Celebrity Hamlets are a rite of passage for stars wishing to test their metal against The Bard's most introspective and challenging central character. What can sometimes read as a box checking exercise for both actor and director results in a scramble to find a Hamlet for our current time which is dangerous territory and can sometimes offer more style over substance at the expense of a solitary star vehicle.
Director Robert Icke combats this bringing his usual care and precision to this oddly weighted production that offers a neat understated style that never engulfs itself in its own hysteria. This technologically sound production grounds the intrigue in a modern Danish court complete with rolling news and modern surveillance. Whilst it's not necessarily a new idea the live camera work picks up on subtle flashes of Scott's genius, from 'The Mousetrap' scene that's played within the auditorium itself and allows a close-up view of the murderous reactions to the filmed fencing that brings his downfall. Characters are wiretapped adding to the paranoia whilst the Ghost appears via CCTV, but the addition of guns create more problems than they solve.
For all these contemporary trappings it's all eyes on Andrew Scott who rises to the challenge succeeding primarily at the intellectual and haunted side of the Danish Prince. His furrowed brow and sunken eyes contain the hidden depths of his troubled mind but I found a lack of passion and joy that inhibits him from finding a fully rounded delivery in the complexity of the character. Gentle and introverted his most successful moments come in his interactions with other characters such as a beautiful scene with Gertrude that weights the second act or his moments of fun that come from setting up the play-within-a-play where he's allowed to find a mischievous joy and twinkle in his eye.
He's an actor that rarely feels spontaneous or off the cuff; instead you're made to see every cog turn in motion and the inner workings so deeply considered that it sometimes stifles the soliloquies, all played centre stage with a yearning look outwards that manages to reach deep into your soul and hit you on the inside. He has a unique skill of speaking directly to the audience and meaning it, even within this overly realistic setting his breaking of the fourth wall succeeds as he makes you feel he is talking exclusively to you. Thoughts unfold afresh yet they seem effortful and too considered to fully be affecting, meaning the full extent of the tragic implications never quite land.
Elsewhere it's a somewhat mixed bag of mumbled lines and flat verse. In the quest for realism the intellectual passion of the poetry is squashed and reduced to insular exchanges - Horatio is barely audible and Claudius reads as wooden and dry. Juliet Stephenson is a radiant Gertrude finding life in the poetry and carefully maintaining the post-wedding exuberance that Icke extends to hang over much of the first act played through a clinically Nordic set that allows split scenes to operate on multiple levels.
There's an excitement in Luke Thompson's Laertes that refreshes the stage and commands a new energy as the tragedy bounds towards its conclusion. His relationship with Ophelia reads as one of the most believable on stage and as he jumps into her grave to hold her dead body the whole play really comes to life with a passionate intensity that has somehow been previously lacking. Returning from England Scott excels at the damaged Hamlet finding sense in his interaction with the gravedigger, maintaining his distance from the 'tedious old fools' and providing a gentle relapse that helps ground the character in an intense acceptance of his fate.
At four hours it's more of a marathon than a sprint with extended pauses between lines and even mid speech that provide too much room for thought. The energy can't help but flag as if the carefully thought out set pieces don't always sit comfortably together making for an uneven trajectory but one that ultimately rewards for commanding your attention. A triumph in part for Scott yet an uneven ensemble playing makes less of a Hamlet to be remembered but one to be revered.
Hamlet Tickets are now on sale.
Read our 5 Star review for the Harold Pinter Theatre transfer, booking until 2nd September 2017.
What the Press Said...
"Robert Icke's version at the Almeida is cool, clever, chic and has some good ideas, but also some that strike me as eccentrically wrong-headed."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"What Scott lacks, though, except in rare moments of flare-up rage and petulance, is full-throttle passion....this is more Elsi-snore than Elsinore."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Not all the modern touches work, and there are scenes when the deliberately leisurely pace means the production loses some of its grip."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"At times mesmerising but there are times when he seems to lose his impetus and we just don't care about him. Indeed, the entire production, at almost four hours long, is uneven."
Ann Treneman for The Times