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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 3, 2022

Alex Lawther
Photo by Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory
I have encountered multitudes of Hamlets through the years. Some have been powerful and thrilling (Richard Burton, 1964). Others have been self-indulgent and ineffectual (Judith Anderson, 1970). Still others have seemingly been designed as experiments for playful directors (Oscar Isaac bravely wending his way through Sam Gold's decidedly eccentric 2017 production). And now there's director Robert Icke's riveting Hamlet in performance at Park Avenue Armory, starring Alex Lawther as the melancholy Prince of Denmark whose method and whose madness drive the play.

This is a production that mixes art with artifice, with an overlay of quirky design elements that, even when they clash with the onstage action, rarely fail to engage. Both Shakespeare aficionados and newbies will find much that is exciting and rewarding here. That's saying a lot for a play that runs over three-and-a-half hours and is performed as written, in Elizabethan English and the blank verse of unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Rather like director Ivo van Hove, Robert Icke has a penchant for incorporating video imagery into his productions. But unlike van Hove, whose use of videos in West Side Story often supplanted the human performances, Icke is more restrained and (reasonably) logical in his choices. But before we get into the design elements, which also embrace some interesting audio components, let's focus on the performances and Icke's direction of the actors.

To begin with, Alex Lawther's portrayal of Hamlet is truly inspired. His performance combines an outward display of intellect, sarcastic wit, and youthful condescension with an agonizing internalized anxiety that brings to mind the method acting style of a James Dean or a Marlon Brando. At 27, Lawther has the look that embodies the Hamlet he is performing. Dressed all in black, thin as a wisp, and full of unpredictable mannerisms and mood swings, he is the embodiment of a self-important child of privilege who has been left to his own devices for far too long. Under other circumstances, he might wind up like Prince Hal, who evolves before our eyes in Shakespeare's "Henry" plays from the rowdy ne'er-do-well companion of Sir John Falstaff into the glorious Henry V.

Ah, but Prince Hal never had to contend with the revenge-seeking ghost of his murdered father. We first encounter the ghost (David Rintoul) as a solitary figure who appears on a surveillance screen, spotted by Elsinore Castle guards and Hamlet's pal Horatio (Joshua Higgott). The screen gets all staticky and the image lasts for but a short time, but it is definitely there. (I thought for a moment that the ghost would climb through the screen, as in the Japanese horror film Ringu. Now that would be a coup de théâtre!). But old Hamlet Sr. will only speak directly to his son. When he does, their conversation is short: Dad was murdered by his brother Claudius (Angus Wright), who, in short order, married the Queen, Hamlet's mom Gertrude (Lise Bruneau filling in for Jennifer Ehle at the performance I attended) and took over the throne of Denmark. This is all it takes to send young Hamlet, who is already miserable and mopey, over the edge and into a downward spiral which, in this production, leads not to feigned madness, but to the real thing. If guns in plays make you nervous, either buckle down or stay away, because more than one shows up as Hamlet grows increasingly out of control.

It's hard to take your eyes off Lawther, who manages to make the predictably familiar character into someone who is completely and scarily unpredictable. In truth, no one in the rest of the cast quite matches this amazing performance. Which is not to say there are not very good performances and thoughtful reconceptualizations throughout.

I very much appreciated the portrayal of Gertrude as a woman who is not so easily swayed from her own personal wants and desires (i.e. for Claudius and for her position as Queen). Kirsty Rider's Ophelia is likewise fascinating to watch as her own mental state dissolves before our very eyes. There's also a clever rethinking of the usually near-invisible and interchangeable characters of Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay) and Guildenstern (Jacqueline Jarrold at the performance I attended, filling in for Tia Bannon). All of the changes in characterization work quite smoothly, without interfering in the least with Shakespeare's majestic language or storytelling prowess. The entire cast seems to heed Hamlet's instructions to the company of traveling players by speaking "trippingly on the tongue." No full-throated emoting here, nor is it needed. The play's the thing, after all.

Getting back for a moment to the design elements, Hildegard Bechtler's set makes excellent use of the depth of the stage area at the Armory, through the use of transparent sliding screens and curtains through which we can view some of the action. Natasha Chivers' lighting design is suitably dark to match Hamlet's mental state. And video designer Tal Yarden, who has previously worked with Ivo van Hove (Network on Broadway), is responsible for the video work here, which includes the use of various projections, a Zoom meeting, and what are meant to be televised news reports, starting with images of the funeral of Hamlet's father. Interestingly, these all pretty much work effectively and unobtrusively. The one truly puzzling design element consists of the musical interludes, which include some folksy tunes written by Laura Marling and, inexplicably, a number of Bob Dylan songs, as if left over from Broadway's Girl from the North Country. Make of that what you will; at least they are entertaining. As is the entire enterprise.

Through August 13, 2022
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue
Tickets online and current performance schedule: