‘You’re back again?’ said the friend-of-a-friend usher at the Almeida when I arrived for Hamlet. She was mistaken. The insanely awaited production starring Andrew Scott is so very sold-out that buying even one ticket felt like a triumph. And, at nigh-on four hours, I was sure once would be fine. Nah-uh: Scott’s performance and Robert Icke’s production are a blanket of revelation. I arrived dog-tired, I left emotional. I’d love to go back.
There’s lots to say about the genius line-readings and surprising additions. But I just want to think about the watches for a bit. (Spoilerphobes, look away now.)
What’s in a watch? Traditionally, it’s a landmark gift from father to son – and Hamlet is a tragedy of fathers (cherished, mourned, resented) and sons (disturbed, displaced). Early on, Icke draws your attention to the watches that yoke the generations together. As Laertes (Luke Thompson) heads off to France, his father Polonius (Peter Wight) gives him a flashy gold number, heavy with pride. Chunky, shiny affirmation for a golden boy. Laertes may have a temper and a neck tattoo, but he’s groomed for office. Though, as Polonius, the inveterate master-spook, plans to send spies after his son, the watch is probably fitted with a tracking device.
Hamlet’s own watch is more homely. Classic, black-strapped, slightly worn yet worn with love. Scott touches it at the beginning of the play, as he thinks of his father – I’m guessing it was his dad’s, maybe even taken from the bedside table or unstrapped from the dead man’s wrist. A token of everything that hadn’t yet been said, perhaps. At any rate, it’s a constant reminder of the prince’s grieving present, freighted with the past and refusing to move into the new regime’s brittle future.
The time is out of joint, oh yes. So is Scott ‘s Hamlet, supremely emotionally and intellectually engaged and perching on the brink of tears – it must be an exhausting performance to give. His voice, mostly hushed in the intimate space, will suddenly hit the pedal and roar. The present feels febrile and jittery, the past too concrete – especially as this production develops an unusually heightened sense of the backstory of each relationship. Scott is wary with Juliet Stevenson’s smothery warmth as Gertrude. Warier still with Angus Wright’s basso wolf of a Claudius. Playful with Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay), and with an intriguing sense that he and Amaka Okafur’s Guildenstern were once an item (no wonder things are tense with Rosencrantz). The past here is full, complicated, and a brake on moving on.
Time stops here
Time is funny in this play. Hamlet is still a student, though at least 30 years old (and typically played by an older actor – Scott is 40). The play’s main event has already happened – the murder of old Hamlet, which the action gradually validates. The first, long arc of the play (the first two acts in this production, lasting well over two hours) is a telescoped day or two, here backed by a rolling celebration for Claudius’ marriage and coronation. With no windows in Hildegard Bechtler’s set (the guards don’t patrol battlements but monitor security cameras), it’s hard to gauge night and day. The bleary knees-up (Gertrude and Claudius always with the slow dance) enhances the sense of a long, sore-eyed night, punctuated by headache cannonfire.
Then everything hurtles forwards. The play-within-a-play and its traumatic aftermath. Hamlet arrested and bundled off to England. Another lurch forward in which Ophelia loses her wits and Hamlet returns. The final burst of everybody dies. A play about the heavy past and the impossible present suddenly agitates everyone into calamity.
And then: spoiler spoiler spoiler. Remarkably, in the final moments of the evening, the watches return. Hamlet typically ends with a pile-up of bodies, or any survivors lugging the corpses offstage. Not here. The translucent wall of Bechtler’s set reveals the party scene of the first act – white balloons in a powdery glow – where the dead join Ophelia, Polonius and the other early arrivals. David Rintoul’s old Hamlet is on the door, where each character unbuckles their watch and hands it over. Time stops here – but so too does obligation, the burden of duty, the great dead weight of having to keep on going. Minute by minute, day by day. No more.
It’s the most beautiful image – personal, workaday, magical – for a play which, among many other things, shows its hero learning how to die. Time, and all it demands, keeps you sad, pulls you back – and at long last lets you free.
Photo above: Andrew Scott and Amaka Okafor by Manuel Harlan.
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