Tuesday, March 07, 2017

HAMLET at the Almeida - something old, something new...

It is now with a regular sense of trepidation that I take my seat to see any play from The Repertoire - it used to be plays pre-20th Century but now even Tennessee Williams has fallen victim to the sweep of Director Theatre - and as the lights go down I ask myself "Am I going to see a version of a classic play that will illuminate while showing why it has stood the test of time - or am I going to see a production by a director who is jamming a classic text into their pre-conceived ideas of audience alienation and quirk-for-quirk's sake gender-blind casting or post-modern tropes?"

It was with the above feelings that I sat down to watch Robert Icke's production of HAMLET at the Almeida and, for most of it's 3 + 3/4 hours running time, I was surprised at the clarity of vision despite the odd anachronistic elbow-in-the-eye.  But then as the climax of the play careered out of control it felt almost like Robert Icke just vomited out all the Director Theatre tricks he had managed to keep down up until then.

Of course nowadays a director feels the urge to give us a HAMLET at about the same time as a name actor edges into the spotlight to play it.  Andrew Scott, this is your 5 minute call... 5 minutes Mr Scott.  I have seen Andrew Scott only once before onstage - DESIGN FOR LIVING at the Old Vic in 2010 - so it was interesting to see him step up to have a go at the gloomy Dane.

For the most part he succeeded but his performance was let down by Icke having him burst into loud tears at the drop of a hat - yes we get it, he's still grieving for his father - and an annoying tendency to over-do the bellowing when Hamlet is riled up.  It's all the more absurd as he has only just told the Players: 

Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings...

But for the most part Scott was very good at speaking the verse - the great soliloquies were not sung out like arias but delivered quietly, as if coming to him for the first time. Where he sits in my league of Hamlets will have to be seen, at the moment I suspect somewhere below Rory Kinnear and my all-time number one Ian Charleson.

That he ultimately did not move me is more the fault of Icke's production than Scott's actual performance.  As I said I enjoyed the first two acts much more than I was expecting and indeed was on board for most of the last act, but as I said above, Icke's botched handling of the climax seemed to almost undercut any chance for the actors to shine.

We had been forewarned to the elements of the botched ending - just as Ivo van Hove's over-reliance on Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' irked during his HEDDA GABLER so Icke's seemingly inexhaustible Bob Dylan collection here very quickly bored, Icke shared Nicholas Hytner's 2010 NT vision of Elsinore as a closed circuit surveillance state and occasionally a large screen dropped down to give us updates on Fortinbrass's progress, to show the security cameras picking up the ghostly presence of the dead King (which actually was very effective) and then to show the reactions of Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet to "The Mousetrap" while they sat in the front row of the stalls.

This last bit of business was gimmicky and cumbersome (despite the fact that the handheld cameras showing the royal family also picked up the truly regal Vanessa Redgrave sitting behind them!) but it was distracting from the very fine performances of David Rintoul as the Player King and Marty Cruickshank as the Player Queen.  So the final scene... again the screen appeared to show the onstage duel (which we could see anyway) as Angus Wright and Juliet Stevenson as Claudius and Gertrude sat again in the front row - why??  With the duellists' faces covered up with fencing masks we really needed to concentrate on the King and Queen to get the undertow of emotions but this was totally lost.

But if this stage blocking ruined the personal dynamic between the characters at the climax of the show, the text was drowned out by the BLARING final Bob Dylan song - do you love Gertrude's "He’s fat, and scant of breath...the queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet" or her defiant retort to Claudius' command for her not to drink from the poisoned cup "I will, my lord. I pray you, pardon me"?  Well you won't hear them here as the bloody song blares out while Stevenson mouths the words.  At least her violent convulsions after being poisoned were more convincing than Gertrude's usual drop and die.

And it didn't end there - Hildegard Bechtler's stage design featured sliding glass panels with a hidden room beyond shrouded by curtains.  It immediately reminded me of Tom Scutt's low-fi set for the NT's MEDEA and with Bechtler's low-level leather couches, easy chairs and arty standard lamps, this is an Elsinore designed around 1981 Sunday supplement advertisements.  But at the end, rather than have Horatio (a short-changed Elliot Barnes-Worrall) and Hamlet exchange the famous last words as he dies, we had a musical fugue where the room beyond was revealed to show Polonious and Ophelia slow-dancing together as one by one the Ghost beckoned those recently dead - Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude - to stand up and join the party within...  all of which vanished to show that we had just been watching what was going on in Hamlet's mind as he died.  I am sure if Shakespeare had wanted a parade across the stage at this point he would have done it as in MACBETH and RICHARD III... so Icke, don't bloody make a long night longer just to be fucking contrary!

As I said, this awful version of the play's climax was all the more frustrating as up until then there had been much to enjoy, albeit in a production which seemed to be made up of moments and not a through line of dramatic tension - Scott's delicate handling of the speeches (when not ranting during Ophelia's funeral), the genuinely spooky glimpses of the Ghost on the security cameras as well as well-rounded performances from the always-dependable Peter Wight as a Polonius seemingly beset by early dementia, Barry Aird's sarcastic Gravedigger, Jessica Brown-Findlay's o'erthrown Ophelia, the earlier-mentioned Rintoul and Cruickshank and a suitably volatile Luke Thompson as Laertes.

Juliet Stevenson was a very good Gertrude, slowly coming to realize the truth behind Hamlet's rages; she proved again what a good actress can find within the otherwise frustratingly-thin role - in particular she delivered the drowning of Ophelia speech wonderfully.  Stevenson also provided the unexpected laugh of the evening when she ran out after the raving Ophelia only to go WHONGGG into the closed glass screen door.  However, in keeping with this unpredictable production, as good as Stevenson was, she only showed up how disastrously low-rent Angus Wright was as Claudius; he played it like it was a tech rehearsal.

So another stage HAMLET to add to the pile, my tenth in all.  I would be surprised if I see another production this year, but it is a play that I find endlessly facinating and profoundly moving when done right, alack not here however - Mr Scott, your director done rained on your parade.

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