There is a reason why the Royal Shakespeare Company exists, and why great actors have begun their wide and varied careers training for Shakespearean roles. It’s all in the diction and voice projection. Stars such as Olivier, Gielgud, Stewart, McKellan have a presence and depth to their delivery. If that’s what you expect from Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet, then you will be disappointed. Laertes (Luke Thompson) sounded like he made a wrong turn at the stage door of the TV series The only way is Essex – I couldn’t distinguish what he was saying. This production has a more conversational style which can tend to hamper the aurally-challenged and dampen the wonder that is Shakespeare’s brilliance with language. Only Claudius (Angus Wright – smooth performance), Juliet Stephenson (Queen Gertrude – well played) and David Rintoul (Ghost King/Player King) achieved clarity and projection.
If you are expecting Elsinore Castle with battlements, mist-shrouded ghostly sightings, lots of armour and royal bling – this production is not for you. The king wears a dinner suit, the set looks like a modernist glass house by Philip Johnson or Mies van der Rohe, with upholstered furniture to match, and Hamlet is dressed in Melbourne’s favourite colour – black, comfy clothes if a tad over-disheveled.
This production opened in the West End on Thursday evening. Andrew Scott (Hamlet) recently claimed that the cast only agreed to transfer to the West End from the Almeida Theatre on the basis that 300 of the 800 nightly tickets were for students at £30 (I paid £85 – great seat by the way, thank you for your concern). I thought that was the proverbial PC bs about wanting to cater for a younger audience, blah blah.
But the current adolescent generation don’t know Olivier or Gielgud. They don’t expect Frank Thring as King Claudius, nor battlements. They want a re-set of the usual production values and, of course they come to see Hamlet played by Moriarty from the TV series Sherlock.
The above comments behind us, this evening’s production of Hamlet was the most engaging, relevant, contemporary and exciting Hamlet that I have seen. I have never found Shakespeare so engrossing (despite it being 3.5 hours long with two intervals). Usually I can’t wait for it to be over. Yes, I would have liked to have heard the words clearly, though I was amazed at how much of the dialogue remains hidden in our minds having seen the play on stage and in cinematic forms, read the script, studies the commentaries – and many moons ago. Not sure how the uninitiated would have fared. I imaging some of the Bard’s nuances would have been lost under the weight of the actors’ assorted accents.
Andrew Scott, quite appropriately, stole the show in the leading role. He did not disappoint. Although Hamlet is the archetypal drama queen, I could have done with slightly less of the jazz-hands and Simon says ‘hands-on-face’. But that’s just me. His delivery was a completely fresh take on Hamlet’s soliloquies in a contemporary setting. He was excellent and received (deservedly) a standing ovation from the whole audience.
The set worked superbly. The main stage is a living room with glass walkway through which we can see another scene of actors in a conservatory. This proved very effective. The used of surveillance footage and television news reports contemporised the delivery (and would have infuriated the pedants). I loved it all.