Modern dress Hamlet productions can be problematic when the directors don’t plan out all the details. Robert Icke’s staging for London’s Almeida Theatre now at New York’s Park Avenue Armory is that rare production which has updated the play so well that it appears to be intended to be set in our time all along. Original, surprising and ingenious, the production amazes to the point we wonder why no one has though of these ideas before. The sleek, cool settings and costumes by Hildegard Bechtler brilliantly convey the corridors of power while the video design by Tal Yarden, a sort of closed circuit CNN, make William Shakespeare’s tragedy feel up to the minute. This Hamlet is also accessible and easy to follow, even at a running time of three hours and 30 minutes.
However, the production does not rate 100% as some of the director’s touches are not entirely successful. In the title role as the Danish Prince who is informed by the ghost of his father old King Hamlet that he has been poisoned by his Uncle Claudius who has now married his mother Gertrude, Alex Lawther, known for playing troubled youth, gives an overly intellectual performance of Hamlet. He captures the brooding of the soliloquies but seems more incapable of decision than any Hamlet in recent memory which is carrying things a bit far. Worse yet he saws the air with his hands continually even in his famous Advice to the Players that they should not saw the air too much with their hands while he goes on sawing the air. This remains distracting throughout, particularly during the soliloquies where you watch his hands rather than listen to his words. All of this is obviously a choice the actor has made and his performance, however misguided, does command attention.
Kirsty Rider’s fine Ophelia, a modern young woman, sneaking notes to Hamlet behind her father’s back, is somewhat sabotaged by directorial touches: when she appears to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude after the death of Prime Minister Polonius, her father, she is brought on in a wheelchair looking as though completely paralyzed. In her next interruption to the king’s court, she runs on having recovered. In a startling state of affairs, instead of flowers for the king and queen she reveals cuts she had made on her body, original but a little too clever for its own sake.
Except for the excellent wedding party and dancing seen through the glass walls which divide the set from the front room where most of the action takes place in, a sort of antechamber, sitting room, private apartment, many of the court scenes feel underpopulated: the play-within-the-play which has only five guests who sit in the first row of the audience, and the final fencing scene. Neither feels as though it is taking place at court but in private, which may have been the intention for today’s world. For the final moments of the play, Icke has created a new dumb show that is startling in its originality but seems to be too intrusive to the storyline.
The use of video above the stage adds a contemporary touch that feels exactly right. Fortinbras, young son of the late King of Norway, appears in a television interview; Voltimand, Ambassador to Norway gives his report on a sort of Zoom hookup; and at least one funeral is reported as a video news account. The opening scene of the changing of the palace watch is handled as a guard room where the soldiers observe the corridors and fortifications on 12 monitors and the Ghost of Old Hamlet is captured on this footage, more believable than a ghost walking around on stage. Hamlet gives Horatio, his only loyal friend, a camcorder to observe Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the-play that he has especially written to trap the king. We watch this live footage on three screens above and on the sides of the stage which reveal all we need to know about Claudius’ guilt over the murder.
As is the contemporary trend, Icke has added several women to roles usually played by men to great success: instead of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being played by two men, Guildenstern is played by a woman and it is suggested that she and Hamlet had a fling back at college at Wittenberg (“My lord, you did love me once”) and the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are always seen together as a couple now makes perfect sense. One of the guards (Bernardo) is played by a woman which is perfectly credible for today’s world.
As Claudius, the ambitious brother to Old King Hamlet who coveted his wife, Angus Wright is cool, sinister, and politic and holds his emotions close to the vest. Subbing for Jennifer Ehle as Queen Gertrude, Lise Bruneau is elegant and compassionate but a bit bland. Peter Wight’s Polonius is suitably pompous and wordy, a courtier who likes embellishing his advice and dramatizing his points. As Horatio, Hamlet’s only real friend in the play, Joshua Higgott underplays his role so that Hamlet is seen in greater relief. Luke Treadaway as Laertes, Ophelia’s brother and Polonius’ son, is at first a dutiful, low-key son in the early part of the play before departing for Paris and later a fiery renegade when he returns to find his father murdered.
Among the clever doubling are David Rintoul as a solid Ghost of old Hamlet and later the commanding Player King in the play within the play that ends the first of the three parts of the production, and Ross Waiton as firstly the guard Francisco and then later the sole Gravedigger, working shirtless, and smashing skulls, in the final act graveyard scene in preparation for Ophelia’s funeral. Among the various courtiers and guards, Gilbert Kyem Jnr’s great height and quiet dignity in the combined roles of Reynaldo and Osric makes him stand out among the others.
Bechtler’s set with its charcoal sectional sofa, leather and chrome chairs and chrome side table works brilliantly for all the scenes it is used in the first two parts prior to the second intermission. Her monochromatic costumes are both elegant and sophisticated, totally suitable for a world set in and around the court of a king.
The use of Bob Dylan songs at various points between the scenes seems a bit strange considering the setting is supposed to be Denmark but is not as intrusive as it might have been. Tom Gibbons’ notable sound design includes the various cannon and alarums that are heard periodically throughout the play. Thomas Schall’s fight direction is not entirely convincing, but then the fencing match in such a modern setting is a bit incongruous. In other scenes including Hamlet’s assault on the spying Polonius in his mother’s bedroom, guns are aptly used to suggest modern times.
Robert Icke’s Hamlet is engrossing, lucid and unambiguous. Unlike a great many Shakespeare productions, the meaning of the words is always clear and will give first time listeners little trouble. The cast works as a true ensemble and the production team has updated this Elizabethan tragedy in such a way that it feels totally appropriate in modern dress. The production’s flaws are ones that seem like overreaching and do not damage the overall production too much. This is the prefect Hamlet for our time although Alex Lawther’s performance in the title role seems eccentric and too carefully thought out.
Hamlet (in repertory with The Oresteia through August 13, 2022)
Almeida Theatre Productions
Park Avenue Armory
Thompson Arts Center, 611 Park Avenue between 66-67th Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-933-5812 or visit http://www.armoryonpark.org
Running time: three hours and 30 minutes with two intermissions
Act One: one hour and 45 minutes
Act Two: 35 minutes
Act Three: 45 minutes