Tag Archives: Hamlet

Theatre Review of the Year and What to See in 2018

2018

After the political surprises of 2016 it was easy to assume that 2017 would be defined by the fallout. For those in the liberal London bubble, the direct collision of old and new Britain, demonstrated at the ballot box last year, caused a shift in the way we see ourselves, a rethink that put concepts of nationalism, power and societal influence back under the microscope, Naturally, facing what felt like a significant and unbreachable rift, instability and economic downturn was the likely outcome, which for the arts, could only mean one thing –  cultural depletion  – as audience seek safety in comfort and nostalgia.

What actually happened in 2017 theatre couldn’t be further from that prediction, and while the revival of great American dance-led shows continued apace, looking back at this year’s very best productions, they were strikingly new. It has been an outstanding year for fresh, and predominantly political, writing with a West End transfer for Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, an ambitious technical accomplishment if not entirely emotionally satisfying play about the encroaching effect of the 1980s hunger strikes on a rural Irish family that opened at the Royal Court in May, before making it to the Gielgud shortly afterwards, where its changing cast has led to two run extensions so far.

Just a tad more fulfilling was the first UK production of Oslo, arriving with its Tony Award winning headline from Broadway and a new British cast. Opening at the National Theatre in September before a prompt move to the Harold Pinter the following month, Oslo is a superb and very human examination of the personalities that created an unlikely peace process, dramatizing the complexity without undermining the entertainment value, an exceptional piece of writing by J.T. Rogers.

Undoubtedly, and for productivity and consistent quality alone, this year has belonged to James Graham with two new plays in neighbouring theatres, and a third announcing a transfer in the Spring of 2018. Labour of Love is one of the few new plays to open cold in the West End this year, premiering to much acclaim at the Noel Coward Theatre in September and innovatively charting the history of the Labour Party since the mid-1980s to the present day through the eyes of grass-roots membership, using a reverse then forward chronological structure.

Unpicking established historical scenarios and carefully controlled construction are Graham trademarks, both perfectly demonstrated in his biggest hit, and, personally my favourite show of the year, Ink, establishing the tabloid newspaper’s current powerbase rooted in its quest for populism in the sales war of 1969. A wonderful and unexpected surprise in its first outing at The Almeida in June, Ink promptly arrived at the Duke of York’s in September cementing Graham’s influence on modern political writing and paving the way for his next big show, and my first 2018 recommendation, Quiz, which is heading to the Noel Coward from April after a successful Chichester try-out, focusing on the power of the television media and the nature of modern justice, framed by the Who Wants to be a Millionaire coughing-Major scandal.

Another stand-out piece of new writing this year was a personal examination of the impact of suicide on three generations of the same family that placed women’s experience front and centre. Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide opened at the Royal Court in June and ambitiously reimagined traditional narrative approaches by telling the three separate but inter-related stories side-by-side, upping the emotional investment, while The Barbershop Chronicles at the National was an invigorating examination of black male experience around the world distilled through a visit to the local hairdresser. And finally, The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios arrived in the West End from the Bristol Old Vic just in time to be crowned this year’s best new musical, reimagining Victor Hugo’s dark tale of mutilation and injustice. Genuinely magical, it swept the audience up with its heightened fairy tale quality, charting the story of a tragic outsider to quietly devastating effect.

Emotional and quietly devastating also describes 2017’s best revival, the Sondheim classic Follies that united Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee at the National Theatre. From the very first night of previews, the show ached with regret, disillusion and nostalgia for lost youth that filled the sizeable Olivier auditorium and never has a production suited the awkward space so well. Twice this year, the National has arguably produced definitive productions that will certainly preclude other major revivals for at least a decade, and joining the genuinely heart-rending Follies was the epic Angles in America (Part 1 and Part 2).

Tony Kushner’s two-part 1990s ‘gay fantasia’ was much trailered this time last year, and when it finally opened in a mammoth seven and half hour production it more than lived-up to expectation. Director Marianne Elliot balanced the multiple narratives and hallucinatory elements convincingly, while leads Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in particular gave the performance of their lives as men ravaged by HIV.

Andrew Scott also gave a career-best performance in this year’s superstar Hamlet, opening in February at the Almeida before transferring to the Harold Pinter. Robert Icke’s production was a modern, strongly conceived production that despite a few loose ends and some underpowered interpretations of Claudius and Gertrude, gave its leading man the space to deliver one of the most heart-breaking Hamlets of the 21st century.

Another former Hamlet returned to the stage this year and having established a devoted fan-base as a much-loved TV character and a respected Shakespeare performer, blew it all up to play a dastardly lothario with only his own pleasure in mind. David Tennant’s performance in the revival of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho divided critics and audiences alike with its crude and gleeful take on an unrepentant wastrel. But Tennant’s joyous interpretation, perfectly matched by Adrian Scarborough’s put-upon servant proved irresistible, making it one of my favourite and most uproarious nights in a theatre this year.

With another cracking Imelda Staunton performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter, Daniel Radcliffe impressing in the Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and charming returns for An American in Paris and 42nd Street, 2017 has been a cracking year for top-quality theatre. But as we say a bittersweet farewell to one of the strongest years for mainstream theatre in a long time, we can take comfort in knowing that 2018 is already filled with possible treats.

The new Bridge Theatre opens the year with an all-star promenade production of Julius Caesar – one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – starring Ben Whishaw as Brutus and David Morrissey as Mark Anthony which should be an interesting take on well-known tale of power and corruption. The National follows suit in February with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in a new Macbeth that could be the best stage version in years, while more must-see Shakespeare is planned for September with a much anticipated version of Anthony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo also at the National.

Another early highlight is the much acclaimed transfer of Long Day’s Journey into Night starring Jeremy Irons and the wonderful Lesley Manville pitching-up at the Wyndhams in January, while in the same month Kathy Burke directs Lady Windermere’s Fan, the second in Dominic Dromgoole’s Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville, and soon after Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins take the lead in Bryony Lavery’s thriller Frozen, opening at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in February.

The late spring and summer months also promise much, with a revival of Red starring Alfred Molina also heading to the Wyndhams, while, following the London run of James Graham’s Quiz from April, all eyes will be on the Noel Coward Theatre in July where Martin McDonagh’s the Lieutenant of Inishmore will mark the West End debut of Poldark star Aidan Turner, timed to coincide with the next series of the hit show.

And that’s not even the half of it; later in the year Jim Broadbent will star in Martin McDonagh’s new play about Hans Christian Andersen at the The Bridge Theatre entitled A Very Very Very Dark Matter, the National has announced a version of Brian Friel’s Translations with Colin Morgan, the first London run of the trilogy of plays about Lehman Brothers directed by Sam Mendes who follows his wonderful control of The Ferryman with more new writing, while there is a new play from The Flick writer Annie Baker, who returns to the National with John, and the Royal Court welcomes Carey Mulligan in a new show Girls and Boys, while the Gielgud hosts a gender-swapped version of Sondheim’s Company from September.

So, it may be sad to leave a year of really great theatre, but 2018 has plenty to offer, and looks set to continue the investment in new writing that has been such a feature of the last 12 months. With a constantly shifting governmental landscape and ongoing uncertainty, it’s comforting to see mainstream theatre responding with sophisticated political writing and greater attempts at diversity – that some of the approaches that have long been a feature of the Fringe are finally filtering up. It’s far from perfect and there’s still a long way to go, but with the work of 2017 setting a high bar, the theatre year ahead looks full of promise.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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Ink and the Case of the West End Transfer

Ink at the Duke of York's Theatre

For most theatres, a West End transfer is the Golden Ticket, the chance to take their work to that tiny patch of illustrious venues from Shaftesbury Avenue to Covent Garden. Sometimes these are a roaring success; the new transfer of Ink, such a joy at The Almeida, is every bit as perfect at its new home in the Duke of York’s, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet retained its lovely intimacy in the bigger Harold Pinter space and anyone who saw the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge in any venue couldn’t help but be astounded by its impact. But a transfer is also a gamble, and every year numerous plays fail because the decision to open the performance to new audiences is predominantly a commercial one, with artistic drivers taking second place.

There are three main types of West End transfer; the ones that move within London from the high-performing venues that attract the mainstream critics, best described as “off-West-End”; there are regional transfers from the powerhouses of the Theatre Royal Bath, the Bristol Old Vic, the Chichester Festival Theatre, the RSC in Stratford and the like; and there are the shows that come from Broadway. The latter two categories seem to suffer more often in the glare of the West End, partly, as Lynne Gardner recently pointed out because a 5 star show from Edinburgh feels very different when you put it in London, and partly because transfers are too often a poor fit for their new space. Crucially then, context is all.

Ink and Hamlet may have successfully sidestepped these problems, and arguably off-West End transfers fare better because they’re in front of exactly the same set of critics as their original run, but not all of them succeed. This year the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Love in Idleness proved a sell-out at its tiny London Bridge home and critical applause meant a transfer was inevitable. Yet, when it finally landed at The Apollo, it’s evident original charm felt a little lost on the bigger stage, playing to a less than full house on a Friday night. Likewise, plaudits rained in for the RSC’s production of Queen Anne in Stratford but although the story was interesting enough and well performed, in the less-than-full auditorium of the capacious Theatre Royal Haymarket (TRH) on another Friday night, it felt meandering and stilted.

Last year’s Alan Ayckbourn revival of How the Other Half Loves also fell foul of the TRH effect, drowning its comedy in acres of space. Perhaps the critics don’t notice from the visual comfort of the Stalls, but siting in the Upper Circle or Balcony the action felt more remote than it should. Yet, it’s not always this way and plenty of shows manage to play as effectively to the top of the house as to the bottom, so what is happening? The answer is that too often shows are transferring kit and caboodle, without taking the time to think about how they fit into their new space. Transfers can happen months after the original run, by which time the Director and Designer are on to other projects, but without more considered input into how the show will play in the new space, you end up with reams of discounted seats. It’s no surprise to hear that you could barely get into Hamlet at the Harold Pinter but the TRH were practically paying you to see Queen Anne in its final weeks.

Shows fail to dazzle in the West End for other reasons of course and perfectly decent productions of well-known plays with star names can represent some of the very best work in their region. But with just so much choice, so many approaches to performance and younger theatres pushing boundaries, some of these transfers can seem a little too safe, traditional and even old-fashioned. When London theatre-goers are offered the choice of seeing the umpteenth version of Hay Fever or The Importance of Being Ernest with a star of yesteryear, or Ivo van Hove, Jamie Lloyd or Robert Icke deconstructing an equally classic play and blasting new life through it, its innovation that usually wins. The same applies to Broadway transfers, like this year’s The Mentor for example, which in many ways play much safer than London shows and don’t always achieve the same level of critical appreciation they had in the States.

The point of all of this is to show that a West End transfer is not an end in itself, and the shows that do well have to earn their audience in exactly the same way as any new play opening in WC2. There are soaring successes that can equally come the few miles across town, from across the country or across the pond, but they work so well because they pay attention to their new context, to a different size stage, to a theatre with multiple seating levels and to the audiences hungry for interesting stories told in exciting ways.

Recently, the American Repertory Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie made a spectacular impact at The Duke of York’s, Ian McEwan and Patrick Stewart’s toured in No Man’s Land before finally arriving for a triumphant run at the Wyndhams late last year, while Oslo is doing great business at The National Theatre and is sure to triumph at the Harold Pinter as well. Within London, shows of incredibly quality have also earned their place in the West End; who hasn’t been impressed by The Ferryman which came from The Royal Court, and re-watching Hamlet at the Harold Pinter last month, the production had matured beautifully from its original Almeida run, retaining its intimacy, as if Andrew Scott was holding you hand and whispering his soliloquies into your ear, a private excoriation of soul between you and him.

This is the context then for the transfer of James Graham’s fantastic new play Ink which received its Golden Ticket to the West End after a sold-out and highly acclaimed run at The Almeida from June. Seeing it back then, it was instantly clear that Graham’s work was a masterpiece, a perfectly constructed piece of theatre that months on is still worth gushing about. Happily, every word of this original review still stands and it’s transfer not only provided another opportunity to see it, but, with enormous competition, proved that so far it is undoubtedly this year’s best new play. That banner has already been handed to The Ferryman, which in a big year for new work set a high bar, but although excellent and expertly directed, didn’t quite hit the emotional pitch or degree of darkness that the early scenes implied would come. Even with promising shows like The Network and Graham’s own rival new play Labour of Love still to come, Ink is an extraordinary piece of writing that has easily made the leap into West End history.

With almost the entire original cast still onboard, the show’s elaborately staggered design by Bunny Christie looks like a seedy den of journalistic compromise with desks and cabinets piled high, and feels like it was built especially for the Duke of York’s, so snugly does it fit the stage. It’s video screen backdrop plays host to Sun headlines from its first year of operation, as well as indicating scenes set at other newspapers, and offers a trail of dripping ink as the mood darkens, which seems more noticeable than it had been at The Almeida, adding much to the changing tone.

A second viewing means the story is familiar so there’s plenty of time to enjoy all the subtleties of director Rupert Goold’s production and the extensive research that shines through the writing. The opening scene, two men spotlight from the back, feels more like a deal with the devil than it did before, while Goold brings out the growing sense of camaraderie that Sun Editor Larry Lamb builds from scratch among his team of Working Class outsiders, showing how that team ethos was a driving force behind the success of The Sun in the early months. But crucially, although they stand together in the good times, in the second half when things take a darker turn rifts develop among them, based on taste, and slowly the play devolves into a series of smaller and smaller conversations until Lamb is alone onstage once again, isolated by his own choices.

Richard Coyle’s Larry Lamb is every bit as repellently fascinating, sympathetic and hateful as it was earlier in the summer. In Coyle’s performance Lamb is the embodiment of The Sun, a traditional fleet street man turned on his head by the populist cavalcade he unleashes. Initially reluctant, Lamb becomes the leader he needs to be to make his mark on the clubbable world of Fleet Street, and Coyle shows him unleashing a monster as he seeks the next sensationalist headline that will ensure he meets his target of outselling his rivals.

Bertie Carvel’s Rupert Murdoch is equally fascinating, a slightly twisted sliver of darkness that sets in motion the biggest sea change that journalism had ever seen, but manages to keep culpability at arm’s length. It’s a very physical performance, with a slight stoop and way of holding his head to the side as he rails against the Establishment that won’t ever accept him. One of the most intriguing aspects of Graham’s characterisation is seeing this aspect of Murdoch, the innovator who brings business-thinking to the newspaper industry, modernising its approach but all the while knowing the audience will understand the consequences so many decades on.

With many of the cast members reprising their original roles, there is an excellent support for the leads which ensure this remains a fantastic ensemble piece with not a character wasted, each one adding layers to the drama and background to the newspaper business that made The Sun’s approach so radical. There are great supporting performances from Sophie Stanton as formidable Women’s Editor Joyce Hopkirk who holds her own in a world of men, Justin Salinger as Brian McConnell the crime writer turned right-hand-man to Lamb, one of the lads who fears the paper’s direction, and Tim Steed as the buttoned-up Bernard Shrimsley whose love of fonts adds much hilarity.

Ink has made the most of its Golden Ticket to the West End and remains one of this year’s most unmissable shows. Happily situated at the Duke of York’s, the staging fits the space entirely and the multi-level aspect of the set plays to all the theatre’s seating levels. Beautifully constructed and superbly performed, Graham’s play is a fascinating insight into one of Britain’s most important industries and the period that set it on a new track. Getting a West End transfer right may be a huge gamble, but by prioritising the artistic transition toits new home, Ink shows how it should be done. And that’s one bit of news that isn’t fake.

Ink is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 6 January. Tickets start at £15 for day seats. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1       


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – The Old Vic

rg-old-vic

The chance to see something you thought you knew well in an entirely different light is one of the continual draws of theatre. A different performer, a new director, a change of venue can all bring a fresh perspective on well-known plays, and when a production surprises you it can be a forceful experience. In 1966 Tom Stoppard took that idea a step further by not only thinking of a new way to stage Hamlet but by writing a whole new play that shifts the central perspective to its most purposeless characters – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

By a stroke of fortune a version of Hamlet and Stoppard’s comic counterpart, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, are opening in London within a week of each, and after seeing The Almeida’s high quality production of Shakespeare’s original tragedy starring Andrew Scott as the grief-filled and philosophising Dane, a visit to The Old Vic to see David Leveaux’s wonderfully whimsical version of Stoppard’s play starring Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire and David Haig is perfectly timed. Already more than a week into previews and with press night scheduled for tomorrow, this is the best thing The Old Vic has done since The Master Builder this time last year, and is already an absolute joy to watch.

As the play opens Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are waiting for something to happen to them, playing games of chance to pass the time. But they remember that they have been summoned to attend on Claudius, the King of Denmark, who needs them to find out whether their old friend Prince Hamlet is really mad. On the way they meet a grungy group of travelling players also bound for Elsinore but even when the drama erupts around them, the pair are sidelined with no clear purpose. Can they leave, do they have any agency of their own, will they ever reconcile their fears of inevitable death and what will happen when they get to England?

Stoppard’s characters are humorously conscious of their own existence as theatrical devices and this is something Leveaux’s production and Anna Fleischel’s clever fantastical design emphasise really well. More than once Guildenstern tells us their knowledge of Hamlet’s story is as much as the audience is told in Shakespeare’s play and nothing more. So they sit idly by while events occur in other rooms only occasionally crossing their path. They are oblivious to their own part in what’s to come and entirely without individual purpose to deflect what seems an inevitable outcome – almost as though they know they are just characters within their own lives while decisions are made by some unseen hand.

This meta feel to the show is reflected in Fleischel’s set, built out at the front and extending far into the background like a grand studio, a vast cavernous space suggesting how these two little characters are swept-up by larger events. The sliding walls, ceiling and backdrop are painted with clouds in what can only be described as sky-blue pink, it is a place of enchanted unreality, setting the story somewhere that’s not quite real, a whimsical dream that gives them a magical half-life of sorts. Extending the theme, curtains swish in and out to change the scene (and one is printed with a Tudor ship which unknown to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern presages what is to come) and gives their world a feeling of being an elaborate play.

Similarly, the main characters of Hamlet are reduced to extravagant bit parts, as they flounce in and out, dressed in deliberately exaggerated costume like dolls or puppets while only the two leads appear in ‘normal’ doublet and hose. And while the characters are made to look like actors, the players have an otherness about them, with painted white faces and clownish garb, while their leader, the Player King is a grubby figure in a borrowed red military coat and shaggy hair. All of this works beautifully to create a sense of whimsy and unreality but with a dark edge that suits the sense of foreboding that overshadows the play even in its most hilarious moments.

Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire are a perfect pairing as the titular characters, both uniquely drawn while also two halves of the same coin. Radcliffe is developing into a really interesting actor, and someone who likes to make unusual choices that stretch him. Still hugely famous for the Harry Potter series he could easily have coasted in a series of similar high-paid parts, or may well not need to work at all, but instead he has tested himself in diverse roles from a Broadway musical to serious indie films that suggest an actor admirably eager to learn and to pursue work that interests him primarily.

Here as Rosencrantz, Radcliffe gives a fine comic performance and develops a genuine rapport with McGuire as they passively wait for action to occur around them. Rosencrantz is fairly empty-headed, often unable to remember anything for more than a few seconds and with an innocence that makes him pretty credulous, although he surprised us occasionally by being more perceptive than his partner, getting the measure of a situation exactly. Radcliffe subtly presents all of these elements without them becoming tiresome or too overtly goofy in the two hour 30 minute run time, but also adds a streak of frustration when the pair are left alone for long periods at Elsinore showing the audience why their meta-role as a device is difficult for them.

McGuire’s Guildenstern is almost a contrast, always thinking, philosophising and trying to understand their purpose while still failing to develop any purpose of his own, reliant on others to direct them. He takes the lead in most encounters and is more willing to do Claudius’s bidding without question out of respect for the King, but seems the most worn down by their role in events, as McGuire shows how shockingly Guildenstern’s own fate becomes clear. There is a lot of bantering word-play which McGuire and Radcliffe deliver at a considerable pace without losing any of the wit of Stoppard’s script and its clear how hard they’ve worked together to create a relationship that feels genuine with lots of cleverly integrated physical humour that draws a lot of the laughs on the night.

David Haig leads a motley crew as The Player and while in Hamlet they appear as classical and highly-regarded thespians, in Stoppard’s version they are a low rent travelling crew a step away from prostitution – which they appear to also offer. Haig is fantastically grimy as their chief, a bit of a geezer with long straggly hair, tattoos and military coat – always dressed for performance he claims – imagine Danny Dyer doing Poldark with a bit of Arthur Daley thrown in. Haig is clearly having a ball all the time he is on stage and, as always, he almost steals the show whenever he appears, but it’s a performance that fits neatly into the style of production the company have created with everyone clearly working in unison.

Having seen a proper and serious Hamlet in Angel, it’s great to see how well Stoppard lampoons the original story as scenes from Shakespeare’s play come into the hearing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just not quite enough for them to know what’s actually going on. Hamlet himself (Luke Mullins) is portrayed as a self-involved and over-preening idiot who talks to himself, while Claudius and Gertrude (Wil Johnson and Marianne Oldham) are exaggerated toy-theatre creations. Arguably none of them speak Shakespeare’s lines with clarity but we not really here for that.

With both plays opening so close together it is the perfect opportunity to see them side-by-side, although perhaps not on the same day. With the Almeida’s show running at four hours and this at two and half that would be a massive, although not impossible, undertaking. And seeing Hamlet first is probably the right way to do it as a reminder of the plot – you probably do need to know it well enough to get all the references in Stoppard’s play. But Leveaux’s version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a real treat, funny, beautifully staged and full of joy thanks to pitch perfect central performances from Haig, McGuire and Radcliffe.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is at the Old Vic until 29th April and tickets start at £12. There will be an NT Live cinema screening on 20 April and the show is participating in the TIX £20 front row lottery. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Hamlet – The Almeida

 

hamlet-the-almeida-by-miles-aldridgeAt just shy of four hours, it’s fair to say the Almeida’s new version of Hamlet, which has its press night tomorrow, is by far the longest I’ve ever seen, and while it doesn’t always feel as long as it is, anyone lucky enough to have tickets to this already sold out run should brace themselves for a marathon. And while the overall production is pretty good, has a quite excellent central performance and is bubbling with ideas, it also has a few inconsistencies and frustrations that the extended length draws attention to. But of course four hours is an awfully long time to be doing anything; you could watch two movies, take the Eurostar from London to Paris and start to sightsee, read a 200 page book or watch an omnibus edition of Four in a Bed and still have 90 minutes to spare.

But Hamlet is a character that you want to spend time with, an endlessly fascinating creation who holds a ‘mirror up to nature’ and gets to the very heart of life, death, grief and madness, who for centuries has attracted actors desperate for their turn to play the role. There is no wrong way to perform it because it is always a very personal reading, and 18 months ago, when reviewing Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican, I talked about there being as many interpretations of Hamlet as there are actors to play him and audiences to watch. What you see in Hamlet will depend on you and eventually there will be an actor who plays him exactly as you imagine he should be.

In recent times most of the versions we’ve seen have largely been straightforward hero-Hamlets, distraught with grief and feigning madness to seek a just revenge, while the actors who’ve played him, despite nuances they bring to the character are those we largely associated with good-guy roles – Tennant, Cumberbatch, Whishaw – all actors the public see a certain way, playing characters who are at heart decent people. So it feels right that Andrew Scott’s new version at The Almeida shifts the balance, giving us a Hamlet that is full of rage and bitterness, whose true madness is entirely possible.

Director Robert Icke has set his version in a sleek office or waiting room,  a purgatorial no man’s land, with sliding glass doors that lead to a rear section of the stage where occasional images are played at the back of the action – Gertrude and Claudius dancing happily at their wedding, Hamlet visiting Ophelia in her closet – which brings out the play’s sense of layers, while the glass doors offer distorted reflections of the characters, the mirroring that Hamlet refers to early on. Although seemingly a modern-day piece, Hildegard Bechtler’s set has a 70s minimalist quality that feels like a muted David Hockney painting from his California series with sharp interior and reflective surfaces.

On top of that Icke has added a big screen that displays Danish newsfeeds of this royal family and the approach of Fortinbras’s army (meaning he never appears on stage) as well as images from the various CCTV cameras that first capture the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Reactions to the Gonzago play and the fencing contest are also shown using video projection. All of this should imply people under constant scrutiny living very public lives, and deals with the difficulty of presenting the larger scale sections in the tiny Almeida space.

But, like last year’s Richard III, the technology is not consistently applied and while spying is a significant part of the play (Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet, while Hamlet spies on Claudius) the CCTV isn’t used to create much sense of claustrophobia, while the filming idea feels more about staging issues than integral to the world Icke has created, one that has live streaming of events but people still receive notes on paper and no one appears to have a phone or computer. Its setting, then, is a half-way house between old and new in terms of look, as well as recombining elements from earlier iterations of Hamlet – notably Greg Doran’s 2008 version for the RSC that used mirrored sets, CCTV and filming Claudius to similar effect although here the technology is a decade on.

The technology isn’t much of a distraction and for the most part the audience can concentrate entirely on the performances, when even Tom Gibbons’s semi-permanent soundscape of music and thudding beats thankfully stops to hear the big soliloquies in perfect silence. Scott’s Hamlet connects to a grief and passionate anger that for much of the play barely contains his affecting sobs of despair. The court around him is light and happy, so rather than a pure hero, Scott’s Hamlet becomes the dark and destructive presence that threatens the contentment of those around him. There are moments of wit (and people titter every time they recognise a line) but this is more than a melancholy young man, this is a serious and furiously frenzied Hamlet shouting at the world.

Scott captivates the audience, bringing an energy and ferocity to the production that means the question of Hamlet’s madness remains ambiguous. He clearly gives the role everything he has in a mammoth performance, and when he delivers all the big soliloquies, choosing to engage directly with the audience rather than as dialogues within his own mind, you could hear a pin drop so expertly has he drawn the viewer into the debates, building each speech from frustrated philosophising to rating rages against Claudius, the court and his own ‘blunted purpose’. This Hamlet, wired and on the edge, changes on his return from England but rather than the beatific man we often see, Scott’s Hamlet is resigned to his fate, knowing what will come and letting it play out, as if he has lost whatever fight he had and finally decided ‘not to be’.

The rest of the cast is more mixed however but bring a welcome freshness to Polonius and his children which add to the tragedy of the final moments. So often, productions focus on the royal family with Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia just grist to the mill, unfortunate side-effects in Hamlet’s just quest for vengeance. But here we see them as central to  Hamlet’s own growing madness, a loving and warm family, close and affectionate, unlike his own, that he ultimately destroys – something the audience is asked to linger on in the otherwise dreadful misfire of a ‘heaven-wedding’ ending.

Polonius is usually quite annoying, prattling on only for Hamlet to outwit him. Instead, Peter Wright makes him a loving father, run ragged and highly sympathetic as he delivers news to his royal masters. While the part feels reduced, Wright conveys the notion of a decent and hard-working man looking out for his family which adds genuine sadness to his end. Similarly Ophelia is less fey than usual and the production takes time to create some chemistry with Hamlet while Jessica Brown Findlay delivers the verse quite naturally, although sometimes a little too fast. A minor frustration is her appearance topless in a bath at the back of the stage in a non-verbal scene and is yet another instance of actresses being asked to do something that adds nothing whatsoever to the plot in a production that contains no other nudity. Her madness scenes are less convincing but that is more to do with the way they are presented than her performance, and she too offers a sense of raging grief that reflects Scott’s approach.

Laertes is a small but important role that is often seen as the antithesis of Hamlet’s character. Laertes has greater cause for upset than his former friend, having lost two members of his family, and unlike Hamlet, chooses to act instantly and violently. But with so many hero-Hamlets of late, Laertes is often forgotten, but Luke Thompson brings a nuance to the role which adds an interesting contrast with Scott’s darker Hamlet. While Laertes is comfortably happy and well-loved at the start, Thompson’s return toward the end of the play is a fiery rage of grief and anger – again mirroring Scott’s approach – that makes perfect sense in light of Claudius’s plan. But what is so interesting in this performance is the growing reluctance to see it through, so Thompson’s hands shake, he holds back in the fencing and you see his fear growing as his better nature takes over. It is a very fine performance (the latest in a growing portfolio for the actor) and the mastery of indecision here may set him up well to give his own Hamlet one day.

Less successful however are Claudius and Gertrude, with Angus Wright’s Claudius being virtually without menace. We see them first very much in love at their wedding and for a while we could believe that Hamlet is wrong about his uncle. Maybe Wright is saving his darkness for press night but he hasn’t found the lust for power and the attraction of Claudius yet. He is perhaps miscast, whereas the superb David Rintoul who plays the Ghost and Player King (a neat comment on the potential illusion of Hamlet’s father) could be a considerably more charismatic Claudius. The production also makes the strange decision to have Claudius perform his confessional speech directly to the gun-toting Hamlet rather than have it overheard. But, confessing to Hamlet’s face makes little sense when Hamlet does nothing about it, psychologically he gets the same information and behaves the same way by overhearing it, while being told directly and not shooting him then and there doesn’t quite fit.

Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude has a little more opacity and we’re never quite sure if she is complicit in the death of her first husband, and indeed whether she loves Hamlet at all. Stevenson hints at both these things, particularly in the opening scene as she shows considerable affection to Laertes but doesn’t touch her son. Yet, these two ideas could run more consistently through the performance if Stevenson wants to add a new interpretation to the Gertrude as Lady Macbeth approach.

There are plenty of unanswered questions in The Almeida’s new Hamlet with lots of visual concepts on show that don’t always tie into the production. Ophelia sports some very bad peroxide hair while Laertes has a visible tattoo on his neck which is never referenced, whether these belong to the actors, are for other roles or are meant to suggest the Polonius family are a bit chavvy is unclear, as is the elongated wedding day timeline at the beginning which upsets the point at which Hamlet’s madness is supposed to begin, or the handover of watches at the end showing that time has run out, which needed to be meaningfully referenced throughout to have any significance here.

Despite its length, this is an engaging and highly watchable production that uses its variable pace to just about keep everyone on-board and fully engaged to the end. Part One is 1 hour and 45 minutes which meanders most, but Part Two at 35 minutes and Part Three at 55 minutes ramp up the drama and pressure very well. Overall the approach is an interesting one, and while like Cumberbatch’s version, the production doesn’t always fully align with its star, there are plenty of fresh ideas and excellent performances that make this highly enjoyable. There are lots of things you could do with four hours, but watching Andrew Scott’s powerful and raging Hamlet is certainly one of them, just prepare for a marathon – ‘the readiness is all’.

Hamlet is at The Almeida until 15 April. The production is largely sold out but day tickets and returns are available from £10. The Almeida also has a series of events, talks and activities in their Hamlet for Free Festival from 10-13 April.

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Shakespeare in Ten Acts – British Library

Shakespeare in Ten Acts - British Library

You may have noticed that it’s 400 years since Shakespeare died and over the last few weeks there has been a festival of activities across the country and on television, from the Globe’s lovely but technically challenged Complete Walk showing scenes from every play with some of our finest actors, to the somewhat less successful RSC Shakespeare Live variety show beamed from Stratford to your living rooms and cinemas. With a new series of The Hollow Crown in mid-flow as well, interest in Shakespeare and how his work is performed is riding high. The British Library’s new exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts looks at the history of the plays and the ways in which they’ve been performed in the last four centuries, considering how changing theatrical fashions and political contexts have shaped the staging of Shakespeare’s of major works.

This exhibition purports to tell the story of Shakespeare in performance, focusing on ten key moments from the first Hamlet in around 1600 to the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in the early twenty-first century. But it doesn’t do this in quite the way you expect and often becomes side-tracked by the wider context of the landmark eras it chooses. While these digressions are often interesting and supported by a wealth of valuable original material largely from the Library’s own collection, it makes for a less focused tour of Shakespearean performances than anticipated. Largely it seems this is driven by the material the BL could obtain rather than the argument the curators are trying to make that Shakespeare ‘holds up a mirror to the era in which it was performed’.

Understandably, this is a very bookish exhibition and you can expect to see a number of important tomes, not least a speech for a play about Thomas Moore in Shakespeare’s own hand which was recently read by Sir Ian McKellen for Shakespeare Live and at a BFI talk about Shakespeare on Screen. Here too is the important first folio as well as personal items like Shakespeare’s mortgage deed with accompanying seals. The exhibition then opens with the first Hamlet which we learn was written with specific actors in mind, most particularly for Richard Burbage who was the first to play what is arguably the most sought after role in all the plays.  It has since come to represent a high watermark in a young actor’s career, a significant hurdle for those wishing to be known as a great classical performer.

This section on Hamlet is one of the best, digitally comparing the differences between the versions of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech and giving wider context about the establishment and workings of Shakespeare’s theatre. The notion that he was specifically writing for individuals among the Lord Chamberlaine’s Men is a valuable one and brings the process of creation, performance and redrafting to life in a way that’s sometimes missing from the rest of the exhibition. The section on the first black actor to play Othello also feels particularly well thought through with portraits of Ira Aldridge from the 1820s alongside playbills advertising his performances. Although some of these were criticised Aldridge had a long career on the stage and in the course of more than 40 years played several roles, including somewhat surprisingly using white make-up to play other leading parts including Richard III and The Merchant of Venice. The BL then diversifies this section to include photos of Laurence Olivier playing Othello and modern black actors in performance including David Oyelowo in tribute to the modern practice of colour-blind casting.

Some elements of this exhibition feel like padding rather than integral to the argument and occasionally they try to cover too much material. One milestone was the first female performance in 1660 when an unknown actress was allowed to take to the stage as Desdemona, which prompts a brief history of people playing Shakespeare’s heroines since, including Vivien Leigh’s costume for Lady Macbeth and details of Ned Kynaston who had a career playing a woman onstage, but what it doesn’t do so well is focus on the mechanics of that original performance, or any of the ones it later shows. Time and again in this exhibition the focus seems to be on examining a play as a piece of English Literature rather than as a drama performance, so what you really want here is more focus on that original flood of actresses onto the stage and the practicalities of putting on a play in Restoration England. Even more important, given the overall purpose of this exhibition, is how it changed perceptions of Shakespeare’s work and what role women had to play in perpetuating it.

Some of the weaker sections don’t always feel like landmark moments as the BL implies, and while there is interesting material in the ‘Wider World’ section as Shakespeare’s plays are performed abroad for the first time, not least onboard an East India Company ship off Sierra Leon – an early incarnation of the theatre ships of the First World War navy – this section is an odd assortment of stuff including a Shakespeare in Love poster and some international editions of Shakespeare plays. Similarly the sections on a forged play doing the rounds in 1796 and the reintroduction of the tragic ending to King Lear in 1838 feel more like footnotes than major turning points in our understanding of Shakespeare’s popularity. Nice stories perhaps but not worthy of entire sections devoted to them, or if they are, the BL is not making a convincing case.

It’s not until you get into the twentieth century that we get a greater focus on physical performance with Peter Brook’s influential 1970s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a whole room made up to look like the white box that Brook used as his stage, and featuring props and costumes – if only more of it were like this. Also interesting is the section on Twelfth Night and Mark Rylance’s all male production at the Globe in 2002 which leaps right back to the way Shakespeare was originally performed, supported here by costumes and scenes from the production. The Globe appears a few times in this exhibition actually, suggesting a partnership that prevents mention of any other modern purveyors of Shakespeare plays – the RSC and National Theatre for example remain entirely unmentioned, though arguably the formation of the RSC is a landmark in itself.

It concludes, rather oddly, with emphasis on film and digital media using a production of Hamlet by The Wooster Group in 2013 – something I confess I’d not heard of – which though innovative seems to end this show with a whimper. There are scenes from twentieth-century films including early silent movies, right through to Branagh’s 1996 Henry V and Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth. Seems a shame not to have had the final section consider the modernisation of Shakespeare on film, its limitations and scope for interpretation as a way to bring new audiences and new actors to the fore – especially as there are box office riots as people clamour for tickets to see a favourite celebrity actor take on a major role such as Cumberbatch’s Hamlet or Tennant’s Richard II, meaning the NT Live business model has expanded beyond the National Theatre linking up with competitors to broadcast any major performance far and wide. Again, I suspect this a lack of material but this an important marker for the future of Shakespeare in performance and one that would have provided a fitting end to this exhibition.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts has a lot of interesting material but the central argument and focus is not always clear enough. As a chance to see a number of important documents and to learn a bit more about the documentary history of selected performances this is fine, but you don’t leave feeling as though you have an entirely new slant on Shakespeare’s plays or enthused by the endless interpretation of his works – which you really should. It’s academic, broad in topic and respects the poetry of Shakespeare’s words, but in his BFI talk recently Sir Ian McKellen argued that to get a new audience enthused about Shakespeare they need to see it, so what this really needs is more performance.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts is at the British Library until 6 September. Tickets are £12 for adults (without Gift Aid) and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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