike any seen before, with a touching set of rapprochements almost recalling J. M. Barrie’s happy-end rewrite of Hamlet recently utilised in Carole Bremson’s A Midsummer Night’s Madness. Rintoul’s compere and fell sergeant role is however touchingly deft.


With certain dips and lacunae that should pick up, this Hamlet shouldn’t be remembered just for Scott’s improvisatory humanity, though that’s key to what follows. Wight, Wright, Stevenson – like Icke fresh from Mary Stuart – Findlay and Rintoul set quiet benchmarks with their roles, as do others like Okafor. Despite TV modes – only bumpy with omission of key lines because Fortinbras isn’t onstage – this work emerges infused with family tragedy, intimate disquiet and treachery slant.