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Theatre in Review: Hamlet (Almeida Theatre/Park Avenue Armory)

Angus Wright, Jennifer Ehle, Peter Wight. Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory

These days, it seems, Elsinore lives in a state high alert; anyway, that's the impression one takes from contemporary productions of Hamlet, which, increasingly, pit the title character against the brutal workings of government. Nicholas Hytner's 2010 National Theatre revival (starring Rory Kinnear) envisioned a fascist Denmark where paranoia reigns; as critic Michael Billington noted, "The essence of this tyrannical modern-dress Elsinore is that no one is ever fully alone." Yaël Farber's staging for The Gate Theatre (featuring Ruth Negga) revealed a decaying monarchy slipping into a de facto police state, a traitorous environment riddled with spies. In Robert Icke's production, now at Park Avenue Armory, the Danish royal family is a media-centric operation along the lines of the Windsors; video cameras are everywhere, controlling their collective image and -- until it is no longer possible -- shielding the citizenry from the sordid truth about their rulers. (Prowling in the background are security guards, often equipped with rifles.) This is an up-to-the-minute Hamlet, cool to the touch but roiling with powerful emotions hidden behind an engineered façade of propriety.

It's an approach that has certain weaknesses, which we'll get to in a minute, but, for several reasons, this an unusually lucid and moving Hamlet; the video element is not a gimmick but central to the conception. News footage of the late king's state funeral, followed by reports of Norwegian belligerence, makes clear that the nation's fate hangs in the balance, threatened equally by invaders and internal treachery. The Ghost of Hamlet's Father first appears on a set of surveillance screens, a creepy effect that calls to mind found-footage horror films like Paranormal Activity. Other video moments reveal the gulf between official imagery and private anguish, most notably a photo op pairing a disgusted Hamlet with the newly married Claudius and Gertrude, and a close-up of Claudius struggling not to react to the provocatively staged The Murder of Gonzago. The climactic duel between Hamlet and Laertes is a sports broadcast that ends in a public display of murder. These aristocrats live in a media fishbowl, and it will be their undoing.

Icke's production also pays close attention to the relationships that enmesh Hamlet, catching him in a web of alliances and responsibilities that prevent him from acting. Claudius and Gertrude are frankly infatuated, seen indulging in public displays of affection and lying together, spent, after an erotic workout. The production takes the time to establish that Hamlet and Ophelia are deeply in love; indeed, he tries to expunge his torment by grabbing her in a passionate embrace. Ophelia and Laertes are affectionate, joshing siblings; they mockingly join in when Polonius, offering his famous advice, says, "For the apparel oft proclaims the man," signaling they have heard it all before. Polonius, after years of faithful service, is slipping into dementia, leading to blank moments and unexpected bursts of rage. David Rintoul is cast as both Hamlet's Father and the Player King; when the latter first appears, Hamlet recoils, having literally seen a ghost.

This careful noting to family dynamics pays big dividends when troubles come, as Claudius remarks, in battalions. You'll feel Ophelia's heartbreak when Hamlet coolly lets his love letters fall to the ground, a stinging act of rejection. Hamlet's rage against Gertrude is, even under these tawdry circumstances, borderline irrational, carrying the threat of physical violence. (When the Ghost intervenes, he wraps the unaware Gertrude in an embrace, leaving Hamlet staring in horror.) Ophelia's funeral, informed by the very different furies of Laertes and Hamlet, devolves into an unseemly brawl fueled by frustration and misdirected rage.

Alex Lawther, who reads much younger than his twenty-seven years, is a distinctively callow Hamlet, suffering from paralysis of will and increasingly drawn toward death. His handling of Hamlet's big speeches is so considered, his parsing of the possible consequences so thoughtful, that he often seems to be on the edge of suicide. Then again, the sight of him wandering the corridors of Elsinore, dressed in black and carrying a pistol, calls to mind a shooter at Columbine or Parkland or Uvalde. There's a clear throughline to this performance, beginning in stark depression and pointed sarcasm -- his relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is especially rife with suspicion -- slowly building to a destabilizing outburst of rage and grief.

Lawther's co-stars act as reliable guides on the path to ruin. Angus Wright's Claudius is the smoothest of criminals, keenly invested in the power of appearances. His rapid departure from The Murder of Gonzago is inventively staged, leading not to chaos but an uncomfortable pause; nobody in his court is accustomed to a spontaneous gesture. Jennifer Ehle is one of sleekest, most attractive Gertrudes in memory, so frankly carried away with lust for her attractive new husband that one must wonder what her first marriage was like. Luke Treadaway's Laertes is more adolescent than adult, unable to control himself when confronted with the loss of his loved ones. Peter Wight's Polonius is more pitiable than usual, defined by failing powers and ineffectual good will. Rintoul's Ghost is an implacable apparition, demanding revenge, his Player King eager to demonstrate his way with a speech. Ross Waiton is a bluntly amusing Gravedigger, smashing skulls for the sport of it. Kirsty Rider's Ophelia falls apart spectacularly, using her speech about flowers ("There's rosemary; that's for remembrance") to enumerate her many bruises, acquired during bouts of self-harm.

The production design neatly combines ancient and modern elements. Hildegard Bechtler's scenic design is an ancient stone pile freshened up with starkly contemporary furnishings and floor-to ceiling windows -- behind which, early on, we see the royal wedding, decorated with twinkle lights and white balloons; Bechtler's costumes lean on a minimalist chic aesthetic and a muted palette. Natasha Chivers' equally low-key lighting design creates the visual equivalent of a hush; it's an atmosphere where royal protocol prevails. Tal Yarden's video design flawlessly combines prepared sequences with live footage. Tom Gibbons' sound design keeps the action thoroughly intelligible, no small achievement in the cavernous armory.

The production does have its oddities. The use of Bob Dylan songs, including "One Too Many Mornings," "Things Have Changed," and "All Along the Watchtower," adroitly underscore Hamlet's feelings of alienation, but there may be too many of them, and Laura Marling's original music becomes intrusive, especially during the climax. Icke has interpolated a scene from the First Quarto, in which Gertrude realizes that Claudius is a villain, but it has little effect on her character. The scene in which Hamlet contemplates killing the conscience-wracked Claudius ("O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven") is staged face to face, which, if taken literally, would drastically alter the play's action; it's an unnecessarily jarring bit of business. And there is the nagging feeling that this gripping production must have been even more so in the relatively intimate confines of London's Almeida Theatre.

Still, this Hamlet is as fresh as a CNN breaking news alert, a devastating accounting of lives destroyed by the ripple effect of a single evil act. In the end, the only survivor is the Danish state, which goes forward, serenely, with a new set of players at its helm. For Hamlet, his family and friends, destroyed by greed and the thirst for revenge, the rest is silence. --David Barbour

(30 June 2022)

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