Hamlet: it may be the most famous play in the world, but it’s not for everyone. Elizabethan drama requires much greater concentration and quick-wittedness to follow than you would need with any modern play. Some people think it’s because of the archaic vocabulary, but for me its more to do with the amount of meaning that’s packed into every line. Perhaps we aren’t able to focus our attention as well as our ancestors did in order to take it all in, but if we could rise to the challenge, there is much in this play to blow our minds.
This production by The Almeida Theatre – recorded as-live on the stage of London’s Harold Pinter Theatre back in 2017 – at least looks like its set in the 21st Century. It is hi-tech, with multiple TV screens, surveillance cameras and electronic listening devices. Everyone is dressed in modern designer clothing, carrying guns instead of swords. It has the appearance of a James Bond film, which is an impression only reinforced by Andrew Scott as Hamlet, who was recently seen in that series most recent release, Spectre.
The story follows the decline of a ruling dynasty as it tears itself apart. In the modern world, it might be a crime syndicate or an eastern European state; in Shakespeare’s play, it is the Danish Royal family. This family, at the same time as trying to preserve its power against outsiders, simultaneously plots and fights internally to determine who gets ascendancy. The focus of the play is on one member, the prince Hamlet, and the part he plays in the family’s downfall – despite the fact that he is a reluctant participant in the dynastic power struggle.
Early on in the action, Hamlet learns that his father, the King, may not have died of natural causes. His uncle Claudius, the new King, appears to have mounted a takeover by murdering Hamlet’s father then marrying the King’s widow, Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet’s disquiet starts to consume him: not only on the part of his uncle, but also his mother who seemingly will do anything to maintain her own position as Queen.
The action follows Hamlet and the disgust he has for the Court that he belongs to, particularly the outward show of morality, courtesy and correct behavior it displays, which he sees as a flimsy hypocritical disguise for the lust for power that pervades everyone. He is so dismayed by the amoral motives he sees in his mother and uncle, that he can’t help seeing similar failings in everyone around him, and so he turns on his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his girlfriend Ophelia and on the Lord Chancellor of the Court, Polonius.
However, all this time Hamlet has a nagging doubt about whether Claudius did murder his father. He got the information, after all, from a ghost – not the most reliable of sources – so he feels he has to try and prove it for himself. The action follows all his attempts to do so, whilst displaying just how disturbed his state of mind is…
An actor playing Hamlet has a lot to cope with. Here, Andrew Scott portrays Hamlet with a very naturalistic acting style, which somehow accompanies the very formal structure of the verse surprisingly well. The thoughts and emotions of Hamlet are conveyed with the same vocal expression, gestures and body language as you might see in a modern drama, but at the same time as a faultless delivery of the Elizabethan blank verse. He has an uncanny ability to make it appear that he has just had the thought that has given rise to his next line – it’s written all over his face. This technique helps the audience believe him and become drawn into the meaning of the dialogue.
The technique also helps him counter the cultural weight of the lines he has to deliver. Even if you have never seen the play, you will probably recognise many of the lines, because they have been borrowed by so many others since – everyone from the makers of Star Trek (‘The Undiscovered Country’) to Agatha Christie (’Murder most Foul’). Lines have even become everyday cliches of the English language, such as ‘I must be cruel only to be kind’. An actor, however, cannot be influenced by any of this, but deliver the lines as if they had come fresh out of the mouth of his character. Scott excels in this.
Another modern element in this production are the songs of Bob Dylan. An incongruous inclusion, you might think, and a bold decision by the director. I wonder if he would have had the nerve to do it before Dylan got his Nobel Prize for Literature, which now gives him the official status of being ’high culture’. However, the acid moodiness of Dylan does seem to fit the tone of the play, and I began to notice how close the acerbic cynicism of his own world view is to Hamlet’s.
This production is also dark: Shakespeare devotes many scenes to the expression of Hamlet’s disgust with the world. I’ve often wondered why modern audiences have not considered this tiresome, damaging the appeal of a play that has continued to be popular for centuries. Hamlet’s negativity is also indulged by the rest of the court, allowing him to exhibit all kinds of extraordinary behaviour, including – ultimately – murder. Realistically, as a Prince and heir to the throne of Denmark, he would be afforded enormous license by his subjects – but, as far as the judgement of countless theatre audiences are concerned, their indulgence must be because of the dark brilliance of his insights, and the accuracy of his condemnation of humanity. This is a pure sign of Shakespeare’s genius: in another playwright’s hands, Hamlet’s persona might have alienated the audience, but instead it is a tour-de-force, supported by unending popularity.
As the play progresses, the spectator has no doubt that the terrible internal struggles of the Danish Royal family will turn out well by the end, but it is gripping to watch nonetheless, as we see the machinations of the characters plotting and engineering their own decline.
Hamlet is not an easy watch, for many reasons, but this version is a roller-coaster ride and a thrilling experience. This is achieved with no greater special effects than the spectacular language, and no explosions other than the ones that go off in your head, caused by the audacity of Shakespeare’s ideas.
Hamlet will available to view on BBC iPlayer until April 30th 2018.