In Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet, which transfers from the Almeida and reunites much of the team behind his recent Oresteia (Angus Wright and Luke Thompson in the cast and the creative team of Hildegaard Bechtler and Natasha Chivers), the action of the play is set very firmly in the here and now; Andrew Scott as Hamlet straddles the world of Elsinore and the world of the audience, flitting back and forth between the two.
Scott is the kind of actor who doesn’t need visual and aural indicators for this. He just speaks his soliloquies out to the audience as if he is narrating the action of the piece to us. To do this in The Globe is relatively standard procedure as the architecture lends itself to that form of address. To do so in a Victorian proscenium arch space like the Harold Pinter Theatre is extraordinary: not just that he does it but that he makes it look so easy. He has the rock-star quality of making you feel that he is only speaking to you.
This moving inside the magic circle of the play and then stepping outside it to comment on the action or reflect on its implication is a common device of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, of course, but here it is only Hamlet that employs it. He is given exclusive access to us and, though we take his side, there’s a tension throughout over whether he could be an unreliable narrator.
Consider the evidence. Everyone else takes at face value that the Queen has made a rather questionable decision, two months after her husband’s death, to marry his brother. Insensitive though this may be, it’s not a crime and it’s certainly not treason. Marcellus and Bernardo see a “thing” or an “apparition” but they cannot be sure that it is the dead King. Horatio confirms that it is but it is only young Hamlet that speaks to him, only young Hamlet that hears the accusations against Claudius alone.
So what does Hamlet do on hearing this? In this production, the first thing he does is equip himself with the physical means to take his revenge: he takes a gun that has been left carelessly lying around by a security guard…
Following the text, we then get the visit from the players, which gives Hamlet the rationalist an opportunity to conduct an experiment “to catch the conscience of the King”. This gives him further evidence. In the meantime, no alarm has been raised about the missing gun within the Royal Palace.
After Claudius storms out of the audience, interpreted by Hamlet as irrefutable evidence of his guilt, he gives the only other soliloquy of the play. In it, he admits his guilt and tries to pray but he cannot because his crimes weigh too heavily on him. While we the audience hear his confession, Hamlet doesn’t actually enter, according to the script until the confession is over and Claudius has “retired and kneeled”. Hamlet chooses not to kill him because he is praying at this point. In Icke’s interpretation, Claudius seems to be aware of Hamlet pointing a gun at him the whole time and he confronts him. In doing so, Claudius robs Hamlet of his active decision to delay his revenge and it becomes a battle of wills instead from which the King emerges victorious. Again the audience and Hamlet are brought together. There’s barely a moment in this production where we know more than Hamlet. Even Polonius’s advice to his children is overheard by the Prince, barely concealed behind the sofa. He is us and we are him.
The production crams the first three acts of the play into two straight hours and the effect is much like a thriller. Our biases towards Hamlet who acts as our guide through Elsinore are offset far less by the predictable repressed power couple of Claudius and Gertrude than they are by Peter Wight’s delicate portrayal of Polonius. Most productions I’ve seen portray him as Hamlet sees him: pompous, irritating, rambling, a dinosaur, an embarrassment and yet his children are both dedicated to him to the point of being driven made with grief and bloodlust after his death. Wight’s Polonius is a both a loving father, an overbearing patriarch and an old man frustrated at himself that his mind is not as sharp as it once was. He lashes out when he cannot remember, just as Hamlet does when he is melancholy and to see Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia caught between the two is possibly the most tragic moment of the whole production.
Yet, as with the Oresteia, it’s a concept-heavy production where the top-level concepts are the weakest things about it. The use of multimedia to include the Fortinbrass storyline feels like a copping out in elucidating an aspect of the play that is frequently ignored but provides a strong argument for maintaining the political status quo, no matter how unpalatable. Once you transpose a warrior culture where carrying a sword is the norm to the present day, one character pointing a gun at everyone shifts the power dynamics in a way that the script doesn’t support. The idea that Laertes, armed with a loaded gun, can get access to the King and Queen when it’s common knowledge that his father has died while he was away and that he will assume the King’s to blame doesn’t make sense. While we’re at it, if it is modern day, he would have found out about it straight away. The deeper you look, the longer the list gets.
And yes this is theatre, yes this is make-believe. Yes, Hamlet can be of then and of now. Both can co-exist. It’s actually the degree of detail, the nuance of Icke’s direction and the performances of the cast that draw attention to every detail so that the chinks in the conceptual armour start to emerge. Andrew Scott may make hopping between worlds look effortless but, for Hamlet to truly become our contemporary, he would have to bring his own world crashing down around him. You know, more than he does already.
Hamlet is on at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2nd September 2017. Click here for more details.