Tag Archives: Luke Thompson

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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The Broken Heart – The Globe

There are some forms of death that have quite naturally fallen out of fashion; once upon a time people were able to catch their death of cold as Sarah Miles did in Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, but no one does that any more, it’s a lost art. Perhaps in our more cynical modern world the least likely fictional death is to die of a broken heart, although in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama it was all the rage. Arguably Marianne in Sense and Sensibility gives it a go but we all know she was just being overly dramatic and spent too much time on rainy hillsides without her galoshes and mac.

So in John Ford’s 1630’s play The Broken Heart you may be unsurprised to hear that several people come a cropper either directly or indirectly as a result of their own or someone else’s heartbreak. And although the audience may find all this quite unlikely, I have to completely disagree with some of the critics and say this new production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in the Globe is so charming and beautifully staged that you will be completely captivated by it. The reviewers seem to personally dislike the play and have been rather unfair in judging this instead of the production (with a revival this is what they should focus on actually) and yes it is long and there are a lot of layered plot strands, so you’ll need to pay attention to keep track of who is who and who wants what, but it is thoroughly engaging and cleverly staged.

Set in Sparta – indicated by togas over Jacobean dress – the production opens violently with the snatching of Penthea from her lover Orgilus where she is taken to the alter to marry Bassanes instead, in a tactical marriage arranged without her consideration by her brother Ithocles. Orgilus flees to Athens but returns in disguise to watch over Penthea and his own sister Euphranea who has promised to remain single until his return. If you’re keeping up with this, meanwhile Ithocles goes to war and returns a conquering hero, regretting the part he played in his sister’s abduction and eager to make amends. His warrior status brings him close to the Royal family and he hopelessly falls in love with Princess Calantha who is meant to marry a local Prince named Nearchus. Ithocles’s fellow warrior Prophilus has fallen in love with Euphranea so Orgilus must openly return to assent to the marriage and intent on revenge sets in motion a series of tragic events which results in a fairly high death count and a trail of broken hearts.

I know that all sounds pretty complicated and you can’t day-dream but none of it seems superfluous in any way and the play hurtles along at an impressive pace. One of the most interesting elements here is the staging which cleverly uses the confines of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to impressive effect. The use of the pit entrance and staircase up to the stage mean scenes take place below the stage directly in front of the pit audience which is fantastic for an engagement perspective – these aren’t lofty characters acting out a story somewhere above you but real people standing half a meter away – and it’s always impressive when actors can be that close and not have it break their concentration, particularly with people like me staring at them judgementally – I’m practising my tough critic face but it probably just looks a bit gormless.

Director Caroline Steinbeis has also used the two circle levels to deliver scenes and characters are seen climbing onto the stage from the lower circle, as well as using the traditional entrances from the back of the stage. I think this use of the space really helped the audience connect more with the production. A mention also for the amazing costumes by Wardrobe Manager Megan Cassidy and her team, the women’s dresses in particularly carefully denoted their status, and any changes to it, as well as having a slightly barbed feel reiterating how the female characters are used as pawns for male advantage. The golden armour for the King and Princess Calantha is really quite stunning and very regal. Despite the togas over jerkins which looked great the men have to put up with some knee-length pantaloons teemed with knee-high sandals – really not that sexy but they do somehow still look like manly warriors.

The acting from the entire cast is very good and you quickly become engaged in their stories. They felt like one complete company and worked together really nicely, mixing the warlike feel of returning soldiers with the romantic plots, bitter jealousies and ultimate demise of several characters. Luke Thompson once again shows he’s well on the way to very big things by bringing out the warlike dignity of his Ithocles as well as a more tender side in regretting his sister’s marriage and love for Calantha. It’s easy for a good actor to stand out in bad crowd but considerably more impressive to stand-out in a good one such as this, so it’s interesting to feel the production lift even higher whenever Thompson is on stage, and he has a natural feel for the verse. For The Public Reviews I previously wrote about his terrific Mark Anthony last year at the Globe, followed by an engaging role in Tiger Country at the Hampstead, and it’s only a matter of time before he lands a major TV role and hysterical fans will then queue round the block and crash ticketing websites to see him on stage (as with Cumberbatch and Tennant who both did years of theatre before hitting the big time). Should any of that come to pass, and if he continues to make shrewd choices it really should, you heard it here first!

Owen Teale has the semi-villainous role of Bassanes the jealous husband who steals Penthea, but here has a more buffoonish quality which adds a necessary touch of lightness to the serious love dramas that concern everyone else. Amy Morgan also lends dignity to the tragic Penthea who, despite her broken heart, bravely accepts the choice her brother and husband have made. Brian Ferguson’s Orgilus moves nicely between initial despair and bloodthirsty revenge while also accepting there will be consequences of his shocking actions. There really is no weakness in this cast and although Sarah MacRae’s Calantha could be a little more regal, this production can only strengthen as the run continues.

So, people may no longer die of broken hearts but in the Globe’s latest production you’ll see it’s not quite as romantic an idea as you may think. Here, in the beautiful setting of the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, you’ll see that the pursuit of love is as brutal and bloody as any war fought for power and land. So ignore the critics, John Ford’s play will leave you with plenty to think about but also lots to enjoy – even if you get lost in the twisted plot the staging and acting are so impressive that you will feel transported nonetheless. Just be sure not to catch your death of cold on the Southbank on the way home!

The Broken Heart is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre until 18th April. Tickets start at £25-£45 and £10 standing tickets are available.


Julius Caesar – Globe Theatre

First published on The Public Reviews website.

What constitutes a hero? Is it the man who fashions an extensive empire, defeating all in his path, but brings despotic rule to his own people who love him nonetheless, or the man who kills his friend, a supposed tyrant, for the sake of personal honour and social freedom? This dilemma is at the heart of the Globe’s exciting new version of Julius Caesar, examining whether individuals are at the mercy of fate or should accept responsibility for complying in their own subjugation.

Do we then sympathise with Caesar, who has made Rome great before being murdered in the most brutal fashion by those he trusted, or with Brutus, somewhat unwittingly coerced into this act by those with lesser motives, but which he thinks will protect the essential democracy of the state? Yet, even noble deeds have powerful consequences and the conspirators soon discover they have no control over the events they unleash, nor over the perception of those actions. With an angry mob to abate, the murder of Caesar leads to war with consequences that threaten the very Republic they hoped to defend.

At the heart of the play is Brutus, played by Tom McKay, whose decision to join the plot against his former friend and the effect this has on his honour and conscience, drive the action forward. McKay’s Brutus is a somewhat cold figure, who speaks often of his principles but seems almost unmoved by the events around him. The early scenes where Brutus wrestles with his conscience are perhaps the weakest, but McKay is excellent in the second half, bringing out the character’s greater sense of purpose at war, tempered with moments of regret and a sad realisation of how his actions have failed the Republic.

His counterpoint is Cassius, a fiery zealot who is the engineer of Caesar’s downfall, believing whole- heartedly in his right to topple the tyrant. Anthony Howell’s Cassius dominates his scenes, whether inspiring the plotters with diatribes on injustice or in his more philosophical moments discussing the purpose of fate. Together their friendship is very believable, nicely anchoring the events that ensue, and encouraging you to question whether Brutus killed for Rome or for Cassius.

Interestingly, Caesar scarcely appears in the play and George Irving gives him an unusual other worldly quality. He’s detached; barely human it seems, like the statue of Colossus he’s compared to and his softly spoken voice seems at odds with the image of the violent conqueror. Cleverly, this production regularly questions whether Caesar deserved to die and your sympathies are not allowed to rest on any one side.

Another man out to defend his friend is Mark Anthony, initially bowing to the conspirators so that he can later attack them. Luke Thompson brilliant conveys quite a wide-ranging part – Anthony on the surface is a carousing lout, albeit a charming one, but Caesar’s murder inspires grief then vengeance. The moment Anthony addresses Caesar’s corpse with the speech beginning: ‘Oh pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth that I am meek and gentle with these butchers’, is one of the best in the production, which Thompson builds from inconsolable grief to raging curses. The incredible scene where Anthony and Brutus address the mob is one of the finest rhetorical duels ever written and is perfectly done here with Thompson’s Anthony effortlessly and subversively inciting the mob to take revenge.

The Globe has created a hybrid Renaissance-ancient Roman world in both the design and staging of this production, which mostly works quite well. The 17th-Century costumes are fine for the conspiracy-period and war, but look a little strange with togas across the top for the Senate. It’s not really clear why they went for this design and it doesn’t always work, especially when the text clearly references battles and places. The musical interludes work very well and having a recurring trio of singers signal every death was a nice device.

Julius Caesar is not performed as often as you might expect, despite having one of the best plots and some of the most beautiful language that Shakespeare ever wrote, so see it while you can. The Globe’s production is gripping and exciting, gathering considerable momentum after the slaying in the Senate, and forcing your to question the motives of all involved. Debates of liberty and democracy aside, at its heart this is a play about friendships and the things men will do in support of one another. Whether anyone ends up a hero is debatable, but the high quality performances in this production will make it difficult to pick a side.

Julius Caesar is at the Globe until 11 October with standing tickets starting at £5. 

The Public Reviews


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