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Hamlet and the Surveillance State of Denmark

Between last week’s performances of “The Tempest” and “Hamlet,” I had tea with a septuagenarian British actor who played Hamlet in his youth (and later appeared in other productions in other roles). He remarked that now that he was too old for Hamlet, he finally understood how it should be done.

Such is the grip that this existentially challenged tragic hero continues to exert on the imagination. In a way, it’s impossible to miscast the part, because Hamlet is so easy to identify with. As the man I had tea with noted, it is always possible to play Hamlet as an extension of “your own personality.”


From left, Angus Wright as Claudius, Andrew Scott as Hamlet and Derbhle Crotty as Gertrude in “Hamlet,” directed by Robert Icke.

Manuel Harlan/Shout

It is a role, in other words, that everyone takes very personally, and the variations are infinite. Its status as both the most universal and mutable of roles helps explain why actors always want to tackle it, and why theater addicts like me always want to see them.

Mr. Scott’s take on the character may be the most palpably neurotic, and least overtly heroic, I’ve seen. His Hamlet has as many obsessive-compulsive twitches as the adolescent title character played by Ben Platt, a Tony winner this year, in the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” (Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Ben Platt is “Dear Prince Hamlet.”)

This Hamlet’s fingers forever prowl his chest, as if searching for an uncertain pulse. His voice is often pitched as a fading, neurasthenic mewl, and he shifts between depressive paralysis and frenetic tantrums.

You could attach many clinical labels to such behavior, the patterns of which remain much the same even when Hamlet is finally moved to take violent action. Toward the end, I found myself thinking, “Still crazy after all these scenes, Hamlet?” And you may question the accuracy of his view of a corrupt world in which he feels like a prisoner.

Yet that ambiguity is also the beauty of Mr. Scott’s interpretation. The lines between subjective and objective blur into that spiked vagueness that descends when you’re so unhappy that you know you shouldn’t trust your own mind, but still believe in its most irrational conjectures.

Mr. Icke, the director, toys similarly with the notion of an unreliable narrator-protagonist in his adaptation (with Duncan Macmillan) of George Orwell’s “1984,” currently on Broadway. And while I far prefer his “Hamlet,” there are other similarities.

Like Orwell’s Oceania, Shakespeare’s Elsinore is rendered as a place where the walls have ears — and eyes and digital memories. Hildegard Bechtler’s sleek contemporary set features plenty of video monitors, which capture the ghostly peregrinations of Hamlet’s dead father (David Rintoul) as he roams the castle.


Simon Russell Beale, center, with James Tucker, left, and Jonathan Broadbent in “The Tempest” at the Barbican, London.

Topher McGrillis

Polonius (Peter Wight) wears a hidden mike for his scenes with the seemingly mad prince, while Hamlet’s mother (a sensuous Derbhle Crotty) and wicked uncle, the king of Denmark (Angus Wright), listen in. Small wonder that the young’uns of the castle (including Jessica Brown Findlay as Ophelia) crouch behind furniture, spying on their elders, in the early scenes. In Elsinore, you’re crazy if you’re not paranoid.

Cameras play an important role throughout (Tal Yarden is the video designer), and there are the inevitable images of the royal family making nice for television broadcasts. But the show’s most involving moments find Hamlet alone on stage, dissecting his own imagination.

Mr. Scott understands that while, on one level, Shakespeare may be “words, words, words,” it’s what lies beneath and between them that brings those words to life onstage. The audience truly hangs on the pauses in this Hamlet’s monologues, and even if you know the speeches, you wait in suspense for what he’ll say next.

A similarly artful use of the pause electric is evident in Mr. Beale’s performance as the auteur island autocrat of Gregory Doran’s production of “The Tempest.” This visually ravishing show, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, deploys stop-motion digital technology (by the Imaginarium Studios) to transform Prospero’s servant sprite Ariel (Mark Quartley) into vast, shimmering specters out of nightmares.

Such images are great fun to look at, though it can be argued that their literalness limits rather than extends the imagination, while mixing the metaphors of theatrical art. Mr. Quartley’s mercurial performance is quite magical enough on its own terms. So is that of Joe Dixon, as the animalistic Caliban, Prospero’s rebellious slave and id incarnate.

Mr. Beale brings a haunting ambivalence to Prospero’s relationships with these fairy-tale figures, and with his daughter, Miranda (a ravenously curious Jenny Rainsford). He would seem to have similarly unresolved feelings about renouncing his “rough magic” and forgiving the perfidious statesmen who betrayed him years earlier. He often falls into holes of silence midspeech.

Watching Mr. Beale as Prospero, and remembering him as Hamlet, I was newly aware of a poignant kinship between characters that Shakespeare created more than a decade apart.

Prospero may be an older man, conceived by an older playwright. But the process of making up his mind is as fraught and painful for him as it is for Hamlet. To be human, in Shakespeare’s universe, is to live in conflict. Mr. Scott and Mr. Beale make us feel the inescapable fissures in our own divided selves.

Correction: July 24, 2017

An earlier version of this article misidentified the director of the Almeida Theater production of “Hamlet” in London. It is Robert Icke, not Sam Gold.

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