- Hamlet by William Shakespeare, and: Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The Almeida Theater’s 2017 production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet had three major stars, each offering his own singular and revelatory contribution: Robert Icke, the director; Andrew Scott, the actor; and Bob Dylan, the songwriter. These three figures worked with, and against, Shakespeare’s play to create an evening of mystery and surprise. While highlighting [End Page 563] Shakespeare’s language and dramaturgy, each called attention to their own artistic genius. This production, which transferred to the West End after its initial sold-out run, respected Shakespeare’s canonical status while making refreshingly innovative choices, including the use of video cameras and monitors; a Hamlet, as performed by Scott, whose defining attribute was love; and the bold incorporation of several recorded Dylan songs.
This production was full of “shock and awe” moments of interpretive beauty, beginning with the sounds of rumbling as the audience entered the theatre. The soundscape set off an aura of daunting suspense, which only increased as the volume grew louder. Icke used sound cues to connote the contemporary period, suggesting that his version of Hamlet would be a departure from both conventional costume dramas, which trade on Shakespeare as cultural capital, and productions pursuing early modern authenticity, which claim historical veracity. Not this Hamlet. The mise en scène, a simple yet elegant living room with a three-sectioned glass-pane wall-divider backdrop—think Danish contemporary—included several strategically elevated video monitors placed throughout the theatre. The set and costume design by Hildegard Bechtler enhanced the sense of the contemporary that infused the performance.
This Hamlet was informed by twenty-first-century technologies of surveillance and twenty-four-hour televised communications. The guitar chords of Dylan’s song ”One More Cup of Coffee,” from his album Desire (1976), announced the beginning of the play, as news coverage of King Hamlet’s funeral was broadcast on video monitors. Before we saw any of the actors, the Royal Family appeared to us on televised cable-news programs as mediated public figures. These prefatory moments—sound cues, popular music, visual images—unveiled a Hamlet set in our immediate moment. The play begins once again with nine screen monitors tracking the whereabouts of the castle. We are in a surveillance room in which security guards screen the monitors to track any suspect activity. It is here, on one of these screens, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father has previously appeared. And it is here where Shakespeare’s Hamlet meets up finally with Icke’s Hamlet. Horatio and the guards meet in the surveillance room to anticipate the ghost’s return. Icke’s Hamlet foregrounded the technologies of surveillance we use to observe and deceive one another: hidden microphones, CCTV cameras, and just plain spying. These devices composed some of the main visual language for the production, although never at the expense of the play.
The next four hours unfolded with surprising reverence for the text. Shakespeare’s language was made accessible primarily through the conversational style of the actors. This was true especially of Scott, whose performance of Hamlet, including the soliloquies, refused the lofty heritage of the role in favor of a more casual intimacy. Scott spoke with simplicity and clarity, and his vocal inflections and bodily gestures, especially his facial expressions, suggested a Hamlet completely at home with himself. Scott’s Hamlet, as the heir apparent, was formal and intelligent, but as the young man he was buoyant, lively, and at times emotionally unrestrained. He was an immensely likable Hamlet, and his warmth toward others was fully on display. When he first appeared, however, he was pouty, obviously annoyed with the King and Queen for their tasteless urgency to wed so quickly on the eve of his father’s funeral. But among his intra-generational friends and associates, he was playful and affectionate: full of fist-bumps, bear hugs, and big smiles. If there was a guiding...