REVIEW (contains potential spoilers) In 2011 Michael Sheen played Hamlet as the inmate of a mental hospital at the Young Vic hallucinating ghosts and prone to ranting and raving. Since then we've had a string of comparatively sane Hamlets, that is until now. The big difference in Robert Icke's approach, compared to Ian Rickson's, is in the process of the decline, the gradual loss of faculty.
The pomp and ceremony of court have been stripped away much like the Royal Exchange production which starred Maxine Peake. This is a modern royal family with modern, minimalist Scandi decor within their ancient castle - you get glimpses of the stone corridors via security cameras. Indeed the security cameras and the occasional appearance of suit and ear-piece wearing heavy are one of the few concessions to the fact that this is a royal family. The politics and threats of war are kept to TV news reports (in Danish with subtitles)
It is a loving family too, relaxed and at home in each others company or at least the extended family unit is. Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a daddy's girl and Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) is genial and tactile, you get the sense that Laertes (Luke Thompson) and Ophelia are like a much loved nephew and niece. They sit relaxed on a sofa together just like any other family. After Gertrude and Claudius's (Angus Wright) wedding party, the newly weds are drunk and giggly and roll around lustfully. And, while Hamlet (Andrew Scott) is the quietly grieving and melancholy son, when he and Ophelia are alone there appears to be a genuine love or at least affection between them.
Under Robert Icke's direction there is back story in every gesture, touch and look in these opening scenes which makes the betrayals, hurts and horrors to come all the more stark. It is also a perfect back drop against which Hamlet and Ophelia can lose their minds. And this is what sets this production apart. Andrew Scott's delicate soul Hamlet is slowly pulled apart by grief, the weight of revelation about his father's death and the way his uncle and Polonius (Peter Wight) try to manipulate him.
At Ophelia's grave Laertes' overwhelming grief for his beloved sister's death contrasts with Hamlet's almost petulant ravings. Having seen how close Ophelia was to both of them it shows how broken Hamlet actually is as does Rosencrantz (Calum Finlay) and Guildenstern's (Amaka Okafor) reaction to him earlier in the play - they don't seem to recognise their school friend.
Some of the most interesting things I've seen done with Hamlet involve Gertrude and what she does or doesn't see or know and here Robert Icke has given the final duelling scene a nice twist with the Queen making the ultimate sacrifice to try and save her son in a move that speaks volumes about the family relationship.
Last year the RSC did what was one of my favourite ever productions of Hamlet so this had a lot to live up to and what I got was a refreshingly different take; I heard familiar lines anew and it definitely takes it's place up there in my 'best Hamlets' list. I fear for the next production I see. I'm giving it five stars, it is three hours and 45 minutes including two intervals and is on at the Almeida until April 15.