I acquired a Hamlet ticket by fluke, an off chance return popping up on the website one afternoon. It turned out to be the middle seat on the front row, at several times close enough to reach out and touch the actors in mid-flow.
Sadly, that sort of thing is frowned upon and I didn’t fancy risking expulsion from the most compelling Shakespeare I’d seen in years. Icke has stripped back the play to its most comprehensible form, the language clean and direct. Certain plot elements have been stripped back too – the politics feature so sparsely I’d have struggled to explain who Fortinbras was if I was a first timer. It doesn’t matter much though; it’s a human story, this Hamlet. Two families, torn apart by grief. A quieter, more nakedly emotional production than perhaps is usual.
And Andrew Scott is just the actor for emotional. Never far from tears, his Hamlet is less a man feigning madness and more a son succumbing to a very real depression at the loss of his father. He wields guilt like a weapon; reducing Gertrude, Guildenstern and even eventually Laertes to abject shame at their betrayal of him. Juliet Stephenson is a wonderful Gertrude too – a lively, life-filled woman who has a sensual desire for her husband and an aching concern for her fragile son.
They’re the two lynchpins that the production turns around, although the rest of the cast hardly need any bolstering. Angus Wright, who was so fuddily diffident in Katie Mitchell’s Cherry Orchard and so powerfully menacing in Icke’s Oresteia, is on fine form here. His Claudius is of the latter persuasion, a man of power and dignity, his voice so smooth and sonorous you might almost believe he’s innocent of his crimes. Peter Wight is an excellent Polonius – I loved the hints that an encroaching illness lies behind his meandering speech – an illness which Ophelia alone seems to notice and perhaps provides an explanation for how closely she dotes upon him and bends to his will. Amaka Okafor as Guildenstern is great too – a past lover of Hamlet who seems quietly devastated by his descent into madness.
Still, Ophelia doesn’t work for me. Ophelia never works for me. Why is that? Something about the compressed time frame of her madness, two short scenes and then an offstage death. Something about Findlay-Brown’s clear sightedness in the earlier scenes, which makes her total collapse harder to reconcile. Something about the beautiful clarity of her singing voice, even in the throes of despair. Ophelia is difficult. She’s underwritten, she lacks agency, she falls apart so fast. I want her to survive every time I see this play and she never does.
I saw ghosts of Almeida productions past in Hamlet. The half-screened stage and upstage bath were used to great effect in the Oresteia (they share the same talented designer Hildegard Bechtler). Dylan’s croons haunt Hamlet like God Only Knows haunted the Oresteia (we heard Dylan in Icke’s 2016 Uncle Vanya too). And the final incredibly moving moments as the party of the dead are revealed upstage reminded me of the similarly heart-rending ending of David Cromer’s Our Town.
The gravedigger scene is lovely and also horrifying, in that its quiet contemplation of the legacy we leave behind hit me like a ton of bricks. I was suddenly filled with a sense of queasy panic that a man of perhaps only 30 (Scott is 40 but easily passes for younger) was about to walk to his death.
I’d have shouted at the stage if I could but Hamlet, like Ophelia, is always going to do what he’s going to do. It’s a testament to this production that I came close to shouting anyway; that Shakespeare's characters seemed, for a second or two, close enough to reach out and touch.