Andrew Scott, Amaka Okafor, and Calum Finlay in Hamlet.
Photo: Manuel Harlan / Almeida Theatre

Playing Hamlet at London’s Old Vic in 1953, Richard Burton heard an “extraordinary rumble” from the front row of the stalls. “I wondered what it was,” he recalled. “It was Winston, speaking the lines with me. And I could not shake him off…in ‘To be or not to be’ he was with me to the death.”

Every Hamlet must shake off his ghosts and doubles. In the television series Sherlock, a hi-tech modern variation on Conan Doyle, Andrew Scott plays Professor Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes. In 2015, Cumberbatch starred in a lavish production of Hamlet at London’s Barbican Theatre. Cumberbatch interpreted Hamlet as the Holmes of Elsinore. Dynamic in action, imperial in logic, he deployed insanity as a weapon of revenge, a shield for his intent. There is no need to rank the Hamlets of Cumberbatch and Scott—after all, the one mind that defeats Sherlock Holmes belongs to Irene Adler, not Moriarty. Nevertheless, as Moriarty is the foil of Holmes, so Scott’s Hamlet, a contemporary interpretation and an ensemble performance, can be seen as a foil to Cumberbatch’s lavish and broadly traditional star turn.

Scott’s disposition is less “antic” than tormented by weakness. He cowers, he shuffles, he weeps, he squints. In his soliloquies, he is stricken, “desperate with imagination,” yet unable to assemble the fragments of his thought. Hamlet is in the modern predicament of possessing information without knowledge. “I know what I want to say,” Randolph Churchill said as his mind began to decay. “but, damn it, I can’t say it!”

This corruption of intellect is writ large by the video feeds, fake news, surveillance cameras, and hidden microphones in Robert Icke’s production. The Almeida’s hi-tech house style was last mentioned in Dispatch for ruining a production of Oresteia, but it is perfect for an intelligencer’s Hamlet. The “undiscovered country” of death and the “infinite space” of thought are a digital cloud of unknowing.

So far, so tech. The obvious parallel with our time intrigues, but perhaps more interesting is Peter Wight’s interpretation of Polonius, which opens all kinds of historical resonance. It is customary for Polonius’s advice to Laertes—“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and so on—to be treated as a joke. But was this Shakespeare’s intention? Polonius was following Renaissance custom. In 1577, Elizabeth I’s “secretary” or chief minister William Cecil, Lord Burghley wrote a similar list when he sent his son Robert Cecil to Cambridge.

Wight works in laughs selectively from Polonius. His pedantry, like that of the real William Cecil, stems from his mastery of procedure and his control of court protocol. As Ophelia, Jessica Brown Findlay both pushes against Polonius and indulges him. Her mixture of thwartedness and compliance made me wonder if Shakespeare had based Ophelia on Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey, or perhaps on William Cecil’s daughter Anne, the victim in 1571 of an arranged and unhappy marriage to the Earl of Oxford.

We expect that when Hamlet returns to Elsinore, he will be caught in an Oedipal triangle. The clever and subtle characterizations of Polonius and Ophelia add another mythic dimension, that of Orpheus and Eurydice. The use of Bob Dylan’s music between scenes seems to hint at this too, for Dylan’s persona is deliberately Orphic. “All Along the Watchtower” was especially effective—the servants on the battlements, the “two riders” like Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, and the general sense of impending disaster.

The death of Wight’s rounded Polonius reminded me of the Cecils again. After William Cecil’s death in 1598, Elizabeth I was bereft, ill, and lonely. In a paranoid outburst, she stabbed at an arras in her chambers, suspecting a listener or an assassin. Like Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, who touches his father’s ghost, the queen missed her avuncular ghost.

The father figure disappears behind the arras, and the son is antic in front of it. Robert Cecil endured some Hamlet-like procrastination during his long apprenticeship at court. He finally secured the secretaryship in 1598 on his father’s death. In 1602, the younger Cecil availed himself of an arras in a theatrical intervention in the treason trial of the Earl of Essex, the “rash, impetuous” and quite incompetent nobleman whose stamp may also be detected in Hamlet’s character. As a commoner, Robert Cecil was not worthy of trying an earl. So he listened from behind an arras. When Essex accused Cecil of treason, Cecil leapt out, threw himself to his knees before the jury, and denied the charge.

In Queen Gertrude’s words, the “main” of Hamlet’s trouble is his father’s death and his mother and uncle’s “o’erhasty marriage.” In the political vocabulary of Shakespeare’s time, the “main” comes with a “bye,” its secondary or subsidiary. In 1603, and the year in which James VI of Scotland came to the throne of England, his secretary Robert Cecil claimed to unearth two plots against the new king. One led to the other. The “Bye Plot,” allegedly conspired by Jesuits unhappy with the succession, led to the “Main Plot,” which allegedly involved courtiers unhappy with the succession. 1603 was also the year in which the First Quarto of Hamlet was published.

A remarkable and exacting Hamlet, then, with a mesmerizing lead, a probing Polonius, and a more complex Ophelia than usual. It should become a palpable hit when it transfers to the West End (June 9–September 2). The only misstep came in the duel cum massacre at the end. Neither Hamlet nor Laertes wants to fight each other. Bob Dylan is turned up so loud that we cannot hear Shakespeare’s words. The duelists jab halfheartedly at each other, mouthing inaudibles. The play ended with a tragic waste of accumulated emotion and intelligence. But then, what would Hamlet be, were he not hoisted by his own petard in Act V?

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