It is one of the likeliest trivia questions in a pub quiz, circa 2021, that someone will inevitably ask ‘which James Bond film starred four actors who played Hamlet on the London stage between 1997 and 2017?’ The answer, for when you need it, is Spectre, and the actors are Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear and Andrew Scott. (A bonus point for knowing that Kinnear also appeared in the Ben Whishaw staging at the Old Vic in 2004, which began the careers of both actors.) I never managed to see the Fiennes staging (Hackney Empire, pre-gentrification), but the Whishaw and Kinnear productions were both exemplary, and the latter, because of the dignified and hugely sympathetic lead performance, remains the finest Hamlet I have ever seen.
It does, however, get run an exceptionally close second by Robert Icke’s new staging at the Almeida. There are almost too many things to praise about it, some of which I shall attempt to discuss here, but its greatest achievement is to recalibrate the focus of the play. Too often, it’s a star vehicle for a great actor, with jobbing and worthy thespians in supporting parts that they know will be forgotten the second the audience leave the theatre. (Does anybody remember who plays Laertes, no offence to a fine Luke Thompson?) Yet here, the top-notch supporting cast add both brilliance and sympathy. Juliet Stevenson is perennially brilliant, but here manages to play Gertrude as a woman whose libido has been reawakened in spectacular fashion by Angus Wright’s decent, principled Claudius, and Jessica Brown Findlay casts off any association with the dread Downton Abbey as a thoroughly modern Ophelia who is hopelessly in love with Hamlet, and yet unable to bear the hideous consequences of what occurs in his revenge.
Andrew Scott plays Hamlet, as you might be aware. He’s excellent, managing to combine an antic disposition with a frantic, manic sense of displacement and unease, even as he conveys immense hurt and anger at the compromising situation in which he has been placed. This isn’t an especially sympathetic Dane; stage effects and Tom Gibbons’s brilliant sound design manage to give a sense of a gradual intrusion into a desperately unwell person’s psyche, and Scott doesn’t attempt to deliver some of the greatest verse in the English language in the rich baritone of a vintage RSC company member. (For that one would have to turn to David Rintoul, magisterial in a dual role as the Ghost and the Player King.) Yet he’s a decidedly 21st century Hamlet, passionately in love with Ophelia and reduced to helpless, anguished despair by the actions of those around him. One can expect a lot of plaudits.
Yet, ultimately, the credit must go to Icke. It’s a thankless task to take the world’s most performed play and attempt to make something new of it without being accused of self-indulgence, but he succeeds admirably. Although the play runs nearly four hours, it feels like two. Video, courtesy of Tal Yarden, is used throughout to brilliant effect, allowing the audience to feel complicit in many of the devices, most notably the play-within-a-play, which ends in an entirely unexpected fashion. Textual cuts throughout are made judiciously (and probably wisely, as the running time would probably be five hours rather than four if not), which gives a sense of urgency and pace. A series of love them or hate them directorial choices are made in the final act, including the extremely prominent use of a late Bob Dylan song that replaces Shakespeare’s text; many will describe them as heresy, but I loved their boldness and chutzpah.
By the ending, the audience were giving the cast, Hildegard Bechtler’s stunning set, Icke’s direction and, of course, the indelibly brilliant play a standing ovation. Seldom has one been more deserved. On the way out, an excited schoolboy said to his teacher ‘I never thought Hamlet could be so thrilling’. None of us did.
Hamlet at the Almeida until 15th April 2017. Production images by Manuel Harlan. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.