Review: Hamlet, Almeida Theatre ‘A Gut-Wrenching Tragedy’

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It’s easy to be fatigued when it comes to Shakespeare, Hamlet in particular. I mean, just how many times can we expect creatives to find something new in text that has been turned over and analysed a thousand times? Certainly, recent Hamlets haven’t given us hope with versions at the Young Vic and the Cumberbatch/Turner joint effort both showing signs of over-egging and straining at the seams of the text.

Well, if you are fatigued like me, the Icke-Scott collaboration at the Almeida (and, soon to be, West End) will restore your faith in theatre’s ability to find new sources of depth, relevance and humanity in even the oldest of texts.

Not only is this a platform for one of the finest Hamlet performances you’ll see (Scott is everything you want him to be – and more), not only is this Director Robert Icke’s finest production in eons, but this radical and intriguing interpretation of the play brings out themes of love and loss, and the destructive power of grief, far more powerfully than I’ve ever seen before. This Hamlet, truly, is a gut-wrenching tragedy that leaves you emotionally crushed and broken-hearted.

So, what’s behind this power?

For me, it’s in the intriguing tilt on the relationship between Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, (Juliet Stevenson) and Claudius (Angus Wright), Hamlet’s Uncle. Gone is the widow dragged to the altar by a murderous villain; instead this is a couple in love. The start of the play shows us the joyous union of a couple who’ve kept secret their genuine love for so long. This is a true and heartfelt love. This is a yearning and a pining fulfilled. It is a moment of joy for them when they can be married, not an act of crude, villainous evil by an archetypal Richard III-esque rogue.

The happiness between Gertrude and Claudius at the start is palpable and potent. Add to that, our Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a far more nuanced character, given far more emotional complexity than is usually the case. Her relationship with Hamlet too is one that is evidently more passionate than is usually depicted. There’s hope here for Hamlet – Ophelia is a hope for him, a candle that burns bright. The tragedy is, that candle isn’t enough to save him.

For what the effect of all of this is, is a creeping sense that the villain in the piece is actually the murdered King, Hamlet’s father. Was he responsible for keeping separate Gertrude and Claudius, these star-crossed lovers, apart for so long? If they were destined to be together, isn’t it a crime that the dead King is so intent on destroying his wife’s happiness, denying her the love with Claudius that he didn’t get from her in life?

And isn’t his ghost now manipulating his son? Is his suggestion of murder and demands for retribution a selfish act that robs his son of happiness with Ophelia and his own mental stability?

This is how I felt the tilt was being played – and the result is a far more profound tragedy than I’ve seen before. For the impact of the dead King’s manipulation is to destroy all that is good – to wreck his family’s happiness and the security of his country – all for the sake of revenge, the most terrible motivation of all.

This interpretation also sharpens up the dramatic points – there was a mass intake of breath across the auditorium when Claudius finally confesses his crime. Perhaps not as many in the audience the night I went were as familiar with Hamlet as is usually the case, but it was a wonderful thing to witness so many being caught unsuspecting – a great demonstration of the extent to which the light and shade had been so dramatically shaped and enhanced by this reinterpretation. Enough with the sturm and drang – give us love, then break our hearts, and we, the audience, will go with you to whatever end.

Then there’s Andrew Scott… Well, what can I say? Extraordinary. Extraordinary in depth, extraordinary in nuance, and extraordinary in delivery. His Hamlet doesn’t feel in any way rehearsed or contrived. Nothing is forced or ‘acted.’ The lines fall from his lips as if they were being thought just at that very movement. Humour is called upon when it is needed, but so is love, regret and confusion. Scott’s performance doesn’t just tug on your heart strings but pulls on them and ties them into knots.

I’ll probably never see a more tragic, heart-breaking Hamlet in my life, so how thankful I am that more will be able to witness this show with the West End transfer. Perhaps some of the intimacy that comes with the Almeida will be lost, but this is the finest Hamlet I’ve seen, I only hope that as many get to see this version as possible.

Almeida Theatre, London, to April 15th.

Harold Pinter Theatre, London, June 9th to September 2nd.

All production images by Manuel Harlan.

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