Friday 3 March 2017

Hamlet at the Almeida, or, Overly Ambiguous

In advance of this show I was not optimistic. A 3hr 45min run time did not inspire confidence especially after the same director's overlong and unconvincing Oresteia. I have not generally been convinced by Robert Icke's work, and the Almeida's recent form has been poor. Fortunately, there are some marvellous things in this production but for me, finally, it was unsatisfying.

The production itself is rather simpler than some of Icke's recent efforts. We are in modern times – this produces the occasional jarring effect between elements of text and setting. The guns are a mistake, as is nearly always the case in Shakespeare, for the simple reason that they can rarely be fired – it is telling that Icke has to revert to swords for the final fight, and the television news broadcasts are a familiar and indifferent device.

The main playing area has a few chairs and sofas but otherwise remains mostly bare. The corridor in the middle reappears from Oresteia and 1984, with familiar lighting blackouts, but gets little use. Occasional silent scenes play in the back, for example the lengthy opening party, but though mostly lacking in impact they are also, fortunately, unobtrusive. Icke's movement direction is on firmer ground than in other recent work – this show doesn't have the sense of trying to force cinema-like close ups on the audience that The Red Barn and Mary Stuart both suffered from – but the physical connections don't finally have the impact they should, or at least didn't for me, because of other issues we'll come on to.

There are some familiar Icke ticks which grated with me. The close up filming of Claudius in the play within a play scene did not convince me – partly because it's painfully (but ineffectively) drawn out, partly because Angus Wright's performance across the evening is so unemotional, but also because I couldn't fathom why they were all allowing themselves to be filmed in this way. The idea seems to be that Claudius is engaged in an ongoing public relations campaign, but the moments he chooses to have broadcast to the world are rather odd and suggest he needed a better campaign manager. I also do wish Icke would dispense with advertising intervals on screens, and, indeed, having a stagehand come on and announce that it is now the interval – the straightforward, traditional blackout before the second interval is far more effective.

Icke's choice to include many sections it's my sense from the several previous productions I've seen are often cut is also a mixed blessing. It certainly captures what a sprawling, and often confused play this is – I realised for the first time how ridiculous Hamlet's first thought (that he's killed Claudius behind the arras) is, since we have just seen him leave Claudius at prayer. There is no indication that the next scene with Gertrude does anything other than follow immediately afterwards and it is therefore difficult to see how Hamlet could imagine that Claudius could have got himself from the chapel to the arras in the time. But Icke ultimately gets bogged down with the volume of the piece. For me the tension never really ratchets up and the extended pauses vary in their effectiveness. Icke, as in Mary Stuart, also slows things down at the very point he should be getting on with them – in the lead up to and during the Hamlet-Laertes fight itself.

The biggest problem with the production is the strange mixture of clarity and murkiness in its interpretations. It makes the ghost very visible such that Hamlet and all the soldiers have definitely seen it – I therefore found it odd (possibly Juliet Stevenson's performance did not help) when Gertrude can't in the later scene. It plays Claudius's greeting to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz as a joke in which he mistakes them but this just seems bizarre when one is a white man and the other a black woman – one can only conclude that Claudius is a fool, the trouble being that much of his behaviour across the evening and indeed the text contradicts such an interpretation. That same contradictoriness afflicts most of the characters. Peter Wright's Polonius seems to be suffering from an incipient dementia – it's never clear why and as the play moves on it disappears. It was particularly frustratingly unclear to me what Icke thinks the feelings of Jessica Brown Findlay's Ophelia and Andrew Scott's Hamlet are for each other – there's a weird moment when he disturbs her naked in the bath the trouble being there just isn't enough clarity in the direction of the pair after that to give point or explanation to it.

Scott's Hamlet is the biggest, and at times most frustrating mystery of all. There's no question that he's a magnetic presence on stage. His delivery can be masterful – the scene in the graveyard (which also features fine work from Barry Aird) and the little speech leading to “the readiness is all” - stood out for me. Elsewhere, soliloquies often start with a magnetic softness but leap too quickly and too jarringly to shouting and while, in the softer moments, the text is always clear, it feels on occasion too over-savoured – as if Scott is relishing each word, each phrase, but not quite keeping sufficient eye on the overall argument. Linked to this is the question of motivation – as with his feelings for Ophelia, so with his reasons for delay – I didn't sufficiently see a complete character where each scene builds on the one before to layer up the figure before us. To some extent, it seemed to me this follows from the text and my instinct is that it is a deliberate decision by Icke and Scott who want to make an argument about life and people as disjointed, muddled. But my experience is that people are usually more readable over a period of time than this – that behaviour does fit together in particular ways if watched closely enough (as one is doing in a theatrical audience). I certainly don't accept the argument that everybody in a family or a work meeting is behaving in the kind of inconsistent manner of the characters here. But even accepting that as a valid take on life it has a problematic theatrical effect of distancing. The lack of fully thought through characterisations meant that their plight finally left me emotionally cold – with fleeting exceptions like “the readiness is all”.

The final scene is symptomatic of much else. Scott delivers the well known lines magnificently. The staging finds emotional connection between him and Horatio – but one wishes it had done more to follow this through in the rest of the evening. The idea of everybody disappearing into the next world is potentially powerful, but Icke can't resist overdoing it – bringing back the Ghost, and introducing business with watches which has potential but ends up laboured.

Overall, this is a long, strange evening. There are individual performances, not least Scott's, which are certainly worth seeing. Icke's attempt to grapple with such a full text is also worth exploring. But, for me, this was largely an evening of intellectual puzzling rather than emotional immersion in the lives of these characters and the questions at stake were not sufficient to make up for the emotional coldness over such a long evening.

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