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But while the production may not quite be the revelatory experience that it once was, Andrew Scott still delivers one of the great Shakespearean performances of recent years. From his way with the verse to his palpable grief, his awareness of his own flesh and its frailty, and the way he greets each speech, his performance is one of complexity, clarity and control: Scott uses silence beautifully. There is eloquence in his every gesture: in the stroke of a finger on his wrist, in the gentle, almost unconscious way he tugs at his watch strap.
The play feels viscerally exciting. As designed by Hildegarde Bechtler with cold glass panels defining the playing areas, and video screens dominating, its a modern-dress production of hypnotising power. There's a creepily insinuating performance from Angus Wright as Hamlet's usurping step-father Claudius, and a really fine, anguished performance from Juliet Stevenson as his mother Gertrude. Also stunning are Jessica Brown Findlay as Ophelia, Luke Thompson as her brother Laertes, and Peter Wright as their father Polonius -- a doomed family caught in the power grab of Claudius. Shakespeare lives in the here and now -- but also forever, thanks to a production that will become an instant part of theatrical folklore.
Every moment of the text rings with significance. Scott is convulsed with emotion on a small stage. From the beginning he is emphatic, tipping easily from fury into tears, a windmill of small gestures, pointing to his eyes when he talks of weeping. He is on the brink of being too much. But then Hamlet is too much – for himself. Scott, spilling over with emotion, continually moves in unexpected directions. Away from lucidity, towards illusion, and suddenly dipping into laconic humour. In an inspired moment, on the eve of his death he sends up the idea of his fitness as a fencer.
There are flickers of stylish experimentalism – CCTV feeds featuring grainy shots of the ghost, blasts of Bob Dylan and a few interpolated moments of full-on tactility, with (ex-Downton star) Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia even glimpsed in the flesh in a bath. But was I fully persuaded after three hours that I’d sat through a Hamlet for our times? Alack and fie for shame, no.
The headline news is that Scott is very good indeed, allowing us to follow his often tortured thought process during the soliloquies and thus making those very familiar speeches seem new-minted. A conversational style dominates, making Icke’s production sometimes seem wilfully underplayed, not to mention vocally underpowered. It’s the very opposite of the old-school RSC style of belting it to the back of the balcony; one could almost call it lounge Shakespeare, not least since Hildegard Bechtler’s set is centred on a living room.
One of Icke's interventions, to create the bond between the audience and Hamlet, is to raise the house lights when Hamlet is instructing the players how to perform. When he asks them to fulfil their duty to ‘show... the very age and body of the time his form and pressure' and 'hold the mirror up to nature', he seems to be speaking about the production in which he is performing. Icke has indeed fulfilled his ambition to make a Hamlet for the Netflix generation.