Monday, August 7, 2017

A Fresh Prince: Robert Icke’s Hamlet

Andrew Scott as Hamlet in Robert Icke's production of Hamlet. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Robert Icke’s new Hamlet, which began at London's Almeida Theatre (where he is artistic director) and moved to the West End in June, is elegiac, cerebral, mysterious. The designer Hildegard Bechtler’s palette is understated – blacks and whites and browns, silvers and grays. During the wedding party Claudius (Angus Wright) and Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) dance among their guests beyond an upstage scrim that simultaneously reflects Hamlet (Andrew Scott) approaching Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) downstage: as anyone who was lucky enough to see Icke’s 2015 Agamemnon (with Wright as Agamemnon) knows, he loves doubling and echoes, and throughout this production he juxtaposes the two couples, both passionate, in suggestive, surprising ways. Bob Dylan’s voice murmurs on the soundtrack, his deceptively monochromatic drone veiling delicate whorls of phrasing and depth of feeling. (The play begins and ends with “One More Cup of Coffee.”)  In this contemporary setting, Elsinore Castle is lined with video monitors; the motif of electronic visuals – the Ghost (David Rintoul) makes his first appearance on one, spotted by Horatio (Joshua Higgott) and the palace guards in the control room; Fortinbras (Nikesh Patel) communes with the king through an exterior video camera; Hamlet and Horatio shoot “The Mousetrap” so that they can review it afterwards for signs of Claudius’s guilt – is, of course, partly about the omnipresence of surveillance. Other twenty-first-century Hamlets have explored this theme (Michael Almereyda’s 2000 movie version with Ethan Hawke, to pick one particularly effective example) but Icke is more concerned with the ghostliness of digital imagery, which builds on the doubling motif to investigate the idea of meanings hidden beneath the surface of the everyday. It’s this supernal quality that especially distinguishes Icke’s from other modern approaches to the play: there are hints of surrealism and neo-romanticism.

Scott (best known to North American audiences as Moriarty on Sherlock) plays Hamlet as neurotic and childlike, using irony as a defense against the corrupt world represented by his hated uncle/stepfather – a paltry one, as it turns out, because he can’t tamp down his feelings – and both furious at his mother and inextricably tied to her. He appears at court for the party with suitcase in hand; he’s already halfway out the door, bound back to Wittenberg, but he bows to her imprecations and remains at Elsinore. Scott is one of the warmest Hamlets I’ve ever seen, and what’s extraordinary about his performance is the way he keeps us right there in his head, using the soliloquies to guide us through both the tiniest and the most seismic shifts in his thoughts. (“O cursed spite! / That ever I was born to set it right” is a moment of discovery.) So these speeches, always in danger of turning into set pieces, are startlingly fresh here; he takes them slowly, each beat weighed carefully, with pauses in places we don’t expect, and they’re conversational, as only an actor with superlative training and technique can make them: pellucid, with the meter hidden but ever-present, like the rush of an unseen river just behind a wood. (This conversational approach to the verse is a keynote of the whole production.) Scott holds us with his intense attentiveness, with the way he listens to the other actors. Icke underscores the scene where Hamlet asks the Player King (Rintoul) to recite the Hecuba speech and it moves both men to tears, and the slightly later one where Hamlet instructs the troupe of players on how to read their lines before the performance of “The Mousetrap.” Hamlet is looking for authenticity in all things, in a place where he knows the king lies with every breath, his falseness poisoning the very air they all breathe; he’s trying desperately to hang onto his own authenticity, when he can no longer be sure who he is in the light of a mother he sees as having betrayed his father and a lover he can tell is repeating words that her father has put in her mouth.

The cast Icke has gathered around Scott is superb. Wright’s readings are elegantly restrained; his Claudius comes across as a consummate statesman with a silken command of the kingdom he’s seized through illicit means. I said that Claudius lies with every breath, but that’s not entirely accurate – his love for Gertrude is no pretense. When Laertes (Luke Thompson) returns to France to avenge his father’s murder and Claudius manipulates his rage to co-opt him, the sole honest claim he makes to the shattered young man concerns his love and devotion to the queen. Juliet Stevenson, one of England’s great actresses, plays Gertrude as steered entirely by love, both for her son and for Claudius, and it takes her a long time to force herself to choose the former over the latter. (She and Icke make it very clear when that happens.) Stevenson’s Gertrude is demonstrative with everyone she loves, including Polonius (Peter Wight) and his children, whom she treats like members of the family. When Polonius reports that he’s found evidence that Hamlet’s alleged madness is the result of his love for Ophelia, she looks not only relieved but touched; she’s pro-love. Stevenson conveys more warmth than any Gertrude I’ve ever seen, and in quality of performance only one actress in this role, in my experience, has ever equaled her: Julie Christie in the 1996 Kenneth Branagh film (who played the role very differently).

Juliet Stevenson (centre), with Angus Wright and Andrew Scott, in Hamlet. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Findlay (Lady Sybil on Downton Abbey) is a poignant Ophelia, especially in the mad scene, and Wight does some imaginative comic things with the role of Polonius; and, consistent with the emotional quality of the production, he accents his adoration of both his children. He introduces one idea that he doesn’t follow through on: once or twice he pauses, almost paralyzed, in the middle of a speech, as if his mind had wandered distressingly right out of the room, but about halfway through act one we stop seeing any sign of this affliction (if that’s the right word). Higgott, Thompson, Barry Aird as a wry, downbeat and distinctly working-class Gravedigger, Madeline Appiah as Guildenstern and Rintoul as both the Ghost and the Player King each contribute to the power of the ensemble. (Calum Finlay is fine as Rosencrantz, but Scott’s Hamlet is so oddly cool to him from the beginning that it inevitably puts him in the shadows.) In Rintoul’s case, I liked equally his reading of the Hecuba monologue and the sense of urgency he brings to the Ghost’s speech to his son, racing through it because he knows the dawn is coming and the earth will swallow him up once again.

The show is dotted with small inspirations that put lines we know by heart under a new light – like the way Laertes, in his counsel to Ophelia before departing for France, alludes to her “chase treasure” awkwardly because it embarrasses him to address his own sister’s sexuality, or the twinge of regret Stevenson gives to Gertrude’s admission that her marriage to Claudius was “overhasty.” Icke has made some cuts (the one in Polonius’s advice to his son are a little jarring) and moved some of the text around (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear while the wedding party is still in progress), but all of them show intelligence. The most daring choices he makes are in the second half – daring enough to be mesmerizing even when they don’t work, and often, I have to report, they don’t. He stages Claudius’s soliloquy so that it looks like he’s aware that Hamlet is watching him and it seems that Hamlet can hear what he’s saying; it takes us almost the entire speech to realize that neither is the case – that Icke has not, in fact, broken the rules of the soliloquy. I’m not sure why Icke wants to fake us out here, or why he elects to end the scene with Hamlet pointing a gun at the king and Claudius smiling ironically as he raises his hands. (I’m not even sure that we’re meant to take this beat literally and not as a figment of someone’s imagination – whether Hamlet’s or Claudius’s.) The closet scene is histrionic, with Scott leaping on top of Stevenson in an over-the-top adolescent acting-out of his anger at her sexual conduct – we’re supposed to read it as wounded and taunting, not as Freudian/incestuous in the way that Laurence Olivier, famously, played it – and waving that gun around. The scene doesn’t work, although it contains one of the most moving pieces of staging in the production – Hamlet sits between Gertrude and the returned Ghost, and though she can’t see or feel him, Hamlet places her hand on that of his father. One of the unfortunately consequences of the way Icke has directed this scene is that when Laertes shows up wielding another gun, it feels like a reprise.

And Scott, for the first half of the show one of the most brilliant Hamlets in memory, starts to repeat himself. There’s altogether too much weeping, and nothing he does in “How all occasions do inform against me,” always a problematic soliloquy because of its strange placement in the text, differentiates it from the earlier ones. Hamlet’s arc requires a striking change when he comes back from England in the fifth act, but Scott doesn’t provide it; Ophelia’s funeral scene, where he and Laertes not only grapple in the grave but drag her body up out of the earth, seems like just more uncontrolled teenage behavior. (And the staging is distractingly messy.)

Icke’s most unorthodox direction comes at the end, when he barely stages the duel between Hamlet and Laertes and literally mutes the dialogue by drowning it out with Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet”; he doesn’t restore Shakespeare’s own soundtrack until Gertrude imbibes the poisoned wine. I can’t figure out what Icke is after here; perhaps he just wants to pull us ahead to the ending, when the dancing couples reappear behind the scrim and, one by one, the dead join them. At this point the concept becomes clear for the first time – that the entire play has been a death march and he’s chosen as his subjects the two most primal in drama, love and death. Icke is such a compelling intellectual director and image-maker that though I’m still not certain that his Hamlet is conceptually successful, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that finale. This flawed, sometimes exasperating production is more profound and more theatrically stirring than almost anything else I’ve seen on stage all in the past year.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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