Things are still rotten in the state of Denmark, but in Robert Icke’s cleverly updated version of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” now at the Park Avenue Armory, the castle’s interior resembles the chicest lounge in town; its exterior is monitored by a sophisticated video system; the unhappy prince carries a gun instead of a dagger; Ophelia displays more than a bit of cleavage; and – oh yes – Guildenstern is a woman. It’s still a tragedy, but it’s also a bit of a happening.
Nonetheless, in Icke’s hands, the play remains the “thing,” even as these modernizations make the work more accessible to modern audiences. (Although, admittedly, I’m not sure what to make of the Bob Dylan “soundtrack.”) But what really makes this production a successful mass entertainment – despite its unnecessary 3 ½-hour running time – is how well the show’s plot with its many twists and turns are clearly elucidated; for a change, one doesn’t need to read a synopsis beforehand to follow the many deeds and misdeeds.
Most importantly, we have a Hamlet who we can believe is a petulant college student, still grappling with adult emotions, thanks to the stupendous 27-year-old British actor Alex Lawther. It’s not just that he speaks the text trippingly – which he does -- or puts his whole body (and hands) into his speeches and soliloquies; it’s that Lawther gives us a searing portrait of a man-child so devastated by his father’s death and so disappointed by his mother’s hasty remarriage that we forgive his ill-conceived, ill-fated plan for revenge by feigning madness. (It’s never been more obvious that Hamlet hasn’t really thought things through!)
Moreover, he and Icke create a man so overcome by grief and doubt -- did he really see his father’s ghost? – and so bent on doing the “right thing” -- not killing Claudius while he’s praying to heaven – that he keeps missing his opportunity to really do the right thing. Lawther’s Hamlet is not a man of mindless indecision or inaction, but more a man who simply thinks too much.
It helps matters, as well, that the characterizations of many of the show’s other main players are unusually crisp, especially Angus Wright as the calculating as Claudius, who both usurps his brother’s throne and his wife Gertrude (the excellent Jennifer Ehle, running hot and cold) through murderous means, and Peter Wight, who is properly pompous -- yet strangely sympathetic -- as the well-meaning advisor Polonious.
Kudos also go to Tia Bannon as Guildenstern, who seems completely sincere in her affection for Hamlet, and Calum Finlay, who plays Rosencrantz with an air of deep disdain for his schoolmate (making it completely believable that he would conspire with Claudius in getting rid of Hamlet once and for all.)
Some of the other performers don’t come off quite as well, notably Kirsty Rider’s Ophelia. who is initially presented as such a level-headed and strong young woman that it almost begs belief that she would descend into madness (although, here, it seems caused primarily by the sudden death of her father and not Hamlet’s love-me-love-me-not antics.)
Meanwhile, the handsome Luke Treadway appears perfectly suited to playing her valiant brother, Laertes, but in the show’s final all-important scenes, he seemed to be mumbling his lines. And Joshua Higgot is not only rather bland as Hamlet’s bestie, Horatio, but you could believe they’ve never met before we encounter them.
Still, to go or not to go? If that’s the question, the answer is get thee to the Armory.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue
Neighborhood: East 60s
New York, NY 10065