Andrew Scott is a lean and yet crumpled waif of a Hamlet who looks like he buys his clothes from Zara. Appearances are deceptive and helpless innocence isn’t everything though. As he waits as Angus Wright’s Claudius ignores his nephew in favour of Luke Thompson’s more buoyant Laertes he becomes a dark cloud which slowly and surely makes its presence felt on everyone else even though Hamlet is silent.
In fact, Scott’s first entrance is so unannounced and unassuming and everyone else is so hyped by the wedding that an audience might feel naturally against Hamlet, even though everyone knows how the story will unfold.
In fact, as it turns out, Hamlet is a bit cruel and even sadistic right from the beginning. When Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia runs towards him in the expectation of a hug or a warm greeting, he turns to her, for a second a reciprocating accomplice, before he instantly turns his back and refuses to acknowledge her.
For Ophelia it is as if she has had water thrown over her face.
Hamlet changes at the arrival of the ghost which director Robert Icke makes such a natural occurrence that one wonders if it is in Hamlet’s mind (indeed, all the way through, we begin to wonder if Hamlet is manipulating facts to suit his fictions and doubt the realness of scenes).
Illusions and delusions permeate the whole production. There are cameras and listening devices everywhere. Hamlet sneaks behind a sofa to overhear first Laertes’ and then Peter Wight’s authoritative Polonius denounce him to Ophelia. Ophelia knows Hamlet is hiding yet makes no indication of her horror that he is over hearing all of this. Is this too in Hamlet’s head?
Wright gives such a soft and sexy and (to Gertrude at least) clingy performance that one starts to wonder if he really did commit the murder. We don’t want to believe it, especially as he and Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude are so much in love with each other and are gentle and kind- in harsh contrast to the squabbling Hamlet and Ophelia.
Might it be that the audience might start to side with the new king whilst quietly feeling sorry for the witty Hamlet?
What to do with the madman then?
Calum Finlay’s Rosencrantz and Amaka Okafor’s Guildenstern are too confused to cope with him: Rosencrantz because he only understands cold logic (his sensible wax jacket and jeans tell us this) and Guildenstern because she was possibly Hamlet’s former sweetheart.
But the chance for Hamlet to work things out comes with the arrival of the players. Here, Icke has David Rintoul retain remnants of his ghost in his portrayal of the Player King. A clever move. Now the doppelganger of illusions really starts to make us think that Hamlet is a play maker of great abilities right from the beginning. Claudius runs, of course he does.
But does this have to be guilt? Now we are questioning everything. Maybe he realises what Hamlet is insinuating and is too angry. We see Claudius confess to Hamlet that he did indeed murder his father instead of Hamlet merely overhearing it and this again makes us question.
Is it Hamlet’s delusion? Is he making up stories because he cannot process his grief and even more, deal with his mother and uncle’s quickly found happiness?
The production slowly ambles through its scenes so we can see Scott change, develop and harden and become seduced by his father’s ghost. Scott, sometimes in self irony, relishes the words as if tasting them in his mouth. He frequently talks at and to the audience as if this is all one big confessional fantasy.
Brown Findlay also gives us something new with Ophelia. She is aware, with every nerve, of how she is manipulated and coaxed by the men to do what they want. She struts the stage with a childish petulance which soon turns to, thankfully, righteous anger.
If she is going down, she is going down with all the rage of Mrs J in Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone. If Hamlet is the first modern man, this Ophelia is on the way to giving us a first modern woman who does not (it might be interpreted) kill herself (supposedly) because of unrequited love or to be with a dead father, but because of the awful, stupid, ugly world she finds herself in and where she is powerless.
The ending may disprove this theory, but still it is possible to interpret it as such if one wants.
The acting from all the cast would gladly suffer the minute investigative nature of the film close up. Stevenson in particular registers very fine shades and degrees of emotional change as it dawns on her that her new husband not only may have killed her first one, but may also have been on his way to killing Hamlet in England.
Wight’s Polonius is a patriarch who exerts better control over his children than Claudius, he is comic, even in death and simply because he is unable to doubt himself.
Icke’s production is surprisingly awash with compassion and forgiveness. It takes a clear position. We hurt at all the deaths and are moved by the production’s overall message of forgiveness. Everything and everyone is love, even enemies.
It is a very gentle and provocative Hamlet and it is impossible to sum up, which means you can get closer to it rather than further away. Exactly what we need for our times.
Photocredit: Andrew Scott as Hamlet by Manuel Harlan