The Almeida’s Hamlet, and the use of Technology in the Theatre

Full disclaimer: I understand that it’s part of some unwritten code of theatre ethics to never write about productions that are still in their preview period. That said, these comments will not address individual criticisms that I had with the acting (though there were many), but instead focus on essential stylistic and thematic choices within the production that will most likely remain unaltered for the duration of the run. Also, I feel that a free pass is deserved as my student budget is very preview performance friendly.

I had previously seen director Robert Icke’s production of 1984 during its West End transfer and admired his creative use of screens and lighting throughout the production. The off-stage set seen only through the video cameras was a particularly impressive touch, and the use of lights and blackouts throughout were enough to make me feel on edge for the whole intermission-free show. The set design gave a particularly ominous aura and bolstered the threats of Big Brother, immersing the audience in the Winston’s believed realities and fantasies.

Though Hamlet navigates similar themes in its search for truth and identity, the use of technology detracted from instead of added to the production. Rather than reminding me of 1984, this Hamlet had far more similarities to the oft-forgotten filmed interpretation of Hamlet shot in 2000. In both modernised attempts, Hamlet first views his father’s visage through the medium of CCTV. Both use guns instead of swords in moments of violence, but end up awkwardly forcing a fencing tournament in their denouements for the poisoning to make sense contextually. Though I am not categorically opposed to modern day interpretations of classics in film or theatre, these attempts both feel incredibly ungraceful. Looking back to Almereyda’s film is only a stark reminder of how quickly renditions in modern styles can age. In turn, Icke’s work projects to the audience of its 2017 appeal. In a particularly galling moment, some of the cast members sat in folding chairs in front of the first row and blocked the view of what was happening onstage to most of the audience in stalls seats. In turn, a cameraman played by one of the members of the cast, live streamed the faces of the actors reacting to what was being portrayed onstage. As a result, while the actors themselves could see in full what was happening onstage, roughly half of the audience only saw projections of their reactions. Instead of inspiring any awe, this intervention was just distracting.

It’s not such a stretch that this lack of understanding might concern theatre in general. Not only is it much older than film and television, but the medium of theatre operates under an entirely different semiotic system. As a result, this recent turn to integrating technology into every production possible is still in its infancy—and leads to mixed results. Some productions, such as People, Places, and Things, Privacy, and The Nether have gained success by fully integrating with the drama as it unfolds. However, others such as wonder.land and the Almeida’s The Game feel incredibly forced. (wonder.land, for its part, dealt with this issue in an incredibly clumsy manner, concerning the hazards and joys of social media as physical representations.) One is only reminded by these examples of the inability of theatre, in general, to catch on to social media trends unlike pioneers in other forms of media.

When used correctly, technology should not remain the driving force of a theatrical production. Instead, it should serve as an additional facet that adds to the integration and understanding of the characters’ motivations and the central plot. In other words, the use of technology in the context of this production of Hamlet was contrived.

Hamlet famously ends with the Norwegian prince Fortinbras’s monologue as he takes over Denmark. By doing so, Shakespeare’s language deploys the final moment of catharsis and finality to end the play. However, Icke’s reinterpretation of the ending left me feeling cheated. Rather than have Fortinbras physically appear onstage, his face is seen on a screen reading out his monologue as a newscast segment. This moment left me wondering if the production had merely been too cheap to invest in an actor to play this pivotal role for five minutes an evening. Watching the recording against the backdrop of a terribly edited green screen, I had never felt so removed from a theatrical performance. What’s the point of going to the theatre to remove the only facet that makes the form real—the actors? We all know Hamlet already. People attend Hamlet, again and again, to see to see flesh and blood, not a production that drains Shakespeare of all of its soul.