Production spoilers ahoy.
Everyone has an insight into Hamlet. It’s one of the reasons it’s still done; directors and actors want to put their insights onstage, and the audience goes to see those insights. I’d also suggest we go in the hope that our own insights align with those of the creative team, although I’d put money on that being a rare occurrence. I’ve yet to see the Hamlet I want to see, which is what keeps me going to see the damn thing. Yes, I am aware I’ve just stated the obvious.
I’d always thought ‘my’ insight was the politics, the conspiracy in the subtext. I like to think Gertrude is lying through her teeth the entire time (what do you mean she’s the only one that doesn’t see the ghost? How the hell did Ophelia get out to the damn lake!? She’s making it up for Laertes’ benefit etc.) But I saw this production, with Andrew Scott as the Dane and Robert Icke in the director’s role, after seeing two movies in quick succession: ‘Moonlight,’ and ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ both of which are preoccupied with the inarticulacy of men. In both films, inarticulacy leads to violence. I started to wonder whether the reason we, and men in particular, are fascinated with Hamlet, is because he is nothing if not the most wonderfully eloquent articulator. His language dances over ideas, skates over thought then sinks into feeling. That’s what I had started to think.
And then of course, Robert Icke’s production throws a spanner in the works.
First things first; it’s bloody long. The preview I saw clocked in at 3 hours 55 minutes, although I believe the official running time is down to a speedy 3 hours 45 (So lord knows what else has been changed.) It has two intervals, entirely justifiably, even if the second section runs to just 40 minutes. It just makes sense in performance, akin to putting the interval after the third act of The Seagull. Anyway, Icke likes to take his time. I didn’t see Oresteia, but I know from his work post-Vanya that speeches are lingered upon, thoughts are drawn into the space between actors and audience and given the space to breathe. And, crucially, it’s all done as conversation. Proper conversation, at a conversational volume, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen done with Shakespeare.
The first bold choice of this production is to run much of the first act as a single sequence, cohering the locale and making Hamlet omnipresent. We witness the events through his perspective. We are in a little room away from the coronation party, the state’s presence laughing and dancing behind the glass, as Hamlet grieves in front of it, eavesdropping behind a sofa. Icke’s control of this sequence is stunning, shaping and pacing time. I’m desperate to see him take on Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or indeed any O’Neill with that scope and scale.
As for Hamlet himself… bonkers is putting it mildly. Disclaimer: I love Hamlet. The play and character both. Can’t help it. He’s witty and deceitful and quick and I love that. He’s also an ambitious, murderous, seething misogynist. And he’s clever – very, very clever. Which is why I’ve never believed he is truly ‘mad,’ it has to be an act; he wants the throne too much. Icke avoids this problem by cutting “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on.” I think. At the very least, I didn’t notice it, so it was glanced over in a production that is keen not to suffocate the text by speeding through it. There is no act in Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, he is simply mad. Frighteningly so. His voice, so quiet at times, gives the text breath before roaring with rage and frustration, his accent briefly making the language as impenetrable as his anger as he scrambles for composure. It is a fascinating take; where I had expected (foolishly,) a cerebral Hamlet, we get a full blooded emotional one. He is, in many ways, made ineloquent.
Icke also chooses to show Hamlet as predatory. During a transition, we see him sneak into Ophelia’s (Jessica Brown-Findlay) bathroom, from behind, reaching for her. She hardly welcomes this advance. It is not only the first time Hamlet is made a physical threat, it occurs while Ophelia is submerged in water. He is desperate, she is terrified. That is how they exist; they are not lovers, they are predator and victim. Thankfully, the former is becoming less represented on stage. And when I say violator, I mean primarily psychologically. Although Ophelia seems somewhat charmed by Hamlet in the first scene, there does not seem anything sexual in the relationship.
Ophelia is not only Hamlet’s victim, indeed she is used by all the men, Claudius and Polonius ignoring her visible distress (Hamlet, after demanding her going to a nunnery, throws a vase of water in her face and hands her the flowers. It’s an excellent bit of foreshadowing.) and simply continue with the realpolitik. It reminded me that Ophelia never talks of her mother; indeed, in this production, the only female physical contact she has is with Gertrude, while she is mad. It’s also worth mentioning that this is the only time I’ve been properly convinced by an Ophelia, which is a testament to Jessica Brown-Findlay’s performance.
In a similar vein, I’ve never found Gertrude so interesting. Her relationship with Claudius is entirely sexual, and there is genuine physical magnetism between them, (although she doesn’t see the ghost,) she is definitely ‘in on it.’ She remains unmoved during The Mousetrap, and it is only when her son is explicitly threated does she switch allegiance; her drinking from the poisoned glass is wholly deliberate. What we are made aware of, then, is a political world just offstage, repeatedly hinted at. The play unfolds in the sleek domestic wing of Elsinore, reminiscent of a swanky modern apartment. It only briefly moves into the world of surveillance and screens, of exposed brick and of harsh white lighting.
Robert Icke gets a lot of (deserved) credit for his creation and use of concept/mise en scene/whatever, but what is striking about Hamlet is how brilliant he is at directing actors. Nothing is unnecessary, everything exists to support the actors and tell the story. However, he does pull a gorgeous coup at the end. The panels at the back slide away from the bloodbath, the poisoned figures rejoining the coronation party. Only Hamlet is left to die a violent death in the cold light of the fencing arena.
This is Hamlet as family drama, existing at the epicentre of politics, which is possibly what Icke does best. Hamlet, ultimately, is made not so much eloquent, as desperate.