Forward-Thinking Directors are Heralding a New Era for Classic Plays
With captivating leads, sleek production design, and a masterful handle on language, Robert Icke’s “Hamlet” and Jamie Lloyd’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” are among a recent crop of buzzy productions re-energizing New York’s pandemic-weary theater scene.
What’s old is new again: Crowds of almost a thousand are excited to sit through a three-and-a-half-hour Hamlet production. The internet is thirstingoverCyrano de Bergerac. Directors Robert Icke and Jamie Lloyd have overcome the unforgiving reputations of these plays—and their titular characters—to completely re-energize them for a modern audience.
Successfully reinterpreting classic theater is hardly a guarantee. This year has seen a number of revivals on Broadway and off. Shakespeare has long inspired spinoffs like &Juliet, a jukebox musical hitting Broadway in October after successful runs in London and Toronto and explores what Juliet’s life might have been like if she didn’t die for Romeo. But staging a production that abides by the original script, or at least its themes, is a tricky balancing act. Director Sam Gold’s modern-dress rendition of Macbeth, for example, premiered on Broadway in April to very mixed reviews. On paper it was marketing gold: the title role went to Hollywood royalty Daniel Craig with the critically acclaimed Ruth Negga cast as Lady MacBeth. But the cast’s delivery and stage presence seemed to belong in a different version of the play, and even the strongest performances were overshadowed by gory amputations, knife fights, shootouts, and a night-vision rappelling scene that led two characters to fight to the death. It was a lot to take in.
In Icke’s production of Hamlet at the Park Avenue Armory, there is a striking harmony between the performances, the script, and the set design. Actor Alex Lawther, who stars as the Danish prince, commends the director’s acute ear for language in bringing it all together. “Rob is all about making us very sensitive to what is actually being said, how revealing that [dialogue] is and how contemporary it feels, but also surprising. It’s not dusty or obscure, but really sort of sexy and exciting,” Lawther tells Surface.
Icke styles Hamlet as a present-day royal summoned home from his undergraduate studies to celebrate his mother’s marriage to his uncle, the new King Claudius (Angus Wright). Still grieving the death of his father, Hamlet sees his ghost in the palace and becomes convinced Claudius has murdered him. As Hamlet tries to weaponize the media’s attention on the royal family by setting Claudius up to admit his guilt on camera, Claudius in turn mobilizes the palace’s vast surveillance network against his stepson. Both resort to increasingly more violent means to get what they want.
Critics have almost unanimously praised Icke for his reimagining of the play through the lens of the surveillance state, a thematic exploration he attributes to his work with set and costume designer Hildegard Bechtler. “Hamlet begins with a scene in which some soldiers, guarding the palace, see a ghost for the third night running. Once it became exciting to us to think of those guards as security guards, watching over a modern royal palace using cameras, Hildegard and I had, in solving the first scene, touched on one of the veins that run through the whole play,” says Icke. “A camera, put very simply, is a way of looking closely at something—and again and again, that chimed exactly and usefully with the play as we worked through how we might stage it.”
Bechtler’s set and costume design, as well as Icke’s embrace of revisions and open interpretation of one of the best-known (and most-memed) plays in history, work together in making Hamlet feel fresh. “It’s trying to eliminate, as much as possible, things that feel false, that feel Elizabethan rather than contemporary,” Icke says. “[In the script] Hamlet says the purpose of a play is to hold the mirror up to nature. The contemporary costume and set, the way the language is handled, the casting itself: everything is to allow the world and the play to reflect each other as clearly as possible.”
Lawther’s Hamlet, struggling to cope with his first major loss, is enraged by his mother’s newfound happiness and finds no comfort at home in the royal residence which, for all its sophistication, is about as cozy as MoMA. As the wedding party dances and drinks champagne, Hamlet looks as stricken as the day his father died, and is outfitted in a black funerary suit to match.
The dichotomy of Hamlet’s unrest and the sleek veneer of perfection that surrounds him fascinates Lawther. “There was a beautiful metaphor in Hildegard’s design for me as an actor. I found myself wanting to play against the angular furniture and chic Danish noir,” he says. “She invented this beauty on her sets with the clean lines and the quite muted color palette. It’s interesting to play a young person who is in rage against that. Whatever grief Hamlet is drowning in is also a factor pushing him to try and destroy that smoothness and rough everything up.”
Hamlet owes its ability to hold its audience’s attention for nearly four hours to more than stylish costumes and fancy furniture; Icke has been lauded for his cinematic eye, an apt characterization of the director’s skill at navigating the foreground and background to create multiple scenes within scenes. Intentional or not, the style of directing keeps smartphone-addled attention spans focused on the stage. Bechtler’s innovative ‘magic glass’ partitions—named by the designer for their ability to seamlessly transition from transparent to opaque—were initially developed for another Icke production, Oresteia (currently playing in repertory with Hamlet at the Armory) and play an outsize role in creating a sense of dimension and separation of space in the Armory’s nearly 900-seat theater.
“It’s undoubtedly a challenge to bring a staging from the intimate [325-seat] Almeida Theatre [where Hamlet debuted] to the cavernous dimensions of the Armory. Actors find it a gift to perform in those compact London venues so I’ve been concerned that they would find the expanded space harder to live in and relate to each other,” Bechtler says. “However, the expansion allows for more spatial relationships between the characters. Some of them very powerful. Both plays felt a little crammed in the Almeida. Here at the Armory, the architecture is allowed to express itself powerfully.”
The glass and the size of the Armory’s Drill Hall have both resonated with Lawther, who brought his experience from dystopian drama Black Mirror and dark comedy The End of the F***ing World to the stage for Hamlet. “I love those glass walls,” he says. “There’s something quite filmic about being able to have different dimensions to a space where different scenes can happen.”
Like Icke’s Hamlet, Jamie Lloyd’s modern-dress production of Cyrano de Bergerac amassed rave reviews during its recent run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) thanks to its fresh directorial perspective. The play at BAM bore no resemblance to its 2012 predecessor, a more conventional production Lloyd and returning set/costume designer Soutra Gilmour brought to Broadway a decade ago. It features no nose, no cloaks, no fussy language, and is anchored by an electric performance from James McAvoy reading a new script written by Martin Crimp. While Crimp’s script is set in 1640 and takes inspiration from Edmond Rostand’s structure of spoken couplets, it does away with all innuendo to spectacular effect. (When the play came up in my conversation with Lawther, who saw it in London’s Harold Pinter theater, he agreed. “It was wonderful,” he said. “James [McAvoy] was extraordinary. It just made language really sexy.”)
Having recently opened a revival of Anton Checkov’s 1895 play, The Seagull, in London, Lloyd was unavailable for an interview for this story but Gilmour shared that she jumped at the opportunity to bring the modern, pared-back version of Cyrano. back to New York. “Cyrano, even ours [from 2012] has traditionally been given a florid quality,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to speak for Jamie [Lloyd], or James [McAvoy] but I think there was something about wanting to strip right back to [focus on] the real pain of the human relationships in the middle of it; the idea that you’re so in love with someone, but cannot be honest about it because you’re so not in love with yourself.”
Like Rostand’s Cyrano, McAvoy’s character is a soldier and a gifted writer who courts the witty and dazzling Roxanne (Evelyn Miller) by writing letters and poems for her beau Christian (Eben Figueiredo), a cadet with a pretty face but not much else going on. The short fuse and sharp tongue of MacAvoy’s Cyrano cultivates a mythic renown that transcends class divisions, but he so fears rejection from Roxanne on account of his perceived ugliness that he settles for ghostwriting her boyfriend’s letters rather than declaring his own love for her.
As the production transferred between London, Glasgow, and Brooklyn, Gilmour used the set to create a sense of intimacy and immediacy between the audience and the actors. “In each theater, we had to completely renegotiate how the proscenium sat in the space, how it addressed the architecture of the theater, the sightlines, the line between the stage and the audience,” Gilmour says of creating her own proscenium for Cyrano from birch plywood to frame the cast and create a focal point for the audience. “It thrust forward our working space into the space of the audience so that we were much closer. It’s much more dynamic. There’s no fourth wall protection.” The power of that proximity between the audience and the cast spoke for itself at the production I caught earlier this spring, where an enraptured group of teenage boys were so immersed in the play they completely ignored their phones. In 2022, that’s about as ringing of an endorsement as one can get.
In June, Varietyreported that around 48 percent of ticket holders for Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac production at BAM were visiting the Brooklyn theater for the first time to see the play during a period when pre-pandemic Broadway hits were forced to close early—a clear indicator of the material’s ability to engage new audiences despite, or perhaps even because of its limited run. “I don’t want to speak for Jamie, but to me, the lack of any [barrier] between the audience and the actors, that feels really important in all of the aspects of the production, whether it be the lighting, the sound, what I do, or the work he’s doing with the actors,” Gilmour says.
As a member of that 48 percent, I think she’s onto something.