Tag Archives: Jessica Brown Findlay

“Hamlet” at the Almeida Theatre

With Andrew Scott in the title role, this Hamlet already qualifies as one of the most exciting Shakespeare productions of the year. A consummate and intelligent performer whose lilting accent is a joy to hear, Scott uses the intimacy of the venue superbly. Combining sensitivity and ferocity he makes a strong philosopher prince. He also makes a great team with star director Robert Icke.

Andrew Scott with Amaka Okafor and Calum Finlay
Andrew Scott with Amaka Okafor and Calum Finlay

Scott’s Hamlet is tactile, all hand holding, wriggling fingers and pressing palms to his face – he even hugs his ghostly father (a brilliant performance from David Rintoul). This is a sensual Dane, aided by the casting of Amaka Okafor as Guildenstern (which adds tension for Calum Finlay’s Rosencratz, who sees Hamlet as a sexual rival). It all focuses us on Hamlet’s morbidity – his knowledge of man as “this quintessence of dust” – a cerebral point given theatrical physicality.

Icke is never short of ideas. He has so many thoughts on Hamlet it’s awe-inspiring. The overall tone is far less histrionic than many a past trip to Elsinor – even the furniture has a tasteful Scandi feel. Such restraint has a peculiar power, most notable in Claudius – a chillingly cold figure played by Angus Wright, whose controlled delivery would try the patience of many performers. It’s the first time I haven’t seen the King storm off the stage during the play-within-a-play and it’s brilliantly unsettling.

Juliet Stevenson and Angus Wright watch with Andrew Scott
Juliet Stevenson and Angus Wright watch with Andrew Scott

Other novel points include the decision to be open about Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. It makes more sense of her madness, giving us a modern woman to relate to that Jessica Brown Findlay exploits well. For Peter Wright’s Polonius there’s the suggestion that the respected government minister isn’t just a bore, but is suffering from dementia. And there are the videos and live recordings that are a bit of a trademark for Icke. Denmark as a surveillance state is fair enough, and rolling news broadcasts save some time, but wouldn’t it have been better for Horatio to take charge of the camera after Hamlet asks him to watch the King?

Not all of Icke’s introductions are as successful. Hamlet’s gun toting seems jarring – is it bravado on his part? While it adds shock to his confrontation with his mother (the magnificent Juliet Stevenson), pointing a gun at Claudius become confusing. The production uses a knowledge of the play heavily – a fair assumption – but loses power. An air of predestination predominates later scenes – like the audience, the characters seem to know the end. For much of the final duel, music predominates (it’s a puzzling selection throughout) while Hamlet’s “I am dead Horatio” is taken literally. Our finale – of ghosts at a party rather than corpses littering the stage – has odd tones of reconciliation. It’s all interesting, unmissable for bardophiles, and frequently brilliant, if a little cold.

Until 15 April 2017

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Uncle Vanya” at the Almeida Theatre

Following his triumphant Oresteia last year, director Robert Icke has created a similarly bold and fresh adaptation of Chekhov’s masterpiece. Contemporary in feel, especially its humour, Vanya is translated into John, wearing comfy slacks, while his brother-in-law Alexander, retiring to the country, could easily be an Islington academic. Alexander’s second wife Elena accompanies him and unrequited love leads to questions about the meaning of life.

Icke breaks up the action into bite-sized chunks. The short opening act establishes these “closed off eccentrics” – family and friends – living too intimately together. Tobias Menzies quickly captivates as the local doctor with a passion for ecology (more big themes here). John’s problems are clear: feeling his life has been just “notes in the margin”, he wittily woos Elena with his guitar, while his steely mother (Susan Wooldridge) looks on.

UNCLE VANYA 97 - JESSICA BROWN FINDLAY AND VANESSA KIRBY BY MANUEL HARLAN
Jessica Brown Findlay and Vanessa Kirby

During the second act we meet Alexander, depicted so skilfully by Hilton McRae that it’s easy to understand how John feels “conned” into working for him. It’s clear that John’s drunken singing to Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life isn’t going to make up for years of devotion. But the scene belongs to Alexander’s daughter Sonya (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Elena, a part that Vanessa Kirby gets an impressive amount of comedy from. The women’s relationship is acted with the naturalism Icke aims for: stopping and starting conversations that reveal their exhaustion with the “petty cruelty” of their lives and their desperate search for love.

The boredom Elena and Alexander have brought with them is a dangerous “contagion”, contrasted with the not-so-gainful employment that’s been occupying everyone until they arrived. It’s John who suffers most. His breakdown is dramatic, if not without comedy, and Paul Rhys’ stumbling, fumbling portrayal is profoundly moving.

Icke is always sure-footed. Using Hildegard Bechtler’s slowly rotating stage, we get a great view of this human goldfish bowl. Addresses to the audience make this Uncle Vanya unusually direct. For the finale, the search for ‘The Art of Living’, glibly proposed as the title of Alexander’s next book, is never going to be lightweight. The only solace on offer seems to be hard work – literally. Join the characters as they hum ‘Hi, Ho, Hi, Ho’ and get off to see this show. Just don’t expect to leave smiling.

Until 26 March 2016

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Oresteia” at the Almeida Theatre

A sterling start to the Almeida’s Greek season, Robert Icke’s new version of the Oresteia is a mammoth achievement, presenting all three plays in one spirited and, at times, gruelling evening, where the trilogy’s themes of society and justice come alive in a stirring, contemporary fashion.

Agamemnon comes first, the king powerfully portrayed by Angus Wright as a politician, military leader and man of faith, who sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia before setting out for Troy. The murder occurs onstage, which some will find objectionable in itself, but for me the clinical approach of feeding the young actress some pills makes the scene so brutal I cannot say I fully support the decision to show it.

After a break that is strictly timed by a countdown on television screens, Clytemnestra comes to the fore. Consummately controlled, plotting to kill her husband as revenge, Lia Williams is mesmerising in the role, her exclamation that “the war came home” emphasising the consequences of battle abroad on the families left behind.

For the second play, The Libation Bearer, we see Orestes avenge his father by killing his mother. Previously presented as undergoing therapy, he joins forces with his sister Electra, with Jessica Brown Findlay making a forceful stage debut, the highlight of which forms a meditation on mourning. The fate of Electra later brings a penny-drops-twist from Icke that doesn’t deserve a plot spoiler.

The Eumenides sees the judgment upon Orestes for his matricide. Wright and Williams, reappearing as legal council, aid high emotions, and issues of gender are satisfyingly forefronted. But the scene rests too heavily on Luke Thompson’s fraught performance in the title role. At least those countdowns make sense – it wasn’t just to hurry people’s G&Ts – we have been watching a re-enactment in real-time. Instead of being treated, Orestes was being cross-examined.

It’s possible the production is too stylish for its own good. Hildegard Bechtler’s design, with its ghostly sliding glass that becomes opaque, looks so great that, combined with the moody background soundtrack, it becomes slightly distracting. And having live recordings played back onto screens may illustrate the public nature of this family, but it’s becoming a bit of a theatrical gimmick.

Reservations are small compared with the scale of Icke’s accomplishment. The dialogue is modern and easy to follow, with references to Whitman and even G&S. Icke is obsessive about retelling these stories, which justifies the liberties he has taken but also aids the coherence of his production; the omnipresent reiteration of concerns for signs, stories and interpretation is clear, convincing and engaging.

Until 18 July 2015

www.almedia.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan