Review: In a Powerful ‘Hamlet,’ a Fragile Prince Faces His Foes

Many Hamlets I’ve seen are wily. Some kooky. Narcissistic, aloof, even pretentious. Less common is a Hamlet who is tender and romantic and achingly vulnerable, like a petal falling from the head of a flower at the end of its bloom.

When Alex Lawther’s fragile Danish prince drags himself onstage in Robert Icke’s modern-dress production of “Hamlet,” which opened Tuesday night at the Park Avenue Armory, he recalls the 19th-century poets Arthur Rimbaud and Percy Shelley, a brilliant yet rejected young man who seems resolved to his sorrow — and to a tragic end.

In the last decade, Icke has gained prominence for his heightened and contemporary-inflected adaptations of classics. This “Hamlet” played in the West End in 2017, with the hot-priest-sized package of magnetizing charisma known as Andrew Scott in the lead. He was one of the best Hamlets I ‘ve ever seen — though, as in so many other takes, the focus fell on his brooding and banter more than his emotional depth.

Lawther, best known for his role in “The End of the __ing World,” doesn’t have Scott’s starry flair, but he possesses his own demure kind of charisma; he draws you in even as he withdraws into himself. As a result, this rendition honors Hamlet as not just self-indulgently melancholy, but as grappling with legitimate, heartbreaking loss.

We begin at a swanky wedding party. (Hildegard Bechtler did the stylish sets and costumes.) Beyond a wall of sliding glass panels, we see Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude (Jennifer Ehle), and her new husband, his uncle Claudius (Angus Wright), dancing amid balloons and strings of lights. Dressed in a black suit, Lawther slowly shuffles across the stage and sits close to, but removed from, the action. He roughly rubs his palms against his thighs, as though to rub the fabric off his body.

Throughout the hefty 3-hour-and-45 minute production, Lawther fully embodies Hamlet’s despondency, shuffling like a wayward toddler, with knees slightly bent and a constant sway that makes him appear near collapse. Planning to enact his vengeance on his scheming uncle, he holds a gun off at an angle, as though his arm his is being puppeted by someone else pulling the strings above the stage.

And when he speaks, it’s in a slow, warbling singsong, at once contemplative and idiosyncratic, especially when he pauses in the middle of sentences as though his mind is hiccuping with existential thoughts.

Though the peculiar line readings sometimes turn monotonous, he snaps out of it, erupting into a surprising fit of mania. And Lawther threads the famed “What a piece of work is man!” monologue with poetic resonance, moving from wonder to despair through slow articulation and emphatic rhythm.

Icke, whose one-woman “Enemy of the People” played the Armory last year and whose “1984” had a brief Broadway run in 2017, brings a cinematic eye to the proceedings, using foreground and background to create dimension. In one clever bit of staging, Hamlet tarries in the forefront as the king and queen canoodle in back and guards race by mid-stage between them, fresh from sighting the former king’s ghost.

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At the same time, the director brings some curious adjustments to the characters, giving Polonius a touch of dementia and depicting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a couple clearly at odds about how they should respond to the royal request to monitor Hamlet.

The women, in particular, get short shrift. Gertrude is unreadable, despite Ehle’s punchy line readings, and Ophelia’s descent into madness occurs faster than you can say “something rotten” — doing a disservice to Kirsty Rider’s perfectly matched delicate companion to Lawther’s Hamlet.

As Claudius, Wright has the self-consciously composed air of a politician but misses some of the menace, while Peter Wight leans too heavily on the bumbling as Polonius. Luke Treadaway, however, makes the most of Laertes ‘s transformation his : from refined gentleman and doting brother to unhinged revenge seeker, wildly swinging a gun at the news of his father’s murder and sister ‘s suicide.

There are actual gunshots, too — ghastly pops and flashes of light that make the audience jump to attention. This is nowhere as gratuitous as, say, the 2019 DruidShakespeare production of “Richard III,” or even the current Broadway staging of “Macbeth,” with its severed limbs and crotch wounds. Still, the sight and sound of a gun onstage today, given our country’s despicable relationship to firearms, is unsettling.

What’s most frustrating about Icke’s otherwise intriguing approach is the inessential, and, by now, highly unoriginal, incorporation of high tech. A grid of 12 screens hangs overhead, and two larger screens flank the stage, showing security footage from the castle and news reports about Denmark’s conflict with Norway.

The screens also flash “pause” and “stop” before the two intermissions and the final scene, mawkishly calling attention to the audience as spectators. The way Icke and the lighting designer Natasha Chivers handle several of Hamlet’s monologues is more effective; soft overhead light halos Lawther as he seems to addresses theatergoers directly from the edge of the stage, only to snap off when he’s done speaking.

Tal Yarden’s sound design envelops the proceedings in ominous atmospheric gloom: a distant howling wind; the cold, mechanical hum of static and feedback; and, finally, the thunderous exclamations of drums. Less fitting are the production’s folksy compositions (by Laura Marling) and use of Bob Dylan songs, which, even deployed ironically, are a bit too Midwest-porch-jam for this chic production.

“Hamlet” is one of the Shakespeare plays that most suffers from diminishing returns — adaptations that try too hard to innovate, to render a classic modern and hip. Though Icke’s protracted production occasionally falls into that trap, ultimately the creative team’s visual and technical prowess — along with its provocative young lead — make this a tale of musing, mania and murder for our age.

Hamlet
Through Aug. 13 at the Harvey Theater at the Park Avenue Armory; armoryonpark.org. Running time: 3 hours 45 minutes.

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