Wednesday, 1 March 2017

'Hamlet' at the Almeida Theatre

Last week we went to see the new 'Hamlet' on the block at the Almeida Theatre. It's Andrew Scott's turn to play our sweet prince with Juliet Stevenson as his mother, Gertrude. 'Hamlet' is a funny old play by Mr Shakespeare and one that many actors feel they have to do when they're successful and in their 30s. I've seen a few productions over the years and my first was Derek Jacobi back in 1978. I've seen bad versions (yes, you Michael Sheen, that was an awful production), versions I can't remember (the production with Jude Law in 2009 - I blogged about it so I was there but can't recall it at all) and blockbuster versions (Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican a couple of years ago).  And now the Almeida with Andrew Scott.

This new production is set in the here and now and has the added challenge of using technology, video screens, computers and video cameras beaming live to the big screen that raises and lowers occasionally. I don't actually have a problem with that provided it works and is done well. I don't think this is done well. For some of the critical scenes the court is sitting off stage with snippets beamed to the screen which means that we - most of the audience - can't really see them or what they're doing, especially if you're in the circle (which I was). So every now and then the main cast would vanish other than the odd flash of them. As well as being quite annoying it's also quite lazy - doesn't the director know that we can't see what's happening? Or don't they care because it's their vision and that vision must be right?

It was particularly annoying especially in the sword fencing scene when we need to see Gertrude's realisation that the wine is drugged and she will drink it herself (as this production plays it). We see snatches of this on stage as she drinks the wine but the moments before when she finally understands the position are missing. I call that shabby production.

On the plus side, I thought the cast were largely very good and spoke the verse well. Not all, but most hit the mark. I thought Juliet Stevenson was great as the happy newly married queen and later as the harassed queen trying to do the right thing. But then, of course, she would be. Peter Wight was good as Polonius, played on the verge of altzheimers but he brought life to the character. Angus Wright was the big let down playing Claudius, the murderous, ambitious, power-hungry wannabe king who played it all so diffidently I sometimes couldn't even make out what he was saying. How is that Claudius? Imagine John Le Mesurier in 'Dad's Army'.

And Andrew Scott? I thought he got it right, the right mix of madness and scheming prince, even catching glimpses of why characters like Horatio seem to believe in him and love him, something very difficult to achieve. But even he had some downer moments, like when he jumped up and down like a toddler in a temper tantrum beside Ophelia's grave (sorry, should it be a spoiler for anyone that she dies?). Hamlet has been sent to England, grown up and come to his senses by that stage of the play so the toddler impersonation made little sense.

The thing I really *hated* about this production was the final scene that someone has written when we see the dead characters hand over their watches to the gateman and enter the ongoing party in the afterlife... yes, I mean what? What on earth was that about? I couldn't believe what I was seeing or how trite it was. It spoiled the whole thing for me. And I'm starting to get angry just remembering it. Experiment with the play, bring new angles to it and keep it fresh by all means but, good grief people, at least have some taste and style and understanding.

The whole run is, I think, sold out so I'm sure it'll be a great success. Andrew Scott is clearly attracting his fan base to the show so it'll be good for him. Me? I wouldn't go again even if I could get a ticket.

The more I think about it, the more I think Rory Kinnear's 'Hamlet' at the National Theatre is possibly the best 'modern' production but, even with that, I had my doubts (bouncing on the bed with a duvet, anyone?). 'Hamlet' is a great play with some gorgeous poetry and excellent critical thinking and I hate to see it spoiled. Maybe I need a break from the play for a few years...?

Mind you, on the plus side for using the video camera and projecting it on the big screen, it meant that I saw Vanessa Redgrave in the audience. I last saw her in 'Richard II' at the Almeida last year so it's nice to see she's a patron as well.

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