Hamlet @ Harold Pinter Theatre: Twice Seen of Us

I first saw this production of Hamlet back in February, while it was in its previews at the Almeida. I wrote about it here, and it was the first thing I wrote that gained anything like interest. I couldn’t resist the urge to write about it again, but this piece is perhaps inevitably as much in conversation with my initial piece as it is with the production itself. And with me, any excuse to write about Hamlet is a good one.

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Seeing things twice is always something of a gamble. Sometimes you don’t want to give an actor the chance to change whatever it was that was so magical about their performance in the first place, sometimes you want to see just how deep they are willing to dive. Sometimes the production is so rich that it necessitates multiple viewings, and sometimes you want to retain the overwhelming impression of something. But there was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to see Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet with Andrew Scott as the Dane himself if I got the chance. I knew I’d missed so much, and so much would have changed as the run progressed.

The production is so much richer for its 10-weeks-worth of performances since I last saw it. The actors have sunk into their characters to an extent that watching the play feels more like eavesdropping. That is in itself an achievement in moving the play from the intimate Almeida to the West End, although the actors all spoke at a conversational level – they were wearing mics but I’m not sure how much they were amplified to the balconies. I mention that because there is definitely a sense that they have moved the Almeida to the West End, going so far as reconstructing the former’s back wall on the stage of the Harold Pinter. The video feeds are retained – obviously – but instead of brick forming the backdrop, we see glimpses of the yellow-and-blue of the Pinter auditorium. My fringe made an appearance also. It loses something when it does this; it becomes slightly more like a play than a world. I was also aware that on this visit I was a lot closer to the stage than I had been at the Almeida, I could see every glance, every twitch.

And I still know there’s loads I’ve missed.

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Anyway, the play.

That first sequence, where the first act runs as one almost-unbroken scene is still a marvel to me. It also changed a lot of my feelings as to the internal relationships of the characters. I was wrong; clearly there is a sexual attraction between Hamlet and Ophelia. They’re so flirty, and Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia is full of life and energy. Ophelia is truly ‘good,’ not in some dated, virtuous way, but you’d want her for a mate. I’d bet she’d be a hoot at parties. I loved watching Ophelia and Laertes trying to make each other laugh during Claudius’ long speech. I loved watching Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude study every flicker that crosses Hamlet’s face, smiling encouragingly. She clearly loves her son, and her relationship with Claudius is a strong one. She is no opportunist.

And as for Hamlet himself, Scott’s performance seems to have grown in physicality. He’s a fidgety Hamlet; when his leg starts to shake, you know there’s about to be a volcanic outburst. He is – interestingly – less shouty. His anger manifests itself as a constant, simmering rage. He’s also far wittier, with superb comic timing. He’s a funny Hamlet. But far more importantly, he is a Hamlet without any answers. Scott’s gift is in making the verse ring with absolute clarity, he includes the audience on his thoughts with him. The effect of this is not only one of implication, but of a humanising of the character. Hamlet is no genius here, he is no preacher, he’s just trying to understand, and often coming to most awful conclusion, rightly and wrongly. When he asks Ophelia “are you honest?” you can see the desperation etched in Hamlet’s face, and the horror in Ophelia’s.

I also have to write about just how brilliant the characterisations of Gertrude and Ophelia are. Both actresses have to do so much with so little material. How Stevenson manages to craft that arc in Gertrude is stunning to me. We watch her go from a sexualised newlywed, to (un)willing pawn in Claudius’ attempts to get to Hamlet, to someone out of love, willing to not only sacrifice herself, but openly defy her husband politically. But more on that later. I’m also utterly convinced that the story Gertrude tells Laertes, of how Ophelia died, is a complete lie. Not a cruel lie, not one to hide a conspiracy, but one to spare Laertes. I suspect Laertes knew it was a lie too.

As I said, Findlay’s Ophelia is fucking brilliant. It registered with me just how much Hamlet screws up in the “get thee to a nunnery” scene. Ophelia is forced into playing the game by her father and Claudius, but she’s still somewhat on Hamlet’s side. And then Hamlet screws up. “Are you honest?” he asks, and the fury in Ophelia just leaps out – she knows the accusation is not just of sexual honesty but of political honesty. Hamlet believes the world is conspiring against him, and it probably isn’t, not until he throws Ophelia under the bus. And then the ‘mad scene’… in parts it is as though she isn’t mad at all. The way she hands the flowers out, so specifically, clinging on to the daisy (as she did when Hamlet throws the vase of water over her.) I couldn’t help but think Findlay will make a great Lady M one day. (With Scott? At the Almeida? With Icke? Please!?)

I also had a thought about the now-infamous “Now might I do it” bit. Claudius appears to be confessing the murder to Hamlet, at gunpoint. But the scene is lit like the ghost scene, (and we’re led to believe Hamlet imagines the physical manifestation of the ghost) Hamlet in harsh focus, like the ghost of his father. This continues right up until Claudius’ last couplet, when the lights shift, Claudius throws open his arms, his arrogance protecting him from any attempt by Hamlet to kill him. I think that nothing in that scene is ‘real’ until the lights shift. Simply thinking about the geography: if Hamlet was going to his mother’s closet, it makes sense he would pass Claudius in the room before this, and imagined what might occur. But I doubt that’s an original thought and I’m probably wrong. STILL.

Moving swiftly on, I don’t think I clocked last time just how beautiful that last scene is. From Claudius and Gertrude crossing the stage to attend to their respective loyalties, Laertes and Hamlet, to Laertes trying so hard not to using the poisoned foil. And as heart-breaking as Scott (and Luke Thompson’s Laertes, for that matter) is in this scene, the part that really took my breath away was Gertrude’s storyline, which I’m about to describe for my own benefit more than anyone else’s. The way she distances herself from Claudius, to taking the wine, and drinking not just to save her son, but in direct defiance of her husband politically, foiling (sorry) his plan. She pushes away his hand, there is no doubt she knows what she’s about to do, and then as she drinks she interlocks her fingers with Claudius. She still loves him, even as she’s dying as a direct consequence of his actions. Then she turns to Hamlet and smiles at him, and at the same moment it dawns on him what she has done. Hamlet’s smile is weaker. Gertrude sits at the back of the stage shaking slightly, hardly able to watch the proceedings, or look at her husband.

That last image, of Hamlet clawing at Horatio as he dies – a profoundly violent death – is unbearably moving. It’s almost strange to see Hamlet – the daddy of the tragedies – be quite so tragic.

And yes, I noticed the watches this time. (Although the very ending is still unclear to me. Hamlet’s watch is back on the wrist of his father, and this is what stops him joining the golden-lit party? Why? Or has he made his revenge and no longer needs to physically carry his father’s memory with him?)

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Long story short, you’ll be hard pressed to find better Shakespeare in London this year. I already want to see it again. “Twice seen of us” is not enough.

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