By JK Clarke . . . 

If done even moderately well, a production of Hamlet is a sure-fire hit. And when done very well, it is mesmerizing and memorable. Such is the production currently playing at the Park Avenue Armory, a consistently world-class venue whose latest offering is the Robert Icke-directed Hamlet, which originated at the internationally acclaimed Almeida Theatre in London. And thank goodness, as New York has experienced a drought of high-quality professional Shakespeare productions in the past several years and only partially because of the pandemic lockdown. Last summer’s tepid Merry Wives of Windsor at the Delacorte, this year’s disastrous Macbeth on Broadway and this summer’s dismal (as forthcoming reviews this afternoon will surely attest) Richard III, have left New York fans of the Bard feeling undernourished (only The Merchant of Venice at TFANA in Brooklyn this past winter slaked a desperate thirst). 

Jennifer Ehle and Angus Wright

Even purists who eschew modern-dress (and modestly re-interpreted) Shakespeare are quick to admit that Icke has set forth a gripping theatrical spectacle that swallows up its three and half hour run time with nary a glance at one’s wristwatch. Icke has cast a number of wonderful actors who breathe life into often underrated characters. Angus Wright’s King Claudius is appropriately complex in the role of the murdering, yet conciliatory Uncle/King, who is often played as merely evil and pig-headed. Rarely have I felt as much simultaneous sympathy and loathing for this character to whom I rarely give much thought. And the Gertrude character (officially played by the excellent Jennifer Ehle,  but fabulously performed by Lise Bruneau on the night I attended) contains these same complexities. She embraces her usurper husband a bit too eagerly and lustily, but her “what else can I do” attitude is completely understandable. What indeed? To turn on Claudius would have meant certain death or banishment, so she may as well go with the flow (of wine, apparently). 

Kirsty Rider, Luke Treadaway, and Alex Lawther

The standout, of course, is Alex Lawther’s Hamlet, as it must be. Without a noteworthy Hamlet, the play can crawl. But Lawther is engaging and relatable. Again, with him (and Icke must be partially to thank for this) we are pulled in different directions by his grief, frustration, machinations and apparent descent into madness. None of his actions feel surprising, even his accidental assassination of Polonius (who kinda deserved it for spying on the Prince and Queen) as well as his rejection of Ophelia. Icke stages it so that Hamlet is able to eavesdrop on conversations (such as Laertes’s (Luke Treadway) insistence to Ophelia that she “keep [herself] in the rear of [her] affection” with regards to Hamlet and that he could never possibly be betrothed to her because of their relative stations in life (he being Prince, she being non-noble). That Ophelia goes along with her family’s cautions, rather than understand that the eternal philosophy student doesn’t go in for tradition and would likely find a way to marry her, is a betrayal that ultimately leads to Hamlet rejecting her. And this staging allows us to understand why he throws his letters back at her and insist she “to a nunnery, go.” 

Tia Bannon, Jennifer Ehle, Angus Wright, Alex Lawther, Kirsty Rider (screen); Ross Waiton and David Rintoul (stage)

The modern setting of Hamlet has now become more of a rule than an exception. To see the play set in Elizabethan garb or earlier (when the action takes place) is rare. But the simple, straight-line black clothing of most characters, particularly Hamlet, work extraordinarily well with the sleek, super-wide modern, Scandinavian set (taking advantage of the enormous space of the Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall), partitioned by a flimsy, see-through curtain, behind which a wedding party perpetually seems to be just winding down (in echoes of Austin Pendleton’s terrific 2015 Hamlet at CSC, set in the emptied reception hall of Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding). Hildegard Bechtler’s set and costumes are in perfect concert and almost behave as another character on their own. Even the appearance of the ghost of old King Hamlet, shown on security monitors (video design by Tal Yarden) beckoning Hamlet to join him, are eerie even in its modernness, which helps create the sense of dread we are meant to feel in the opening scenes of the play. 

Alex Lawther, Gilbert Kyem Jnr, Angus Wright, Jennifer Ehle, Peter Wight, Kirsty Rider, and Luke Treadaway

While I found myself dissatisfied with the portrayals of certain characters (Kirsty Rider’s Ophelia did not detract, but neither did she augment the Ophelia character who, in this case, was a model of naivete; and Peter Wight’s Polonius had too little of the bloviating old man that we usually see in the role) and wished that Lawther had been able to express more of Hamlet’s chronic depression (a hard thing to do if you’ve never experienced it), there were so many delightful touches and characterizations that the petty annoyances of someone who has seen the play too many times went easily by the wayside. Guildenstern’s (normally played by Tia Bannon, who was substituted by a very excellent Jacqueline Jarrold the night I attended) flirtation with Hamlet was fresh and revelatory. His betrayal by yet another erstwhile lover would certainly explain why he went even more quickly over the edge. 

At the play’s end and the standing ovation for Hamlet began to fade, director Robert Icke grabbed a microphone to address the crowd. His purpose: to pay homage to the great British director Peter Brook, who’d died the day before at the age of 97. The ensuing, utterly quiet, minute-long moment of silence gripped the vast hall of the Park Avenue Armory. An appropriate ending to an utterly thrilling Hamlet, one that the great modernist director Brook would surely have appreciated. At least I’d like to think so.

Hamlet. Through August 13 at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue at 67th Street). Three hours, 30 minutes with two intermissions. 

Photos: Stephanie Berger