in Hamlet at the Park Avenue Armory
Photo: Stephanie Berger
By Deirdre Donovan
If you think you have had your fill of Hamlets on stage, think
again. Robert Icke’s bold new production of Shakespeare’s
masterpiece at the Park Avenue Armory takes the literary starchiness out
of the old play and revivifies it with contemporary verve.
Starring the 27 year-old Alex Lawther as Hamlet, and accompanied by an
A-list of actors, this theatrical event is just right for
theatergoers who like their Shakespeare with edge.
Icke, affectionately dubbed the “great hope of British theatre,” is no
stranger at the Park Avenue Armory. Last summer his
retooled version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, starring Ann
Dowd, turned the Armory’s 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall into a
laboratory for democracy. Theatergoers who missed this event
might have caught Icke’s savage adaptation of
George Orwell’s 1984 on Broadway in 2017. It
investigated states of surveillance under the eye of Big Brother and
Unsurprisingly, surveillance is writ large in Ickes’ new take
on Hamlet. When the lights go up on
Hildegard Bechtler’s chic set with sliding glass doors, we meet
Francisco (Ross Walton) and Bernardo (Hara Yannas) gazing into a
patchwork of CCTV screens, waiting for the Ghost to materialize in digital
outline (video design by Tal Yarden). This surveillance
system is only the tip of the iceberg in this watchful
production that has almost every character in the dramatis personae
spying on somebody else.
Take the scene early on when Hamlet surreptitiously lies behind a sofa,
eavesdropping on his girlfriend Ophelia (Kirsty Rider) and her
over-protective brother Laertes (Luke Treadaway) in a
heart-to-heart conversation. Indeed, Laertes is trying to
derail his sister’s romantic relationship with the Prince,
warning her that his words and tokens are not to be taken
seriously. Little wonder Hamlet and Ophelia don’t
live happily-ever-after in Elsinore.
Luke Treadaway, and Alex Lawther in Hamlet, Park Avenue Armory
Photo: Stephanie Berger
Surveillance aside, it’s worth going back to the first time we meet
Lawther’s Hamlet on stage. He is unobtrusively walking across
the room, dressed in bedraggled black (costumes by Bechtler), and
pointedly sits apart from everybody else.
Of course, we all know why. Hamlet’s in mourning for his
royal father, whose sudden death made him leave his studies
in Wittenberg for home. To add salt to the wound, his
mother Gertrude has hastily married his uncle Claudius—and the
other zinger—Claudius is the new king.
It’s hardly a spoiler to add that, in the coming scenes, Hamlet will
encounter his father’s Ghost (or is it a devil?) and learn its
horrific story. Summed broadly, his Uncle Claudius murdered his
royal father and usurped the throne. Yes, the revenge plot is sown by
the Ghost in Hamlet’s mind. And
Hamlet’s maddening dilemma? He now knows from the Ghost’s
tale that he is the rightful heir to the crown and has a filial duty
to avenge his father’s murder. But how does he morally do
Lawther’s Hamlet addresses the audience directly with his soliloquies,
underscoring his isolation from the others on
stage. What’s more, this theatrical device makes the audience
his confidante. The result is that we are immediately
pulled into the work, and unless you have the heart of a stone, feel for
this alienated young man.
Ickes doesn’t hesitate to take creative license with the
text. He transposes scenes and even
updates Shakespeare’s language, if he foresees the original word or
phrase would make the dialogue sound archaic or be at odds with his
Icke’s adaptation also includes a scene from an often-neglected Hamlet quarto. In
it, Horatio informs Gertrude that Claudius was involved in the scheme
to murder her son Hamlet. Indeed, not only does
this episode bring a new wrinkle into the familiar Hamlet story,
but, once played out in real time, it creates an atmosphere of distrust in
the conventionally close relationship between Claudius and Gertrude.
According to a program note, Icke’s Hamlet was originally
slated to be staged at the Armory in 2020. However, when the
pandemic lockdown placed everything on pause, New Yorkers simply waited
for theater restrictions to ease. In fact, the current
production of Hamlet began its stage life at
London’s intimate Almeida Theatre in 2021 and then transferred to the
West End. Encouraged by its accolades from the London
critics, Icke reset his sights on New York—and, presto! --
his Hamlet winged into the Armory this past June.
The problem, and the plus, is that not all of the original cast could come
to New York, most notably its London star Andrew Scott who played
Enter Alex Lawther. Admittedly, Lawther interprets the
iconic character far differently than his
predecessor Scott. Whereas Scott wowed the audience with
his flamboyance and nerve, Lawther wins us over not with thundering
rhetoric, but with his natural phrasing of the iambic pentameters and
unpretentious deportment. And when it comes to
the Herculean task of remembering his character’s 1495 lines,
Lawther makes the linguistic feat look effortless as a sunset on the
and Jennifer Ehle in Hamlet at the Park Avenue Armory
Photo: Stephanie Berger
Other notable performances? Tony Award winner Jennifer
Ehle performs Gertrude (Ehle replaces Lia Williams who left
the production after injuring her Achilles tendon). Although
the role of Gertrude is often performed with the psychological depth
of cardboard, Ehle’s character truly evolves as the drama
unfolds. Case in point. Ehle’s Gertrude, though the
epitome of the sensuous wife early on turns a cold shoulder
to Claudius once she learns about his political machinations against
There are other cast members that shine. Angus Wright,
reprising his role from the London production, suitably plays
Claudius as a savvy politician. Peter Wright and Joshua
Higgott, also reprising their London roles here, as Polonius
and Horatio, respectfully, are well cast. Wright’s Polonius is
no fool here but a loveable curmudgeon who suffers from episodes of
dementia. And Higgott’s Horatio has the
prerequisite sincerity, pragmatism, and loyalty that earns him a
place in Hamlet’s “heart of hearts.”
Kirsty Rider’s Ophelia is less effective, largely because her
transformation from Hamlet’s poised girlfriend to deranged young
woman is staged so abruptly. Yes, Ophelia is supposed to go mad with
grief after her father Polonius’ murder by her boyfriend
Hamlet. But shouldn’t we be able to see the shadow
of Ophelia’s former personality in the ranting girl? Instead we see
an almost catatonic girl in a wheelchair, in arm-restraints to prevent her
from harming herself.
The most disturbing thing about this production? No question
it’s seeing Hamlet brandishing a gun on stage, whether it’s at
Claudius in his confession scene, his mother Gertrude in her chamber,
or mistakenly at Polonius behind the arras before he fatally shoots
the “good old man.” Considering the violent goings-on in
our world, the presence of a gun on stage, not to mention the sound of
gunshots (the woman sitting in front of me jumped in her seat from
the loud noise), really makes this production bleed into real life.
True, this new adaptation of Hamlet makes for a long
evening of theater, clocking in at over 3 and a half hours with
two intermissions. But where does one cut this great
classic, without losing its meaning? Suggestions, anyone?
Icke’s surprising—but ultimately inspiring—choice to thread seven of Bob
Dylan’s songs throughout the work, intensifies its themes at-large
and heightens the tragic doings of the characters. Naturally,
some will look down their long elitist nose and argue that Dylan’s
twangy music is out of key with this production’s swanky look
and atmosphere. But don’t some songs (think “All Along the
Watch Tower” and “Spirit on the Water"), and their artists,
transcend class and cultural boundaries? So why not bid Dylan
welcome to this Elsinore?
By all means, go see icke’s Hamlet! It will be
playing in repertory with the Oresteia through
mid-August. So catch it now, or catch it never.
Through August 13th.
At the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue (between East 66th and
East 67th Streets).
For more information, visit www.armoryonpark.org.
Running time: 3 hours; 40 minutes, with two intermissions.