Nothing quite divides the camps like a starry Hamlet, and the past few years have seen many. Battle lines seem to be drawn along whether it is the star or the vehicle, the man or the machine, that takes precedence. Shakespeare’s greatest play is indivisible from its title role, yet the world of the play matters to an audience – if we don’t believe in it, we can’t believe Hamlet’s torturous relationship to it. Robert Icke’s production for the Almeida is a theatrical salmagundi, with something to please or perturb the pickiest eaters. But at its heart is a feast in the shape of Andrew Scott.
Icke’s Elsinore is sleek and slick and high-surveillance – Black Mirror in blank verse. Hildegard Bechtler’s austere design, all gliding glass and torquing silk, is satisfyingly Nordic. Natasha Chivers’ lighting skilfully swings between CCTV cupboards and the butterscotch glow of a wedding party in its final throes. It is very believably the home of a modern royal family, mourning an old king and celebrating a new one, a singular prince out of joint at its core. Yet there are times when the play seems shrunken to suit the conceit rather than expanding to fill the theatre. Lines spoken into microphones feel disconnected. A phantom flickering on a screen fails to terrify. It is not unlike a ghost train – it runs very well, and the spooks thrill at every turn. The directorial animatronics are more a matter of taste.
It is a play about ghosts, after all – the ghosts of fathers and husbands, of kings and jesters, of former loves and former selves. Scott's Hamlet is the shaman channelling them all. From his first soliloquy he gives us that treacle-black humour that has become his trademark. “Married with my uncle,” he says, wryly explaining: “My father’s brother.” This is a man as willing to laugh at as loathe himself. And that uniquely mellifluous voice (no surprise it’s won Scott two BBC Audio Drama awards) is a perfect fit for the role: one moment as soft as a child’s plea, the next a leviathanic roar from the deep. His delivery, too, offers endless surprises. “Goodnight,” he says, dragging off a corpse, before stopping to drop in an ominous “Mother…”
This is a Hamlet we can understand being loved by the multitudes, and a Hamlet that loves others too. There are tantalising nods to a university fling: Hamlet’s own Rosaline, if you like. “They are not near my conscience,” he says at their death – but with all the poignancy of a man dumping a childhood toy in a skip. Scott taps the febrile charm of Sherlock’s Moriarty, and yet the queer, quiet delicacy of his exchange with the gravedigger – normally a perfunctory duel of wit – adds a gorgeously melancholic depth.
And so to Icke’s emphatic marks, of which there are many. Some really are eerily effective. The arrival of the first interval (there are two, hold off the stampede for the loos) creates a genuinely rare sense of someone-get-the-stage-manager, a viscid silence that prickles the back of the neck. Peter Wight’s Polonius is beautifully rendered with the addition of several senior moments. And Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude is fantastically done – her generous tactility with Laertes, her palpably painful sobs with her son. When she hears of Hamlet’s escape from England’s axe, she challenges Claudius with one speechless look more eloquent than a soliloquy.
At other times it feels like Icke’s choices are hobbling the work of the cast. Angus Wright’s appealing Claudius has his authority demeaned by various characters waving pistols in his face, stripping him – and Elsinore – of their latent danger. Jessica Brown Findlay makes for a winning Ophelia, but her final scene feels directorially bungled. Wheeled on under strict supervision, she gives us a powerfully manic episode – and then is allowed to flee, to her death, without the room batting an eyelid. The production's bleak setting stifles the organic wildness of the text, too – Ophelia’s poetic death becomes highly unlikely in this sterile world of eyes and ears everywhere. Meanwhile the music seems to bear a little too much of the production’s weight. Dylan’s One More Cup of Coffee hauntingly bookends the play, but the underscoring of Ophelia’s funeral detracts from this usually moving stand-off, lathering it instead in soapy foreboding.
That said, the over-scoring of the play’s climactic duel works famously – not to mention a dazzlingly original solution to the problem of Shakespeare’s “I’m-dying-but-first-an-eloquent-farewell” speeches. Whatever you make of Icke’s production, Scott is a prince on stage in every respect, whether bellowing for vengeance or cheerfully charting the progress of a king through the guts of a beggar. Bad luck, Holmes: Moriarty gets the last laugh after all.