Hamlet at the Hackney Empire review ****

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Hamlet

Hackney Empire, 19th March 2018

Working on the premise that it surely is impossible to see Hamlet too often in a lifetime, and keen to make sure the RSC continues to bring as many productions as possible to London, I signed up some time ago for this gig. This despite having already seen the cinema broadcast from Stratford in 2016. A bit excessive I hear you cry. Nope, not when you have an actor as gifted as Paapa Essiedu. His Edmund in the RSC King Lear in 2016 was the best thing about the production, which was pretty good despite some misgivings about the play and Antony Sher’s Lear. Hopefully you had a chance to see him on the tour of this production before it came to the venerable Empire. If you are anywhere near the Kennedy Centre, Washington (DC not Tyne and Wear) in early May I commend you to get along for the last leg of this tour.

There is more to this production, directed by Simon Godwin, than Mr Essiedu however. Mr Godwin has demonstrated that he has a way of breathing new life into classic texts, combining innovation and fealty. (Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****). Denmark has been re-imagined as a West African state which yields some interesting insights and a design concept for Elsinore a long way from the usual Northern European Stygian gloom. The programme notes, (I don’t know why people don’t buy programmes, at the very least at the major subsidised theatres, there is so much to learn from them), refer to Hamlet coming “home” after his years studying in Wurttemberg and how he is torn between cultures. There is some mileage in this idea which the production gently explores. There are parallels with Tshembe Matoseh, the main protagonist in Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece Les Blancs. No doubt you clever people can think of other theatrical “culture-clash” conceits. Of course transporting the look and the backdrop of the play to West Africa, whilst still retaining a text and characters anchored in Shakespeare’s vague Denmark, throws up a few contradictions but I think that was largely the point. Your man Hamlet after all isn’t short of cognitive dissonance.

So our sweet Prince is already on edge and suspicious of how Claudius came to power. When he sees Dad’s ghost on the ramparts all togged out in tribal chief paraphernalia, in contrast to the modern dress of the present Court, he quickly resolves to action. There is a sense throughout that this Hamlet, whilst not knowing how and when, and running through the gamut of hesitant self examination, is powered by the powerful urge to right a wrong. His feigned madness, his toying with Polonius, the verbal sparring with Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the taunting of Claudius and Gertrude, the carousing with the players, are all in the service of avenging the old fella. The production breaks at the Claudius prayer scene with Hamlet circling in the shadows, gun in hand. I wasn’t sure but I reckon this was only ever going to be a reprieve for Claudius. (Of course I was sure, we all know what happens, but my point is this was a Hamlet who was just gearing up to the main event not a bottler with an uncertain grip on his own reality). “To be or not to be” is a pep talk to self here, not a page from Kierkegaard.

Paapa Essiedu fits this conflicted, mischievous Hamlet like a glove. There is not one single word, let along line, that doesn’t sound entirely right. He doesn’t hang around or over-elaborate, but there is still enough space around the words to take them in. Not the conversational musing of Andrew Scott at the Almeida or the irked ironic philosophising of Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Just a spontaneous intelligence which makes you wonder why other actors seem to agonise over the right tone to take for this admittedly complicated young fella. His movement and expression is flawless. He can project a single glance to the back of the balcony. He seems to find the shifts from comedy to tragedy, well, just easy. Look out for the laugh he conjures up when pulling Polonius’s body from behind the arras. And I know it shouldn’t matter but it really helps that he is the right age and he is beautiful. PE himself seeming to be a combination of child, student, lover, playboy, artist, he knows enough to question what it is all about, but not enough to buckle under the weight of his own existentialist uncertainties. And, despite all the moping about and hissy fits, you can see why people are really drawn to him and crave his approval.

Compare this to Clarence Smith’s Claudius which is far more old-skool declamatory, though this works pretty well in this context. A far cry from the last time I saw this fine actor as the broken Selwyn in Roy Williams’s brilliant latest play The Firm (The Firm at the Hampstead Theatre review *****). I wasn’t entirely convinced initially by the versatile Lorna Brown’s seemingly withdrawn and inert Gertrude, but this made more sense as the production unfolded and the final death scene was very poignant. He’s still her little boy you see.

In the scenes between Polonius (Joseph Mydell), Laertes (Buom Tihngang) and Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) there was a real sense of a loving family, something I had not really felt before. Matching Papa Essiedu’s dazzling performance was a tall order for the rest of the cast but Mmi Ndiweni, (taking on the role from Natalie Simpson in the first Stratford incarnation), came pretty close. The mad scene was both very moving and very scary. Mind you I am a sucker for a distraught Ophelia. And, thanks to both actors, Hamlet’s dismissal of Ophelia, here played out whilst writhing around in bed, actually made sense. Romayne Andrews and Eleanor Wyld as Rosencrantz and Guildernstern struck all the right notes, dislocated in this very different Denmark, and Ewart James Walters turned in some scene stealers doubling as a booming Old Hamlet and a Gravedigger who, judging by his accent, had taken a long way round to get to this particular Denmark.

The production really comes to vibrant life when the colours, sounds and dance of West Africa are brought to the stage thanks to Paul Anderson (lighting), Sola Akingbola (composer), Christopher Shutt (sound) and Mbulelo Ndabeni. The players are no afterthought here. Locating Hamlet’s antic disposition in the artistic milieu of Jean-Michel Basquiat works far better on stage than on paper. You are left wondering if Simon Godwin and the team might have found a few more visual or textual signifiers to flesh out Claudius’s rise to, (diplomatic duplicity alongside an arranged murder?), and fall from, power, and the effect of conflict with the “Norwegian” neighbours, though I get this might have made for an uneasy narrative. It may have helped ease the shift into the bloody carnage of Act V though.

Anyway not quite a perfect Hamlet (play) if such a thing where ever possible. But certainly a near perfect Hamlet (bloke) thanks to Paapa Essiedu. I think I have been guilty of saying too often that I can’t wait to see what xxxx does next on stage in this blog. In this case it is really true and I suspect most of those who have seen this production would agree. On this evidence anything is possible from this rare talent. There are some actors who convince but stay firmly rooted to the stage behind the invisible wall. There are some though that seem to magically come off and out to play to you alone. PE is one of these.

 

 

 

 

Some forthcoming London theatre ideas

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So we have had a few new season announcements over the past few weeks so here is a wrap up of what I think looks interesting in terms of stuff coming up on various London stages.

To spare you crawling through all this guff here is my top ten, including the best of these recent new season announcements in my view, and some other incumbent recommendations.

  1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. So I know the decent seats are exorbitantly priced and this has come in for a bit of “paddywackery” backlash but it is still a towering play and is a must see.
  2. Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Ditto. This is just a brilliant Hamlet from Andrew Scott and must be seen whatever you view on Will S.
  3. Network at the National Theatre. Should be a cracker – more details below
  4. Macbeth at the Barbican. In Japanese (with surtitles) but this is a classic production which I am very excited about.
  5. I Am Rachel Corrie at the Young Vic. Erin Doherty in the lead in this revival.
  6. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I have a feeling this will be good.
  7. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. The next hit from the Almeida?
  8. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. I have banged on about this before but all is in place for the Bridge’s first offer.
  9. Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre. Revival of Terry Johnson brainy classic.
  10. Poison at the Orange Tree Theatre. I think this will be another triumph of discovery at Paul Miller’s Orange Tree.

More detail below.

Young Vic

New season is up. Best of the bunch for me is a revival of I Am Rachel Corrie based on the eponymous activists diaries with Erin Doherty in the lead. I have said before that I think Ms Doherty will become a stage legend and this should support that idea. The Jungle also caught my eye, with a whole bunch of tip-top creatives weaving stories from the Calais refugee camp. This is the sort of thing the Young Vic excels at. I am also looking forward to Wings with Juliet Stevenson in the lead and the Suppliant Women.

Royal Court Theatre

A whole bunch of goodies in the new season with three takes on the impact of war, Minefield, Bad Roads and Goats, and a US transfer, Grimly Handsome which has already sold out. My money is on My Mum’s a Twat a debut play from Anoushka Warden which RC’s Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone is directing, Girls and Boys, a relationship drama from Dennis Kelly (who writes for the telly) and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and, sounding best of all, Gundog, which has a nice ring of folk horror about it in the blurb. As usual with the RC there is not much to go on but I have a very good feeling about this. Ms Featherstone also directing.

Almeida Theatre

The Almeida can’t put a foot wrong under Rupert Goold with Ink the latest hit (sold out at the Almeida but go see it in the West End Transfer – you won’t regret it). I am booked for all 3 of the new season productions.

Mr Goold himself will direct Albion, Mike Bartlett’s new play. This has “state of the nation” written all over it but Mr Bartlett is a terrific writer so no need to fear. His last outing Wild at the Hampstead was good if not outstanding but this seems to have all the ingredients including a rareish outing for Victoria Hamilton on stage (you will have seen her in numerous period dramas).

Also intriguing is the Twilight Zone a world premiere from Anne Washburn based on, you guessed it, the Twilight Zone TV series from the 60’s. Now I can’t pretend I was bowled over by Ms Washburn’s Mr Burns but you have to admit this sounds quite exciting especially as it will be directed by the reliably controversial opera director Richard Jones.

After all this excitement the last play in the new season is a bit more classical in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke directed by Rebecca Frecknall (who has taken on this relative rarity before at the Southwark Playhouse) and with Patsy Ferran seemingly perfectly cast in the lead.

Donmar Warehouse

There are still a few tickets left for the new version of Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea and more for the Knives in Hens revival which should show director Yael Farber in her best light after the tricky Salome at the NT. Knives in Hens is a spare, poetic love triangle that gets regular revivals because, er, it is very, very good.

Old Vic 

Tickets now on sale for The Divide the new dystopian drama from the pen of Alan Ayckbourn. It is in two parts and I have no idea how it will pan out. It will be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival so probably worth waiting to see how it is received. It does have my favourite Erin Doherty (see My Name Is Rachel Corrie) above so I have already taken the plunge to get my favourite seats but I might have gone too early.

Arcola Theatre

A slew of interesting stuff in the new season including the Grimeborn opera offerings, but the standout plays for me look like the revivals of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (his new play Prism is also coming up at the Hampstead Theatre) and Howard Barker’s Judith: A Parting from the Body with Catherine Cusack in the lead.

Orange Tree Theatre

Everything in the new season looks interesting to me including productions of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, Elinor Cook’s Out of Love and Brad Birch’s Black Mountain, but I think the UK premiere of Poison by Dutch writer Lot Vekermans may turn out to be the best of the bunch.

National Theatre

I am seeing Angels in America shortly (always seem to end up near the end of the run) so review will follow. Common is still trundling on – I didn’t think it was too bad but others were less forgiving (Common at the National Theatre review ***). No official reviews for Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood which kicked off recently but I am looking forward to this immensely. Unfortunately the run is sold out so queueing on the day is the only way in.

Coming up are Follies, the Sondheim musical with Imelda Staunton belting out the tunes, Oslo, the sold out Broadway transfer which already has a West End transfer, St George and the Dragon, which I would take a punt on as a “modern folk tale” (expect Brexit allusions) written by Rory Mullarkey and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and Beginning, which I am guessing is a relationship drama (I assume with twists) written by David Eldridge and directed by the inestimable Polly Findlay.

My highest hopes are reserved for Network, based on the mid 70s Oscar winning film satire on the media, to be adapted by Lee Hall, directed by Ivo van Hove and with Bryan Cranston in the lead. Now film adaptions and Ivo van Hove disappointed on the last outing (Obsession at the Barbican – Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***) but I still would take the risk. This isn’t going to work if it follows the minimal, psychological insight route so I am assuming it will look more like Mr van Hove’s relentlessly busy Shakespearean efforts. There are tickets left for later in the run.

Barbican Theatres

Mr van Hove will also be bringing his Tonnelgroep Amsterdam team to the Barbican for After the Rehearsal/Persona and the main theatre will also show all the RSC Roman Shakespeares transferring from Stratford. I am signed up for the marathon Smile On Us Lord (I hope he/she does) from Russia’s Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre though I recognise this might be a bit hardcore for most. I do think the Ninagawa company’s Macbeth will be worth the £50 though. This is a revival was the production that first brought this innovative visual feast to the “West” so it really is a “once in a lifetime” theatrical experience.

 

Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

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Hamlet

Almeida Theatre, 11th March 2017

“…. but I’ve forgotten what Hamlet is about. 

It’s about a young man called Hamlet. And a girl called Ophelia who goes mad. And a ghost. And a Queen called Gertrude who gets poisoned. And a king called Claudius who gets stabbed. And a young man called Laertes who gets killed in a duel, and an old man called Polonius who gets killed by mistake.

I remember now. Not a Bright Piece …. “

From Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys

The SO’s unparalleled reading of first half C20 memoirs turned up the above. A perfect spoiler/summary which tickled me. Hamlet may be the greatest play that big Will ever created but for me it still has some plot development that needs a deft directorial touch as well as, obviously, a believable psychological portrait from the Prince himself. That means a logic to the pile up of corpses, a Hamlet who loves Mummy and Daddy, reasons why Gertrude might love Claudius who therefore cannot just be just a weakling or a tw*t from the off, a Polonius who isn’t a total buffoon, an Ophelia who isn’t off with the fairies, a properly p*ssed off Laertes, good reasons why Hamlet might still have mates whilst his behaviour gets ever more erratic and preferably sotto voce reference to Norway and England.

For me this Hamlet ticked all the boxes and much. much more. I can’t pretend I have seen loads of great actors do their thing here nor can I remember vast swathes of the text. You can read the proper reviews to get all of that. But I can tell you that this is, in my view, about as good as Shakespeare gets.

Casting Andrew Scott as Hamlet if I am honest, probably didn’t require a massive leap of imagination. He looks the part (still sufficiently youthful) and surely was a shoe-in to play an unhinged mind based on previous work (oh alright based on his Moriarty on the telly as that is all I really know).

But OMG as the kids might say. Does he deliver. The conversational delivery meant I could savour almost every line and hear plenty that had not previously registered. There was an inevitability to his behaviour as events unfolded reinforced by the continuous animation in his face and hands . The petulance and narcissism that I want from a Hamlet was abundant. Let’s be honest he can be an annoying little s**t.

The relationships were perfectly pitched. The archness in the scenes with the actors, with Polonius, with Horatio and with the gravedigger were spot on. And the emotional tension created in the scenes with Gertrude, Ophelia and with Claudius (a gun and a dream, maybe – brilliant). And the soliloquies were perfectly delivered (and there are some cracking notes in the programmes about the psychology around voices in the head).

Hard for me to imagine better performances as well from a tactile Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude) especially as realisation turns into self-sacrifice, Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia), just edge of seat stuff with the herbs (a phrase your are unlikely to hear again!), Luke Thompson (Laertes), lump in throat in the final scenes with Hamlet, and Peter Wright (Polonius) a proper loving Dad and a vital right hand man. And for me Angus Wright’s (Claudius) more declamatory delivery fitted the nature of a chap who I think is rarely plagued with self doubt unlike his step-son.

The real genius though is director Robert Icke who is at the top of his game here. That’s not to stay he is infallible. Myself and BD (who was a massive Simpsons fan when she was a littlun) didn’t get on with Mr Burns where the concept drowned the characters for me, and whilst The Red Barn at the NT looked amazing I think the story was perhaps ultimately too thin, even as it passed through the hands of David Hare and the eyes of Mr Icke, to support the promise. 1984 though was brilliant, his Mary Stuart was absorbing and, for me, his Uncle Vanya was revelatory (I have not always got on with this), but even this was surpassed by Mr Icke’s Oresteia which was magnificent with the expanded prologue setting up the moral pickles and making the intervention of the gods gripping instead of a bit bonkers.

In this Hamlet the use of video is inspired not hackneyed, in the Ghost scene, in the play close-ups and in the conclusion, all reinforcing the the themes of surveillance and tine passing. The idea of Claudius’ confession as a dream is intriguing as is Ophelia’s breakdown from a wheelchair. There is mordant comedy in the Polonius/Hamlet scene. All in all lots of bang up to date ideas but which all serve a purpose.

Love it, love it, love it. And the good news. It is transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre apparently. So no excuses now. Get a ticket.