theater review

A Hamlet That May Have Been Nobler in the West End

Photo: Stephanie Berger/Park Avenue Armory

To do or not to do another Hamlet: That is too rarely the question. Even those who should hesitate can’t resist. Certainly Danish princes have been thick on the ground lately, whether singing (Allan Clayton) or shouting (Ruth Negga), Southern (Fat Ham) or Norse (The Northman). This crowded field may be the reason director Robert Icke’s version, finally arrived from London at the Park Avenue Armory after a two-year COVID delay, feels so out of step and fumbling. It can’t punch as hard as those other projects, even taking into consideration their flaws: Icke’s Hamlet was built for one actor but now stars another, and it staggers and weaves, conceived for a moment and a collaboration now passed.

The angle here has to do with surveillance. In Elsinore, a spy lurks behind every curtain, and every friend secretly files a report to the authorities. Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears first on the castle’s CCTV cameras, and chief of staff Polonius (Peter Wight) hands out microphone packs to facilitate eavesdropping. Icke worries that we will not understand that he considers this to be a bad thing (perhaps we haven’t seen as much Black Mirror as he has?), so sound designer Tom Gibbons fills the air with a throbbing horror-movie whine. For nearly all of the production’s three hours and 45 minutes, this sort of sound insists on reminding us that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” hammering a nail that has long since been walloped flush. Icke also occasionally cues up some Bob Dylan songs, chosen for their on-the-bodkin lyrics. (An air of ersatz Ivo van Hove–ness settles over the production, perhaps courtesy of his longtime video collaborator Tal Yarden.)

Even if you’re familiar with the basic scenario (you know your hawk from your handsaw), there may be material here you haven’t heard. The usual stuff is in the usual place: The dead king’s ghost (David Rintoul) tells prince Hamlet (Alex Lawther) he was murdered by his usurping brother Claudius (Angus Wright) and that his son must avenge him. To add insult to homicide, Claudius has married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Jennifer Ehle), and Hamlet’s disgust at her easily transferred affection perverts into a darker revulsion for all women. This psychological stew is what most directors focus on, but Icke also stages a rarely performed scene from a contested quarto and leaves in the oft-excised plot about Fortinbras, the revanchist neighboring prince. He handles these both clearly (you will understand the political machinations) and clumsily (you won’t be quite sure why he’s done it).

Hildegard Bechtler’s set design makes the castle look like a mid-2000s hotel erected inside the walls of a historic building. The action takes place in an arid public lounge with a glass breezeway lined with gauze curtains and standard-issue potted plants. It’s basically an Elsinore Courtyard by Marriott®, with all its televisions tuned to a knockoff BBC, which video designer Yarden uses for news updates about events outside the castle. Natasha Chivers lights the whole thing like someone in admin is saving on electricity — dim sulfurous downlight submerges everyone in a smoggy, ugly murk. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space,” says Hamlet, who has obviously realized that he occupies a lobby in hell.

Without a powerful performance at its center — both Lawther and Wright are awkward and recessive — the cracks in Icke’s conception and craft gape wide. There’s an inexplicable, momentum-murdering second intermission, and Icke slides in an “all kings go to heaven” ending that is both cloying and unearned. Nor does the show think its way through its own conceits: Ideas are furnished for a moment rather than in an integrated vision. No one uses the security cameras for tasks other than ghost-peeping (even when the entire castle is on alert); the mic packs are there for one gag and gone. Polonius experiences dementia — in one instant he loses language entirely — and then, whatever, that never happens again. By the time Hamlet is wandering the halls with a gun, these bad-wheel wobblies have gotten out of control. During a bizarrely reimagined Claudius prayer scene, Hamlet (who stays hidden in Shakespeare’s scenario) reveals himself and threatens to shoot his uncle in the face. At this point, Claudius gives him a “come at me bro” shrug and wanders out. You will be surprised to learn that this event is never mentioned again.

Back in London, this thing must have worked, and there’s an obvious change that explains the difference. Icke worked on the play for three years with his then-star Andrew Scott, developing an intricately edited script with him, interpolating here, massaging there. In coming to New York, the production lost the quicksilver Scott and substituted Lawther, an elfin actor who displays an elegant wickedness onscreen but who lacks stage technique, both vocally and physically. (Other actors grow extremely still around him, as if demonstrating that you do not have to point and gesture on every syllable of every word. He does not get the message.) To play Hamlet, you must communicate a mobile and changing consciousness, both a “noble mind here o’erthrown” and a wit full of insights into falsity, pretense, rhetoric, and display. But Lawther’s last soliloquy is delivered at the same glacial, meandering pace as his first. He’s neither deranged nor clever nor wrong nor right. No thought kindles among those damp logs.

There is a Hamlet somewhere in Lawther, though. It’s not a pleasant one, but should you choose to, you could build a dangerous and wild production around him. Lawther’s pampered affluenza-princeling is frail and gun-obsessed; sulky and handsy with girls, sneaky and evasive around men. Both his stunned, unlistening quality and his condescending tone when he delivers his lecture monologues certainly feel familiar. (Frailty, thy name is woman. Change my mind.) Could he be an incel Hamlet? Did he get radicalized on YouTube by Ghost-Anon? But instead of remaking and redesigning the show for his new actor’s talents and slight physical frame, Icke plugs him into Scott’s much more conventional place, lifting him up at the end into nearly saintlike status, and what may have worked for one does not work for the other. When, after a short sea voyage, Hamlet shows up in a white sweatshirt and white trousers, Scott looked like he was fresh from the tennis court, ready at last to bat his uncle’s sins back into his face. The same costume makes Lawther look like a fifth-grader on field day. You do not want your star to look this much like a young Haley Joel Osment while he’s already busy seeing dead Danish people.

Hamlet is not the only person in Hamlet, of course. Icke also lets down his Claudius, who winds up spinning and rigid as a weathervane, as well as other characters — a blubbering Laertes, an Ophelia who turns into a cutter — who must try to make sense out of non-sense. Alone among the principals, Jennifer Ehle’s Gertrude manages to seem warm, capable of surprise and dawning thought. I wonder if it is a coincidence that Ehle came to the show quite late, just in the past few weeks, replacing an actor who was hurt. Certainly she arrived with her own prodigious charisma, comfortable onstage and screen, but it’s also possible she is simply closer to the creative act, having done it, in a tearing hurry, in the last month. Theater is a little like vengeance, in this way — it’s easiest when the blood is hot.

Hamlet is at the Park Avenue Armory through August 13.

A Hamlet That May Have Been Nobler in the West End