As the Pulitzer-winning Fat Ham shows Hamlet, and indeed the rest of Shakespeare’s canon, is a taffy pull, one that can be stretched and manipulated in a variety of ways to different ends. That goes for a “traditional” production besides, like the British import now at the Park Avenue Armory, a stately baronial pile on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that’s fit for a prince. But with the large stage backed by video walls there’s something…different going on in the state of Denmark.
This is a doomscrolling Hamlet, with headlines from the kingdom periodically flashing on the screens throughout the near-four-hour-long production. (Which, coincidentally, I saw the day masks were no longer mandated at New York theaters, though ID and vaccine checks were still in place at the Armory. Most audience members kept them on). The director, Robert Icke, is England’s new big thing, and the material is subservient to the concept, as it was in his staging of 1984 a few seasons back. Elements of the production will, however, be overly familiar to anyone aware of what an old big thing, Belgium’s Ivo van Hove, has been up to for a generation, with his Broadway productions of West Side Story, Network, A View from the Bridge. Etc. (Tim Reid and Tal Yarden, the latter the video designer for van Hove’s Network, does his usual fine work here.)
In the gray, black, and beige corridors of power designed by Hildegard Bechtler (enlivened by the occasional balloon or splash of red clothing she’s also provided) everyone is under surveillance following the death of the king, and our watching them being watched is like bingeing a few parts of Hulu’s latest true-life crime drama series. The paranoid feeling is reinforced by Laura Marling’s noir-ish underscore, a harbinger of doom.
Did I mention that Bob Dylan songs, including “All Along the Watchtower,” are a key part of the production? I’m not entirely sure why, and their use would feel fresher if Girl from the North Country hadn’t recently occupied our stages. But they did add texture to the show, along with other touches, including the disquieting use of guns for some of the confrontations, a smart video-assisted transition to the first of the two intermissions, and a final coda that reunites the players. You can actually feel the production come together at these moments.
Ultimately, however, the play’s the thing. The veteran Jennifer Ehle, as Gertrude, was out the night I attended but understudy Lise Bruneau was more than capable. That would describe the rest of the cast, with a few standouts, notably the clownish Polonius of Peter Wight (who seemed to me to be parodying outgoing PM Boris Johnson, which was entirely fitting). David Rintoul makes an imposing Ghost, glimpsed on the monitors like a menace from a J-horror movie like The Ring, and a more down to Earth Player King.
Icke conceived the production for Fleabag and Sherlock actor Andrew Scott, who played the Dane to great acclaim on the West End. Hamlet is now incarnated by Alex Lawther, a 27-year-old performer new to me. In keeping with the contemporary feel this Hamlet is a bit emo and a bit incel, the way he plays his games and torments Ophelia (played by a flagellating Kirsty Rider). He has an impish presence that fits in well with Icke’s depiction of the court as part of the chattering class, talking around their problems until violence erupts (the show returns to rapiers, for an Olympics-style match spread across the monitors, at the close). This Hamlet has an issue with screen addiction but it does hit its mark from time to time.