Andrew Scott’s electrifying debut as sing-song psychopathic Moriarty in the BBC’s “Sherlock” opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in 2010 was the most career-changing cameo since Judi Dench’s Oscar-winning eight minutes as Queen Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love.” That, and his slew of subsequent stage and screen roles (“Spectre,” “Pride,” “Denial”), meant his two-month run as “Hamlet,” now playing at the Almeida Theater in London, sold out in moments. Luckily for those with tickets — or those who can bag day seats — his wholly arresting performance is front and center of a production of thrilling intelligence. Director Robert Icke’s “Hamlet” pulls off the exceedingly rare trick of being consistently surprising and surprisingly consistent.
You can tell a lot about a Shakespeare production by the director’s choice of where to place an intermission — i.e., where the action stops and in what state it leaves the audience. In this three-and-three-quarter-hour (but never long-winded) production, there are two startlingly adroit choices. The second sees Scott’s Hamlet at a terrifying peak of tormented self-loathing. All his hitherto suppressed rage floods forth and his soliloquy climaxes with a furious “O from this time forth/ My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth” and the stage snaps to blackout, leaving audiences reeling.
The first intermission is even more audacious. For the play-within-the-play, designed to bring Claudius’s guilt to public attention, Icke has Hamlet seat the Danish royal family in the front row of the audience with a video camera trained on their faces, so that their smallest reactions can be seen on the screen lowered onto Hildegard Bechtler’s crisp, contemporary-cool set. The moment that the Player King (David Rintoul) is poisoned, Claudius (Angus Wright) stands uncertainly. Everything stops. He then walks slowly through the action and off stage, leaving everyone suspended in a tense grip of bafflement: What is about to happen? At which point a stage manager comes on to announce a pause in the action — for both characters and audience.
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This control of moment and mood is typical. Using live video in theater is close to cliche, but Icke gives it true dramatic impetus. Surveillance is part and parcel of a play fundamentally bound up with spying. From the opening, which sees Horatio and friends spotting the ghost on the palace’s security cameras, the production makes use of what Claudius refers to as “lawful espials” but without letting the idea predominate to the point of being crass.
Power, in every sense, is maintained throughout in ways that are smartly rethought but never gimmicky. The politics surrounding Fortinbras and the war-state of Denmark are seen solely on screen, with the character’s speeches presented as on-camera news reports. And in the scene in which Laertes and Polonius lecture her, Jessica Brown Findlay’s notably forthright Ophelia deftly hides Hamlet so that he can overhear the plotting. Not only does that bind the two of them more fully into the personal politics of the play, it gives much needed weight to the underwritten Ophelia, which in turns makes her madness and death more moving.
Casting Wright, an actor whose demeanor exudes decency, as Claudius is symptomatic of Icke’s thinking. Presenting the new king as fine and upstanding lends affecting doubt to Hamlet’s revenge plans, turns Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) into a far more interesting character — her late discovery of Claudius’ guilt is fascinating — but, most of all, allows the play to move, in part, like a genuine Scandi-noir thriller. With the villains keeping the behavior under wraps, tension is ramped up, allowing for moments of revelation.
Binding all this together is the immediacy of Scott’s riveting Hamlet. Although his trajectory is finely graded from initial grief through mounting anger to quiet resolution, his performance is summed up by his line, “But I have that within which passeth show.” He never resorts to mere display. His handling of the verse is so adroit that it sounds at all times conversational. He’s talking to the audience, not at them.
Like a great comedian, Scott can stretch time almost indefinitely because he makes the character’s thoughts so legible. Coupled with his lightning-speed ability to switch thought without apparent anticipation means audiences find themselves hanging on his every word, waiting to find out what will he’ll say or do next.
There are points at which Icke overplays his hand, notably in the near-constant soundscape. It adds to the brooding, low-lit atmosphere, but sometimes betrays an unnecessary lack of confidence in the actors. That, however, is a small price to pay.
Unexpectedly, it’s the final act which bears testament to the production’s masterstroke: its quiet emotional resonance. The scene with the gravedigger (Barry Aird) is remarkable for being so gentle. Scott’s Hamlet is lightly witty, but what shines through here is the warmth of a man who has matured in front of our eyes. That’s even more fully achieved in the duel and multiple deaths of the last scene, usually something of a routine plot wrap-up. Scott and Icke not only find tenderness of thought and expression, they open up Hamlet’s moment of death in a way that is utterly unexpected, yet entirely wedded to the text — like this masterly production as a whole.