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Hamlet starring Andrew Scott – review at the Almeida Theatre, London – ‘captivating’

Andrew Scott in Hamlet at the Almeida. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Robert Icke understands the power of a pause. His production of Hamlet contains a lot of them. Not just the two intervals that break up the four-hour running time, but all manner of breaths and beats between the lines. Icke slows things down. He allows air into the text. He takes his time – and this tortoise approach wins out.

In Andrew Scott he has an actor capable of making the verse feel like tip-of-the-tongue stuff, the words clean and new. Scott is a moving and human Hamlet. In the beginning he glitters with grief, he radiates pain, and his reactions on encountering the ghost of his dead father and his uncle’s murder plot are as normal as it’s possible for them to be. He is bewildered, suspicious, angry and bereft. He greets all the twists of the play in a similar way, living them, unpicking them. He splits open the lines and gets at the sweet, ripe stuff inside. It is a performance of wit, delicacy and clarity, with silences that are equally as eloquent.

Icke, returning to the Almeida after Mary Stuart, directs with his customary precision. The production is one of twilight quiet and gentleness (for the most part – Icke does love a jump-scare). The aesthetic is familiar by now. Hildegard Bechtler’s sleek set is one of sliding glass screens and white curtains, the colour palette muted. There are occasional bursts of Bob Dylan. The Mousetrap scene is played with Hamlet and family sitting among the audience, their reactions filmed in close up. The ghost is first glimpsed on CCTV and Peter Wight’s genial Polonius wears a wire.

The other members of Team Icke put in fine performances. Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude and Angus Wright’s Claudius seem genuinely besotted with each other, hands forever entangled, slow dancing while Hamlet fights back tears in the foreground. They are almost inappropriately hot for one another, tumbling onto the sofa together, staring into each other’s eyes. Jessica Brown Findlay, meanwhile, avoids some, if not all, of the Ophelia cliches to poignant effect.

Icke eschews gestural, explanatory acting. Each line reading feels considered in a way that makes the play feel contemporary. The betrayals hurt, the characters suffer, and the whole cast performs that magic trick of making you hear fresh things in one of the most – and, before this, I would have argued too – frequently staged of Shakespeare’s plays.

While there’s nothing here to match the excruciating death of Iphigenia in Icke’s Oresteia in terms of tension, and Juliet Stevenson’s awakening to the nature of the man she has married almost gets lost, Icke’s production is never less than captivating, certainly not when Scott’s on stage. He’s an actor who sometimes stamps his foot on the accelerator, he’s capable of maniacal excess, but as anyone who’s seen him in Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall can attest, he’s also capable of restraint and grace. He can break you if he puts his mind to it – and does so here.

Find tickets for Hamlet on The Stage Tickets

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A production of clarity and precision featuring a rich and captivating performance by Andrew Scott