Robert Icke’s Hamlet is so absolutely stacked with ideas and original takes that someone could produce an annotated edition of the play based on it. After a single viewing, I have almost 40 pages of notes, and I have no idea how to turn those into anything like a “review.”
I’ll try and start with some broad general statements, but I won’t be able to keep that up. Inevitably, this post will wind up as an essay of sorts. It’s also going to be jam-packed with spoilers, so be forewarned.
Here’s the most fundamental point: Icke is a deeply committed theatrical realist. The people he puts on stage get to behave like people, they have lives, and their own bodies, and their own voices, and tics, and habits, and stories, and preoccupations, and so on. They don’t get to hide behind the play or the production: their presence is the production, even when it is mediated through a camera and projected onto one of the numerous screens in the house or the big multi-panel screen suspended over the set. But then, undermining but also, strangely (incredibly, really) reaffirming that realist logic, Icke has those actors speak words that follow a very different poetic and representational logic, and not merely because they come from a world far removed from the one these characters and their actors inhabit. The effect is utterly extraordinary, but very difficult to describe. Partly, it’s a matter of attitude: every word matters. Actors here don’t get to give voice to Shakespeare and disappear into the sacred text — they have to say the words because those are the words they, or the characters, choose or happen to say. Every utterance becomes a discovery, a first encounter. A few examples:
In Hamlet’s first soliloquy, “heaven and earth/Must I remember?” is not just an exclamation, but almost a lament: he does not want to remember, but memories force themselves upon him — and the line that follows then is one such memory. We get to witness Hamlet (or so Andrew Scott’s performance suggests) having that memory, and how much it pains him that he must recall his mother’s former attachment to his father. There is no separation here between Shakespeare’s language and the emotional turmoil Scott embodies: he speaks a mental state into being, but he also seems to experience the thing the language only reflects; the words are as necessary, as unanticipated, as uncalled-for, as the emotional experience they both create and express. (That’s very abstract, but I hope it’ll become clearer as I go.)
“There is a kind of confession in your looks”: there is nothing “modern” about that statement, even if it isn’t in verse. But how Scott says it makes it sound as if it were. It’s not just a “conversational quality” to the speaking of early modern language. It’s the forging of an inevitable-seeming connection between a particular intention or desire or idea on the character’s part and these particular words. He could be saying “your faces are giving you away” — he sounds as if he’s saying just that — but he doesn’t, and he isn’t, and if he did, half of what makes this such a remarkable production would be missing. That’s the heart of Icke’s theatrical enterprise, it seems to me: making real people say things real people don’t say, and really mean them. Combining the strangeness of an old, poetically heightened language with performances so detailed, so present, so familiar that they almost, but not quite, make you forget just how strange the language is.
And it’s not just Hamlet. The entire cast works like this. They all speak with the inevitability of real speech. And they listen, too, as if they hadn’t heard the others’ words before. Thus Ophelia of course laughs at Hamlet calling her a “nymph.” And of course both her and Laertes can echo and chorus Polonius’s “precepts,” precisely because those words they’ve heard before. And of course Laertes doesn’t just say “Drowned? Oh, where?” in response to the news of his sister’s death — instead, it’s “Drowned?” “Oh.” “Where?”, and so, so much happens in those pauses. The incomprehensibility of the news, first. The slow devastation of understanding second. The impossibility of responding to that understanding third. And the almost random decision to say something, to ask anything after that: what else can you ask? “How?” “When?” Or worst, “why?” I’d never heard that question sound quite so hollow, so desperate, so necessary.
“To be or not to be”: there’s a speech I had no desire to ever hear again in a theatre. I long for productions gutsy enough to cut it (Icke at least moves it, to pretty much where it appears in the first quarto of 1601). I’ve seen more or less interesting renditions of it. But I’d never before witnessed an actor “doing” that speech in a way that made me believe that he (or she) hadn’t memorized it. Scott did that. “The dread of………. SOMETHING …. after death”: Hamlet seemed genuinely stumped for an answer, an idea, an image of just what that “something” might be. By the same token, the idea that death is just like sleep holds such promise, such delight when it first occurs to him, every iteration of the word (four of them in six lines of text) happier then the next; and even dreaming seems like a pleasant thought — until he realizes just what the rub might be, and then neither dreams nor sleep is such a hopeful concept anymore. But the commitment to the moment is so absolute, the rigour with which Scott refuses to look ahead to what will come later in the text; so fully does he manage to isolate himself from the knowledge of where the thought will later go, to keep the future idea unanticipated before it arrives; or, perhaps more technically, his ability to isolate the present utterance from the influence of that future development is so complete that we get to watch Hamlet work his way through the argument as if it weren’t the tritest, most familiar piece of Shakespeare around, or just about (poor Jacques), and as if it hadn’t already been an unoriginal and derivative set of thoughts when Shakespeare first put them in Hamlet’s mouth.
I could go on and on about this single point, and its permutations over the course of the evening. Take Ophelia’s “mad” scenes: those lines are so easily dismissed as allusive ravings, not devoid of meaning, of course, but the stream of consciousness of a deranged mind. So many productions give Ophelia something expressive to do with her body, too, and she becomes a portrait of distraction, a mind and person thrown into chaos and disarray by grief, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Jessica Brown Findlay, by contrast, takes everything Ophelia says and sings extremely seriously — a focus underscored by the fact that her body, strapped to a wheel chair for most of the first scene, is taken out of the equation to such an extent that Ophelia is almost reduced to a voice. But there’s a difference here: whereas all the other characters may be lost for words at times, surprised by a thought for which they can’t immediately find the proper expression, surprised even by the words that come out of their mouths and forced to respond to themselves, Ophelia here seems to know exactly what she wants to say, but has lost the ability to say it — and she knows it. “And we cast away moan” becomes a bitter accusation, spoken with an absolute seriousness that signals that although Ophelia may be cut off from more conventional modes of communication, that won’t stop her trying. She only has the words she has: but she is going to give them all the meaning she can.
Ah. That became specific and non-general pretty quickly. Let me get back to some broad statements.
The texture of time is denser and more present in this production than in any other Hamlet I’ve seen: if something isn’t out of joint in this world, it’s time. Rearranging the scenes a bit, bringing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore a good deal earlier than in any of early texts, before Hamlet has even encountered his father’s ghost yet, Icke rebuilds most of the first two acts as the events of a single night, the night of Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding — a night that ends when the ambassador from Norway makes a teleconferencing appearance unpleasantly early in the morning. But everything up to that point is a coherent movement, the action playing both downstage, on the audience side of the large sliding windows that bisect the set from left to right, and on the other side of those windows, in a narrow corridor between two set of panes or in the space between them and the back wall — a space that can be either more public than the downstage area (when it’s a garden full of wedding guests and dancers) or more private (when it’s a bathroom in which Hamlet surprises Ophelia while she is having a bath). And because time is so compressed and so specific, the contrasts of those early scenes become all the starker: Claudius and Gertrude, obviously in love, barely able to keep their hands off each other (and why should they?), dancing, getting drunk, chatting and laughing with their guests, on the one hand; on the other, Hamlet, almost always alone, rescued from his isolation only intermittently by Horatio, by Ophelia, by Gertrude, by Claudius (!), and, most crucially, by his father’s ghost.
There is something in that isolation that emerges as one of the production’s central themes: Icke’s is a determinedly non-Oedipal reading of the play, with a Hamlet that has no desire to take his father’s place but only wants his old nuclear family back; a child that finds himself with a new father he doesn’t want and a mother whose sexualized body he can’t accept. Hamlet has lost his father twice over, first when Old Hamlet died, and after that, when Claudius lays claim to the name itself. Thus, when he tells Horatio, “methinks I see my father,” he looks through the balcony doors at Claudius — or perhaps at his own reflection in the window pane. His old family unit destroyed, Hamlet remains unmoored from the one that has taken its place, with even the basic vocabulary of familial relationships crumbling: the very word “father” no longer has a clear referent.
This sense of Hamlet as cut off from interpersonal relationships is only made the starker by how richly detailed all the other relationships in the production are. Right off the top, we see Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes huddled together in comfortable proximity on the stage-left sofas, with Claudius addressing them not in a public speech, but using his indoor voice, in a private conversation about family matters. Only Hamlet sits apart, so withdrawn that Claudius doesn’t even want to address him right away, and shifts his attention to Laertes instead. It’s a theatrically audacious privacy, this — it’s genuinely surprising to hear Shakespeare spoken with so little outward address, in such a low-key tone; it’s also a brittle privacy that can turn into a photo op at a moment’s notice. But it establishes the private and, perhaps more importantly, the familial, as the focal point of the production. It’s not that the political world is irrelevant (far from it), but the political is grounded in and complicated by the dynamics of the household.
Take Claudius and Gertrude. They are obviously, lovelily, in love — they dance, they cuddle, they kiss, they can’t keep their hands off each other; after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s arrival, Claudius playfully tugs Gertrude by the low-isn-cut back of her dress to get her off stage. But theirs is also a professional relationship, and in that relationship, Claudius is the novice, Gertrude the pro. Thus she, who has been queen for much longer than he has been king, is clearly a bit embarrassed by the playful PDA — because as soon as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter the royal living room, it’s no longer a private space, and king and queen no longer just a pair of giggly newly-weds. Claudius, though, is still finding his sea legs in this world; he’s still figuring out this kinging business. The initial briefing of Hamlet’s friends plays like a bit of a tutorial, or a practice run, with Gertrude modelling how it’s done and gently correcting Claudius’ missteps: the well-worn joke about their names has real purpose all of a sudden! This continues when the Norwegian ambassador calls in (and Claudius doesn’t know how to work the video chat), and in the exchange with Polonius right after, when Claudius keeps glancing at Gertrude before responding to his counsellor. Gertrude’s competence, her position as a centre of authority in court and family, remains a constant throughout the show: in the very last scene, when Hamlet begs Laertes for forgiveness, he is responding to his mother’s prompt — and he checks in with her as he is pleading, exactly as Claudius did earlier: both men keep looking to Gertrude for affirmation that they’re getting things right.
I’ll come back to the royal family in a moment, but they’re not the only familial unit in the play. This is an obvious point to make, but one easily missed, and one I’ve rarely seen emphasized on stage: it’s not just Laertes who’s a foil for Hamlet, the entire Polonius-Laertes-Ophelia family is a foil for the royals, and notably, also a family that is missing one (biological) parent. And the Polonii really are a family in this production. Laertes and Ophelia are physically very close, they banter and joke around, he’s half-embarrased to tell her to stay away from Hamlet and hardly gets the words out; and both of them have a close bond with their father, similarly jokey, similarly physical. There is a tenderness and care in this relationship that counters the paternalistic commands both brother and father issue; in 1.3, Ophelia initially seems irritated with her father, but then it becomes apparent that he is unwell — he clutches his forehead and briefly stammers — and her concern for him wins over: this is a frail Polonius, one whose mind is beginning to fail him, and it’s that frailty rather than his paternal authority that his daughter responds to. That relationship is altered, if not quite reversed, in 2.2, when Ophelia enters wearing nothing but a long t-shirt. We have just seen Hamlet surprise her in the bath (he pulled her arm, but from where I was sitting, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on), and she is obviously badly shaken; seeking out her father for comfort, she nonetheless shrinks from his touch. The family as a source of succour is only restored once Polonius wraps her in his jacket — thus covered and sheltered, she allows him to hold her.
But something is registered in that first reaction to her father’s hand that signals a corrosive shift in the meaning of touch. This is an exceptionally touchy-feely production of Hamlet, certainly by British standards. But as things deteriorate, touch loses its positive associations, even its innocence. It becomes a means of either violence or sexual predation. Consider Hamlet and Laertes: they hug good-bye when Laertes leaves for Paris in Act 1 (another gesture I don’t recall seeing before); when they next meet, by Ophelia’s grave, Laertes reached out for Hamlet’s throat, as if to reassure himself that he is real, and then grabs at him, violently; and of course their reconciliation is accomplished through a return to a non-violent form of contact, another embrace. Icke does something in that moment that struck me as totally original: usually, Laertes’ line about his foil (“This is too heavy. Let me see another.”) is played as a betrayal. He hasn’t actually forgiven Hamlet. The embrace was an empty gesture, and he now receives the poisoned foil from Osric. Not so here. “Let me see another” is Laertes’ attempt to get out of the deal he has made with Claudius: he wants to rid himself of the prepared weapon, exchange it for a harmless one. But no-one responds to his plea. Forced to play a match in which his touch is deadly, Laertes does as little as possible; he basically throws the fight (which is why Claudius, who sees what he’s doing, is so very eager to get Hamlet to drink the poisoned wine). That he ultimately does cut Hamlet comes as a shock: Hamlet responds with a startled squeal and instantly retaliates, by also nicking Laertes with the same blade; but it’s not exactly a vicious gesture, more like an instinctive retaliatory response. (Why does Laertes wound Hamlet at all? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s simply that with Gertrude poisoned, the end is in sight anyway — he is just speeding things up. If they are all going to die, one way or another, he might as well own his guilt. Is that it? I don’t know. The moment has never been this enigmatic for me, but it’s an interesting enigma, and one that fits with this production’s general refusal to produce easy answers and obvious solutions.)
Think I’m overstating the meaning of touch in the show? Here are two incomplete catalogues of two central gestures, embraces and holding hands.
I’ve talked about some of the hugs already. After the wedding night, they’re rarely if ever positive or even neutral. Ophelia’s attempt to embrace Hamlet in the nunnery scene, to calm him down (as she did in Act 1), are unsuccessful, merely escalate his anger; in the closet scene, Hamlet hurls himself on top of his mother, a ghastly version of Claudius and Gertrude falling asleep entwined on the sofa earlier, but also of the many familial embraces of earlier scenes; in Act 4, the bear-hug Hamlet gives his uncle-father makes as much of a mockery of the gesture as his words (“farewell, dear mother”); a little later, when Ophelia is brought on in a wheelchair to meet Laertes, he tries to embrace her, but she clasps her legs around him, and the old gesture of sibling love turns into something obscene; the next time we see them together, he is pulling her corpse from the grave in an equally obscene, more ghoulish version of the loving touch that seems to have become impossible.
Holding hands may be an even more pervasive, and even more charged, gesture. It’s what Hamlet does when he meets his father’s ghost — a very embodied ghost, this, and a return not just of the fatherly voice, but the longed-for familial touch. When the ghost reappears in the closet scene and sits on the sofa, Hamlet sits down next to him, holding his hand; and when Gertrude joins them, deeply concerned for his son’s sanity (no, this Gertrude does not see her late husband’s spirit), Hamlet pulls her hand across his body, desperately trying to make his mother and father’s hands connect again. The very same effort will reoccur at the end of the play, with Hamlet trying to link Gertrude’s and Old Hamlet’s hands again (more about that later). And if Hamlet’s desire for the rebirth of his old family finds its most poignant expressions in this attempts at reconnection, his revulsion at his mother’s new marriage is similarly figured through the touch of hands: as he is dying, Claudius is reaching out for Gertrude’s outstretched arm, trying to die hand in hand with her — but Hamlet pushes him away, moves his mother out of reach.
It’s unclear that Gertrude would have wanted Claudius to touch her hand at this point. After she has drunk the poisoned wine, he can barely focus on the fight anymore and keeps trying to make eye-contact with her. But Gertrude has been withdrawing for a while. (I said I’d come back to the royal family, didn’t I? The moment has arrived.) Juliet Stevenson plays her as a highly accomplished negotiator of the line between the private and the public, between the demands of her family and those the role as a royal figure of authority make on her. Claudius’s clumsier handling of that divide is a challenge, but one she can handle; Hamlet is a much more troubling problem. During the closet scene, it seems that the power relations between mother and son have shifted, that Hamlet, physically manhandling her, pushing her around, pulling his gun on her, yelling at her, has forced her to submit to his will. But as soon as he leaves the room — pulling, dragging, rolling Polonius corpse through the door, panting and coughing — Gertrude’s composure breaks. Gulping air hysterically (the “profound heaves” Claudius comments on — yet another line that is fully realized on stage!), clutching at her clothes and the floor, she welcomes her husband’s arrival, turning to him as her confidant and a source of comfort; her account of Hamlet’s madness sounds genuine, and genuinely distraught. Far from following along with what she’d promised her son, she’s not lying about Hamlet’s mental state to disguise the fact that he is really only “mad in craft” — she is clearly convinced that he is delusional, and that the scene she has just witnessed was a product of his madness. The question then becomes what to do with that knowledge, and how to negotiate her position in the conflict between her husband and her son.
That Hamlet is a danger is just objectively true: Claudius’ assessment that “It had been so with us, had we been there” is accurate, and both he and Gertrude are right to be alarmed. Removing that danger from Denmark might not be a intolerable solution for either queen or mother. But Gertrude’s allegiance shifts once she learns of Claudius’ real purpose — in a scene Icke incorporates from the first quarto of Hamlet, in which Horatio informs the queen of what has happened to her son abroad. After that, there is a new distance between Gertrude and Claudius. Stevenson’s rendition of the narrative of Ophelia’s death turns into a virtual reenactment, as she presses her back against the blue expanse of the upstage glass wall, her arms spread out, her voice giving the reported suicide an almost alluring quality: it is as if Gertrude herself is tempted to choose Ophelia’s way out. Whatever happens next, it will happen on her terms, not on Claudius’: when he exits with “let’s follow,” she does not. And when she takes the poisoned cup, she looks right at her husband, holding his hand as she drinks. She seems to know precisely what she is doing, but the gesture is massively complicated nonetheless. After all, from the perspective of statecraft (or “national security”), having Hamlet killed might be best for Denmark. It is from the perspective of a parent that it is unbearable. But given Gertrude’s skill at negotiating those two sides of her identity, does she in fact allow one to bleed into the other here? Or is she making her quietus, removing herself from a situation in which her private and her political interests can no longer be reconciled? The production, in which Gertrude and Claudius ultimately end up dancing in an Edenic version of their wedding night, upstage, behind those glass walls, seems to suggest that in the play’s universe, or in someone’s dying fantasy, there is a realm beyond these conflicts, where lovers can be reunited once the worldly things that tore them apart are gone.
Family is a key preoccupation of the production, and the entire evening is patterned by fantasies of family life as well as pragmatic attempts to re-establish coherent family structures (what else is Claudius’ effort to get Hamlet to accept him as his new father?). Icke turns the play-within-the-play into yet another such fantasy, and an extraordinarily charming one at that: instead of the expected dumb-show, what we get is the Player King (David Rintoul, doubling as the Ghost) and his Queen (Marty Cruickshank) acting out a pantomime vision of the nuclear family, from marriage to child-birth, to teenagedom (complete with Father Player giving his invisible child a playful noogie), to both parents waving their presumably university-bound child goodbye. Set to Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” it’s an utterly captivating sequence, a glimpse into the life Hamlet would like to imagine for himself — so enthralling that it’s easy to forget that it’s also a vision that sets strict limits on his mother’s emotional life. Family fantasies are not just complicated by politics in Icke’s production: they also, explicitly, come at the price of controlling the actions of everyone in those families, especially the women.
There is much more to be said on this, but I’ll move on (not without quickly noting, though, that the Gravedigger — there’s only one — becomes yet another father figure, sitting side by side with Hamlet, teaching him life and death lessons). What else?
This is not a Hamlet hampered by existential doubt. It’s a post-truth Hamlet. More often than not, productions of this play take a stance: the ghost is real or it’s not; Hamlet is mad or he’s not; Gertrude knows what Claudius has done or she does not; and so on. To my mind, this show doesn’t do any of those things. It deliberately leaves those questions open. I don’t know if this Claudius killed Hamlet’s father. I don’t know if Hamlet saw a ghost or fantasized one. I don’t know if the production believes in an afterlife or not. I’m fairly certain that if Claudius murdered Old Hamlet, Gertrude wasn’t in on the plot — but I’m not completely sure. And if the show leaves its audience frustrated, it certainly doesn’t make things any easier for Hamlet himself.
There are a number of moments in the play that conventionally — and arguably, following Shakespeare’s lead — establish bedrocks for truth. In the nunnery scene, the assumption normally is that Hamlet either knows early on that he and Ophelia are being watched, or that he figures it out in the course of the scene; it’s the knowledge of Ophelia’s betrayal of his trust that makes him turn on her. But that’s not how the quest for truth turns out in Icke’s take on that scene.It starts with real tenderness: “well, well, well,” and each well comes with a kiss. Hamlet and Ophelia on the sofa, hand in hand, and it looks as if we’re back in a world where touch is comfort. Not so. Hamlet is ill at ease. He keeps looking over his shoulder, behind her; he feels her shoulders and chest, but he’s not caressing her: is he looking for a wire? (The gesture seems to echo Michael Almereyda’s film of the play, where Hamlet discovers at this point that Ophelia is wearing a wire.) Failing to find anything, he begins verbally testing her: “I loved you not” is an effort to spark a reaction, to get her to betray herself. Then he seems to momentarily recover his trust, in her if not their surroundings; he almost whispers his self-doubts (“arrant knaves” and all that). But that does not last: “Where’s your father” is another test, as it almost always is. Findlay’s Ophelia’s response, though, is anything but standard: it’s almost illegible. Is her “at home, my lord” a lie? A wishful fantasy? Is she on the brink of tears because Hamlet is refusing to trust or her because she knows he’s right not to? And as hard as she might be to read for us, with the benefit of knowing what do and Hamlet does not, she is even harder to decipher for him: he stares at her and stares, but can’t decide. He appears to believe her, softens for a moment, but then looks behind the curtains anyway. Except there’s no-one there: surveillance in this show’s world does not require physical presence. Hamlet gets angry then, desperate, but it’s not the righteous anger of a betrayed lover: it’s the boundless frustration of an investigator incapable of distinguishing falsehood from truth.
If Ophelia’s face remains impossible to parse, the same is true of Claudius’. It’s extraordinary, really: Icke doesn’t just give Hamlet the second pair of eyes Shakespeare provides in Horatio; he gives him a camera pointed at Claudius throughout the Mousetrap, and the ability to rewind the tape and freeze-frame it in the very moment of recognition. But it’s precisely because the means of surveillance are so much more precise that the pointlessness of observation becomes evident: Claudius’ face, in close up, enormous on the multi-screen panel above the set, reveals nothing. It is a face justly annoyed by a play about a widowed queen and a murdered king, but it is not a face radiating guilt. (Nor did watching Claudius on that same screen during the performance help: the camera frames him and Hamlet in profile, united on screen if not in real life, and showed Hamlet’s glee at the performance as well as Claudius’ barely suppressed anger — a mere twitch of his cheek muscles. But at no point did his composure slip; when the murder happens, he simply gets up walks across the playing area and exits, leaving the rest of his court behind in puzzled and stunned silence. But what is there in that?) Hamlet fast forwards through the tape to find the frame he thinks will show it all, and when he gets there, he acts as if he now has proof. But Angus Wright’s face up there matches Hamlet’s conviction so poorly that his certainty reads as delusion. Icke’s Hamlet knows Macbeth: there is “no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face.”
Shakespeare, of course, confirms that Hamlet is right to trust his eyes right after this scene, when he lets us hear Claudius’ private confession of guilt. Icke doesn’t give us that satisfaction, in a take on the prayer scene that has puzzled critics (and prompted Andrew Haydon to offer an ingenious reading that I find largely compelling). The first part of Claudius’ soliloquy seems straightforward enough: Hamlet is on stage with him, pointing his gun at the king, but he’s not in the light; Claudius, stage right, is. And Wright plays the soliloquy as we have seen Hamlet do it, partly to himself, partly to the audience; but he never speaks directly at Hamlet, only ever past him. (That is where the similarities end, though. Unlike Hamlet, Claudius is not discovering these thoughts afresh. Wright delivers them with a speed and a routine that makes the litany of doubt seem like the actual prayer: these aren’t new thoughts, not things he’s only just figuring out or puzzling through, but familiar preoccupations.) But then the light changes, and the scene becomes Hamlet’s, reflecting on why he should not kill Claudius in the middle of his prayers. And then, another change of focus: Claudius finally looks right at his step-son, speaks his final couplet, the lines about the pointlessness of his praying, and throws his arms open in a “come-at-me”-style challenge. And the lights snap off.
What to make of that scene? To my mind, it’s key that the show establishes early on that physical presence is no guarantee that something is real, just as mere virtual presence is no sign that something is false. A ghost here doesn’t just have a body, he has a tangible presence: he can be embraced, he can amble, he can sit on a sofa, he can hold your hand. That’s not helpful if what we wanted were a clear division between fantasy and reality, between this world and the next: they all look exactly the same in Icke’s production. (And that’s smart, of course: if fantasies could easily be distinguished from reality, no-one would believe their own fantasies….) But once that has been established, all bodies on stage in theory lose their ability to stand reliably for real people — in particular when the lighting suggests that something not-quite-real is going on. But what is that not-quite-real thing? As I said before, this is not a show that is particularly interested in giving clear answers; Icke stares down the post-truth dilemma, he doesn’t explain it away. The reading the scene doesn’t readily allow is a straightforwardly literal ones: this isn’t Hamlet watching, but not hearing, Claudius, nor is it Claudius being overheard while unaware of Hamlet’s presence. But is it all Hamlet’s fantasy? I’m not so sure. I quite like the idea that we’re shuttling back and forth between Claudius’ and Hamlet’s mind, with Hamlet’s presence in the beginning and the end a kind of personification of his step-father’s guilty conscience, and Hamlet’s speech in the middle something like his brain trying to justify not taking action, still, against his own earlier certainty, unsure of the truth of things. But that reading would too easily give us access to the truth of Claudius’ guilt — and such easy access is not what this production is about. In a way, any interpretation of this moment that reduces it to one thing or another might be missing the point: making it impossible to decide, frustrating our desire for confirmation of what is true and what false, may be precisely the goal of this staging.
The same applies to the ghost: for everyone but for Hamlet, he is largely a digital artefact, appearing on security camera feeds but not, except for the briefest of moments, in the flesh. But does that mean he is a fantasy of Hamlet’s disturbed mind? Even if that were so, could he not, in the logic of dreams, speak truth? (That’s to say: even if the production would let us decide that the ghost is definitely not real, that still wouldn’t settle the question of whether Claudius did or did not kill Hamlet’s father.) It’s certainly true that in a world as modern, as clean-cut, as media-saturated as this Hamlet‘s, a ghost is a strange narrative misfit. Or is he? Is a CGI version of Peter Cushing not something like a ghost? In a way, the most anachronistic aspect of this Old Hamlet might be that he is not merely a virtual reality representation, but an embodied person wandering around the stage.
The play ends with a final fantasy. Or perhaps it ends with a vision of a delightful paradise. I don’t know, I don’t think I can know, and I think that’s the point. Here’s what happens: as Hamlet is dying, his father opens the sliding doors upstage. Through them, we see the set from the wedding night, fairy lights and greenery and a honey-coloured glow; in it, Polonius and Ophelia are dancing. But Hamlet cannot join them. Ophelia spins away from her father: she is wearing a wedding dress. Laertes, dying, is asking Hamlet’s forgiveness; then he approaches the ghost, gives him his watch, and is let into the garden, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dancing too. Claudius follows him; as he passes him, Hamlet briefly grabs hold of his hand. “Wretched queen, adieu” — and Gertrude rises and goes to the door, though Hamlet again tries to link her hand and his fathers as she tries to pass. But she doesn’t take it: no matter what happened to Old Hamlet in life, Gertrude’s afterlife will be with Claudius, whom she joins in the garden.
What is this scene? If it is Hamlet’s fantasy, it’s an odd kind of wish-fulfilment. The return to his old family is not going to happen, in this world or the next. If his vision of eternal bliss is marriage to Ophelia, I suppose the vision holds that promise: lots of happy couples. And Laertes and Polonius. Or perhaps it is someone else’s dream vision, or maybe a collectively imagined alternative scenario, a sketch of what might have been if the future Gertrude briefly (and, to Laertes, unexpectedly, shockingly) envisages by Ophelia’s grave, of Hamlet and Ophelia married, had come to pass. And maybe it is not an altogether untroubled fantasy: it seems significant to me how reminiscent the vision is of the wedding scene in Simon Stone’s Yerma, also in a garden, behind glass, with fairy lights and dancing — but a scene of delusion and the prelude to disaster.
One thing is definitely real: the theatre. The warmth of the staging of that scene. The comfort it radiates. But we all know that the theatre’s reality is never the real thing, is always true only in being false. In a production obsessed with surfaces that don’t reveal as much as they seem to promise, with a reality that lies like truth (this really is Hamlet read through Macbeth), I can’t believe we’re meant to trust the tangible optimism of that upstage paradise. That’s why it seems important that Hamlet never gets there, in the most Hamlet way possible: he just won’t stop talking. He stands, monologuing after announcing “I am dead;” and although he undoes his sleeve, as if to take of his watch, his mouth won’t stop (even Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee,” the soundtrack to the scene, underlines his ambivalence about leaving). But then his father puts a hand on his shoulder, and of course Hamlet responds to that — it’s touch: “But let it be.” Has he missed the moment, though? The lights go off upstage; the ghost slides the door shut, nearly shut. Then he slips out through the remaining opening. Hamlet sounds light now, almost happy, as he moves to follow, even if “the rest is silence” is tinged with regret. But he stays on our side of the doorway as collapses, in Horatio’s arms, and dies. What about those flights of angels? Did he hear them sing? Why were all the other bodies allowed to disappear, and only Hamlet had to remain behind? Where exactly are we supposed to draw the line between fantasy and reality, between truth and lie? (The most pat answer possible, that everything was Hamlet’s imagination, is available, sure: but its precisely the strength of this show that it leaves room for simple and complex scenarios without tipping its hand in favour of any of them.)
In any case, the vision of paradise is an intensely private one: a kind of anti-carpe-diem fantasy, it dreams of a grave in which people do in fact embrace, and a place where they are nothing but someone else’s loved ones. The conflict between private and public has disappeared there. Which is why it matters that Icke’s evening does not end with Hamlet’s death, but with another projection of a virtual reality — with Horatio and Fortinbras on the big screen, with Hamlet as a Denmark’s male Diana, seas of flowers and a royal funeral, and a new day in Danish politics. There are no bodies left to govern over: they have literally all disappeared, the only place human beings can be seen on that stage now is on a TV monitor. But that does not mean that society has ended, that the private, the familial space that Hamlet so longs for, has won over. If anything, in this world devoid of human bodies, society and its medial representation is the only thing left.
I think I’m almost done now. Not that I don’t have more to say. I haven’t nearly exhausted my notes. In fact, I need to add one more, which I could have fit in somewhere above, but which deserves its own spot. Peter Wight’s faux drying. I have heard of Poloniuses who embrace the opportunity the text offers an actor in 2.1:
REYNALDO Very good, my lord.
POLONIUS And then, sir, does he this, he does—what was I about to say? By the Mass, I was about to say something. Where did I leave?
REYNALDO At “closes in the consequence,” at “friend, or so,” and “gentleman.”
But I have never myself witnessed an actor dare do what Wight does in that moment. He’s just about to show Reynaldo his impression of a Frenchman: apparently the impression requires spectacles. He pulls out his glasses, pauses, says “he does” — and stops. Just freezes. The silence is absolutely endless: I’m sure it was a least a minute of nothing. It’s unbelievably tense. Everyone around me was leaning forward, frozen. The entire room seemed to have stopped breathing. Then Wight finally mutters something, and that only makes it worse: he seems to have actually forgotten his lines. Of course he has not. And in the end, the effect of that intense identification with the actor’s apparent predicament redounds to the character, making Polonius a figure of pathos and pity rather than merely of ridicule. But like so much of this production, it’s a moment poised on the edge between reality and fiction: it teases us with the touch of the real, even if that real would actually be a breakdown of performance, the (temporary) end to the enterprise we are ostensibly in the theatre for. We’re at the outer limits of realism there, the boundary the realist project cannot cross without failing.
The intellectual and theatrical rigour of this show is, of course, to its director’s credit. But I think it would be a bad mistake to think that work of this quality can be credited to one mind alone. What is as remarkable about Rob Icke’s work, to me, is that he is building an informal ensemble of actors with whom he has now collaborated on up to three major shows, from his Oresteia and Uncle Vanya to this year’s Mary Stuart and now this Hamlet. Andrew Scott’s performance is extraordinary, but I have seen extraordinary Hamlet’s before; what makes this one so truly remarkable is its ensemble work, the consistency of approach and commitment and attention across the entire cast and the aesthetics of acting and design. And that doesn’t come out of the blue, it can’t happen overnight. It requires growth over time, it requires the building of a shared vocabulary and a shared set of experiences, a familiarity with other performers’ instincts and habits, boundaries and freedoms. Or so it seems to me. I haven’t witnessed Icke and his actors work in rehearsal, of course. But it is obvious to me that one of the reasons they can work at such a high level of detail and cohesion in this production is that many of them have spent a truly unusual amount of time acting and exploring together, or at least working together with the same director, on similarly detailed and probing productions. I would imagine that there is a shorthand now, a reduced need to spell things out, a trust that’s already established before rehearsals begin — all of which leaves time and space and energy for exploring things and questions that many other productions never get around to, because they have to begin by building relationships from scratch. And under those kinds of conditions, even actors who aren’t part of that core ensemble, such as Peter Wight, probably feel secure, supported enough, to dare the tightrope act of that long, long silence.
So, I want to end this encomium to an unforgettable evening at the theatre not with a salute to Rob Icke as a director, but as an ensemble-builder, and to the Almeida for making this kind of work possible. There are many things about this show that feel superficially “European” — and seeing Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies a day after this Hamlet certainly allowed me to see that Icke is paying homage to van Hove in some regards (every Dylan song, of which there are many, is a little tip of the hat). But in its deep commitment to realism, in its determination to give the text new life by speaking it, letting it live, but not significantly altering it, and in its discipline, this is a show that could only have been staged in the English-speaking world, and probably only in Britain. However, the cohesion of the cast, the depth of detail? That is a quality I rarely see here, and often experience in Germany. In that regard, there is a deeper similarity between Roman Tragedies and this Hamlet: both shows profoundly depend on actors who trust and rely on each other. Both shows are difficult to imagine without an ensemble ethos. In that sense, the achievement of this show goes beyond itself: it is a demonstration of the extraordinary things that can happen if the work of actors and directors is properly supported.
Postscript bonus: during the second interval, after Hamlet’s departure for England, we get another Dylan song, the fairly recent “Things Have Changed.” I almost fell out of my seat. It’s also the song that closes Frank Castorf’s 2015 Reise ans Ende der Nacht (Residenztheater Munich). A lovely musical bridge between two exceptionally memorable productions, and two directors who (in very different ways, and with very distinct results) trust and depend on their actors. Here’s what that closing moment of Castorf’s show looked like:
(In case you’re wondering, no, I will never tire of sharing this clip whenever possible.)
Oh dear, post-postscript: is Hamlet mad? I don’t know. I don’t think the show allows for a clear answer. It’s not that easy to escape the post-truth universe.
PPPS: To raise at least one critical objection, I like the phrase “retrograde to our desire” much better than “contrary to our desire.” Those damn modernizing meddling directors!
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- The Changeling (Middleton & Rowley; dir. Jackie Maxwell) Stratford, July 2017
- How to Kill a Great Theatre: The Tragedy of the Volksbühne
- Three Sisters (Chekhov/Stone; dir. Simon Stone) Theater Basel/Theatertreffen, May 2017
- British Theatre under the Influence (of much more than The Roman Tragedies)
- Hamlet (Shakespeare; dir. Robert Icke) Almeida, London; Mar. 2017
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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