40: Andrew Scott.

Sometimes small moments speak volumes.  Robert Icke's production starring Andrew Scott has numerous innovations, but the most potent, the most emotional is to introduce a romantic back story between Hamlet and Guildenstern.  I've always thought that the mark of a production's quality is the thought which goes into interpreting these old friendships and in this Scandi-noir interpretation, by re-appropriating a few key lines, paying close attention to some interpersonal reactions, a whole history of love and loss is developed between characters whose connection is usually shown as tenuous at best.  Here, it's almost as, if not more potent than  Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia, and it's all in the looks between Scott and Madeline Appiah.

We can see something new is happening when R & G are initially introduced.  Hamlet and Guildenstern are extremely friendly, all smiles and gleeful hugs.  But then he turns to Rosencrantz and gives him the bare minimum of a greeting, grudging at best.  Immediately we know - there's wonder flowing beneath numerous bridges here.  The body language between R & G suggests that they're in a relationship now so and we're seeing Hamlet's disproving jealousy?  But everything is still pretty ambiguous; are we simply seeing the concern of one friend to another's choice of partner or something deeper?  As the play continues, amid all the more familiar relationships, we're forever conscious of how these three characters are regarding each other, how they hold each other, what's happening between them.

It's all about betrayal.  Guildenstern finds herself caught between a current and past relationship and she knows that as soon as she tells Hamlet that they're not in Elsinore of their own volition, that they've been sent for, it'll change their friendship, their relationship forever.  And so it does.  Every interaction after that is powerfully emotional as she finds herself working against her better nature, creating a wedge between someone who was clearly the love of her life.  When she tells him in the aftermath of the Mousetrap, "My lord, you once did love me." (a line transferred from Rosencrantz) and he acidly replies "So I do still ..." we can see that there's no going back and we're now on a path which will ultimately lead to the demise of one side of the relationship.

This production is replete with such fresh yet contextually logical re-interpretations of the text.  Although there are some laughs, for the most part the humour in the production is dialed back.  Polonius's scattershot memory and buffoonery, rather than providing easy laughs for a clown, are suggested instead to be as a result of early onset dementia; in one thrilling moment when addressing Voltemand, he forgets what he's saying and sits for minutes, confusion etched across his face as though he's suddenly aware of how his mind is working against him.  Although Peter Wright does allow his Polonius some levity here and there (especially in dealing with the asides he gives during Fishmonger) we're mainly aware of him forever trying to come to terms with his new weaknesses.

Although it's not unusual for Gertrude to be presented as entirely naive as to her new husband's murder of her previous spouse, this is one of the few times when, in drinking from the cup at the end, we're seeing a mother knowingly sacrifice herself to save her son.  The duel plays out in a kind of theatre montage, to music, applying poignancy to what can seem like the cranking inevitability of tragedy.  It's a mark of Juliet Stevenson's skill that we can see this choice in just a few glances, from the glass to her son and back again.  But it's a production which manages to wring a relatively happy ending for her and everyone else, as they're seen partying in the afterlife with the Queen re-uniting with her dead husband, Claudius's, yes, betrayal having been laid bare.

It's also an occasion when Hamlet Snr is a corporeal being.  Still a "ghost", but the actor David Rintoul is entirely present in his scenes with his son, embracing and holding each other and even Gertrude in the closet scene, even though she can't see or hear him and denies his existence.  Rintoul also portrays the player king and the grave digger and you could interpret this as Hamlet seeing his father in these other beings (or simply appreciate the doubling up of casting).  Having him appear on the security cameras at the opening of the play is an interesting choice though; sure this would mean that there would be a recording of his appearance somewhere?  Unless he's not actually in the space being surveyed but simply imprinting himself on the technology.  Perhaps sometimes it is best to just go with it.

There is one curious scene which tripped up a lot of reviewers, especially Michael Billingham in his Guardian review: "I cannot fathom why Claudius should make his confession of murder not to an unseen divinity but to Hamlet standing in front of him holding a pistol. Why, if the king came clean, wouldn’t his nephew shoot him?"  It is a surprising choice, but my rationalisation, perhaps after having watched a few episodes of Legion, is that what we're seeing is not literal action.  That the supernatural element which has infested the castle has led to Hamlet and Claudius to share a delusion and that the latter isn't aware of the former's presence.  That scene isn't easy to stage, the audience always has to suspend their disbelief to some extent about how much the new King senses his step son's presence.  Icke decides to face it head on, literally.

Even after seeing forty Hamlet's it's still possible to be surprised and yet in a production which apart from the aforementioned tweaks utilises a very full text.  Fortinbras is near complete, his closing army and diplomacy illustrated from filmed news reports (along with shots of the Danish royal family at the funerals which bookend the play).  The second gravedigger's cut but "How all occasions do inform against me" is intact.  This is mainly an interpretation of the Quarto text although it shifts "To Be" earlier to before Fishmonger with Polonius wanding on at the end which means Hamlet won't be aware that he's being watched by anyone within the world of the play so his potentially voicing real thoughts rather than performatively adding a seed of doubt in the minds of those watching.

The actor impressive communicates as though he's saying on the most famous speeches in literature for the first time.  You can see a thought process behind Scott's eyes even as he's also somewhat lecturing the audience.  Every word is clear and although I saw a few people on social media on the night of broadcast questioning his gesticulating, that seemed an entirely natural result of the character wanting to emphasise his words, draw attention to what's important.  Why fold your arms or sit on your hands when you can use your whole body to tell your story?  As some of the contemporary reviews suggested, this is a career defining performance from Scott, who after Moriarty finds himself too often pigeon holed into the crazy villain mode.  He has much greater range than that.

Is his Hamlet mad?  Yes, although I think it's more complicated than that.  I think he does suffer from a mental illness but it's as we'd diagnose and treat it now.  He's feigning madness when it suits him because he's well aware of his other problems in dealing with PTSD as a result of the death of his father.  In other words there are episodes which are a result of his mental illness and what seems like manic episodes which are in fact performances.  But I'd also add that it does become harder to distinguish between them towards the end of the production  Notice how, when he's quizzing the grave digger he seems completely lucid, but then goes off the rails when faced with the Ophelia's corpse yet dials back again just before the duel when he jokes about skills or lack of them in relation to fencing.

If the passion between Hamlet and Guildenstern doesn't manage to overshadow the usual relationship with Ophelia, it's partly due to the easy chemistry between Scott and Jessica Brown Findlay.  Findlay imbues Ophelia with a thick layer of irony to the point that initially we aren't sure if she's complicit in Hamlet's "madness", an impression which is preserved deep into the nunnery scene when its hinted that her complicity may have been one sided.  It's here that we see the power of Findlay as an actress as a single tear drifts through her already sodden mascara as she realises Hamlet knows that she too has betrayed him.  She also doesn't overplay Ophelia's breakdown.  Wheeled on strapped to a chair having been institutionalised, its only in her final moments on stage that she lets her emotions run riot.

That we're able to follow all of these emotional threads is a credit to the television presentation.  When I began this project, it was on the assumption that at no point would it include the prime time transmission of a West End in theatre recording.  But here we are all these years later with BBC Two devoting three and a quarter hours on an Easter Saturday to this Almeda Theatre transfer to the Harold Pinter theatre.  The BBC has experimented with this format, with Sophocles's Antigone from the Barbican turning up in 2015 on BBC Four  and the iPlayer awash with streaming specials (the RSC production of Richard II, the Globe's Dream and a Lear from Manchester Exchange) but I think you have to look back as far as BBC Four's broadcasts of the Globe for a complete Shakespeare broadcast live from or recorded in the theatre.

Until Saturday night, recent Shakespeare has generally meant filmic productions of the plays, The Hollow Crown sequence or Russell T Davies's version of Dream (not to mention the forthcoming Lear with Sir Anthony H) or compilations like Live from the RSC.  But if nothing else, this Hamlet, produced by John Wyver, a veteran of cinema broadcasts, demonstrates that in-theatre captures can be just viable if not essential.  For all the artifice, there's something tangible, thrilling and exciting about seeing those words played in a setting where there's less scope for retakes, in which they're foregrounded and allowed to flow without an actor constantly needing to be aware of how they stand in relation to the camera especially when the production originated in the theatre to begin with.

It's thanks to tv director Rhodri Huw that we're able to absorb the emotional moment I highlighted at the top of this review.  Throughout the presentation, the director offers close-ups of the performers allowing us to notice their micro expressions and so it is that as Hamlet and Guildenstern speak, the rest of the stage almost disappears as the recorder passes between them, the pain etched across her features.  When Hamlet initially replies to Guildenstern's reminder of his previous love for her, "So I do still ..." the camera holds on Scott's face and in the ensuing moments, after cutting to a master featuring all three of them, the prince clasping Guildenstern's hand, a reconciliation seems possible, but then Hamlet decides that her entreaties are just another manipulation and we can see that hope is lost.

The March of Time.

About New month. So here we have ...

April O'Neil

[Editor's note: Yes, I know there have been numerous Aprils over the years from animated to Judith Hoag but Megan Fox is the most recent and actually one of the highlights of the newest reboots. So there.]