Hamlet at The Almeida Theatre Review and Analysis

Warning: Spoiler Included
For a Spoiler Free Review, CLICK HERE.

William Shakespeare is one whom I would commonly refer to as the literary equivalent to marmite: you either love his work with a passion or utterly despise it. I guess you could blame the fact that it is commonly force fed down your throat at school reading ‘thou’ after ‘thus’ until the English lesson finally ends – yet, I feel appreciation would grow more if everyone was taken to the theatre to see Shakespeare’s work where it is at its best, just as I was for Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre, London.
Image by Miles Aldridge
Having only read a couple of pages of the play, and previously seeing an amateur dramatic group’s rendition, my knowledge only stretched to the basic plot, as well as knowing the common line “to be, or not to be”, but due to the number of deaths that many of my peers have told me about, I knew this would be something of interest to me, not to mention the incredible casting that had been achieved.

Surrounding the lead protagonist of Prince Hamlet (Played by Andrew Scott), the play is set in Denmark, a city that is grief stricken after the sudden death of the King (David Rintoul). Following the loss of her husband, Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) is quick to remarry, only this time to Hamlet’s Uncle and the former King’s brother, Claudius (Angus Wright), to which Hamlet believes is “foul incest” and suspects that it was, in fact, his Uncle who caused the death of his father, all for the sake of the crown. Hamlet’s world unravels, seemingly leading him into a pit of insanity, and as a member of the audience, all you can do is sit, on the edge of your seat might I add, and watch the tragedy unfold before you.

As stated above, Hamlet is not a play that I knew or loved, and I sat in a theatre surrounded by English-lovers, all discussing the way in which the text will be adapted within this particular show. Although I cannot comment on this, whatever changes they had made to the text was, for me, perfect within the premise of this showing. Perfectly timed, and surprisingly easy to follow, I found my eyes glued to the stage at every second, even within the first part which lasted over one-and-a-half hours. For the most part, the fact that I was indeed watching Shakespeare wandered from my mind, and despite having a seemingly unpopular opinion on the modernisation that director Robert Icke had chosen, I did really enjoy it, and it certainly made me feel more as though I was watching real people within a real story, as opposed to just watching a play.

Andrew Scott’s take on Hamlet was incredibly humanised and completely blew me away. It is no secret that I am a fan of Sherlock, and I did have the slight fear that all I would be able to see within his performance was Moriarty, yet he certainly proved my wrong. He was Hamlet – grief-stricken and insane, with the ability to make even a heartless cow like me cry throughout his performance. From his tear-filled eyes throughout, body language, use of hand work, and occasional, humorous facial expressions, to his slow, meaningful monologue of “to be, or not to be”, Scott’s performance has truly stuck with me, and I still feel a heaviness in my heart when I think back to it.

Jessica Brown Findlay’s adaptation of Ophelia was heart-stopping and beautiful. Starting as the stunning, innocent love interest of Hamlet, it is painful to watch her so believingly decay in front of your eyes. The juxtaposition between just two scenes, one where she had leapt into her brother's arms, and the other where she is in a wheelchair whilst mourning the loss of her father, Polonius (Peter Wight) is one that has scared itself to my brain, and her relationship with her father and her brother, Laertes (Luke Thompson) was incredible. Her slow singing prior to her death sent a chill down my spine and tears to my eyes, and Luke Thompson’s heartbreak over the loss of his beloved sister left a stab of bitter pain through my heart. With a limp body in his arms, Thompson’s performance was incredible, displaying the perfect balance of sadness and anger, as many of us do feel with grief, that no words can even come close to complimenting both of their performances throughout.

Juliet Stevenson’s role of Gertrude was one of a true mother, swaying between protecting her son yet loving her new husband. My heart stopped when she was drinking the poisoned wine to celebrate Hamlet’s victory, which I actually believe was sacrifice she made as a way to save her son from the drinks guaranteed kiss of death. The pairing of Juliet Stevenson with Angus Wright (who played Claudius) was chilling to view, and their reactions throughout the show were perfectly opposing. Angus Wright captured a faultless air of evil, and even when Claudius and Gertrude were passionate, I couldn’t stop myself from hating him and his smug expression – it was a phenomenal performance.

As a whole, the cast was just incredible, and however much I wish to discuss every one of them, I cannot possibly fit it all into a single review. From the background acting throughout scenes to delivering lines and being centre stage, there wasn’t a single weak link, but I guess that is what is expected of such an incredible, all-star cast. Even at the end, when deceased characters moved to the back of the stage, the actors continued to play their role, without removing the attention from Hamlet and Horatio’s (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) heartfelt final scene, which was perfectly tear-jerking and simplistic. The roles played also felt heavily planned, such as the dead king, who we only see as a ghost, also playing the king player, which was an intelligent touch within the Players performance.

As many are aware, Hamlet will soon be leaving the Almeida Theatre and moving to the West End, and one thing I am really intrigued by is the way in which the set will adapt to the new location. The set as a whole was incredibly simplistic, mirroring often a modern house, which could quickly be transformed into an office or outside with the intelligent use of props. Both the set and lighting were capable of being visually intriguing, yet in no way distracting from the performances or storyline, which is often a difficult balance to pull off, yet done very well in this instance. The use of the glass doors that split up-stage from centre- and down-stage allowed more depth within the space, allowing the locations to transform, such as up-stage being the separate party area or a bathroom, as well as adding artistic reflections to symbolise the split of personalities within a character – something I have probably thought too far into, but still love the concept of.

One thing that has continued to amaze me, even now, is the way in which the Gravediggers scene, where the character is pulling up and smashing skulls from beneath the stage, is so cleverly transformed into Ophelia’s grave. Thinking back to it, I truly believe that it was then this use of level which made Laertes jumping down to grab his sister’s lifeless body even more powerful.

On occasion, the fourth wall is broken, which further entices you within the plot. With the intense flickering of the lights and a loud rush of sound, characters can appear wherever, including sat within the audience. Usually, having the cast breaking the fourth wall can be difficult to pull off, due to the fact that they cannot always be seen and the performance can get lost; however, this was avoided through the use of the screens and live camera, which was used throughout.   

The live camera which projected events onto a large screen on the stage, as well as smaller screens throughout the venue, was an amazing touch and avoided the loss of quality or feeling when the characters did have their backs to the audience. It ensured that no detail within scenes, such as the fencing, and no facial expression, such as that of the Uncles, were missed, and also tied into the more modern feel of the show. Elements such as using the screens to show CCTV of the ghost was something I admired, and really allowed a sense of clarity for a modern audience. On top of this, the timings of characters going through the CCTV doors and coming onto stage were impeccable, and, once again, added further depth to the stage.

Other clever elements, such as the use of the screen saying pause and play before and after the intervals, helped to further stop the feeling of dread that many get when viewing a Shakespeare play, and the use of news clips in regard to the story, such as the death of Hamlet, allowed a more audience involving and engaging way to deliver further information. At the end, the use of the news followed by the screens saying “stop” seemed the perfect way to end the show, and is like nothing I have ever seen before.

One note I must add before carrying on, which is largely due to me being a massive theatre and film nerd, is the use of Danish language on the news clips and CCTV cameras. This was a highly intelligent touch and was a great way to remind the audience of the play's setting. My hat goes off to the individual who had that idea – it was incredible.

Both props and costumes were modernised, but once again, minimal, simplistic and heavily symbolic. The use of the flowers within Ophelia’s scene were stunning, and further used throughout for the symbolism she described in her dialogue. The use of the CCTV desk transformed the stage into an office, and I was even amazed by the smashing of the skulls to further reinforce the message that death catches up with us all. The use of guns added a modern twist, but by keeping the fencing scene, the traditional era of Shakespeare was not lost.
Image by Manuel Harlan
On top of this, and linking to the costumes, the use of jewellery which characters handed over after their death, almost as a concept of sacrifice and losing everything, was a lovely touch, especially with Hamlets watch. Throughout, he plays with it on his wrist in a form of a nervous twitch, yet it is gone when he goes to hand it over, implying that everything he had has been taken away from him, including his life. During the show, his costume also becomes more drained in colour, starting off dark and well fitted and ending up with over-sized white clothing – almost resembling a straight jacket. The fact he ended up walking across the stage barefoot added a gritty realism to his scenes, and his costume as a whole has made me question its symbolism. Could this white clothing reflect the concept that he is cleansed through his revenge, or is it a further sign that all he once had is lost…I guess it’s open for interpretation.

No mics appeared to be used within the play, and if they were, they were not visible in the slightest. Personally, I enjoyed this factor, as it felt slightly more voyeuristic, and as though you were actually watching real people living their lives, as opposed to characters in a play. The use of Bob Dylan’s music, which played at times throughout, added a stronger emotional complexity to the play, and I really enjoyed the way in which the bass beat of the song could still be heard within scenes like that of a party, symbolising that characters were in a different room without losing the previous scene and setting entirely.  

Overall, the play was undeniably incredible. It was a beautifully directed and performed piece, and all elements were so carefully thought through and complimentary of one another, it is impossible to find a flaw. As mentioned above, it didn’t feel like Shakespeare, or even a play, at all, and instead, I was captivated for almost four hours into someone else’s life and story. When I first heard that part one was around an hour-and-a-half long, like many, I was sceptical – but it in no way felt that long, and I was so engrossed that time flew by quickly. With each of the three parts, the level of intensity grew, and I am still in awe about how much I enjoyed it.

Intense, emotional, raw and, at times, humorous, Robert Ickes ‘Hamlet’ definitely deserved the standing ovation that it received, and I hope to soon see it again in the west end.

For more information on tickets, click HERE.


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