Hamlet is the ultimate role for any actor and the best pass into theatrical legend. There is no doubt that Robert Ickes’s unbearably moving new production at the Almeida is up there with the greats, as is Andrew Scott as Shakespeare’s tortured Dane.
It will come as no surprise that a man best known for playing vicious psychopath Moriarty weights the role on the side of true rather than feigned insanity and it needs no major imaginative leap to believe Andrew Scott’s Danish prince capable of drinking hot blood.
But what is unexpected is his vulnerability, conveyed through agonisingly understated diction as well as the occasional searing rant. The shockwaves of his grief at his father’s death and his mother’s betrayal rip through the audience in this intimate production.
Expectations about Scott’s appearance, following his star turn in BBC’s phenomenally successful Sherlock, mean a frenzy over tickets and there’s added piquancy given the last major London Hamlet was played by Sherlock Holmes himself, Benedict Cumberbatch but there is no contest.
Where the Cumberbatch production, in the colossal auditorium of the Barbican, was undermined by nonsensical gimmicks and poorly thought out sight-lines, the version in the pint-sized Almeida is a triumph on every level. I am trying to resist saying a palpable hit but it has just slipped out. Robert Icke has done it again.
Icke’s decision to go for completely naturalistic delivery makes every line intelligible and the audience, on this first preview, were literally straining to hear every word. If you want accessibility, this is how to do it.
The use of technology is very clever indeed with quasi-Sky news footage framing and punctuating the production while an ingenious use of cameras gives us close-ups of Claudius and Gertrude during The Players’ performance. The use of CCTV is quite simply brilliant and I am not going to spoil it by describing it here.
All of the main performers are strong but you will not see a better Gertrude than Juliet Stevenson’s – she is one of the main reason this production is such a success. She sizzles with desire for Claudius, with love for Hamlet and reels with self-loathing, whilst her farewell to Ophelia is one of the biggest tear-jerkers of very weepy evening.
The production comes in at just under four hours including two intervals but the time gallops away.
It ought to be filmed and really deserves a West End transfer — I assume both will happen.
(Note: This was my thirteenth Hamlet and is the best production I have ever seen joint with Kenneth Branagh’s.)
Hamlets in order of personal preference:
1 Kenneth Branagh & Alex Jennings
3 David Tennant & Andrew Scott
5 Toby Stephens
6 Michael Sheen
7 Roger Rees
8 Rory Kinnear
9 Jonathan Pryce
10 Ralph Fiennes
11 Jonathan Slinger
12 Simon Russell Beale
13 Benedict Cumberbatch