Hamlet review: Andrew Scott is magnetic in a high-tech Elsinore ★★★

The Sherlock star takes on Shakespeare's tragic hero in the Almeida's inventive production

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Andrew Scott makes a magnetic Hamlet in the Almeida’s sleek new production. For most of us, Scott is best known for playing Moriarty in BBC1’s Sherlock, and without being overly TV-centric, you could see this as the second in a series of Sherlock Hamlets, after Benedict Cumberbatch’s star turn at the Barbican two years ago.

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In that version, Cumberbatch was as terrific as you’d expect – lucid and decent and moving. But he also felt slightly stranded in a vast, palatial set where he was almost a solo turn and the rest of the cast were on a different page. Scott’s version is less grand and more involving. His soliloquies feel like the soul-searching of a young man for whom the “pale cast of thought” is a sickness, the onset of a mental health condition.

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Andrew Scott as Hamlet (photos by Manuel Harlan)

That unfolds in a production that devises dozens of inventive tricks to bring the text alive. But while some are inspired, others are distracting duds (the use of lovely but incongruous Dylan songs, for instance). We’re in a modern Denmark, as announced at the start by video screens playing news coverage of the political turmoil after the old king’s death. Then the same screens become the monitors of Elsinore’s security guards, who have spotted an anomaly: the old king’s image appearing on their CCTV screens.

The device works chillingly well: Horatio and Hamlet address the Ghost via a tannoy microphone. It all feels ugly and strange – as it should. But then the Ghost breaks out of his electronic realm and materialises before Hamlet in such solid form that the two are able to have a father-son hug. Since a key issue for the Prince is whether he can trust the apparition – whether he should do as it asks him to kill Claudius – this feels wrong, an emotional reunion that would leave Hamlet no room for later doubts.

Other smart ideas exploit the modern, high-tech setting. When Polonius suggests spying on Hamlet he wires himself with a hidden microphone and gives Claudius and Gertrude earpieces. Polonius’s asides are then said into his lapel mic, (“Though this be madness yet there is method in’t” and so on) which feels right and funny – particularly when Hamlet shows he has rumbled the ruse.

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Peter Wight as Polonius and Jessica Brown Findlay as Ophelia

Peter Wight is a terrific Polonius, a likeable old windbag who is given some of Shakespeare’s wisest lines. And Juliet Stevenson brings what you might call a touch of Apple Tree Yard to Gertrude, a middle-aged woman with so much passion she risks destroying her family. There are good turns throughout the cast but in the end, it’s the Prince we care about – or in this case, don’t quite care about enough.

Scott is intelligent and lyrical, with his delivery very much “trippingly on the tongue”, as he instructs the players. But when he starts to lose control, his tendency to lick his teeth and paw his face with his hands becomes a distraction. At odd moments he SHOUTS randomly when we LEAST expect it (what Sherlock fans might call his “I will burn you” mode) and some later scenes, particularly the scene with Gertrude that can be so touching, become out-and-out rants.

Crucially, there’s a reason Scott is so brilliant at playing villains and psychos. We never quite root for him as we should. We don’t feel for him and his terrible predicament. In the end, his Hamlet is one to admire rather than to love. We’ll look forward, perhaps, to Martin Freeman’s take on the role in a couple of years.

Hamlet is at London’s Almeida Theatre until 15 April


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