I awoke this morning to the first bunch of reviews of Robert Icke’s Hamlet. Five stars. Three stars. Two stars. A cacophony of voices upsetting the sleepy brain soup so that that first beats of the morning were already filled with imagined noise. ‘Why do I let myself be drawn into these moments?’ I often wonder. The answer is that sound and discord are magnetising forces – yet always at the expense of quietness and reflection.
Icke’s creation is an expert lesson in learning to listen to the silences. This longer than usual production fills in the spaces of emotion that sit underneath the more dramatic and flashy moments of William Shakespeare’s great tragedy. In doing so it produces a superb piece of theatre and a new perspective on what can feel like an oh-so-familar work.
The Prince of Denmark (Andrew Scott) returns home with watery eyes threatening to shed their tears at any moment. Hunched over in a thin black shirt, he is vulnerable and entirely adrift on a sea of melancholy. In contrast to Paapa Essiedu’s witty and petulant Hamlet for the RSC in 2016, Scott is palpably not coping. It’s no surprise that a few more upsetting events – the appearance of his father’s ghost (David Rintoul) and the distancing of Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) – tip him over into madness. You get the impression that the accidental snapping of an elastic band next to his ear would have a similar effect. “This is the poison of deep grief,” utters Claudius (Angus Wright) in response to Ophelia’s own madness, but this sentiment could apply just as easily to Hamlet and, moreover, the play in its entirety.
Whilst this version of Hamlet is allowed more room to weep and wobble, the opposite is true for Ophelia who instead gains more solidity. Brown Findlay begins the play in 60s-inspired baby doll dresses. There are bows on her shoes, bows at the bottom of her bare back and bows floating demurely from her neckline. She is a cute gift for the other characters (particularly the male ones) to paw over. Hamlet and her father Polonius (Peter Wight) are both preoccupied by running their hands over and through the silky bobbed hair of the “pretty maid”. Ophelia is passed around like a little doll and used by Polonius with zero regard for her own desires. In fact, the slipping of her sanity even without the subsequent unfurling of tragedy seems far from an entirely unimaginable event.
But when she does arrive back on stage with flowers to strew and verses to sing, it is with an explosion of fury and despair that in its own way fills the previous silence contained in a character whose most famous moment – her watery death – occurs off stage. “He is dead. He is dead,” she shouts, whirling across the space, and despite this being a scene famous to the point of cliché, I can’t avoid the sudden ache around the tonsils as the words punctuate the air.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set and costume design encase the royal household in a Pinterest-perfect world of soft golds, fluttering foliage and corporate charcoal. To begin with the aesthetic seems like style over substance, a vapid dry-clean only environment of status symbol Rolexes created only to impress the audience.
It later, however, comes to entirely justify itself as a design choice to explain the situation at hand. This glittering existence made up of 2D images played out on video screens gradually fractures and unhinges itself. Under Natasha Chivers’ lighting, three versions of the tormented Hamlet can be counted: one standing with arms aloft at the front of the stage and two reflected onto the sleek and uniform glass screens. The divided self and the questioning of reality are now imprinted across the whole sorry set up.
Icke’s production is at its cleverest in showing how, as a blanket of grief and tragedy slowly engulfs a family, the shockwaves manifest themselves not just in scenes of rage and violence, but in a profound sense of shock. Time begins to be punctured by holes. The focus on the slowly-but-surely deflation of a once buoyant aristocratic family possesses something of the atmosphere of a Kazuo Ishiguru novel. The terrible tension as characters hang on by their fingertips to the edge of a sliding world saturates the second and third parts.
The profound sadness and inevitability to the proceedings is also reinforced by the music. Of a selection of Bob Dylan songs included, Not Dark Yet is the most accurate in matching the overarching despondency of the piece. This Hamlet isn’t a play about dicking around with a fake skull, it’s a play about suffocating sorrow. So whilst there are moments of writhing anger as the bodies mount up and the family crumbles away, Icke draws the gaze away from these and towards the very essence of grief: dealing with silence.
Hamlet is on at the Almeida until 15th April 2017. Click here for more details.