English actor Alex Lawther currently takes the stage at Off-Broadway’s Park Avenue Armory as one of Shakespeare’s most famous protagonists: Hamlet. Lawther, familiar to American audiences for his work onscreen in The Imitation Game and Netflix’s Black Mirror and The End of the F***ing World, previously made his New York City debut in the immersive 2018 production of The Jungle at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
An iconic and frequently-performed character from Shakespeare’s canon, playing Hamlet is a role often found on actors’ bucket lists. “In a way it was, because of its strange sort of mythic reputation,” says Lawther of his own list. “But, it was meeting director Rob Icke that opened up the play to me.” Icke’s adaptation first premiered at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2017. The director’s vision updates the play for modern audiences by integrating modern technology, weapons, and music into the world of Elsinore. Rather than entering the role with preconceived ideas about how to play the grieving Danish prince, Lawther kept an open mind. “I didn’t have any ideas on how I’d approach Hamlet before we started working together. And, from inside, Rob’s work feels like a fiercely direct interrogation of Shakespeare’s text, more so than a re-imagining. We were always going back to the words and asking, ‘What is actually being said?’”
With the text as the foundational touchstone for his process, Lawther was able to use it as a guide through the production—and through making use of Park Avenue Armory’s unique theatre. “It is a gigantic space,” Lawther says. “And there’s a heavy sense of the past in the building, which feels so right for Hamlet’s Elsinore. I am amazed that the Drill Hall can shape-shift in the way it does, depending on the work being made inside.”
The production features several cast members from its Almeida world premiere, including Calum Finlay, Joshua Higgott, Peter Wight, Angus Wright, Marty Cruickshank, and David Rintoul. “What is beautiful in our company is the wealth of actors that have come to the play before, in different incarnations. Marty Cruickshank, our Player Queen, before played Gertrude. Peter Wight, our Polonius, before played Claudius. David Rintoul, our Hamlet’s dad, before played Hamlet. I love that interweaving,” Lawther explains.
“I also heard a story that I think of from time to time—Mark Rylance apparently said one of the most wonderful things about playing Hamlet is the unique feeling, when you’re lying dead at the end of the play, that you have lived a whole life in the space of four hours,” Lawther shares when asked about any previous actors whose performances of Hamlet influenced him. And four hours later is about correct. Icke’s Hamlet runs about three-and-a-half hours long.
In those three-and-a-half hours, Lawther believes Shakespeare delivers an engagement with larger questions that has kept people returning to the playwright’s work over the past 400 years. “Shakespeare is so brilliant at never explaining, putting question marks around what it is to be human,” Lawther says, “making sure the ideas he puts into his play are more complicated and interesting when they come out. I am excited to meet our audiences to hear what that means to them.”
The Park Avenue Armory production also stars Tony winner Jennifer Ehle as Gertrude, Olivier winner Luke Treadaway as Laertes, and Kirsty Rider as Ophelia, joined by Tia Bannon, Michael Abubakar, Hara Yannas, Gilbert Kyem Jr., and Ross Waiton. Hamlet, which opened June 28, runs in repertory for the first time together with Icke’s adaptation of another family tragedy, the Greek play Oresteia by Aeschylus. Though Lawther does not star in Oresteia, several of the cast members perform in both productions, which run at Park Avenue Armory through August 13.