Fuck. I feel like I’ve just seen the real Hamlet for the first time. Robert Icke has created a proper monster of a play and it’ll be a shame if it doesn’t transfer. It almost feels like I’ve only ever read or seen half of Hamlet before but now the curtain has been drawn back and I’ve been shown the whole thing. There are so many bits and pieces in the text I never even noticed before that this production brings out. The Gravedigger has been digging graves ‘since the day young Hamlet was born’? I must have heard actors say that line before but it’s never clicked. Under Icke’s direction Shakespeare feels so perfect and clear and easy to understand. The ‘the king is not with the body scene’ is funny in a really morbid way. In most productions it sits at that point where you’re really losing track of what the fuck is going on and you’re just trying to figure out who’s Rosencarl and who’s Guildenlenny. But here it actually works, and everything makes sense.
There’s footage from news channels that intersperses the whole thing that helps make a couple of things clear before we’re even told about them. There’s a news montage of Hamlet and Gertrude at the funeral which is painfully beautiful, and the text on the news ticker is all in Danish. The whole production is full of really tactful touches, just like that. Nothing feels forced, everything feels well-rounded.
There are puns in the play that I always knew were there because people told me about them (sun/son and a dew/adieu) but for the first time I actually noticed them in performance. They weren’t spoken in a really Globe-y, pantomime-y way but they’re just there for the audience to enjoy.
It’s really rare for me to see a Shakespeare production and not have to look up the Wikipedia plot summary during the interval. I don’t think I’m especially clever but I’m an English student at a Russell Group university. What hope for British theatre when even English students struggle with the way we do Shakespeare?
And, best of all, there’s none of what Icke calls ‘theatre-funny’. You know when a forty-something white man chuckles really loudly at something in a Shakespeare show that no one else laughs at? Because there’s some kind of joke you only get if you know the notes to the Arden edition off by heart? There was absolutely none of that in the audience (even though, on the night I saw it, the audience was the whitest and most middle class audience you could possibly imagine). There was just stuff that was funny and stuff that was sad. And occasionally, there’s something that’s both funny and sad. Like when Hamlet tries to drag Polonius’ body offstage. It’s sad because Polonius is dead, and scary because there’s a sense that Hamlet might kill Gertrude. But the sight of the desperately unfit Hamlet dragging Polonius’ overweight body offstage and folding his legs over to get all of Polonius offstage is pretty funny. I could sense the people around me laughing, then cutting themselves off, then starting to laugh again.
So: Andrew Scott is the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen (out of what I’ll admit is a slightly limited list: Cumberbatch, Essiedu, Branagh, Tennant and that Dromgroole one that toured round the world). But he really does hold the scene. His ability to make his lines sound like he just thought of them is a talent he only really shares with Juliet Stevenson. Pretty much the whole ensemble is brilliant though. Amaka Okafor is a very human Guildenstern and Luke Thompson’s Laertes is a bit boisterous but also a better son than Hamlet could ever be.
One of the anxieties in Shakespeare’s text is whether Hamlet is seeing a ghost or a devil, or whether he’s seeing anything at all. The latter is even more of a concern for the modern audience and is fully explored in Icke’s production. Initially, the ghost of Hamlet’s father only appears on camera. Horatio, Barnardo and Marcellus see the ghost on security cameras but the ghost as an actor, the physical body on stage with no video effects? He is definitely only visible to Hamlet. In most productions Hamlet just runs off without his buddies so Shakespeare can do his dramatic thing of just having Hamlet and the ghost onstage. Here, there’s no interlude for us to listen to some Bob Dylan and where some furniture gets shifted around. I don’t remember where the others go but Hamlet and the ghost are left alone in the security room. And then the ghost appears again in the Hamlet/Gertrude closet scene. And Gertrude definitely can’t see it. The deeper in we get, the less certain we are.
This isn’t just classy, Robert Icke-style use of video. What’s on that big, Kings of War-style screen hanging over the stage matters. Of course, the ghost isn’t the only use of video. Angus Wright’s Claudius (aka the new King) makes occasional use of live video feeds to make public announcements. We get the news reels, plus some really freaky footage of Hamlet’s dad with blood trickling out his ear during the graveyard scene.
It’s implied that what we see on the security cameras is real. Gertrude sees Hamlet wandering round on CCTV: ‘look, where sadly the poor wretch comes’. But what is displayed on that big screen isn’t necessarily always real. Right from the offset Icke contrasts video with live actors on stage in order to complicate our ideas about how real that ghost is.
Andrew Scott’s Hamlet is a tense presence to be around. He vacillates between whispering and screaming. He’s never really mad, he’s acting, until suddenly he might actually be mad, and we realise we haven’t got a clue. In the scene where Claudius and Polonius eavesdrop on Hamlet and Ophelia, it’s deliberately made very unclear about the extent to which Hamlet knows he’s being listened to. Reality is a mutable thing.
Speaking of which, I wanna talk about the prayer scene (III.iii.36-98). There’s been a lot of discussion about it on twitter with zero consensus as to what’s actually going on. The whole thing has the air of when The Simpsons took the piss out of Hamlet: ‘You’re not supposed to hear me. That’s a soliloquy.’
(A quick note on how the scene works in the text: Claudius laments the fact that he can’t pray about ‘A brother’s murder’ because his guilt is too heavy (lines 36-42). He wonders if heaven can wash the blood from his hands (43-51). He surmises that he cannot he forgiven because he’s still benefiting from the murder: ‘My crown…and my Queen’ (52-56). He knows that you can’t hide your crimes from heaven (57-69) so he tries to pray (69-72). Hamlet enters and considers killing Claudius while he’s praying (73-86) but decides to kill him while he’s sinning instead; he reasons that if he kills the King while he’s praying the King’ll go straight to heaven (87-95). Hamlet directly addresses the King, who can’t hear him: ‘This physic but prolongs thy sickly days’ (96). ‘Physic’ here doesn’t mean medicine but a spiritually good practice: Claudius’ practice of praying is prolonging his life (or maybe Hamlet’s practice of not killing him). Hamlet exits to go to Gertrude’s room. The King gives up on praying: ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below / Words without thoughts never to heaven go’ then exits (97-8). Claudius is saying that he failed in his attempt to pray: he can say all the good words he wants to but the guilty sentiment is still ‘below’, stuck in his mind. The implication is that Claudius wasn’t really praying and that Hamlet could have killed him without sending him to heaven.)
Icke changes the scene up a bit. Hamlet doesn’t enter as Claudius starts to pray. He’s there the whole time. Claudius gasps when he catches sight of Hamlet, but carries on talking. When Hamlet hears Claudius’ admission of guilty, he clicks the safety off his gun and points it at Claudius; Claudius puts his hands up to suggest surrender. This staging suggests that Claudius’ attempts at praying are totally false. The ‘words’ are there, but not the ‘thoughts’. His act of praying is just an act, to get Hamlet not to shoot him. This reading is complicated slightly by the fact that Claudius directs the couplet about ‘words’ and ‘thoughts’ directly to Hamlet, who doesn’t exit till the end of the scene. There isn’t an air of taunting in Wright’s acting though. Maybe there should be. (I’ve been thinking about this scene for days and it’s the only way it seems to work. I’m not totally sure I’ve got it cracked.)
We already know Icke isn’t afraid to nick ideas from other directors. And there’s nothing wrong with that: it gave us the frankly brilliant work of art which is his Oresteia. Being original isn’t a prerequisite to being clever. The ending of his Hamlet is nicked straight from this scene in The Sopranos but he uses the ideas he borrows so well I can’t imagine anyone getting annoyed with him about it:
The Hamlet set isn’t Scandi but is instead looks like the inside of every single house in the posh part of Notting Hill. There are fashionable grey floor tiles, a high-end sofa, and two layers of electric glass panelling straight out of Icke’s Oresteia. And the beautiful brick back wall of the Almeida’s playing space is visible behind it all. During the first couple of scenes, Gertrude and Claudius’ wedding party is happening behind the glass as the action enfolds on the main area of the stage. We can see guests dancing and talking in a balloon filled space with a dinky little gold drinks trolley. In the bloodbath of a final scene, party guests appear in the same space. The same music from the initial wedding party scene is playing. Ophelia’s there, in a wedding dress, dancing with her father. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (a couple in this production), also slowly come into view. It’s just as cinematic as the beautiful Sopranos scene it’s based on. The ghost stands by the sliding glass panels, collecting everyone’s watches as they cross from life to death. There’s no time in death. The ghost collects people’s watches, just like Tony Blundetto tries to pull Tony/Kevin’s briefcase away from him: ‘I lost my real briefcase. My whole life was in it.’ Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius cross over and die. There are these floaty white curtains that hang between the two layers of glass panels; the same curtains that Polonius gets stabbed through. These ethereal white curtains become the boundary between life and death. When Gertrude cross over she seems to almost recognise the ghost: her first husband. Hamlet holds his parents’ hands together in the same way he does when the ghost appears in Gertrude’s bedroom. It’s achingly beautiful. I’m only not sure how to describe the ‘rest is silence’ moment because it’s too powerful for me to find the words. In every other production I’ve seen, Hamlet is saying ‘I am dead’ because he’s about to die. Here, Hamlet literally is dead when he says it, he’s just anxious about the act of crossing over. I never really realised how much Lin Manuel-Miranda borrows from Hamlet, probably because I’ve never seen a production of the play this good before.
‘I’m running out of time. I’m running, and my time’s up. Wise up, eyes up.’
‘Had I but time (as this fell sergeant Death,
Is strict in his arrest) – O, I could tell you –
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead.’
And maybe there’s also an extent to which Icke borrows his idea about crossing over from the Hamilton moment inspired by Hamlet:
‘I catch a glimpse of the other side
Laurens leads a soldiers’ chorus on the other side
My son is on the other side
He’s with my mother on the other side
Washington is watching from the other side.’
Hamlet’s whole family is on the other side. All he has to do is cross over. It’s a potent depiction of the liminal space between life and death. Of course, we know it’s not real, and it’s not meant to be. But it hurts so much more than so many plays I’ve seen that claim to be real, or representative of real life.
I feel like a lot of reviewers have overlooked Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude so I wanna talk about her for a bit. Stevenson is every bit as brilliant as she was in Mary Stuart. Like Scott, she can make 400-year old verse sound like she just thought of it. The whole play feels sparky and electric, but the closet scene with just Hamlet and Gertrude feels really really special. This isn’t the bland version of the play Dromgroole put on at the Globe. Hamlet is really telling his mum what to with her sex life.
Stevenson’s Gertrude made me wish the role was bigger (fun fact: Gertrude has less than 4% speaking time but she’s in ten out of the twenty scenes in the play). Gertrude here has stiff, coiffed silvery-blonde hair that she constantly adjusts to keep in place.
Icke’s interpretation of Gertrude, thankfully, gives her more agency and makes her more three-dimensional than she usually is. Quick digression: we have three texts of Hamlet: two cheaper ‘Quarto’ texts published during Shakespeare’s lifetime and the ‘Folio’ text, a massive book with almost all Shakespeare’s plays in, published after his death. The first Quarto text (Q1) is much shorter and some people think it’s an early draft or a kind of bootleg, a pirated text created by actors who played minor roles in the play. For example: in the second Quarto (Q2) and the Folio, Hamlet’s most famous speech begins: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’. But in Q1, the speech begins: ‘To be or not to be, ay there’s the point’. Basically every production of Hamlet ever works from Q2 but Icke borrows a couple of bits from Q1 to boost Gertrude’s character. He edits a scene that only appears in Q1 onto the end of the scene where the mad Ophelia appears (NB: Icke allows follows suit from Q1 in moving the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy to earlier in the play). Gertrude and Horatio are left alone onstage, picking up flowers off the floor, and Horatio tells her: ‘your son is safe arrived in Denmark’. Gertrude says of Claudius:
‘Then I perceive there’s treason in his looks
That seemed to sugar over his villainy.
But I will soothe and please him for a time,
For murderous minds are always jealous.’
By this point in the play it’s pretty clear to the audience that Claudius is evil (not that that makes Hamlet good). Icke here is unambiguifying Gertrude’s role in the messy conflict. It’s clear from the above lines that she is on Hamlet’s side in this conflict. Gertrude has more agency than she usually does. She’s turned into a more complex woman and I enjoyed the play more for it. It isn’t just in including this scene that Icke bolsters her character. After Ophelia drowns, and the grieving Laertes exits in fury, Claudius says: ‘Let’s follow, Gertrude’. Gertrude doesn’t follow. She’s having serious doubts about what kind of man she’s married. The production achieves all this without ever really confirming whether or not Claudius murdered the old king.
Gertrude also eavesdrops on Claudius and Laertes from behind the glass panels as they complain about how they cannot legally ‘proceed’ against Hamlet because of ‘the great love the general gender bear him’ (aka they can’t take Hamlet to court because he’s too popular with the people). Gertrude follows the messenger in on ‘letters my Lord from Hamlet’ then exits with her letter. And the way Stevenson delivers the ‘flowers in hair’ speech describing Ophelia’s death really brings home how lyrical and slippery it is. It’s interesting though, that when Gertrude crosses over to the ‘other side’ in the final scene, she dances with Claudius. Food for thought.
Andrew Haydon’s argument that Gertrude’s act of drinking the cup of poison was a powerful act of agency, not a passive one seems right to me: ‘the only victory is Gertrude’s’. In this production, Gertrude only does what she wants to do. I preferred the obviously more female-centric outlook of Mary Stuart: if you’re hoping for an ultra-feminist, Gertrude-redeeming, Ophelia-empowering Hamlet you won’t find it here. But that’s fair enough: the play’s called ‘Hamlet’, not ‘Ophelia and Gertrude’ (although someone really should write that).
Jessica Brown-Findlay’s Ophelia feels special too. This isn’t Ophelias Zimmer but there is a sense of the double standard in the world of the play. When she comes on stage mad, Ophelia is wheeled on in a wheelchair, wearing a floaty, white shift-like dress that’s halfway between a hospital gown and the kind of thing Millais’ Ophelia would wear. I’ve talked a lot about ableism in recent reviews but I’d like to be clear that I don’t think this is ableist in the slightest. Ophelia is in a wheelchair because she’s a hospital patient. Ophelia’s suffering is validated; Icke lays to rest so many of the weird cultural conceptions romanticising Ophelia’s suffering that have appeared since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.
Ophelia is put in a dire position. There was a real ripple of unease running through the audience at Polonius’ line: ‘You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said / We heard it all’ (Polonius and Claudius have been eavesdropping on Hamlet and Ophelia).
And then there’s this really awkward pause after Claudius asks Polonius: ‘But how hath she received his love?’ There’s an edge of questions people still ask today about: ‘is _____ the woman’s fault?’ Ophelia isn’t a victim of Hamlet’s actions or but she isn’t complicit in what happens to her either. Icke strikes a neat balance in representing a character, who, let’s be honest, gets treated like total shit. He adds in a nice detail where Hamlet throws water from a vase of flowers onto Ophelia’s face to wash off her makeup, leaving the flowers from the vase on the floor. This isn’t a transparent act of foreshadowing: Ophelia, in her death, is protesting against the way Hamlet treated her when she was alive.
Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship, is, in many ways, strange. It’s clear that Hamlet is emotionally reliant on Ophelia but their relationship feels slightly muted compared to the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius. The King and Queen are erotic where Ophelia and Hamlet just aren’t (there’s also some really clever mirroring between Gertrude and Ophelia, just like between Hamlet and Laertes, but this review will be intolerably long if I talk about everything). Maybe it only feels muted because I was in the frustrating position of knowing what would happen later on the in the play. God, I wish I could see this having never seen Hamlet before.
There’s a very funny scene where Gertrude and Claudius fall asleep on top of each other on the sofa and Polonius has to wake them up so Claudius can do a conference call with the ambassador of Norway (another Oresteia star, Lorna Brown). Gertrude and Claudius have a kind of chemistry that Ophelia and Hamlet never do.
Angus Wright’s Claudius has a real venom to him. When he says of Polonius’ death: ‘it had been so with us had we been there’, there’s a real tone of: ‘it could have been me’. Which is frankly a shit thing to say when your best mate’s just been killed. Sadly, Wright isn’t quite as good as he was in Oresteia – but he was really good in Oresteia. Maybe matching that again would be a tall order. He speaks in a really sibilant way, a kind of politician who engages in pomp and ceremony, regularly making public announcements to the camera while Hamlet and Gertrude remain silent.
Finally, Peter Wight is by far the best Polonius I’ve ever seen. Polonius is funny in a charming, not verbose way, which makes his death all the more sad.
So, in short: this is a brilliant Hamlet and I can’t imagine how anyone can ever do Hamlet again after this. It’s beyond exciting that the Almeida are putting on whole performances of Hamlet that are free for under 25s (and also beyond annoying that they’ve scheduled these performances in the same week as NSDF). This is the kind of theatre the NT should be producing. Fingers crossed that in the future the Almeida does Shakespeare more like this and less like Richard III. There’s no sense of dumbing it down at all, but this is Shakespeare for everyone. Here’s to hoping it transfers to the West End so more people can see it.
Favourite line: ‘your loyalty is not to me but to the stars above’, from this Bob Dylan song:
This production was properly special. There were a couple of bits I loved that I couldn’t quite work into my review without turning it into a massive dissertation, so I’ve listed them below.
The curtain Polonius hides behind is literally the curtain for Gertrude’s closet, as in her wardrobe. A pithy joke.
Hamlet’s suitcase is visible from under the sofa throughout act one
When Hamlet tells Rosencrantz he is just a ‘sponge’ that the King is ‘squeezing’, he picks up the bloody curtain he stabbed Polonius through and squeezes the blood out of it.
There’s one moment where Claudius pulls Gertrude away with him by the back of his dress, using just his finger.
For ‘look you here upon this picture’, Hamlet points Gertrude’s attention to a picture of Claudius in a newspaper and holds it over his face.
When Hamlet says ‘farewell dear mother’ to Claudius, he kisses him on the mouth. Then spits on him.
Oh my god that image of Hamlet dressed in white behind the electric glass just before the graveyard scene. Properly beautiful.
The Gravedigger smashes the skulls likes plates.
Christ, the play within the play. Some stage managers come out and put an extra row of chairs right in front of the front row of the audience. There’s a camera zoomed right in on Claudius’ face. When he exits he walks over the stage and there’s the longest pause before a stage manager comes out to announce an interval.
In Claudius’ big ‘Though yet of Hamlet…’ speech in the second scene, when Claudius says ‘And now’ everyone turns to Hamlet, then Claudius says ‘Laertes’. It’s a nice way of setting up the mirroring of Hamlet and Laertes: which is the son you want?