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Paulanne Simmons


Paulanne Simmons
Lucy Komisar


In Modern Times Hamlet Doesn’t Grow Up

Directed by Robert Icke
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Ave
Opened June 29, 2022
Evenings at 7:00pm, Matinees at 1:00pm
Tickets start at $45 (plus fees)
Closes August 13, 2022
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons July 5, 2022

Alex Lawther in Hamlet at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Purists may find fault with the way maverick director Robert Icke has updated Hamlet with modern technology, media and music. But although Icke’s additions do result in a production that runs for 3 hours and 40 minutes, none actually change Shakespeare’s original in any significant way,

In fact, I rather liked the way security cameras catch old Hamlet stalking the castle. And video cameras allowing us to see Gertrude and Claudius’s faces during the players’ presentation is a helpful innovation. Although I’m not sure what the music of Bob Dylan has to do with the tragedy, it does make a pleasant transition between scenes.

No, the real problem with this interpretation is in British TV star Alex Lawther’s Hamlet. As the play begins, Hamlet is appropriately juvenile. He’s petulant, erratic and irresolute. But the beauty of Shakespeare’s writing is in the way he makes Hamlet mature. With each scene, Hamlet exhibits not only more thought but also the all-important ability to match that thought with action. So by the end of the play, we understand that the prince has not only avenged his father’s death but also set Denmark back to rights.

The Hamlet we see in this production never quite grows up. His anger at his mother’s perfidy sometimes seems more appropriate for a teenager who believes he’s been unjustly grounded. His love scenes with Ophelia (Kirsty Rider) have the depth of an adolescent crush. And we never for the slightest moment believe Hamlet is really going to kill Claudius, praying or not, in that mishandled scene.

As for the actors in the supporting roles, they are sometimes adequate, sometimes not, but rarely outstanding. I enjoyed Peter Wight’s Polonius, even though he seems not only pompous and verbose but also doddering and confused (I kept thinking of a less vicious Giuliani). David Rintoul gives old Hamlet very little urgency. And Angus Wright makes Claudius into a somewhat unethical businessman, not a murderous brother. Joshua Higgott is believable and likable as Hamlet’s true friend, Horatio. We get the feeling he would have handled the whole mess much better.

For some reason Icke has made Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a male/female couple with a relationship that is not clear and probably wouldn’t matter if it were. Sometimes it’s not even evident exactly whose side they’re on.

But one of the most disappointing scenes in the play is the gravedigger’s. Coming right before the play’s climax, this scene was intended as comic relief and a brief reflective pause before Hamlet gets down to the business at hand. Icke has kept all the reflection in the scene, but he seems to have buried the humor with Yorick.

Hildegard Bechtler has given the play a set with a mostly empty downstage where the action takes place and an upstage ballroom behind a screen where Gertrude, Claudius and their friends dance and make merry. If Hamlet had just picked up his gun, raided the party and shot them both, the play would have ended much sooner and might have been much more satisfying.

Robert Icke’s tech “Hamlet” redefines the meaning of “modern production”

Written by William Shakespeare, directed by Robert Icke.
Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue at 67th Street, NYC.
(212) 933-5812. Run time: 3:30.
Opened June 28, 2022.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 5, 2022.
Closes Aug 13, 2022.

What’s amazing about Shakespeare is that directors can do a complete change of time, venue, mood and still the magic works. The trick is to pull you into the story.

Alex Lawther as Hamlet, Angus Wright as his uncle Claudius, Jennifer Ehle as his mother Gertrude, Peter Wight as Polonius and Kirsty Rider as Ophelia, photo Stephanie Berger.

Robert Icke’s “Hamlet” at the Armory starts with a video, could be the news, the funeral of the king of Denmark. The backdrop is a foreign military conflict. Then back at the palace we see 12 surveillance screens watched by security. Suddenly there’s an apparition: the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

On stage, the actors all wear black, or sometimes white, except the women who wear colors. Don’t know the design reasons, but it makes them stand out. There’s a party in the palace, with people dancing to sixties music under balloons and strips of lights. There’s a lot of Bob Dylan throughout.

Hamlet (Alex Lawther) in a black suit is shown distraught. The ghost of Hamlet’s father (David Rintoul) in military uniform calls for revenge for his foul murder.

Alex Lawther as Hamlet, photo Stephanie Berger.

Icke has made his take on Shakespeare so accessible and so entertaining that there are no barriers to audiences. Though sometimes the modern distractions pull your thoughts away from what are the accepted meanings, especially Hamlet’s initial inaction and failure to answer his father’s call for revenge.

Lawther is excellent in his portrayal of Hamlet as boyish, a naïf, insecure, unsure of himself. He will grow into smarts, or at least cleverly manipulative. Even getting some understanding of the scheme of things: “what a piece of work is man….”

Don’t know if Icke had to go so far as have the Hamlet’s uncle, the new king, Claudius (Angus Wright) and his queen, both drunk at the party, lying in a sexual embrace on an anteroom couch. (Understudy Lise Bruneau played Gertrude the night I attended.) I found Wright sharp and Bruneau flat.

This audience of course knows the play, so the technology makes it new again. Portly Polonius (Peter Wright) uses a tablet to contact the Norwegian ambassador, who also has tablet. We see him talking on a screen.

Tia Bannon as Guildenstern, Jennifer Ehle as Gertrude, Angus Wright as Claudius, Alex Lawther as Hamlet, Kirsty Rider as Ophelia (on screen); Ross Waiton as Francisco and David Rintoul as the Player King (on stage), photo Stephanie Berger.

Hamlet is an intellectual, which may explain his recourse to a play by traveling actors that act out the king’s poisoning to see how Claudius reacts. It was a smart way to get the evidence. When the play is presented, the king, queen and others sit in the real first row of the theater, and you see them on a large screen. Horatio (Joshua Higgott) of course videos the reenactment.

Hamlet, in his mother’s chamber, pulls out not a dagger but a gun to kill Polonious, spying from behind a curtain, who he mistakes for Claudius. (“I took thee for thy better.”)

The epic battle with Poland, of course, is shown on video. The soldiers look like those in any modern war. Later, guards carry assault weapons.

Does this all work? For those who know the play and for new audiences who might not be up to the traditional staging, it’s a diverting reimagining. Even at 3 ½ hours.

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