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‘Hamlet’ Off Broadway Review: Alex Lawther Leads a Brilliant Modern Take on the Bard

Get thee to the Armory!

The young British director Robert Icke comes to classic material bursting with ideas — and they pay off in a big way in his engaging and often revelatory new modern-dress production of “Hamlet,” which opened Wednesday at New York’s Park Avenue Armory.

Why not place the guards of Elsinore in a dark booth staring at surveillance footage when the ghost of Hamlet’s slain father appears? Or have Hamlet arrive in a black suit of mourning, suitcase in tow, to the wedding banquet of his uncle Claudius and mother, Gertrude, as they dance and cavort upstage behind sliding glass panels in a space that looks like a warehouse conversion in Brooklyn? (The striking set design is by Hildegarde Bechtler.) Or have Polonius (Peter Wight) hide behind the curtains of Gertrude’s walk-in closet to spy on Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother for marrying so soon after his father’s death?

Icke shows careful consideration not only for Shakespeare’s text, but for how it plays to modern audiences — and seeks to find ways to bridge the four-century gap in our understanding of the characters.

He’s helped by a top-notch ensemble, many of whom appeared in the original 2017 London version of this production and who show a keen grasp of the Bard’s poetry as well as the psychological nuances of the characters.

Alex Lawther, who played the budding psychopath in Netflix’s “The End of the F***ing World,” shows a noteworthy self-assurance as the dithering Danish prince. At 27, he is much younger than most onstage Hamlets — and nearly two decades shy of “Fleabag” and “Sherlock” alum Andrew Scott, who played the role in Ickes’ London production.

With his unruly mop of hair and hangdog expression of grief, Lawther has the bearing of a precocious but sometimes petulant undergraduate, a bookworm whose appreciation of wordplay is underscored by the actor’s solid command of the Bard’s language. Like many young actors, he can veer too close to shouting, particularly in middle scenes where he is meant to show (or feign) madness. And he does not always know what to do with his hands, not merely delivering his monologues but often conducting them for some unseen orchestra.

What’s striking is how Ickes’ entire ensemble elevates the material, with fresh readings of their character that contribute to a fuller psychological portrait. Jennifer Ehle makes a strong impression as Gertrude, exuding royal hauteur, a genuine passion for her new husband as well as maternal worry and affection for her apparently inscrutable son, Hamlet. Angus Wright’s Claudius shows a cunning balance between genuine concern and villainy. And Kirsty Rider’s Ophelia emerges as the fragile victim of misplaced first love — whose extreme reaction to Hamlet’s rejection emerges in a typically Ickesian modern form: instead of gathering flowers to hand out to court, she displays self-inflicted cuts to her body.

At three hours and 45 minutes, with two intermissions, the production is long — and Icke includes many passages and scenes that are typically cut from most performances. (This is the first time I’ve ever seen Hamlet’s rehearsal scene with the players, at least at such length.) But if his completist approach to the Bard sometimes shows flashes of madness (does he really need to raise the houselights during the soliloquies?), there is certainly method to it — and often brilliance.

Get thee to the Armory!

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