I’ve hardly ever been happier to be 23 than when the Almeida Theatre in Islington announced “Hamlet for Free”, a four-day festival for under-25s including free performances of Robert Icke’s sold-out production starring Andrew Scott – best known as James Moriarty in the BBC series Sherlock – as the tragic Prince of Denmark. And all my joy was justified: Icke and his team on and behind the stage make Hamlet feel so fresh, exciting and relevant, one could easily forget that it was written four centuries ago.
With seats for only 325 people, the Almeida benefits from an intimacy the bigger West End theatres lack, and the bare brick walls give London’s “Theatre of the Year 2016” (The Stage Awards) an edgy, industrial look – it’s the perfect canvas for this ambitious, radically modern take on Hamlet.
Everything from set to props and costumes is slick, subtle, chic – pomp and bombast give way for understated Scandinavian coolness and the latest technology, which seems to be everywhere: King Hamlet’s funeral is broadcast on a massive screen, and his ghost (David Rintoul) is discovered thanks to security footage of the castle. Skype is used to communicate with international politicians, and the new king Claudius (Angus Wright) – tall and hawkish, and every bit the modern politician bent on good publicity – makes sure that a camera man or photographer are never far off to capture royal life for the public.
Director Icke and set designer Hildegard Bechtler make perfect use of the whole stage. The front is either a surveillance chamber or an elegant apartment, but behind that, two glass walls – sometimes hidden from view by curtains – create two additional spaces enabling them, for example, to show what is going on in the castle at night: in the very back, Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) is taking a bath, in the apartment, Claudius and Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) are making out on the sofa, and in the space between, Hamlet is walking somewhere with a gun in his hand.
Each setting has a distinct lighting scheme, designed by Natasha Chivers – cold, blueish-white for the surveillance chamber, and warm, almost golden in the apartment. Tom Gibbons’ sound concept works similar, guiding the audience from scene to scene with Bob Dylan songs, foreboding, almost siren-like noises and the buzzing sounds of computers and other digital devices in the background.
The whole cast is excellent, from Peter Wight’s foolish Polonius to Wright’s calculating but surprisingly passionate Claudius and Brown Findlay’s haunting Ophelia, but Scott’s mesmerising performance beats them all. His Hamlet is charming and sarcastic, a brilliant mind haunted by grief, soft-spoken and loving – which makes his few furious outbursts even more terrifying. Scott moves effortlessly from quiet despair to cruel mockery and cold anger, and a single glance or a raised eyebrow, shared with the audience like a secret joke, is enough to make everyone hold their breath or burst out with laughter. Despite knowing that he is doomed, it is impossible not to root for him.
This Hamlet is moving and innovative, and its massive popularity among under-25s proves that – contrary to widespread opinion – young people do care about the theatre: even if you are more a fan of Scott than of Shakespeare, you have to be at least moderately passionate about the theatre to happily sacrifice almost four hours for it.