Ten Percent, ‘Episode 3’ (television episode)

Hamlet is characterised by its titular protagonist’s self-involvement, a frozen indecision caused by obsessive contemplation of the self, leading Hamlet to be trapped in a narcissistic loop. And that’s the condition of our age. At least, that’s the view of ‘Robert’, the director whose vision for his new West End Hamlet is being compromised by a star actor – Dominic West – who can’t find any truth in the concept.

Ten Percent is, of course, far more about the agents than the people they represent, but Keith Akushie’s script and Jessica Swale’s direction both betray a deep investment in the theatre that this episode parodies. Robert – not actually meant to be Robert Icke, presumably, though the name is surely not a coincidence given the production’s style – is trying to force through an auteur’s vision for his Hamlet that his lead actor is entirely uncomfortable with, and the episode is structured around the battle between the vision of the director and the fears of the actor, a battle which the agents are called in to resolve. It’s also, though less explicitly than the show’s first episode, a reckoning with actors aging and finding themselves pushed into discomfort by younger ideas.

The production of Hamlet that we see glimpses of is brilliantly pitched as a postmodern pastiche, which is reminiscent of the ‘fake’ pseudo-European arthouse production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle that Cheek by Jowl created in order to be deconstructed in their 2019 production. Built around a gleaming stepped-pyramid platform, the production is self-consciously outward-looking, a commentary on Hamlet as much as a production of the play. Within this, West plays an emo Hamlet with heavy eye make-up and a disaffected air, fitting in with a grungy dystopian approach to costume and make-up that surrounds the tech-heavy stage.

The episode’s comedy comes from West’s inability to realise his director’s vision concerning mobile phones. ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ sees West trying to juggle both a skull and his smartphone at the same time, taking pictures of himself with the skull and pulling faces, but getting flummoxed and missing his lines. Hamlet’s attack of Gertrude, jumping bodily onto her on her bed, is ruined by his simultaneous attempts to record their encounter and shame her using a phone on a selfie stick. West is required to speak and simultaneously text his ‘How all occasions do inform me’ soliloquy, but can’t get the predictive text to write anything other than ‘What is a mango’. The three large portrait-oriented screens that hang at the back of the stage enlarge and broadcast West’s failures to handle the tech, while Robert screams in fury from the stalls.

This new, director-led theatre is played up for satire, and it’s quite clear that the episode’s sympathies are with the actor who just wants to do his job. But West’s fear at being unable to perform this version of Hamlet, in his big return to the London stage, is also the occasion for paying tribute to a previous generation of theatrical talent. The underpinning context for much of this episode is, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis’s famous absconding from his production, and Tim McInnerny’s Simon – the sad-sack elderly classical actor who is a main character in the series, and who is playing Voltemand in this production – is the avatar of this history. He’s the only one who correctly identifies what is happening here – that West is utterly terrified of the pressure of playing Hamlet. And while the old man is an embarrassment to his agents, his co-stars, his director, he is also the one who gets through to West, who reminds him of the time that he himself walked out of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and of the legacy of that failure.

The episode never ultimately makes a ruling on the kind of theatre it satirises. Robert and Dominic end the episode at least able to perform a friendship, taking selfies of themselves at the press night after-party, and West seems happy with his performance (even if, from what we’re shown, it never looks like this is going to be an especially classic Hamlet). But the elegiac fate of Simon, who himself falls prey yet again to his stage fright and fails to come in for his one line as Voltemand, leaves the episode on a sad note in respect of the passing of this elder generation of actors. The through-line which ties together all of the episode’s plots (which includes the talent agency facing a financial crisis and buyout offer, and Rebecca taking the plunge to set up her own production of journalist Margaux’s memoir after the two hook up) is ‘Don’t fuck this up’. Simon, though, has always already fucked up; his traumatic earlier stage disasters become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and like Hamlet’s Ghost, all he can do is appear briefly to speak to the younger generation and perhaps influence them, before disappearing with no more lines left to speak.

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