Under Watchful Eyes

William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Almeida Theatre / Harold Pinter Theatre, London (Director: Robert Icke)

By Sascha Krieger

Oh, yes, there surely is something wrong in the state of Denmark. When Robert Icke’s celebrated production of Hamlet opens, we see: screens. TV footage from the late king’s funeral, later the new king smiling into the cameras, a multitude of CCTV images. Whether security or media: surveillance is everwhere in this production – as it is in the play. For, isn’t Hamlet a long succession of people spying on each other, hasn’t the royal court at Elsinore always been a surveillance state? So, transporting the story of the grieving prince, trying but failing to revenge his slain father, into an age in which the camera eye is always present, in which fear and attention are the twin driving forces leading to a society in which everyone is transparent as glass, feels rather logical. And Angus Wright’s nonchalantly plain Claudius is a perfect present-day ruler: agreeable enough, not a sore sight when smiling into the cameras, he’s an accomplished politician, slick, charming, an astute user of the media, a fine political instinct, a ruthless opportunist who knows how to play the fear card. He hardly ever gets loud, he doesn’t have to. He has the power to pull the strings and he does so in a chillingly efficient way.

The Harold Pinter Theatre (Image: Sascha Krieger)

Around him, however, is a surprisingly uneasy group of aiders and abetters. Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay) and Guildenstern (Madeline Appiah) seem very unhappy about the roles they play and are repeatedly on the edge of refusing their orders. Which they never do making themselves even more guilty as they clearly know what they’re doing. Or take Polonius (Peter Wight): a kind old man, torn between love for his family and being caught in a system forcing him to function without any interfering individuality, there are hints at beginning dementia – or is it just the clash of the role and the real demanding payment? In the end, the machine keeps running because nobody resists it. Or if they do they’re made to pay. Ophelia, for example. Jessica Brown Findlay plays her first as a confident urban 20-something who with her wings broken becomes a stubborn rebel who call out society which doesn’t seem too unhappy when she’s gone. If there is a weakness in the production’s character cast, it’s Dearbhle Crotty. Having taken over from Juliet Stephenson as Gertrude half-way through the production, she remains a rather pale no-entity. A spineless facilitator which, after all, is quite fitting, too.

And Hamlet: In Andrew Scott’s hands, the „student prince“ is an overwhelmed millennial. The world at his disposal he struggles to comprehend the world’s complexity and, more importantly, to make sense of it. A quiet nervousness, a sense of bewilderment besets him from the very start. His eyes searches, his body, his hands try to grasp, his voice carefully, confusedly feels its way through the darkness. His speaking is rich with pauses, silence not just being the „rest“, but the glue of this production. A human’s search for meaning, for action, for worth is what this Hamlet is and one hears the desire for a life that has meaning at its loudest when there’s no sound at all. Hildegard Bechtler’s slick modernist set has a fore- and a background, often separating the public from the private, the fake from the real but remaining quite ambivalent. For when Scott’s Hamlet, eager to shed his mask of quiet bewilderment, acts out, makes his life a stage, lashes out at the world with glee, a sure-fire sense of irony and confidence in his effect, is he not just playing the game of the media-savvy power set, isn’t he trying to outwit them on their own ground. So, are „real“ and „fake“ even separable? And do they matter, as the shiny surface is just a tiny contraction in a rough brick universe exhibiting the raw violence that lurks behind the efficiency of media-driven politics?

Andrew Scott’s Hamlet is, as almost every reviewer has remarked, a highly emotional one. And yet, the production has a rather cold, somewhat distant feel to it. At the same time it appears quite intimate, even after transferring from the tiny Almeida stage to the larger one of the Harold Pinter Theatre. How does all this go together? It does because the world this Hamlet is located in is highly fragmented. The religion of efficiency, the politics of power, the need to play the media flawlessly has created a breed of people intent on functioning, feeling guilty (as Gertrude and Claudius do after succumbing to passion) when they reveal there’s something beneath the surface. So they make sure nobody sees.

Hamlet’s only way of rebelling and resisting is to be the opposite. So he veers between utter bewilderment, tragic confusion and playing the unassimilated, the individual, the ego-driven. And theatre, that place of (self-)expression, is his outlet. It is fitting that the two stages, the „real“ one and that within the play merge at some point. The two Hamlets don’t. As he searches for, examines every word, wonders what they mean, it reflects his look on the world. The search for something true, something real in a world of make-belief. He won’t find it and ends up in the roles he’s expected to play, under society’s ever watchful soulless eye. Madman. Hero. Victim. There is an element of the fool (not only but also exhibited in the fine gravedigger scene) about him, of the drily sarcastic satirist, knowing about his powerlessness.  In the end, as Hamlet is dying and those around him have already done so, the duality of the opening is recreated. In the foreground, a brooding, lost Hamlet, behind the glass a forgetfully splendid party, all surface and no substance. This is where he’s going, the final frontier he’s crossing. The „undiscovered country“ is painfully familiar, the afterworld a bland cocktail party. Oh, what a bittersweet and splendid irony.

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