Hamlet, as a play, brings to the surface a myriad of unavowed and repressed afflictions that have been inherent in the human psyche since the dawn of our first humble beginnings in the soil. Heated tensions bubble amidst a pretence of order and tradition, building and building, the sprays of liquid rage scattering across the floorboards as our protagonist falls to his knees and screams into the pitch black void of the unlit stage.
Andrew Scott is seemingly born to play the Danish prince, displaying the God like fury the character possesses which can at times look instead like mere childish tantrum, and rightly so. There are also times when he utters so quietly, so softly, that you need to lean in – but in their contrast these words are just as powerful. The intense outbursts of volume add a thrilling dynamic that leads us on Hamlet’s descent into madness. His silence is also unspeakably powerful. No moment is wasted with Scott, and it hitches your breath in your throat. Dare you breathe you might miss a syllable that we’re all so desperately hanging onto. Shakespeare’s lines have made a home on his tongue, bringing forward a fresh delivery – both delicate and bubbling with wrath.
Juliet Stevenson is phenomenal as Gertrude, watching her and Scott occupy a scene is electrifying. She is just as, if not more, intense than Hamlet and fabricates such an authentic performance that your spine is constantly riddled with chills. The pair perfectly illustrate the strange Oedipal tension between their mother and son, with each grasp and furious and loving touch. It is both unnerving and thrilling to behold such a duo clash in such an unorthodox fashion.
It’s so glaringly obvious in an intimate space such as Almeida why the theatre is an adored constituent of culture and why it has stood the test of time throughout millennia. It is well known that people live vicariously through fiction. Art is self-indulgent, and therefore, reflective, and the respective audience who come view the art and hold the art in high esteem can therefore see themselves in that mirror (‘to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature’). With theatre there is no divide between the fiction and you. There is no page, nor glass, nor pixel. Just real tangible human emotion. You see the blood in raised veins, the spit, the tears, the sweat.
Hamlet dragging off the bloodied corpse of Polonius, whom he has just killed in front of his own mother is just one of the stand-out scenes that projects the eerie illusion of verisimilitude, in this case, that we are looking at the aftermath of an actual murder. In this moment I forgot reality; that is the mark of a good play and a good performance.
Most of us have not suffered the unspeakable woes of familial murder and resulting conflicts, but we can wonder at what we would be capable of in such situations. More of us will have drifted towards the plight of madness and the sins and jealously the entrap and tangle our once moral hearts in the face of secret or unrequited love. Maybe this is where we start to take shape in the mirror, in our deepest and darkest, most denied part of ourselves.
Hamlet is a verified apocalyptic tempest, forces of pure resentment and binding love of blood spilling and swirling in the battlefield of power, madness, sanity and vengeance. Icke modernises the set but keeps Shakespeare’s words, bringing forth and shoving under our complacent and civilised noses the true complex and sinister potential of the human condition that still exists even today, but lies untouched and dormant.
Not just this, however, but we also see the altruistic part of our being. The self-sacrificing mother, giving her own life to save her murdering son’s ; the sheer and complete sorrow in the dead/undead embrace of Laertes and the late Ophelia as he forcibly removes her from the soil in which her body was laid to rest. Luke Thompson really comes into his own in the last two acts and is terrifyingly convincing in his role, wailing like a grieving banshee that has been grievously wronged by the hands of fate.
What is it then do we witness? The act of grasping for the mercy of God or the unfolding spectre of the Devil? The answer I would give, is none. We witness not deity nor demon but mankind projecting their own turmoils and unhinged desires onto polar imagery. No, to reduce people to one would be to curtail them of what makes them human. What we witness, then, is God and the Devil raging inside of them, and in turn, all of us.
There is an unparalleled and purging catharsis of watching the breakdown of several characters on stage for 3 1/2 hours, and one which is amplified in the Almeida. Its intimacy makes us feel that we are also undergoing the collective exorcism that Icke has orchestrated.
Set designer, Hildegard Bechtler, created a space in which we watch events unfold in a trio spaces divided by horizontal glass partitions that allow us to see through and also reflect what is occurring on stage. Eventually, these partitions become the threshold between life and death and not just sanity and madness. It is a clever piece of set design that not only utilises the space but adds poetic symbolism for separate selves and states of mind and being.
I had the pleasure of seeing this production twice, and got to witness alterations and changes to the performance develop. It showcased to me just how much theatre is a living and breathing art form with its own unqiue heartbeat, no two performances will be the same and that makes the one or ones you see that so much more special.
Each time I left the theatre with a deep set tremble in my entire body, and awe in my heart.