Soul-searching with Scott: Irish actor Andrew Scott delivered an “exquisite, fragile” performance in Robert Icke’s “electrifying, heart-wrenching production” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, writes Clare Petre

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Director Robert Icke’s exceptional contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s most famous play has had plenty of time to sit. Indeed, London has seen two further Hamlets (Tom Hiddleston’s and Benet Brandreth’s) since this formidable piece of theatre closed, but Andrew Scott’s is the one that seems to haunt the capital. With its soundtrack of some of Bob Dylan’s most touching songs, this electrifying, heart-wrenching production has plunged a poisoned foil into the hearts of thousands.
Andrew Scott’s exquisite, fragile Hamlet was offset beautifully by Jessica Brown-Findlay’s graceful yet physically strong Ophelia (her dance background was evident throughout), whose weakness, ironically, lay in her attempting to convince herself and the court of her strength.

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I have seen criticism of the “monotony” of Angus Wright’s Claudius, as if his performance left something to be desired. I disagree – Wright is an accomplished actor and his Claudius was cunningly crafted. He left us in no doubt as to how Derbhle Crotty’s elegant and likeable Gertrude, in the midst of her confusion and grief, was attracted to his lupine, prowling figure but saw the error of her ways so quickly in the closet scene.
Peter Wight’s Polonius was apparently succumbing to the insidious effects of dementia, but his performance lost none of the character’s levity.

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Aided by a cast of such strength, the play felt so fresh that some of its most famous and often most laboured words became unfamiliar. Icke’s daring direction served to emphasise this by giving several of the play’s best known moments entirely new readings – Laertes’ plea to use another foil as the one he has chosen is “too heavy”, for example, became a sudden second thought – a desperate and urgent cry to avoid the inevitable and perhaps use a foil untainted with poison. He became a man torn between his loyalty to the court, and his desire to forgive Hamlet and begin to define a better future. For the duel scene itself Shakespeare’s words were all but abandoned, the fight performed as a dumb-show to Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet”. Emotionally manipulative? Perhaps. Facile? Possibly. Heart-breaking? Undeniably.

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This production’s outstanding competence lay in giving its audience the opportunity to share grief and express its own, usually muted, sorrows. Shared emotion equates to shared humanity. A fully paid-up member of Generation X, I cannot remember a more (over)dramatic outpouring of love and grief than that which we witnessed after the death of Princess Diana, which has been much discussed of late, it being the 20th anniversary of the Paris crash. There was, at the time, an extraordinary and tribal response to her carefully orchestrated funeral.
With Diana, we were not mourning the death of a princess so much as celebrating the opportunity to experience human communality. So with Hamlet, while we feel acutely his pain, Ophelia’s, Gertrude’s, we mourn our own tragedies as they are reflected upon the stage. When we weep for Hamlet and his fellow characters, we are weeping for our own grief and for the sense of loss which might permeate our own lives, but using Shakespeare’s writing as a conduit. To paraphrase Gertrude, this Elsinore turned our eyes into our very souls.

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I fell in love with Hamlet 30 years ago and in that time many interpretations have come and gone. But it is Andrew Scott’s that has remained with me above all others, and which will do until usurped. I suspect I am in for a long wait.

This performance of Hamlet took place on Monday 24 July 2017 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London

In the shocking light of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse revelations, it’s now very difficult to watch Shakespeare in Love. But there’s more: “This is a scandal that reaches many corners of our Shakespearean world, writes Brooke Thomas.

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What’s your favourite Shakespeare inspired film? For many of us, the 1998 classic Shakespeare in Love is the one we return to again and again. It’s a feel-good movie that we can share with anyone, not just our fellow bardophiles. It’s a warm, charming film that introduced a lot of people to Shakespeare and showed a fun side of Bill to some of those who’d been put off by dry school sermons. It’s got a great script, an amazing cast, and it won loads of Oscars.

It was also produced by serial sex abuser Harvey Weinstein.

The film’s female lead, Gwyneth Paltrow, has made a detailed and harrowing accusation against Weinstein. Her co-stars Judi Dench and Colin Firth have made statements condemning the producer. So has the film’s director, John Madden. Another co-star, Ben Affleck, is now enmeshed in a scandal of his own.

Harvey Weinstein, along with his brother Bob, was founder of the Miramax Company, and later the Weinstein Company. As well as giving us numerous classics of modern cinema, they were linked, via production, co-production or distribution, to several other Shakespeare films, including Prospero’s Books (1991), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1996), a version of Hamlet (2000) with Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh’s Love’ Labour’s Lost (2000), “O” (2001), a modern-day reworking of Othello, and, later, Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010), Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2012) and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015).
Another actress, Romola Garai, well known for her Shakespearean stage roles (including Cordelia to Ian McKellen’s King Lear), has come forward to share her own account of abuse by Weinstein.

The victim accounts paint Weinstein as a vulgar, cowardly man. Luring his victims into solo encounters, turning up to meetings in various states of undress, screaming at Paltrow after she’d dared tell her then boyfriend about his come-ons. Gross and leering in his dressing gown, the very embodiment of that well-known character – the casting couch pervert, the professor who would boost your grade, the boyfriend who paid for all those expensive dates. Nothing comes for free in this town, Sweetheart.

This is a scandal that reaches many corners of our Shakespearean world. How are we to feel? How are we to respond now we know these women who we admire so much, who gave performances we adore, were targeted behind the scenes by this predatory man?

Although it’s 401 years after his death, Shakespeare is still tainted by this, in a sense. We in the audience applauded Harvey Weinstein for giving us these films. We didn’t know the truth – that, to him, Shakespeare was just another thing to be abused and exploited. But Shakespeare tells us something very clear about such men of power – their reigns always end. They always fall.

When I started writing this piece I typed this inane opening line: “The entertainment industry has been shocked in recent weeks by the revelations about Harvey Weinstein.” It’s incorrect as well as dull. We’ve been furious, sickened, brimming over with outrage and solidarity for the victims, but shocked? How can we be?

As Meryl Streep commented in her statement about the allegations “The behavior is inexcusable, but the abuse of power familiar.”

I’m not saying we knew about these specific offences with this specific man – although some did allegedly enable Weinstein and they’ll have their own questions to answer in time. I’m saying that we’ve heard this story before. We know how this works.
One in five women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16 (Crime Survey of England and Wales, 2013). This isn’t a rare and startling occurrence. This is something that we’re used to negotiating, in the workplace and beyond.

We live in a world where the 45th president of the United States was elected to office after we heard him confess to sexual assault on tape. Where an anonymous Hollywood agent’s quoted response to the evolving allegations against Weinstein was both dismissive and Shakespeare-defiling: “To me, it’s much ado about nothing… Welcome to Hollywood!”
Sexual assault is commonplace. An open secret. Usually dutifully derided in public and yet quietly accepted in some private spheres.

Some of the statements from Weinstein’s victims and others supporting them cite fear about their future career as a reason not to step forward before. They were intimidated, vulnerable, scared. They stopped working with Weinstein. Quietly advised others not to. The ones who were brave enough to kick up a stink were silenced. Paid off. Allegedly booted from future roles.

Women are still asked why they don’t always speak up about men like Weinstein. The simple answer is that usually we watch them – that professor, that producer, that executive, that rich or powerful lover, relative, or friend – walk away unscathed from our accusations. Have you ever had that nightmare where you’re trying to run but your limbs collapse under you like they’re made of paper? That’s how speaking up against these men feels. In the entertainment industry. In any industry. In this society.

If you do speak up, chances are you’ll get swept away in a wave of “But he’s such a nice guy!”, “That’s just how he is” and, of course, “Don’t make such a fuss.” That’s before you get to the inevitable victim-blaming questions. “Why did you meet in a private room?”, “Did you really tell him to stop?”, “But she carried on working for him afterwards?”

The reason I’m rehashing all this hideously familiar territory is that I cannot understate how brave Weinstein’s victims are for speaking out, how admirable and important their actions are. Did you know that only an estimated 15% of victims of sexual violence report it to the police? Speaking up about this is still subversive. Lavinia’s removed tongue and hands in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus are a grim, but apt, parallel for modern-day women. We are not supposed to tell. “I was expected to keep the secret,” Paltrow said.

Several excellent articles and threads have been circulating on social media about this situation. One by Helen Rosner includes the line: “The burden of defending a workplace from sexual predation cannot be carried alone by women and our whisper network.” The term “whisper network” resonated with me. We tell who we can. We try to protect each other from falling victim to these abusers. Because that’s all we’ve been able to do for so long. I think most women will recognise this culture – the necessary silence cut with urgent whispers. “Don’t be alone with him.” “Don’t pick up anything he drops.” You know this story. At least one in five of us didn’t hear the whispers. We know this story.

Through all the righteous anger, weariness and, frankly, bitterness that this is how things are, one emotion emerges strongest for me: hope.

If this powerful man can be publicly denounced for his abusive behaviour, why not the others? Finally, frustratingly slowly, things are changing. People are starting to believe women when they speak out. We’re lending courage to silent victims every time we applaud the people who have come forward. And supporting victims is finally being normalised by influential people across all industries. Justice is starting to catch up with the Weinsteins, the Saviles, the predatory monsters of this world.

I hope they’re watching. The others. The abusers hiding behind their power, their money, our fading fear. I hope they see Harvey Weinstein fall and know a sea change is coming. The whisper networks are watching too, and we’ll no longer hold our tongues.

Hark! Now I hear them.

Official website for Rape Crisis England & Wales

Actor Norman Bowman has performed alongside Jude Law in Henry V, played Ross in Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth and, most recently, was the eye-gouging Duke of Cornwall in Talawa Theatre’s King Lear… That’s why we’re asking him Six Questions about Shakespeare

What is the most recent play or area of Shakespeare you’ve worked on, and what did you get from it?

“The last area of Shakespeare was King Lear which was a year ago now. As a quick diversion, as I’ve got so much time off in my show, [Norman is playing Pat Denning in the West End musical 42nd Street] I’ve been  refreshing my memory of some of the monologues I’ve learnt over the years. I have to go up and down the stairs just to make a quick change and go back on stage and it’s so monotonous, so I’m going back over all those monologues. Just on the stairs, mind you, not on stage! On the stage I’m focused – I’m Pat Denning, America, 1930s. It’s because I miss it. It has been a year and, certainly with Shakespeare, you never want to stop learning because there’s so much to unearth.

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Photo: Faye Thomas

“When I finish, I’m almost slightly relieved because it does take a lot out of you. These jobs are three months at a time, they’re arduous, you know. They’re like triathlons! The last role I played wasn’t a nice guy [The Duke of Cornwall in King Lear], but I love it, it’s great. I love the antithesis. He died an hour before the end of the piece, so I did get big breaks, but what you do is measure your energy appropriately – if you have got an hour off towards the end, it doesn’t make what you do any less dense, or full on. It was a great one to be able to do. I never thought I’d do Lear as a play, and you’re watching other actors thinking ‘It would be good to have a go at that one as well, and that one…!’

“On a personal level, I’m always surprised to get employed when it comes to Shakespeare, but that’s the same as musical theatre. You do it because you love it. You don’t necessarily believe you’re going to be great at it, but it’s your passion that gets you through.”

What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?

“Crikey, everything! My younger self didn’t quite comprehend it. I keep saying to people ‘Those who have had bad experiences of it need a refresher, but you need it with somebody who works well for you’. It’s a bit like singing teachers – you can get through three or four before you find one that you feel good about. At school, I had a decent experience in English, but some tastes arrive later in your life. You might have hated asparagus when you were young, and then all of a sudden you grow up and acquire a taste for it. I don’t know what that difference is, whether it’s something that develops or about finding the right asparagus!

Norman Bowman (Ross) in Macbeth at Manchester International Festival. Photo by Johan Persson. sml
Photo: Johan Persson

“Until I got to college, I saw Shakespeare as like another language. I don’t think it’s essential, but I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of academics ‘get’ Shakespeare. If you look back at your classic actors, like McKellen and Dench, they come across as supremely intellectual. Perhaps they were like that before the discovered Shakespeare, but I believe Shakespeare does that to you. I think it does absolutely enhance the grey matter. It makes you more knowledgeable and intelligent an actor. It’s like opera – once you get to the basics and understand the function, and how much it can do for you, I think the world is your oyster.”

Which Shakespearean character most resembles you, and why?

“Oh, boy! Do I know enough Shakespeare to even draw a parallel? See, this is it, this is why Shakespeare works – because there’s an element of everybody in everyone. It’s all human condition. It’s all because you can sit there as a person and absolutely relate to that character’s journey. If Shakespeare is done properly then that should be the case. I could easily relate to a little bit of Othello, I could easily relate to a little bit of Hamlet. When I’m older, no doubt I’ll be able to relate to Lear. It’s almost like the seven stages of man – you could pretty much find a character for everyone.

“Erm, Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing is a little bit more like me. It’s the gymnastics of relationships. It’s wanting to understand them and then not understanding them, and then getting them and not getting them! Also, that inability to truly communicate how you feel with somebody. Actually, I’m not sure I am that much like Benedict! If anything, when I was younger I’d probably be more like a Romeo with that wide-eyed wonder that comes with meeting somebody and everything else just fading into grey. Like I said, though, my knowledge of Shakespeare still isn’t extensive enough for me to make a truly informed decision with one character only.”

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Photo: Jonathan Keenan

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

“I guess it’s ‘To thine own self be true’. There’s a poem called Desiderata, and the bulk of it points to this. You know, mindfulness is about this, meditation is about this. A lot of anything we relate to is about those words because it’s about how we feel. Too often, we step outside of ourselves and say what we think somebody wants us to say, or feign affection or whatever. If we could just be ourselves more often…”

What is your favourite Shakespeare related fact, myth story or anecdote?

“Have you read Shakespeare on Toast? [By Ben Crystal] It’s a bit like Shakespeare for Dummies, but it’s a bit more anecdotal. It’s full of stuff. For example, during the American Civil War, a soldier watching a performance of Othello was so taken in by the actor playing the dishonest Iago that he stood up from his seat, drew his pistol and shot the actor dead! I’m pretty sure I’ve read that happened back in Shakespeare’s time as well, because the audience was drawn in so much. Not because they were simple or anything, but because they allowed themselves to disappear into the performance a lot more that they felt so involved.

“The other one is the superstition that you ought not to utter ‘The Scottish Play’ [Macbeth]. If it’s to be taken as truth, it’s that you’re dooming your production to failure and, if so, in the olden days they would then put on a production of ‘The Scottish Play’, it was a guaranteed sell-out. I mean, I’ve said it in Drury Lane and, so far, we’re still running, but I couldn’t see them putting on ‘The Scottish Play’ instead of 42nd Street!”

You have the power to cast anyone in the world, actor or otherwise, to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose, and what role do they play?

“Gosh, I’ve seen Jacobi do Lear, which I thought was incredible. I’ve seen Branagh do Macbeth, which I thought was incredible – to be that close and watch it was amazing. Jude Law doing Henry V, come on, I’ve seen so many good ones it’s so hard to come up with a new one! I’ve seen Ralph Fiennes do Coriolanus. When the day comes for him to do Lear I would love to see that, but that doesn’t feel particularly imaginative!”