A Hamlet for Our Time

How to be Hamlet? That was the question facing Robert Icke, the theatre director, and Alex Lawther, the actor, when they met recently in London to rehearse the play from which, it has been quipped, everyone knows at least six words. They were in a spacious, light-filled hall at the Bishopsgate Institute, a Victorian-era structure…

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How to be Hamlet? That was the question facing Robert Icke, the theatre director, and Alex Lawther, the actor, when they met recently in London to rehearse the play from which, it has been quipped, everyone knows at least six words. They were in a spacious, light-filled hall at the Bishopsgate Institute, a Victorian-era structure near the Spitalfields Market. How could they make anew a work that was already being celebrated more than four hundred years ago, when its author walked along the streets directly outside the institute? Shakespeare lived for a time in St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, a parish so close by that he could nearly have covered the distance in the time that it takes most actors to deliver his most quoted soliloquy. In a few weeks, Lawther would be performing as Hamlet at the Armory, in New York City. In the play, the Prince’s dead father reappears as a ghost, but Lawther and Icke were contending with ghosts of their own: the accumulated legacies of performers, directors, critics, and other interpreters who have played Hamlet, or seen “Hamlet.” In other words: How not to be Hamlet?

Lawther and Icke were going over the Prince’s most famous monologue, about suicide, which falls in the middle of the play. Lawther, trying to summarize his character’s emotional state, spoke telegraphically: “Seen Ophelia. Scared her. Has a book.” (After the soliloquy, Polonius comes across Hamlet and asks what he is reading.) Slight, in jeans, sneakers, and a dark shirt, Lawther, who is twenty-seven, has a soft voice and a gentle manner.

“Had a bad night of sleep,” Icke, who is thirty-five, added. Tall and broad-shouldered, with owlish spectacles, he sat cross-legged on the floor in a black denim jacket and black sweatpants.

Lawther said, “The book thing is mysterious to me still.”

“It’s odd, isn’t it?” Icke said. “It’s almost like that’s what you used to do in the lobby for four hours together.” His observations often folded in phrases from the play (“Sometimes he walks four hours together / here in the lobby,” Polonius says of Hamlet, when contemplating the source of the Prince’s melancholy), but they weren’t showy quotations; he was reflexively fitting Elizabethan language into a modern context. Carrying a book around was, Icke suggested, “almost like force of habit—like you’re on autopilot.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” Lawther said.

“And then it’s a useful shield, isn’t it, when you see Polonius?” Icke went on. “Because I can’t imagine you are in a fit state to read anything.”

Lawther nodded. “So I’m looking at the pages, at the words, not being able to focus on them,” he said.

“Maybe you are telling the truth when Polonius says, ‘What do you read, my lord?,’ and you say, ‘Words,’ ” Icke said, with a laugh. (Hamlet’s response is often delivered mockingly.)

Lawther considered Icke’s argument. Rocking back and forth on his heels, he ran a hand through his tousled hair. For a moment longer, he was silent. Then he began: “To be. Or—not . . . to be. That is the question.”

Icke, one of Europe’s boldest theatre directors, is known for restaging, and sometimes rewriting, canonical works in surprising and illuminating ways—often by going back to the page and to first premises, asking questions that performance tradition or textual familiarity can leave unexamined. At the Almeida Theatre, in London, where he was the associate director from 2013 to 2019, he directed his own adaptation of “The Oresteia.” His version took bracing liberties with the foundational tenets of Greek tragedy: there was no chorus, and characters died onstage, as they never did for the Greeks. The show received rave reviews: Susannah Clapp wrote in the Guardian that “you can almost see the dust flying off the old master.” (It will be performed in repertory at the Armory with “Hamlet.”) In Icke’s production of Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” the audience arrived at the theatre not knowing which of two actresses—Juliet Stevenson or Lia Williams—would play the title role and which the role of Queen Elizabeth I. An onstage coin flip decided the casting, a high-stakes and thrillingly theatrical move that underlined the arbitrariness of an unstable monarchy.

Icke first staged “Hamlet” in 2017, also at the Almeida, with Andrew Scott in the lead role; the production transferred to the West End later that year. Scott was then best known for his performance as Moriarty, on “Sherlock”—and later played the “hot priest” on “Fleabag”—and this was his first Shakespearean role onstage. The production, in which Denmark was imagined as a chilling surveillance state, incorporated the use of video to powerful effect—the Ghost is initially observed on grainy security footage—and was heralded for its emotional veracity. Especially praised was the immediacy of Scott’s performance; even when speaking the character’s most familiar lines, he appeared to be thinking and feeling them for the first time.

To prepare to direct Scott, Icke had delved into the literature of grief, reading C. sS. Lewis’s 1961 memoir, “A Grief Observed,” about the death of his beloved wife, and the work of Thomas Lynch, the contemporary poet who is also an undertaker. Whereas earlier generations have viewed Hamlet as neurotically indecisive or Oedipally compromised, the Hamlet of Icke and Scott is undone by grief. “The grief is present before the Ghost is—maybe the Ghost could even be a product of the grief,” Icke told me. “Hamlet’s black clothes, constant tears, and general disposition are, he says, only the outside trappings of woe—it’s what’s inside him that counts.”

The production was supposed to come to the Armory in 2020, but the pandemic upended this plan. Scott was unavailable to perform the role in New York, and so Icke cast Lawther, another actor best known for roles in film and television. (He starred in the dark-comedy series “The End of the F***ing World” and anchored a particularly harrowing “Black Mirror” episode, “Shut Up and Dance.”) Lawther is nearly twenty years Scott’s junior, and though much of the production remains unchanged—with several of the lead actors reprising their roles—the play’s gravity has been shifted by the presence of a more youthful Hamlet. “There is no way I can fall back into the version of the play we had, because the version of the play we had was calibrated around an older Hamlet,” Icke told me. “For example, in the second scene, when Laertes asks if he can go back to Paris, and Claudius says, ‘Of course you can,’ and off he goes, Hamlet is sitting there going, ‘Great! They are going to let me go back to university—I can’t wait, this has been hellish.’ And then they say no, and he realizes that he can’t get out. I always thought Andrew’s Hamlet was doing his Ph.D., or maybe his second Ph.D., and waiting around to be king—and so it’s a much bigger deal for that Hamlet that Claudius has popped in between the election and his hopes. But the theatrical logic is very different when Hamlet is an undergraduate, and he just wants to go back to Wittenberg to do his finals. That feels like a completely different story.”

Hamlet’s grief also has a different weight when the role is played by an actor, like Lawther, who still resembles a teen-ager. The portrayal may be particularly powerful for a contemporary audience aware of the alarmingly high incidence of mental-health struggles among young people today. Icke observed, “The loneliness and vulnerability of Hamlet, the isolation of his feelings and his grieving, and the way that seems to crack into something more dangerous than sadness feels especially sharp in the mouth of someone as young as Alex.”

Lawther told me, “Working with Rob, there’s a real insistence on treating the text like it’s a new piece of work. Everything is up for grabs. Rob is really surgical, and precise, about cutting through all of that plastic wrapping and trying to work out what is actually happening in a scene, in a way we can understand today.” Watching Shakespeare had often left Lawther feeling frustrated, he said, “because I’ve not understood, and I should have understood.” He added, “Hopefully, we are pushing against that. It feels like Rob is trying to make a play that his fifteen-year-old self would have been excited by.”

In fact, Icke first read “Hamlet” when he was fifteen, in Stockton-on-Tees, in northeast England. (His speech, which is enthusiastic and often amused, retains a regional accent.) The class analyzed key scenes for weeks. “Hamlet” left Icke cold. “The play never made sense to me emotionally,” he told me.

Not until Icke became an undergraduate, at Cambridge, did his engagement with Shakespeare intensify. He began one-on-one tutorials with Anne Barton, the influential critic and scholar, who by then was in her seventies and teaching only a handful of students. “I used to go to her once a week, and write an essay, and argue about text and so on,” Icke told me. Barton was married to John Barton, a founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Icke developed relationships with both Bartons that endured long past his time as a student. Anne Barton died in 2013. At her memorial, Icke recalled, “a lot of people said they had had the same experience—that Anne kind of took them under her wing, and took their brain out of their head, and made it smarter, then gave it back.”

Among the plays he and Barton discussed was “Hamlet.” Barton, he learned, was impatient with the character of Ophelia: in her introduction to the Penguin edition of the play, she called Ophelia “naïve, passive and dependent.” Icke told me, “We talked about ‘Why isn’t Ophelia’s story moving? Why do you never care? Why do you never follow that story—and why is it never clear why she’s mad?’ I always feel like Ophelia is sidelined in productions, and even in the text.” Icke proposed a dramaturgical solution, arguing that the play would work much better if two early scenes were transposed, and Polonius and his two children—Laertes and Ophelia—were introduced before Hamlet is told by his friend Horatio of the sighting of his father’s spirit. “I always felt that you were getting Part Two of the more important story before you were getting Part One of the less important story, and that made the less important story feel genuinely irrelevant,” Icke explained. “It was always, like, ‘That guy’s going to see a ghost! And, by the way, here’s some advice about your trip to France.’ And you think, I don’t care about that—there’s a ghost!

Icke’s Almeida production contains this structural change, so that Hamlet’s complex relationship with Ophelia is introduced—in the form of Laertes warning her to deflect any advances from the Prince—before Horatio informs him of the appearance of the Ghost. “I think it makes a huge difference as to how you are invited to take seriously the Ophelia bit of the story—and it gives me a hugely valued excuse to get Hamlet and Ophelia together alone onstage for a moment,” Icke said. The revision not only enriches the emotional dynamic between Hamlet and Ophelia; it frames Ophelia’s tragedy-within-a-tragedy as the story of a young woman whose family is so uncertain of its social position that it cannot allow her to pursue her own desires. In this context, it becomes piercing when, after Ophelia’s suicide, Gertrude expresses a belated wish that Ophelia had been her son’s bride. “You’re, like—what? Gertrude was fine with it? Everyone was fine with it?” Icke said. “That was something Anne Barton said that was really helpful to me—that all the ingredients are there for the match to proceed, and what happens is just about insecurity, and that Ophelia doesn’t believe in herself enough. There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. So much of the play is like that.”

Altering the text of “Hamlet” is hardly without precedent. Most modern productions depend on judicious excisions: trimming the lengthy, business-filled gravedigger scene, or taking a knife to the entire subplot in which young Fortinbras, the son of the Norwegian ruler who was defeated by the elder Hamlet, sets about reconquering lands that his father had lost. Uncut, “Hamlet” might run to an audience-defeating four hours. Elizabethan practice seems to have been to tear much more speedily through the plays—at the original Globe Theatre, performances began at two in the afternoon, which, in the winter, was only a couple of hours before twilight. The prologue of “Romeo and Juliet” refers to its “two hours’ traffic of our stage,” but Icke told me that no modern production of the play is over so quickly, “partly because we speak more slowly, and partly because we spend more time on the scenery changes and on the silly dances at the party.”

In some respects, Icke takes fewer liberties with “Hamlet” than have some other recent versions. A production at the Globe earlier this year replaced the Player King’s gnarly “Hecuba” speech with a more accessible scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” and turned the gravedigger scene into a modern-language standup routine. The composer Brett Dean’s recent opera of “Hamlet,” which opened in May at the Met, in New York, dispenses with most of the fretful monologues, turning the story into a sleek potboiler. The casting of a female Hamlet—as happened at the Young Vic last year, in the person of Cush Jumbo—is now conventional enough not to raise eyebrows. Last year also introduced an octogenarian Hamlet: Sir Ian McKellen played the lead in an age-blind production, fifty years after he last had a crack at the role.

Directors and scholars of “Hamlet” have long had to confront the fact that there is no authoritative version of the play. In the early seventeenth century, three different versions were printed: the First Quarto (1603), the Second Quarto (1605), and the First Folio (1623). There are radical differences among them. The First Quarto—sometimes called the Bad Quarto—seems to have been transcribed from the memory of an actor who played the minor role of Marcellus, one of the watchmen. (Scholars have noted that the lines spoken by Marcellus are unusually consistent with later versions.) The Second Quarto is roughly twice the length of the First Quarto and differs from it in about a thousand, sometimes very small, instances. In the “Hamlet” that appears in the First Folio—the first collected works of Shakespeare, posthumously printed in 1623—more than two hundred lines of the Second Quarto have been cut, and seventy lines have been added. In one of the First Quarto’s most notable differences, Hamlet’s most indelible six words are followed by “Ay, there’s the point”—a variation that, on the very rare occasions it is staged, can leave audiences befuddled, as if the actor playing the Prince had forgotten some of the most famous lines in the canon.

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