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London Theatre Reviews

SURVEILANCE STATE

By DIANE SNYDER

Four hours fly by in Robert Icke's electric, modern production.

It clocks in at just under four hours, yet the minutes fly by in the Almeida Theatre’s supple and superlative Hamlet. Andrew Scott, best known as the villainous Moriarty on Sherlock, tackles Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane with a quiet sadness that speaks volumes. But Robert Icke’s production is more than just a star vehicle. A rising talent known for lengthy stagings of classics like the Oresteia (three hours) and Uncle Vanya (three and a half), the young director finds fresh resonance in heart-baring moments.
 
Icke’s approach to the text is simple and straightforward – there’s no grandiose speechifying here – and the play is performed in modern dress, with music supplied by Bob Dylan recordings. Actors take their time getting through scenes, which partially accounts for the show’s length, but that’s fine. The time races by in this engrossing three-act, two-intermission production.
 
It features an elaborate video design from Tal Yarden (who frequently collaborates with deconstructionist director Ivo van Hove). Several scenes include a wall of video screens that, at the top of the play, broadcasts pre-filmed footage of the cast as the Danish royal family attending Hamlet Sr.’s funeral. It then becomes security monitors, where the Ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears. And it’s used for live video when Hamlet employs the traveling players to assess whether his uncle Claudius (Angus Wright) killed his father.
 
The audience for this play-within-a-play is seated in chairs placed just off the stage in the first row, and the scene culminates with a video camera projecting Claudius’ nervous oversize mug onto the screens. A similar scenario is repeated for the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes (Luke Thompson).  
 
This is a tech-savvy world that’s heavy on surveillance, both by electronic and more conventional means like eavesdropping. (Peter Wight’s Polonius wears a wire when he tries to suss out the source of Hamlet’s madness.) In fact, at times Hamlet seems to be fighting not only for his sanity but also his humanity in a society where privacy seems a rare commodity.
 
By contrast, there’s also a considerable amount of physical affection. The amorous relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay) is apparent as they kiss and embrace in their first scene, as is Hamlet’s past romance with Guildenstern, here played by a woman (Amaka Okafor). The morning after their wedding, Claudius and Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) are seen sprawled out on a couch in each other’s arms. And Icke inserts an addendum into the final scene, one that may dismay Shakespeare purists but that raises the emotional component.
 
This is an all-around electric production. There’s nothing delicate about Stevenson’s strong and sacrificing Gertrude or Brown Findlay’s Ophelia, who becomes a devastated, wheelchair-bound wreck after her father’s death. But it’s Scott’s carefully calibrated performance that is the centerpiece of Icke’s fiery psychodrama. The soft-spoken actor brings a brooding intensity to the part, which he’ll reprise when the production transfers to the West End in June.