Moriarty in Elsinore? Yes, and Bob Dylan too. A handful of the Nobel laureate’s songs are powerfully woven into this much-anticipated revival, directed by Robert Icke and starring Andrew Scott. It’s the first dizzyingly high-profile production of the play in London since Scott’s Sherlock co-star, Benedict Cumberbatch, whirled about the version at the Barbican that was becoming remembered for the wrong things (including the questionable theatre etiquette of some of the fans attending previews and of certain embargo-breaking newspapers) even before it officially opened.
Scott has been served much better here – in the more judicious handling of hype and by a penetrating production that is often perverse – in ways that pull you in as well as puzzle. He ought not be landed with the kind of verdicts – “five star Hamlet trapped in three star show” – that treated Cumberbatch to a slew of rather invidious valentines. With Icke’s modern-dress version, it’s sometimes more a case of “five star production trapped in a four star production”. Tom Stoppard once made a good gag about the constitutional patience of critics: “If it goes on beyond half past ten, it’s self-indulgent.” This Hamlet starts at 7pm and goes on to 11pm. It is. Arguably. Too slow. During the hero’s climactic fencing bout with Laertes, for example, we hear Bob Dylan singing his beautiful “Not Dark Yet” – “There’s not even room to be anywhere/It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”. I love the song. I love the scene. I hope that I am not an incorrigible philistine in finding their conjunction here less pang-inducing than a glorified “Geddit?”
Scott is a wonderfully moving Hamlet who first sees the Ghost on the CCTV screens of the Danish security guards and becomes possessed with pain. His Irish lilt is perfect for the part as is that strange elfin quality that makes him both sensitive and wiry, delicate and a bit demonic. I’ve never heard a Hamlet that takes us from the tissue-rustling of quiet despair (the line about “quintessence of dust” trailing off into an impossibly soft pianissimo) to the tantrum-throwing of sardonic scorn and self-mockery. I mean it as a compliment to all three of them when I report that I got flashes of Graham Norton and Fiona Shaw. Scott creates a faint, tantalising sense of the former’s “Scandalised? Nous?” in his rapport with the audience and, rather more loudly, he shares the latter’s genius for end-of-the-tether irony and temple-slapping incredulity. You feel soul-to-soul with him. The production gives him bits of business that made me fascinated with his hands. When expressing disgust at the “too, too solid flesh”, he stretches his arms out and gazes at them with a terribly alienated fellow feeling, so to speak. And when he shakes on his deal with the player king (played as a double with his father’s ghost) about the extra speech for the The Mousetrap, there’s a mysterious private warmth about the gesture that suggests a sly, subliminal Wizard of Oz-style recognition.
The play scene is staged so that the royal party is seated in the front row of the Almeida and a news camera keeps track of their reactions. In close-up, the face of Claudius (the excellent Angus Wright) shifts by infinitesimal degrees as he watches the re-enactment of his crime. Instead of the usual stormy departure, his exit is all the more chilling for being so neat and the production takes a pause at that point – there are two intervals – as if there has been a faked technical hitch in the transmission of the live broadcast in Denmark to cover a terrible embarrassment to the new king.
Sometimes coming across as a nouveau riche character from one of the Just William books who suffers the delusions of hailing from a John Le Carre novel, Peter Wight’s superb Polonius reports on Hamlet and his daughter through a wire tap fixed to his lapel. Juliet Stevenson is beside herself with fear that her son is so mad he might actually kill her. There’s a terrific urgency and belated tenderness in the closet scene and this Gertrude wakes up to the true nature of the man she married in a rattled but sly way.
When the production dwells on moments, it’s as if you are watching a drop of petrol fascinatingly dilate on the surface of running water. Sometimes you reckon that they have switched off the current. Scott might be even better if it were pacier, but this is a Hamlet not to be missed.Reuse content