King Lear has overtaken Hamlet as the most performed of the Bard’s work, but this outstanding production shows why the Danish prince is still king.
The setting is thoroughly contemporary. Hamlet’s world of mid-century modern furniture and 24-hour news is seamlessly woven into the text; if you were watching the play for the first time you would wonder how Shakespeare had the prescience to have Horatio address the ghost of the dead king through a CCTV monitor, or have Polonius wear a wire tap.
There are some brilliant stylistic flourishes by director Robert Icke, such as the dramatic finale of the first third (there are two intervals, the first after an hour and 45 minutes; no wonder they were handing out coffee on press night), in which Hamlet has someone film the audience during the play-within-a-play, beaming the footage live behind the stage so we can see both the action and murderous Claudius’ reaction.
None of this, of course, would be worth a jot were Andrew Scott – most recognisable as Moriarty from Sherlock – not up to the task. But he’s an excellent Hamlet, brooding, twitchy, almost certainly battling bipolar disorder, prone to spontaneous, infantile rage, yet also darkly charming. Recent Hamlets have included fellow Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch and the superlative Rory Kinnear; Scott is the equal of both.
It’s not a perfect play – Icke has a strange obsession with Bob Dylan, and the soundtrack often distracts from the action. Pre-recorded segments – usually news footage – lack the quality of the live performances, and the climactic fencing bout sits uneasily with this introspective, 21st century Hamlet.
But this play hinges on a fabulous performance by a huge talent, and those four hours fly by as quickly as the arrows of outrageous fortune.