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Review: Hamlet, at Almeida Theatre

Director Robert Icke’s surveillance-themed production, in a mesmerising State of Denmark, is Shakespeare perfection

02 March, 2017 — By Tom Foot

Andrew Scott in Hamlet. Photo: Manuel Harlan

LAY down your phones. Escape WhatsApp. Halt the hashtags. Forego Facebook. And immerse yourself in a fly-by four hours (including two intervals) of Shakespeare perfection.

Director Robert Icke’s Hamlet sets its stall out as a Scandi-crime drama to make Wallander weep but soon switches to the castle awash with cosy Danish hygge.

This play is famously full of whispers, deceptive plans hatched in dark corridors and has more snooping – state-sponsored, or otherwise – than any other Shakespeare.

The CCTV/bugging surveillance theme, in an NSA-obsessed era, often feels laboured and leaves you falling back on the script’s pregnant pondering and snappy exchanges. But here it feels like a bonus to the attachment you feel to the characters. About half way through I realised I actually cared about them.

This is not just down to Icke’s directorial flourishes but also exceptional performances, naturally the lead (Andrew Scott), but also from Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) and, unusually, the nitpicking pedant Polonius (Peter Wright). Islington’s own Juliet Stephenson brings a touch of class to proceedings as Gertrude.

Scott has that special ability of taking you with him through the tricky language and references, without seeming patronising. Tittering and guffaws from the audience can often seem contrived, or supercilious, but you could hear many people laughing along spontaneously to the subtleties of the story. You felt his grief and agitation – “the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” – the despair and cynicism for the artifice all around him. The rage, the isolation and the weakness: a man who yearns for suicide, but lacks the constitution to carry it out.

For the anoraks, there is major tinkering. Big ticket soliloquies pop up in unusual places and some passages have sliced and diced to the edge of acceptability.

The “to be, or not to be” speech is moved – #GASP! – from its traditional spot before the “get thee to a nunnery” scene. But it all felt seamless and serene.

Who is this Icke? A bit over-confident, perhaps? Thinks he’s better than Shakespeare? I looked him up. He appears to bear no relation to the reptilian conspiracy theorist, and is instead making bold statements in the theatre world.

A special mention for the set designer, Vincent Olivieri, who has created a beautiful and often mesmerising State of Denmark.

I’ve seen most if not all of the major Hamlet productions in the past 10 years and this was without question the most enjoyable. I doubt there is a better way to spend an evening in London right now than at the Almeida.

Until April 15
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