Many Hamlets I’ve seen are cunning. A little bit crazy. Narcissistic, distant, even pretentious. Less common is a Hamlet that is tender and romantic and painfully fragile, like a petal falling from the head of a flower at the end of bloom.
When Alex Lawther’s frail Danish prince drags himself onto the stage in Robert Icke’s modern clothing production of “Hamlet,” which opened Tuesday night at the Park Avenue Armory, he recalls 19th-century poets Arthur Rimbaud and Percy Shelley, a brilliant but dejected young man who seems determined to his grief – and to a tragic end.
Over the past ten years, Icke has become known for his sharpened and contemporary adaptations of classics. This “Hamlet” starred in the West End in 2017, starring the big pack of magnetizing charisma known as Andrew Scott. He was one of the best Hamlets I’ve ever seen – although, as in so many other takes, the emphasis was more on his brooding and chatter than his emotional depth.
Lawther, best known for his role in ‘The End of the __ing World’, doesn’t have Scott’s star flair, but he has his own understated charisma; he draws you in, just as he withdraws into himself. As a result, this rendition honors Hamlet not only as self-indulgent melancholy, but as a struggle with legitimate, heartbreaking loss.
We start at a swanky wedding party. (Hildegard Bechtler did the stylish sets and costumes.) Behind a wall of sliding glass panels, Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude (Jennifer Ehle), and her new husband, his uncle Claudius (Angus Wright), dance amid balloons and strings of lights. Dressed in a black suit, Lawther shuffles slowly across the stage, sitting close to, but removed from, the action. He rubs his palms roughly against his thighs, as if to rub the fabric from his body.
Throughout the hefty production of 3 hours and 45 minutes, Lawther fully embodies Hamlet’s despondency, shuffling like a wayward toddler, with slightly bent knees and a constant swing that nearly causes him to collapse. Planning to take revenge on his scheming uncle, he tilts a gun, as if his arm is being popped by someone else pulling the strings above the stage.
And when he speaks, it’s in a slow, rippling song, at once contemplative and idiosyncratic, especially when he pauses mid-sentence as if his mind is hiccuping with existential thoughts.
Though the quirky line readings get monotonous at times, he breaks out and erupts in a surprising fit of mania. And Lawther strings the famous “What a work man is!” monologue with poetic resonance, from amazement to despair through slow articulation and emphatic rhythm.
Icke, whose one-woman “Enemy of the People” played the Armory last year and whose “1984” had a brief Broadway run in 2017, brings a cinematic look at the proceedings, using foreground and background to create dimension. In a clever piece of staging, Hamlet remains in the foreground as the king and queen scurry in the back, and guards race between them halfway through the stage, fresh from seeing the ghost of the former king.
At the same time, the director makes some curious adjustments to the characters, giving Polonius a hint of dementia, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a couple are clearly at odds over how to respond to the royal request to keep an eye on Hamlet. .
Especially the women get short shrift. Gertrude is unreadable, despite Ehle’s spirited lectures, and Ophelia’s descent into madness happens faster than you can say “something rock” – doing a disservice to Kirsty Rider’s perfectly matched delicate companion from Lawther’s Hamlet.
As Claudius, Wright has the self-consciously composed air of a politician but lacks some of the menace, while Peter Wight relies too heavily on the bumbling as Polonius. Luke Treadaway, however, takes full advantage of Laertes’ transformation: from sophisticated lord and devoted brother to rampaging revenge seeker, brandishing a gun at the news of his father’s murder and sister’s suicide.
There are also real gunshots – horrific bangs and flashes of light that grab the attention of the audience. This is nowhere as gratuitous as, say, the 2019 DruidShakespeare production of “Richard III,” or even the current Broadway staging of “Macbeth,” with its severed limbs and cross wounds. Still, given our country’s despicable relationship with firearms, the sight and sound of a gun on stage today is disturbing.
The most frustrating thing about Icke’s otherwise intriguing approach is the non-essential, and now highly unoriginal, integration of high-tech. A grid of 12 screens hangs overhead, and two larger screens flank the stage with security footage from the castle and news reports about Denmark’s conflict with Norway.
The screens also flash “pause” and “stop” before the two intermissions and the final scene, weirdly drawing the attention of the audience as spectators. The way Icke and the lighting designer Natasha Chivers deal with several of Hamlet’s monologues is more effective; soft halos of overhead light Lawther as he seems to address theatergoers directly from the edge of the stage, then break off when he’s finished talking.
Tal Yarden’s sound design envelops the proceedings in ominous atmospheric darkness: a distant howling wind; the cold, mechanical hum of noise and feedback; and finally the thunderous cries of drums. Less fitting are the production’s folkloric compositions (by Laura Marling) and use of Bob Dylan songs, which, even ironically, are a bit too Midwestern porch jam for this chic production.
“Hamlet” is one of Shakespeare’s plays that suffers the most from diminishing returns – adaptations that try too hard to innovate, to make a classic modern and hip. While Icke’s lengthy production falls into that trap at times, the visual and technical prowess of the creative team – along with its provocative young lead – ultimately make this a tale of reverie, mania and murder for our time.
Through August 13 at the Harvey Theater in the Park Avenue Armory; armoryonpark.org. Running time: 3 hours 45 minutes.