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October 16, 2011

Hamlet (Ketterer's Men) @ The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford–upon–Avon

I've recently been reading Marvin Carlson's The Haunted Stage (2001), which deals with a phenomenon in watching and making theatre that Carlson calls "ghosting". This is, effectively, the outer frame which shapes what an audience experiences in the process of attending a theatrical event, the collective resonances carried by actors, buildings, texts, scenery, everything that is reused, recycled and re-experienced. He concentrates particularly on Hamlet as the most haunted play in the Western canon, partly because of the play's own treatment of ghosts but more because of the long stage history that inevitably acts on every new production.

If Hamlet is already a haunted play, this production by the newly-formed Ketterer's Men was more haunted than most. For not only did we experience the "haunting" familiar to all productions of Hamlet: the pregnant pauses before the famous soliloquies, the pre-emptive laughter at the appearance of the already-familiar Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Osric, the collective watchfulness of Claudius's face as he himself watched "The Mousetrap"; but we also experienced the more visceral haunting of an old friend. Ketterer's Men were got up in honour of Lizz Ketterer, who died earlier this year and had always spoken of doing a production of Hamlet with her friend Will Sharpe, with the two as Ophelia and Hamlet. This production thus ghosted a version that never was but was infused with Lizz's life and spirit, and the collage of photographs dominating the programme ensured that her presence was felt by all. I've spoken briefly about Lizz before and don't need to do so again, except to admit that I can't be anything approaching impartial coming to an event that was so emotional for so many people I care about.

Happily, this was one of the best Hamlets I've ever had the fortune to attend, and certainly the fullest. Clocking in at just under four hours with two intervals, a conflated text and few really substantive cuts (the Rynaldo scene was skipped), this bare and intimate production put Shakespeare's play front and foremost, allowing this reviewer at least to really "hear" Hamlet for the first time in a long time. A mix of modern and period dress emphasised the relative formality of characters (Claudius in smoking jacket, Hamlet in hoodie, Gertrude in long gown etc.) and simple props (pikes, letters, daggers) supplemented the visual where necessary, and a low rostrum provided a level at the upstage end of the thrust, but this was an actor's production.

Sharpe's brooding Hamlet was intense and withdrawn, given to the occasional joke but mostly committed to his anger. Soliloquies were delivered slumped against walls or sitting on the stage, and he frequently turned lines in on himself, particularly his third repetition of "except my life". Softly spoken and natural in most of his dialogue, the moments where he lost control had particular impact in their relative volume: whether screaming against Laertes of his love for Ophelia or finally rejecting the nervous Guildenstern. A genuine affection for Ophelia and for his friends softened the character, but this Hamlet stood alone.

Elizabeth Sharrett's Ophelia was heartbreaking. Plainly dressed, she was tender towards her brother (even repacking his bag for him) and mildly irritated by her father. She played the nunnery scene with reluctance and thinly-veiled pain as she returned the letters, and then with tremulous shock as Hamlet began his tirade and screwed up the letters. While the force of this scene came from Sharpe, the emotional impact was in Sharrett's courage as she continued standing despite her world clearly falling apart. In her madness, she entered wearing a hoodie and thick mascara, which ran down her cheeks as the tears fell. The image of Laertes cradling her, the two weeping, as she sang "He is dead and gone" in broken lines spoke to the loss better than anything I've seen before on stage.

Beyond these two outstanding performances, the work of the entire ensemble was excellent, bringing out resonances and stories that are perhaps sometimes lost under the trappings of large-scale productions. Peter Malin (who also directed) was a sorrowful Ghost, pleading with Hamlet for his love and action, and delivered a fine showpiece speech as the Player King. The scene in Gertrude's bedchamber, with Stephanie Surrey vulnerable in pyjamas and Sharpe in particularly kinetic mode as trapped her on the stage, eventually grew into another intimate portrait as the Ghost stood over Gertrude and looked at her in love, while Hamlet sat between. The intimacy of this scene contrasted with Steve Quick's portrayal of Claudius throughout. This sickly politician clapped the entire audience for their support in his first scene and relied on a winning grin and the presentation of benign power throughout, a facade which was slowly dismantled as events got out of hand.

The play's humour was strong throughout, giving relief to the intensity of the main action. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (a game José A. Pérez Díez and Matt Kubus) wore flat caps, multi-coloured scarves and vacant grins as they toddled around the stage; and the scarves reappeared in the hands of the English Ambassador in the play's closing moments. David Waterman's Polonius rambled on relentlessly and muttered to the audience; the Player King offered protest at Hamlet's incessant demands; John Curtis's Osric was flamboyant and extravagant, and Helen Osborne's faux-gormless laughter as the Second Gravedigger brought the house down.

Even in the small space, the play never strayed too far from its roots as a fast-paced revenge tragedy. In another standout performance, Gareth Bernard posed a vivid threat as Laertes, taking command of the stage whenever he was on it and needing both Gertrude and Cecilia Kendall White's loyalist Voltemand to restrain him from the steady Claudius. The final duel, fought with large swords, was a surprisingly sophisticated piece of fight choreography and brought the play to a nailbiting conclusion (even despite the ghosting of a well-trodden plot; always a sign of a good production).

The near-full text allowed for some unexpected treats, including a highly amusing dumbshow version of "The Mousetrap" performed in high camp before the main event and a full showing of Matt Stead's imposing Fortinbras. One thing I noticed, in the context of a full production, is how far Horatio (played suitably nervous yet steady by John Conod) is overwhelmed by events. Here, behind Conod's big glasses, he was clearly a spectator rather than a participant, reminding me of Young Lucius in the BBC Titus Andronicus. Standing for the audience, seen through Horatio's eyes the production became a relentless and painfully confused series of movements and betrayals, leaving no place for innocents or bystanders.

If I do have one complaint, it's that there were a couple of occasions where dialogue was delivered at too brisk a clip, at the expense of emphasis and reflection (though considering the production's running time, one was also glad the company didn't dither). That's a small point, though, in an evening that did both Lizz and Shakespeare proud. I've not been moved by Hamlet in this way before and, even without the backstory, this set a bar for how Hamlet can still "mean" even after so many iterations. Outstanding, and hopefully we'll see far more of Ketterer's Men.

May 14, 2011

Hamlet (Vital Signs) @ The White Bear Theatre Pub

I was surprised to see such a sparse audience for this, Vital Signs Theatre's new production of Hamlet at the White Bear. While Hamlets are two-a-penny at the moment, it's rare to get a chance to see a straight version of the first quarto (Q1). While the programme's claims that it's the first time the 1603 text has been staged in the UK in a decade need to be slightly qualified (the productions of both the Tiny Ninja Theater and Two Gents Productions were both based on Q1, albeit adapted), it's a big enough event that I would have hoped the academic audience alone would pack the tiny pub theatre out.

Imogen Bond's production was part of an MA project investigating audience reactions to subverted expectations, looking at how we respond to familiar texts made unfamiliar. Thankfully, though, this did not prevent her from taking creative decisions and presenting a fully-rounded production. Academic experiments can sometimes be a little dry on stage, but Bond served Q1 well by giving us a full, fast and entertaining Hamlet. This did mean that, at times, the unique features of Q1 were subsumed slightly to the desire to "do" Hamlet, most notably in the interest in character psychology. Where Q1 arguably features less characterisation and stricter adherence to stock figures and plot-driven narrative, one remained very aware of the interior lives of Bond's cast, who looked for psychological determination for their actions - whether Hamlet leaning wistfully after the departing Ofelia, Horatio building a complex and nuanced friendship with the Dane, or Rossencraft and Gilderstone forming a nervy and insecure partnership. I should stress, I think these were strong and thoroughly enjoyable decisions which served the production well. As an experiment, though, I was interested in how expectations of Hamlet informed the building of rounded characters who behave in psychologically realistic and explicable ways. If a production was trying to underline the differences between Q1 and "traditional" Hamlets, then a reduced focus on character would be a much more effective approach.


While I felt, then, that in certain important aspects this wasn't fundamentally different to several other productions of Hamlet I've seen, the strength of Bond's belief in the efficacy of Q1 meant that the production stood proudly alongside other versions on its own merits, and I preferred it to the bloated National version of last year. Pacy and well-performed, the company used the intimate space to create a stripped-back production that drew its audience directly into events. Beginning in complete darkness, the opening battlements scene was lit only with handheld torches; actors' faces gradually became visible as the torches were flung about. The Ghost (Stephen Connery-Brown) rose from the audience and stood silently in a spotlight while Horatio and the guards backed away from it, shaking.

The rough '40s setting (tuxedos, ballgowns, long coats etc.) made for a pleasant but strained formality to the court, where the moping Hamlet (Jamie Matthewman) sat disconsolately and whined while the courtiers coughed politely. We found ourselves amid the broken family dynamics of the privileged classes, with their games and entertainments: the duel was played with one participant stationary in a circle while the other paced around the boundaries attempting to nick his opponent; The Mousetrap was played as a kind of cabaret, with the elegant Player Duchess (Pamela Banks) singing into a microphone and the dumbshow playing as a competitive dance among smoking hoods. The hint of noir influence was completed by Katie Hayes's outstanding Horatio. With her long jacket, aloof air, unspoken loyalties and watchful eye, she could have stepped straight out of Raymond Chandler or even Casablanca, and lent the production much of the subtextual subtlety which might have detracted from the features of Q1, but worked wonderfully.

Dialogue was delivered at a rollicking pace, sometimes at the expense of clarity - I particularly struggled to make out Marcellus's lines, perhaps ironically given the production programme's acknowledgement of Marcellus's centrality to the memorial reconstruction theory. Matthewman's Hamlet handled the language extremely well, however. Speaking with a strong Yorkshire accent, he began much more slowly than the rest of the cast, signalling his melancholy while slouched on a bench next to his mother. When alone, his soliloquies were delivered while seated, leaning towards the audience and shrugging. This mournful Hamlet, however, was also a consummate actor, and sprang to vigorous life when performing his madness or manipulating groups. Tall and strong, he was an intimidating presence in these livelier scenes. When he was challenged over the whereabouts of Corambis, he grabbed and put a knife to the throat of the geeky Rossencraft (Clive Keene) and picked up the diminutive Gilderstone (Lucy Lill), spinning her around as she screamed in terror. He was a physical match for Leartes, with whom he grappled for a long time in Ofelia's grave, and the Q1 text justified a more visceral approach to violence, including holding his sword against the King's throat while the latter prayed.

Surrounding this dynamic and unstable Hamlet were several other characters who were defined by their relationship to him. Hayes's Horatio spoke volumes with her body language, whether lowering her head sadly as Hamlet prepared for the duel or taking his hand in hers as he spoke of his father's funeral. The air of slight detachment that allowed her to watch events was belied by a deep-rooted affection for Hamlet which didn't spill over into reductive sexual terms but connected Hamlet to a constant positive emotional centre. Hamlet acted without guile in turning his head to watch Ofelia (Rebecca Pownall) in early scenes, betraying a genuine affection for her which made the nunnery scene surprisingly difficult to watch, as he shouted tearfully and pushed her away. While Pownall made little impact in these early scenes against Matthewman, she was outstanding in the mad scenes. Rattling her lines out at a tremendous pace, but with complete clarity, she showed herself to be entirely unhinged. Copying the Player Duchess from earlier, she tapped at an imaginary microphone and sang her ravings in broken snatches. She broke into wailing when she slipped into mentioning her father, and pulled wildly at her clothes and hair while the on-stage spectators stood, still and shocked. In the small space, these scenes were truly rivetting.

Light relief was provided by Maurice Byrne as a disappointing Corambis, who mugged unnecessarily to the audience in his asides and didn't add anything significant to the production apart from a well-staged death scene, that saw him attempt to reach through the curtain to challenge Hamlet and pull the arras down on himself. Rossencraft and Gilderstone were surprisingly sober, the slightly awkward classmates of Hamlet and easily subdued by him. The production focussed most of its comic energies instead on the clowns. The Player Clown was eminently watchable in a wordless role that saw him react angrily to Hamlet's advice to the players and need to be restrained by his fellows. The Gravedigger was also played as a formal clown, with Ofelia doubling as his young assistant. Their sequence began with some odd comic business as they exchanged a series of suitcases, before laying out a grave on the floor by draping a blanket over two benches and creating a dip in the middle. The two were amusingly irreverent, and the Gravedigger tossed skulls carelessly out of his hole. With white faces and red noses, however, they also evoked familiar images of sad clowns, and their formal cap-doffing respect for the body of Ofelia (a piece of clothing borne in by four people) was touching.

Some familiar characters drew less attention. Fortenbrasse was barely present, though Sean Turner provided a strong military presence in his brief appearances. Robert Lonergan's King was softly-spoken and sententious, and probably suffered the most from comparison to the fuller characterisation of the more familiar texts. His villainy was in his actions rather than in his demeanour, and more often he seemed at a loss in the face of Ofelia's madness and Hamlet's actions. He came into his own in conversation with Leartes though, defusing the latter's anger and quietly planning their subsequent actions. Diana Katis was a strong Gertred, and I particularly enjoyed the chance to see (for the first time ever) the scene between Gertred and Horatio, which established a strong female-female relationship and lent pathos to the Queen's fate by emphasising her relative innocence.

The play's closing moments made use of the cramped stage space to good effect, as Fortenbrasse stumbled over the bodies that cluttered the space and a weeping Horatio held Hamlet's body in the centre of the stage. This tight image accentuated the speed and violence of the play in this version, a relentless and unthinking tragedy. While it may not have been as radically different to conventional Hamlets as I would have hoped, Bond and her cast pulled together a coherent and consistently interesting production that made a strong case for the efficacy of the play even without the familiar touchstones.

March 17, 2011

Hamlet The Clown Prince (The Company Theatre) @ Warwick Arts Centre Theatre

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This was my third Hamlet in a year with a running time under two hours, which is a trend I'm hugely appreciative of. This time it was a rare UK performance for Mumbai's Company Theatre, with its brilliant and hugely entertaining take on the play through the medium of clowning.

Performed in English and "Ghibberish", a highly articulate but nonsensical babble which continually interrupted the lines and underscored frantic mime, Rajat Kapoor's production burlesqued Shakespeare with all the love and respect that informs the best parodies. Actors poked fun at the lines, the references, the structures and the style of the play, yet Shakespeare's words provided an anchor that rooted the chaos in a meaningful structure, guiding the clowns' own stories to a point.

The conceit was a troupe of clowns deciding to put on Hamlet instead of one of their more usual song and dance shows, with mixed results. Atul Kumar's Soso was the star clown, a droll and often miserable creature who growled at the audience for laughing inappropriately and maintained a breathless sarcatic patter throughout. The ringmaster was Sujay Saple's Laertes, an impresario desperately trying to keep the plot on track and jealous of his lead's arrogance. Nemo, played by Namit Das, was the frustrated-actor-turned-clown who wanted Kumar's role, and kept thrusting himself into the limelight. Puja Sarup's Buzo was Soso's wife, a heavy drinker and operatic diva who couldn't resist making snipes at her husband; and Fifi (two names were listed in the programme, Kalki Koechlin and Rachel D'Souza, though I don't know which of these was tonight's actor) was the new addition to the troupe, a playful innocent with a temper. Finally, Fido (Neil Bhoopalam) was the Clown among the Clowns, a lively and good-natured buffoon with a plethora of contemporary references, some funky dance moves and a tendency to lapse into modern colloquialisms.

The performance of Hamlet by these clowns was hugely truncated, and often in the form of commentary that said more about the clowns than about the characters. Most explicitly, Soso and Buzo's marital discord lent a very specific inflection to their performances as Hamlet and Gertrude, with Buzo accusing Soso loudly of lacking commitment (cf Hamlet's indecision) and the rest of the cast commenting loudly on "Hamlet's" inappropriate love for his mother. Polonius's verbosity, meanwhile, became an extension of Nemo's professional frustration, an attempt to drag out his scenes for as long as possible. One of the most effective clowning moments came as Hamlet sneaked up behind Polonius and wrapped gaffer tape around his face, clamping his jaw up and forcing him to perform in mime for several subsequent scenes.

The production started with the lights slowly coming up on the figure of Hamlet, standing in a spotlight in full clown make-up and holding a briefcase which he kept throughout the production (the impression being of the itinerant traveller). The other cast members emerged from the shadows to throw dust in his face, add flowers to his lapel, slap him etc. (very reminiscent of U2's Numb, actually) in a montage sequence of visual motifs that would recur throughout the play. In a stunning sequence of Ghibberish, with enough English thrown in to give a sense of structure, Hamlet then proceeded to monologue the entire story of the play. As an induction, this witty sequence acted to draw the audience into the play's language and curious means of communication. The unintelligible words became a communicative bridge, creating a dialectic of active interpretation with an audience that relied on a shared willingness to find meaning.

Knowledge of Hamlet was presupposed, and made explicit when Soso arrived late for the play itself, citing the difficulty of finding Warwick Arts Centre and being distracted by the centre's director. Critiquing the other clowns' choice of play, he offered a series of 'spoilers' to the audience, which the others attempted to counter by accusing him of lying "It's a happy play!" Even once the play itself had begun, the company freewheeled through the plot, pointing out to the audience how quickly they were doing it and briefly mentioning the scenes (inevitably involving Polonius) that they had cut out. There was no Fortinbras, no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, no gravedigging and very little of Laertes; Hamlet here primarily offered a structure for looking at simple relationships of love and family.

It was in Hamlet's relationship to the women that the play's heart was revealed, albeit always with an undertone of self-mocking laughter. The dynamic between Soso and Buzo was affectionate and abusive, and the latter's descent into incapable drunkenness had its moving elements. By the closet scene, she was no longer capable of remembering her lines and instead began flirting with audience members, much to Soso's annoyance. Her attempts to find a sozzled dignity in Gertrude's regality were particularly entertaining, while also giving Hamlet a genuine barrier to re-engagement with his mother, whose loyalties between position and maternal responsibility were problematically divided. With the innocent Ophelia, on the other hand, a more romantic strain was introduced. The two saw each other across the stage, the lights turned to red and the two began walking towards each other in slow motion. As he reached her, without missing a beat, Soso slid his briefcase onto the floor and used it as a step to draw level with the much taller Fifi's face for a tender kiss. This was the beauty of the clowning aesthetic - it allowed for moments of true pathos without ever descending into mawkishness or irony; the absurdity of people was foregrounded in the kindest possible way.

Fido was the clown who most embraced the comic metatheatricality of the enterprise. Accompanied by his pet egg (which hatched partway through into a chicken glove puppet), he laughed at himself constantly, breaking out into dance and controlling the apparatus of the theatre (for Claudius's plot with Laertes, he shouted "Conspiracy light!" and ran into the obedient spotlight that appeared). His Ghost was forbidden from speaking, and so he instead performed in a series of dance manoeuvres and a game of charades to communicate his intentions. His constant references to pop culture included extensive discussion of The Lion King's relationship to Hamlet and self-conscious quoting from The Dark Knight, drawing attention to his Joker-ish make-up.

To describe the joking, however, does a disservice to a production which fell or rested on rapport. A hugely appreciative audience engaged wholeheartedly, warming to the clowns' ribbing and embracing the chaos. Whether it was Polonius getting bored and wandering off the stage instead of pretending to be dead; a random poll of the crowd to ask "what's your be-or-not-be dilemma?"; or Hamlet enjoying the fact that the rest of the cast had to be frozen in position while he rambled on in soliloquy, the entire piece was built around a shared willingness to entertain and enjoy that relocated Hamlet within the storytelling mode adopted by Two Gents in their Zimbabwean Hamlet a couple of months ago. If the play is now being rediscovered as a series of recognisable and universal motifs that serve to authorise and structure new stories and improvisations, that can only be a good thing in my eyes.

This wasn't all about chaos, however. Fifi's Ophelia was beautiful in her madness; she performed simple magic tricks, revealing flowers from her sleeve which she then threw down to audience members (complimenting them on their catching ability). As the rest of the cast watched and cried out, she then slowly kneeled down for her drowning, the stillness of her body a startling contrast to the pace elsewhere. A similar image closed the play. After a frenetic sword fight, the stage was littered with bodies, and Hamlet was once more standing alone. Gesturing to the bodies around him (who glugged, burped or twitched appropriately), Hamlet pointed out the futility which, he argued, had been present from the beginning. As the lights slowly faded, he reminded us what he had promised to tell us and, with nothing remaining, "the rest is silence". Followed immediately by a chaotic, clowning curtain call, the juxtaposition of stillness and silliness remained the production's most powerful aspect, reminding us once more of Hamlet's inherent metatheatricality and continual ability to be reappropriated.

December 08, 2010

Too Many Danes

How many Hamlets can we sit through?

In many ways, we're still in the shadow of the RSC and Donmar "celebrity" productions, more recently joined by the National's major stab. It's one of the big institutional shows, and it's had a good run round the main theatres over the last year and a bit.

But then there are the myriad smaller versions I've caught: the RSC Young Person's version, Tom Cornford's reconstruction, the Zimbabwean Kupenga Kwa Hamlet, the National's Prince of Denmark.

You'd think this might mean Hamlet was being exhausted for the time being, but oh no. First up is Northern Broadsides on tour; then the Factory Hamlet is returning to the Rose Kingston. The Young Vic is mounting its version with Michael Sheen, and the RSC YP version is still doing the rounds. And finally, Shakespeare's Globe are doing a touring version.

A serious question arises. However good Hamlet is, does it really warrant this level of public saturation? I love the play, but I do find productions of it (with notable exceptions, such as Two Gents) rather too similar to one another to justify the continuous repetition. It's partly to do with the cultural baggage that Hamlet drags along with it: directors are happy to put slightly different glosses and tones on it, but the essential production remains the same in a way that, say, the similarly huge number of Macbeths avoids through breathtaking variety.

Here's a plea to the directors of all the forthcoming shows (and I know the Factory one will at least manage this): PLEASE temper your reverence to the text with an awareness that we are spoiled for Hamlets. Play with it!

November 20, 2010

Kupenga Kwa Hamlet (Two Gents Productions) @ The Oval House, London

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Kupenga Kwa Hamlet (The Madness of Hamlet) began with Queen Gertred singing Hatina Musha, a traditional Zimbabwean funeral song. It ended with two jolly gravediggers suddenly collapsing, dead. Yet as bleak as this may sound, Two Gents Productions' take on Hamlet found a warmth and vivacity in its relationship with the dead, informed by the Shona concept of ancestors and a physical engagement with the notion of ghosts. This was most apparent as Hamlet and the Ghost finally saw each other and broke into smiles and laughter before embracing. The joy of this moment, so often an instance of horror or trauma, testifies best to the freshness and vitality of this production.

At eighty minutes long, and based on the First Quarto, this was more of a response to Hamlet than a straight production. Performed in township style, Tonderai Munyevu and Denton Chikura played all the roles. Each character was explicitly identified with a gesture - Gertred with a hand on her cheek; The King with his arms raised aloft (a gesture of power explored at the Gesture Lab); Ofelia with a pout and hands on her hips; Corambis bent double. The effectiveness of these gestures in creating character allowed actors to exchange roles frequently, the characters becoming presented elements in an easy storytelling style.

On a simple plain set of boards, with the only props a bowl-shaped instrument and a mat. The two props allowed for an undercurrent of ritual throughout, whether Gertred washing her hands or the King kneeling to pray. The spartan and open nature of this world ignored class and formal distinctions, instead locating status merely in, for example, the King's heightened stance and Corambis's grovelling servant. Rossencraft and Gilderstone, meanwhile, were trilling clowns, their hands waving in the air as Hamlet glared at them, bemused. The effect was one of very human relationships, the characters breaking away from received conceptions - Ofelia, in particular, was a sexually confident and flirtatious figure, who we found out later was pregnant by Hamlet.

What was lost in rich verse speaking, then, was made up for in human insight. A confused and persecuted Hamlet addressed the audience matter-of-factly, while Gertred was imagined as lonely and easily hurt. The representative nature of the performances oddly served to suggest rich hidden lives for the characters: while the performances told us about the characters rather than becoming them, rarely have the cast of Hamlet felt so real.

The arrival of the players made for one of the most important and fascinating scenes. Munyevu performed the Player/Hecuba in what I assume was Shona, acting out the Trojan queen's laments in exaggerated melodrama which was both amusing and touching. For the performance itself, four audience members were dragged onto the stage, including my friend Justine as Ofelia and myself as the King. Placed in position (with appropriate gestures), we provided an onstage audience for the mimed poisoning, after which Hamlet approached each of the human puppets and demanded of us if we recognised it. With I as the King made to nod, the production broke apart, and Munyevu resumed the role to order us off the stage in fury.

It was Hamlet's close and genuine relationships with his family and friends that most struck me. His tenderness towards Gertred and Ofelia, and his lack of confidence in pursuing his ends, were perhaps what made his moments of hesitation so believable; and, in a wonderful moment, Laertes's return was staged with he and Hamlet kneeling beside each other, Hamlet quietly telling Laertes that he loved Ofelia more than any brother in a gentle, sincere tone. The tragedy of this Hamlet was in the slow corruption of these close relationships, and the production took full advantage of the unique Gertred/Horatio scene to show a connection even between these two.

It was this scene that began the final, tremendous section of the play, as one of the cast turned to the audience and told us "And that was when it all began". Abandoning the play proper at this point, the duo fully embraced the storytelling aspect of the production and began to present scenes out of sequence according to the tale they wished to spin. The two became gravediggers, singing a song ("Kupenga Kwa Hamlet") in high spirits as they acted out motions of digging and laid the mat in different locations of the stage to indicate graves. Turning to the audience, each of them told a story in turn as a fictional "friend" of the deceased - a courtier friend of The King, a student who had known Leartes in France etc. With heads shaking and a tone of regret, they spoke of the bad decisions that their desperate companion had made, leading to their death; then presented the relevant bit of that character's death. Ofelia, Gertred, Leartes, the King and Hamlet in turn were thus introduced, their inevitable death mourned, and their final actions carried out; in between which they came back to life as the gravediggers, who whistled, sang and dug.

In the play's final moments, Horatio stood beside Hamlet who knelt on his death bed, smiling broadly as he looked towards death, recasting his last words as a voice of triumph and progression, recalling his earlier happiness at seeing his father. He lay down to die, and then instantly leapt up again as the Gravedigger, and the two continued their digging in a flurry of movement, before suddenly collapsing into a blackout; the point being, of course, that death would eventually take even them. The purpose of the production in this closing sequence, then, became to confront the reality of death as an inevitability to be embraced, rather than something to fear. The cheerful exuberance of the gravediggers could have trivialised their deaths, but instead placed them within a broader spiritual context that demonstrated the gulf between death and life was not nearly so wide as we might believe; and the dead were to be mourned, but perhaps so too were the living.

This amusing, moving and wonderfully performed Hamlet establishes Two Gents as one of the productions to really watch, having now proved that their unique and accessible style translates to both comedy and tragedy, entertaining while drawing out powerful implications from Shakespeare. It's yet another reminder that even such an institutionalised play as this can, with some imagination and a disregard for tradition, truly become alive again.

October 27, 2010

Hamlet (National) @ The Olivier Theatre

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A lady sitting next to me at yesterday's matinee commented how nice a change it made to have someone relatively unknown playing Hamlet. Certainly, Rory Kinnear hasn't made the same mass-media impact yet as David Tennant or Jude Law, but he's been working his way up, giving stunning performances in The Revenger's Tragedy and Measure for Measure to name just a couple, and the National's publicity art clearly demonstrates the level of confidence the theatre has in him:

Hamlet publicity image

Nicholas Hytner's large-scale production, clocking in at over three and a half hours, was, however, a disappointingly conservative affair for the most part. As a showcase for fine performances, decent verse-speaking and a suitably reverential tone, it was exactly what one might expect; however, it lacked the spark or originality that might have helped it stand apart from other recent and equally worthy productions. Part of this was down to Kinnear himself, conducting his early scenes with a melancholic solemnity and pausing significantly after the first line of each of his big soliloquies: one could feel the National audience using the pause to settle expectantly into their seats, though only once - to my glaring annoyance - did an audience member actually start reciting the lines out loud along with the cast. It's that level of expectation and predictability which, to me, screams out for something far more radical to be done with the play.

However, Kinnear gave a superlative performance that subverted several of these expectations to great effect. This was a particularly callous Hamlet, particularly in his shrugging dismissal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths, at which Horatio was especially horrified. By the fifth act, Hamlet was beyond redemption, a cynical and committed revenger with more than a passing resemblance to Kinnear's earlier interpretation of Vindice. His madness - heavily feigned - manifested itself comically in dances, high-pitched singalongs and a cutting sarcasm that heaped scorn on Claudius. Early on, in a frenzy, he had chalked a smiley face and the word "Villain" onto a wall as he realised Claudius's treachery; and, in a neat twist, he transferred the design onto a batch of t-shirts that he gave out at "The Mousetrap" to everyone except the King. This careful stage managing of his play, at which he controlled follow spots to illuminate Lucianus, culminated in a chaotic dispersal of actors, audience and scenery, at which an exulting Hamlet fell to his knees downstage, closing the first half in a roar of triumph.

The long (2 hours) first half, however, suffered from a slowness of pace. Kinnear evoked the psychology of the conflicted anti-hero with some skill, and indulged in a great deal of sympathy with the character, particularly in the gestures of despairing guilt following the accidental murder of Polonius, a significant turning point for him. However, his solemn delivery and internalised responses kept the tone of the play steady and slow, exacerbated by a rather static staging and blocking, particularly in the scene between Hamlet and the Ghost which was, frankly, dull. An over-reliance on microphones (flagged up at one point as backstage radio messages suddenly came across as the Ghost tried to speak in a sound blunder) left the production too often distanced and self-contained, a psychological reading that was fascinating, but unengaging.

Far more interesting were the political machinations. Patrick Malahide's Claudius was a suited politician inhabiting a grand old palace (whose walls moved to create smaller compartments suited to the various scenes) where every entrance was guarded by a flunky and camera crews were on hand to record selected speeches for public consumption. Claudius's opening announcement of his marriage was conducted as he and Gertrude sat beside each other in fine chairs, holding hands; and the crew were summarily dismissed before he turned his attention to foreign affairs. His rule built itself around terrorisation and fear: even as Hamlet exulted at the close of the first half, the players were marched off at gunpoint to their apparent death, and a similar fate awaited Laertes's hooded supporters. Even more alarmingly, the insane Ophelia was grabbed from behind a door and pulled offstage, the report of her drowning following shortly thereafter.

Ruth Negga's Ophelia was servicable, if unremarkable. She stripped down to her bra and pushed a shopping trolley during her mad scenes, but any spontaneous effect was partally neutered by her careful songs, one of which was sung along to a heavy rock instrumental track on her portable CD player. The tightly-planned randomness didn't excite, but her rutting against first Claudius and then Gertrude had a far edgier and more sickening aspect to it. Far more impressive was Clare Higgins as a powerful and independently minded Gertrude, who reacted angrily to Hamlet's insinuations against her infidelity and took an active role in commanding courtiers and organising arrangements. Good humoured (she laughed at Hamlet's jokes throughout "The Mousetrap", until they were directed explicitly against her) and emotionally engaged, her collapse during the closet scene was particularly compelling. She began confidently and angrily, but collapsed following Polonius's murder and retreated to an uncontrolled sobbing on a sofa as she took comfort in a bottle of scotch. Upon being left alone, she wept bitterly until Claudius's entrance.

Special credit should go to James Pearse, who understudied for David Calder as Polonius and the Gravedigger, both conventional but entertaining performances. In particular, Polonius's contrast to the players - a dynamic young bunch with keyboards, lighting equipment and crates of costumes - was pleasingly entertaining, including a moment as James Laurenson's Player King stood aside in annoyance after one too many interruptions and gestured to Polonius to take his place, to the old man's embarrassment. The network of flunkies around the palace helped to evoke the multiple-tiered hierarchy of the ruling classes, surrounded by yes-men and intermediaries whose presence mitigated the privacy of many of the scenes. From the scene to camera in Claudius's first appearance, this was a world in which private lives were lived under public scrutiny, hence the quick and brutal efficiency of the wet work.

Ferdinand Kingsley and Prasanna Puwanarajah made for an entertaining Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, first visiting Hamlet in his bedroom and later leading the search parties with some intensity. The self-serving aspect of the characters was played up, their efficient responses to Claudius's commands betraying their essential role as spies. Giles Terera's Horatio, by contrast, was a nervous and independent young man, out of place in the world of the court and terrified by what he saw around him. His cradling of Hamlet's body in the final moments of the play was moving, his face betraying a complete lack of comprehension of the events he had witnessed.

While not an exceptional Hamlet, then, this was at least a solid and well-performed interpretation, and one that will no doubt further cement Kinnear's reputation. A vigorous closing battle ended the play on a high, with courtiers running in fear from the out of control duellers and Hamlet coldly brushing the poisoned swordtip across Claudius's chest. I think, though, that Hamlet is now severely overdue for considered reappraisal and a far more inventive approach.

Prince of Denmark (National) @ The Cottesloe Theatre

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As a prelude to the afternoon's Hamlet in the Olivier, I managed to catch one of the final performances of Michael Lesslie's new play Prince of Denmark, part of the NT's "discover:" programme. Aimed at teenagers, the production's purpose was to provide a bridge for young people coming to the play for the first time. Yet it achieved a level of sophistication and insight that far surpassed its modest run and claims for itself, proving just what Youth Shakespeare is capable of.

This "prequel", set ten years before Hamlet, covered a day in the lives of the adolescent Danes that acted as a significant turning point in their lives, acting implicitly to determine their characters as encountered in Shakespeare's play. The main character, fascinatingly, was arguably Laertes, impressively realised by Chris Levens. His servant Reynaldo brought him intelligence of Hamlet and Ophelia's youthful flirtation and plans to meet. Hamlet, having incurred his father's wrath by bursting out against Denmark's warmongering, was under close watch, but engaged a visiting player (the Player King of Hamlet) to exchange clothes with him in order to keep his rendezvous. Laertes engaged Osric, a foppish suitor to Ophelia, to murder the "player", but was thwarted by the revelation of Hamlet's true identity. A fencing duel between Laertes and Hamlet over the latter's right to woo Ophelia was fought and lost by Hamlet; but, asserting his rights as Prince, Hamlet then arrested Laertes and resolved to obey his father's command to leave for Wittenberg, asking Ophelia to wait for him.

The surprisingly involved plot thus integrated a number of different recollective and anticipatory strategies to introduce young people to Hamlet. The plot self-consciously foreshadowed many future events, including a full-scale enactment by the Players of the murder of Priam; the fencing match (which a cowering Osric refereed, howling "I don't know!" after a challenge); Ophelia musing on the "drowned" reflection of herself in the brook; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's betrayal of Hamlet following his escape; and Laertes's possessive treatment of his own sister. More sophisticated hints trickled in from reports of the unseen adult action. The production opened to the clanging and hissing of Denmark's armoury as they prepared for war, and Hamlet reported on the subjugation of Norway and the imminent threat against England, giving a surprising amount of useful attention to the political context. Ophelia's report of Gertrude, naked and washing herself guiltily in the brook, determined the insidiousness of the plot against Old Hamlet; and, in watching Pyrrhus's rage, Hamlet saw a foreshadowing of his own future assumption of responsibility, even if he couldn't yet articulate it.

The adoption of other Shakespearean plot devices in order to couch Prince of Denmark within an introductory framework was also extremely well-handled, the most obvious use being made of Othello in the Iago/Roderigo relationship between Laertes and Abubakar Salim's entertainingly cowardly Osric. On one level it offered a typically didactic message about not allowing oneself to be swayed by influence; but on a far more sophisticated level, it opened up a complexity in Laertes's character that read into his later actions a basic emotional insecurity. Almost screaming at Hamlet that "I love her more", his troubled relationship with his sister manifested itself in his exertion of control over her; warning her away from Hamlet while at the same time treating her sexuality as a commodity. He was obsessed with social advancement and the precarious position of his father (newly appointed as Claudius's servant) and, despite his age, was already attempting to play the games of court politics.

Against this tricky intersection of political, social and sexual confusion, Calum Finlay's Hamlet raised similarly significant questions over power, honour and rule. His relationship with his father was seemingly irrevocably broken, and Hamlet's proto-pacifist arguments against the futility of war and the breakdown of European political relations were interspersed with wails about his father's preference for conquest over time with his son. In such treatments as this, Lesslie's text really showed its muscle: no easy characterisations here, but selfish and hormonal characters who had not yet learned to distinguish their public and private concerns. The pragmatic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Oliver Yellop and Adrian Chisholm, playing up both the comedy and the insidiousness of the characters) demanded he consider conquest as an extension of honour and a means to immediate gain; Hamlet countered with worries over the problems being stored up for the future in enemies such as Young Fortinbras.

Making up the central trio was Eve Ponsonby as Ophelia. The script displayed more weaknesses in the writing of its sole female character: Ophelia's complaints about what she was allowed to do as "a girl", and how being "a girl" gave her a different insight lacked the sophistication granted the male characters. Her arc remained a valid and useful one though, the negotiation of the extent of her control over her own life. She reacted particularly aggressively to Laertes's reminders that she was only a lady-in-waiting, on which she played as she chafed at "waiting" for life to happen. Ponsonby's performance brought out the character's less innocent side, however, particularly in an uncomfortable flirtation with James Williams's Reynaldo - a sly piece of work and Laertes's spy - as she promised him that she could repay his betrayal of Laertes's confidence in "feminine ways". Her directness, stemming from the boredom, also manifested itself as she cut through Hamlet's complaints that she was all he wanted with a "Take me, then".

The lively ensemble clattered around the stage, creating a shadowy impression of a court environment much bigger than, and often inaccessible to, the young people. An early fencing school mixed playfulness - including one acrobatic cast member somersaulting from an upper level onto the traverse platform of the stage - with veiled danger, as one participant got carried away and struck another, at which point the fencers turned on him. The reappearance of the ensemble as the players created a startlingly physical evocation of the Trojan story, with Priam flailing a sword wildly at the encroaching hordes even as Pyrrhus strode in slow motion towards him. The use of the speech as recited in Shakespeare here also served to demonstrate the effectiveness of Lesslie's central writing conceit. The lines were written in a faux-Shakespearean prose, designed to evoke the patterns and formality of verse speaking but in the simpler mouths of youths who had not yet developed their full rhetorical skill. What sounds deeply problematic actually served the purpose surprisingly well: rather than throwing in 'forsooths' and 'verilies' for an Elizabethan effect, more straightforward language was employed in a Shakespearean structure. Thus, Hamlet continued to ruminate longwindedly and rhetorically on questions of honour, but with a more accessible vocabulary and linear syntax that allowed the young audience to keep up with his trains of thought. That it segued neatly into the use of actual Shakespearean verse was testament to Lesslie's skill. It's an interesting conceit, and not one that I'm convinced would always work, but here it served the purpose of providing a half-step for children to "tune in" to Shakespearean verse that I thought was hugely effective.

The climax of the play, however, offered the most fascinating moments of the production. Questions of honour and love became confused, as Laertes demanded satisfaction and Ophelia threw herself between him and Hamlet. Insisting on his need to prove himself as a man, rather than a prince, Hamlet agreed to the duel, and the two men both staved off Marcellus as he tried to intervene. Laertes won all three points, however, finishing by holding up his foil to Hamlet's throat. Released, Laertes demanded confirmation of his vow - to leave off wooing Ophelia. Hamlet, however, refused and ordered Laertes's arrest. As Laertes struggled, Hamlet announced that contracts were to be kept between equals, but that he was Prince of Denmark, above Laertes and therefore above the vow. This final image - Laertes howling against injustice, Hamlet straightening himself up in acceptance of his status and asking Ophelia to wait for him - offered a troubling and unresolved ending to the play, which asked us to share a level of sympathy with Laertes after his overt villainy, and question Hamlet's own appropriation of absolutist powers.

The play itself, however, closed with Ophelia and Horatio looking ominously towards the future. Joseph Sarrington Smith's Horatio, a dishevelled and bookish scholar, set himself above and apart from the political concerns of the court, to the particular disdain of the eminently pragmatic Reynaldo. The beginnings of Hamlet's and Horatio's friendship were seen as Hamlet reacted positively to the lack of subservience the humble, but irreverent, Horatio showed him. With Horatio imagined as a Jaques-type figure, commenting ironically on the political machinations going on around him, a further relevant Shakespearean resonance was set up that positively engaged the audience with the unspoken aspects of Hamlet.

I was surprised, watching Hamlet in the main house later in the day, how much Prince of Denmark stayed with me, making me attentive to mentions of e.g. England as a Danish tributary that I hadn't considered important before. That the characters of Prince of Denmark weren't always entirely consistent with conventional presentations of their older selves was immaterial - this acted as the perfect introduction to the play, not only in providing motives and earlier developments that extended rather than limited meaning, but in exploring the more complicated political background too often lost on audiences. It'd be fascinating to see this paired with the RSC's current, and similarly unpatronising, YP Hamlet, and it's a shame the run was so short. A perfect demonstration of what can be created for kids when a theatre properly invests.

August 27, 2010

Hamlet (RSC Young People's Shakespeare) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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In many ways, this was my ideal Hamlet. Performed on the RSC's main stage by the current ensemble, yet only costing a tenner and lasting an hour and ten minutes flat, there's something wonderful about seeing a Hamlet after lunch and still being able to get home in time for a full afternoon's work afterwards. All Hamlets should be like this....

Tarell Alvin McCraney's production was part of the RSC "Young People's Shakespeare" strand, along with last year's Comedy of Errors (currently being revived alongside this production), which goes into schools around the region as well as being performed in the Courtyard as part of Young People's Shakespeare Week in September. In a rather austere year for Shakespeare at the RSC, this offered an irreverent, funny and fresh way into Shakespeare that, once again, eclipsed the "adult" productions for accessibility and interest.

One of the great pleasures of this production was in finally bringing to the fore some members of the long-term ensemble who have been sorely neglected in the Shakespeare productions - so, actors too often playing supernumeries finally got to take on the big roles.* This is what the ensemble should be about, although it's a shame we have to wait until the "yoof" productions to see an actor as good as, for example, Kirsty Woodward get a decent role.

McCraney and Bijan Sheibani's edited text trod a fine balance between streamlining and clarifying with tremendous skill. With only a couple of pop-culture concessions to the kids (a comic flirtation at the start between Ophelia and Hamlet was performed to a sung version of "Anyone Else But You", the theme from Juno), the editors worked simply to let the text be understood. This led to some surprising and brave decisions: Fortinbras and nice but complex moments such as the flute passage were deleted, but Laertes's dispute with the Priest over the burial rites afforded to suicides was played. The production understood that young people can cope with serious business, and Ophelia's madness and suicide in particular was quite disturbing. With dishevelled hair and an hysterical oscillation between screams and sing-song happiness, Debbie Korley was heartbreaking in Ophelia's final scenes, strewing red petals into the audience and breaking down in her brother's arms as she realised her father was dead. As Woodward's Gertrude narrated the story of her death, Korley entered upstage while a long blue drape was rippled before her. Reaching out, she grabbed the drape and pulled it around her, wearing it as an ankle-length dress for the funeral scene, at the end of which she was welcomed into the afterlife by the Ghost.

The seriousness accorded to moments such as these was all the more powerful for its stark juxtaposition with the comic moments. Gruffudd Glyn and Dyfan Dwyfor stole the show as a Stoppardian Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, dressed identically in straw boater and blazer. These two not only had identity issues; they actively mimicked each other, delivering lines as one and mirroring gestures even as they mugged at the audience or wolf-whistled after Ophelia. With most of their lines cut, the two became easy comic relief, notably ushering the hidden court members out of the arras while Polonius distracted Hamlet with conversation. Glyn returned for an encore as a deliciously camp Osric, and he and Dharmesh Patel's Hamlet ended up attempting to outdo each other in petulant mimickry.

Even better was a fully-acted pirate sequence, imagined by Horatio as she (Simone Saunders playing the role as female, though sensibly not allowing this to change the dynamic between her and Hamlet, however interesting that may have been) read Hamlet's letter downstage. Patel spoke the words of the letter himself, while the rest of the cast dressed up as sailors and pirates for the re-enactment. Hamlet's delivery allowed him to enact complete authorial control over the scene, putting Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the imagined English executioner to sleep while he switched letters. The arrival of R&G at the English court was acted, and the two men placed their heads on a block even as Horatio noted that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead", at which the two looked at each other, shrieked, and dived, leaving their hats on the block. This intermixture of playful metatheatricality, self-reference and wilful disregard of the internal "rules" of the play characterised both this and Errors, and is perhaps a more "authentic" approach to Elizabethan drama that more serious productions could learn a great deal from. A subsequent pirate battle was ended as Hamlet threw money to the brigands, who incidentally switched from snarling cliches to polite geniality ("such a good boy").

Patel had the mixed pleasure of getting to play Hamlet in a much abbreviated form, but managed the role splendidly. This Hamlet bordered on the comic, most obviously as he sat on the lap of a man in the front row so they could read a book together, but it was his youthful confusion that most stood out. Whether reacting to the improbable news of his father's appearance (Patrick Romer in a mask) or delivering "To be or not to be" as a clearly worked out set of practical questions, Hamlet was fast-thinking and keen to act. This aspect was most apparent when played opposite Dwyfor's Laertes; the two impetuous young men came to blows over Ophelia's body, both having to be restrained, and were violently aggressive in their final fight, with rapiers flailing. The carefully-managed fights kept up a good pace (apart from an odd moment where David Rubin's Claudius disappeared offstage for far too long to get the cup for the pearl - one can only assume a prop had been forgotten) and organised the multiple schemes in a clear way, especially as a slow-motion finale allowed the audience to see Laertes apply the poison to the rapier and then swipe Hamlet across the leg. The violent final tussle even took down Osric, though I missed who dealt him his death blow. Hamlet's reaction to his stabbing was to revenge himself aggressively first on Laertes, then on Claudius, though it was Gertrude who he reached out for as he died in Horatio's arms to the final words "The rest is silence".

A visual motif throughout used umbrellas as objects of concealment (Polonius hid behind one, only to be stabbed by Hamlet), weapons (the guards' rifles) and signifiers of social status (Ophelia coyly twirling one for Hamlet's benefit; R&G carrying theirs in synchronisation), but of course they acted throughout most powerfully as evocative of funerals. The play itself began with a dumbshow of Old Hamlet's funeral, Romer exhaling deeply as he fell back into the arms of his attendants. As Hamlet knelt beside his father, Gertrude put her hand on her son's shoulder then walked away. Claudius, attended by umbrellas, then came to the body, took the old King's hat, and shortly after a sideways glance to a blushing Gertrude was enough to indicate their marriage. This pattern was followed in the players' performance (with a young audience member playing the dead body) and at the end of the play was evoked again as the entire cast exhaled as one before the lights went out. This eerie noise, the passing of spirits, resonated long after the curtain calls.

Peter Peverley was an unusual but effective Polonius, his Geordie accent and curled hair making me think of a washed up 60s record producer who wants his kids to think he's still cool. Self-conscious attempts to be funny were greeted with impatience by Gertrude in particular. Woodward's young Gertrude wore her heart on her sleeve, particularly with her son, and her open fear in the bedroom scene was particularly good. She and Claudius suffered most in cutting, however (the praying scene was completely gone), in favour of the story of the young people, and it was here that Horatio became most important as an audience surrogate, looking out to the crowd as the only survivor of the final carnage.

Reimagining Shakespeare's longest tragedy for a school-age audience can't have been easy, but the RSC pulled it off with style and wit in a production that seemed to appeal to all members of the families that packed out the Courtyard. Fascinatingly, despite being only 70 minutes long, the play felt in no ways compromised; rather than giving a cut version, this was simply a different Hamlet, complete and coherent in itself.

* The most significant appearances of this cast in the ensemble's "adult" Shakespeare productions include: Young Shepherd in Winter's Tale; Amiens in As You Like It; Cinna the Poet in Julius Caesar; and Montague and Lady Montague in Romeo and Juliet. A lot of the time, they've literally played "Lady" or "Servant". What a waste.

July 19, 2009

Hamlet (Donmar West End) @ Wyndham's Theatre

I booked to see the Donmar's major new Hamlet some eighteen months ago, taking an unusual step for me by paying top whack to get front row stalls seats. The idea was that this would be an end of year treat, a production I was going to purely for fun. That was back when Kenneth Branagh was still scheduled to direct, but his replacement with the ever-reliable Michael Grandage didn't faze me. The main attraction, despite my ongoing ambivalence towards star casting, was of course Jude Law in the title role and, as the artwork had implied from the start, this was a production built entirely around the Dane.

Hamlet publicity art
Hamlet publicity art

This was a dark Hamlet, in the literal sense. Christopher Oram's imposing set of stone walls allowed narrow shafts of light to fall from high window slits, but the stage itself was resolutely dark, and peopled with a cast almost entirely clad in black. As the play progressed variations were introduced: the players wore stark white in contrast, Ophelia and Gertrude donned pale greys and whites in their madness and repentance respectively, and Hamlet himself changed into a grey t-shirt. The overall colourlessness was held until the final scene, where slightly predictably a deep red curtain was used as a backdrop for the final duel and murders. Happily, the visual monotony was relieved by Neil Austin's spectacular lighting design, which used bright, carefully angled lights to suggest a world of lightness and freedom just beyond the barred doors of Elsinore.

Law's Hamlet was the first I've seen to resist the temptation to play up the humour of the role. While several of his scenes were hugely funny (notably his description of Polonius being at supper with the worms, played with a careless cruelty behind his smiles), the overriding impression was one of intensity. Sweat dripping off his face from the get-go, hands gesturing wildly and a taut, strained quality to his voice, this Hamlet was a fractured and troubled man, tightly wound and about ready to snap.

Dominating the production, Law's performance was never less than rivetting. His bottled-up energy found its outlet in moments of pure emotion, such as his scream at Guildenstern's attempts to play him like a pipe and his wordless grief at the realisation that Ophelia was dead, restrained by Horatio. In soliloquy he was a man torn apart, delivering "To be or not to be" while huddling himself in the midst of a snowfall, or directing "How all occasions do inform against me" internally, his disgust at his own inaction dawning on him as he spoke. Despite the production's occasional attempts to iconicise the performance (such as his first appearance, crouched on the floor in a spotlight in a picture-perfect moment), Law's strength was the humanity he brought to the role, bringing a touch of reality to over-familiar moments: holding Yorick's skull became a nostalgic gulp of a scene, a dizzying moment of childish remembrance that juxtaposed in his mind with the grief and heady action of the moment.

While Grandage drew a wonderful performance out of Law, however, the rest of the production failed to live up to it. As with the director's Twelfth Night, Hamlet suffered from a lack of invention in the staging and performances that rendered it somewhat flat. The one truly inventive decision was to play the closet scene in what was effectively reverse-angle: a transparent curtain fell from the ceiling a foot or so from the downstage edge, which Polonius hid in front of while Gertrude and Hamlet met behind. As Polonius was killed, he grabbed at the curtain and pulled it down over him, allowing Hamlet to wrap him in it. This proved a welcome diversion from the rather static staging of the rest of the play. Repeatedly, groups of nameless courtiers entered, moved to their appointed positions, stood still to watch the current scene and then left at its conclusion, effectively providing living scenery - considering the pioneering work being done around the country on ensemble playing, one would have hoped that a more interesting use for the understudies could have been found. As it was, the larger court scenes became artificially rigid.

The staging of smaller scenes was more interesting, but let down by uninspired performances. Alex Waldmann's whiny Laertes was a particular disappointment, seeming more exasperated than angry with Claudius on his return to Denmark. His reaction to Ophelia's death was badly misjudged: taking "Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia/ And therefore I forbid my tears" as his cue, he instead managed to display an attitude of not caring, shrugging off the news with an oh-well-what-can-you-do tone. Matt Ryan's Horatio was decent but made no real impression, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (John MacMillan and Gwilym Lee) fared slightly better in performances that emphasised the characters' complicity, both becoming severe agents of Claudius in their later scenes. However, their troubled reactions as they were given the letter containing their orders for Hamlet's death spoke of more complexity, and a rare appearance for the English Ambassador provided a welcome reminder of their fates.

Penelope Wilton was perhaps the biggest disappointment, in a performance that extended to little more than hand-wringing for much of its length. Wilton was peculiarly awkward, leaving the character looking ill at ease in her roles as queen, wife and mother. The performance was redeemed somewhat by an effective, physical closet scene, culminating in Hamlet straddling his mother as she lay screaming on the floor, but even here Wilton was the passive partner and Law's energy directed the scene. Following this scene, her repentance was rather unsubtly shown through a couple of occasions where Claudius attempted to take her hand but was refused. Her death, drinking the cup, was entirely accidental, and her upstage death obscured by the rest of the action, leaving her demise anticlimactic.

Happily, not all the supporting performances were as weak. Kevin R McNally made for a strong, decisive Claudius: pragmatic in his wrongdoing, he managed his subjects effectively and invited loyalty from his followers: far more so than in other productions I've seen, one was aware of his abilities as a leader of men. While there was a suitably evil streak, most notably in his dying moments as he crawled across the floor towards Hamlet, snarling and reaching out towards him, McNally gave the role depth with a heartfelt praying scene, the king frustrated by the ineffectiveness of his prayers. In addition to Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Laertes, Osric became one of Claudius' key henchmen. Ian Drysdale's performance turned the character into an Oswald, first appearing in place of Voltemand as a messenger and later carrying Claudius' errands around the court, before facing Hamlet directly as he encouraged him to take part in what he knew was a trap.

Ron Cook was, for the second time in a Grandage production this year, a highlight. His Polonius entered into a knowing relationship with the audience, making full use of his asides to draw laughs and lighten the tone, engaging our sympathies while at the same time allowing the character to look ridiculous. The character's self-assuredness made him the perfect foil for Hamlet's jibes, the sarcastic comments passing largely unnoticed, and his death marked a decisive turning point in the play's mood. Gugu Mbatha-Raw did some decent work as Ophelia, coming into her own during the madness scenes. Her lines here were sung beautifully, her madness becoming a carefully constructed delusion rather than random ravings.

This was a very full production, for example including all the Fortinbras scenes and both Gravediggers - although, in the latter case, the scene only became funny once David Burke's 1st Gravedigger entered into conversation with Hamlet. The fullness was welcome in the second act: where the first half of the play felt ponderous (at the halfway point, it had only reached the end of 3.1), the second half moved at a fair clip, with the short scenes driving the production forward. Despite my disappointment with some performances and with the production's general uninventiveness, this was a perfectly servicable piece of West End Shakespeare, serving it straight and unfussy. In many ways, it provided an experience akin to a musical: Hamlet's set pieces taking the place of the big musical numbers, with the rest of the production moving the play efficiently along in between. A great Hamlet, then, but a disappointing Hamlet.

April 22, 2009

The Lost Interpretations of Hamlet @ The CAPITAL Centre

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It's a shame that my PhD doesn't (at the moment, anyway) include any performative elements; I can imagine it being uniquely exciting to have your thesis shaped by theatrical experimentation and events. Last night saw PhD researcher and CAPITAL artist-in-residence Tom Cornford's first public presentation of the Hamlet Project's rehearsal experiments, which I'd just like to make a few notes on.

The production was based on four early European Hamlet projects:  Stanislavsky/Gordon Craig’s 1912 production and Michael Chekhov’s 1924 Moscow Art Theatre Studio production, and Meyerhold and Tarkovsky’s planned versions, neither of which was produced. The hour long performance incorporated elements planned by all four productions, combining them into a single, coherent aesthetic.

Only key scenes were included, mapping the play rather than telling the entire story (Ghost and Hamlet, To be or not to be, Nunnery, Advice to players, Mousetrap, Closet, Ophelia's death, Yorick and funeral). Cast were seperated from audience by a translucent white screen, containing the action safely away - except when Hamlet forced his way under the screen to directly speak to the audience, as in soliloquy. Back projections, meanwhile, displayed images (the King and Queen in masks, for example) or tracking shots that lent depth to the stage action, most notably as a camera lingered over Ophelia's corpse in a woodland, or as the bodies of the final scene were shown in stillness, the discarded swords and goblets being individually picked out.

Key to the presentation were twinning and doubling. Two Hamlets, one male and one female, interacted throughout, whether bouncing thoughts off one another in soliloquy (rendering "To be..." particularly fascinating, as the two acted out the progression of thoughts) or joining to create a cumulative effect of speed and energy (such as the lightning fast instructions to the players, with Hamlet seemingly talking to everyone at once). "To be" additionally engaged the audience as the female Hamlet moved to a position behind and to the side of the audience seating, directly addressing the male Hamlet who stood directly in front of the screen. The Hamlets also interacted in the personas of other characters; for example, the male Hamlet doubled as the Ghost, suggesting that the Ghost is simply an aspect of Hamlet, prompting all kinds of Freudian explosions.

Doubling was used importantly elsewhere. The Freudian aspects of the play were again highlighted in The Mousetrap, which saw the female Hamlet doubling as Lucianus while Claudius played Gonzago and Gertrude his queen. This idea deserves further attention; the multiple significances of Hamlet taking on his uncle's role in the dumbshow, while the uncle becomes the father, were hugely arresting and complex, the Oedipus parallels being made visual and physical (though stopping short of showing Hamlet-Lucianus and Gertrude together - the fantasy aborted by Claudius' call for "Light!"). Among the minor characters, similar links were made. Polonius and Ophelia, both having recently died, reappeared as the Gravediggers, while Horatio became Laertes, complicating his relationship with the Hamlets.

The acting was heavily stylised in places, and I regret missing the discussion afterwards as this is the aspect I know least about in relation to the performances being quoted. However, the adoption of stylised techniques for "The Mousetrap" worked especially well in the case of Claudius and Gertrude as they became the players - the restricted movements and stock gestures employed in their acting-out of their crimes lent a sense of entrapment and crudity to what they had done, their decisions chaining them. Lucianus, meanwhile, dressed in black while speaking the prologue and performing in the dumb-show, moved through a series of pre-defined gestures that separated her eerily from the others on stage; in this player, the female Hamlet was reincarnated, and she maintained an otherness, a detachment from the rest of the characters, that showed her deliberate intent in performing and introducing the play. It was moments like this that strengthened the connection between the two Hamlets, creating a partnership that bound the plot directly in with the workings of their mind.

The sudden appearance of the Ghost provided one of the production's most enduing images, leaping suddenly up onto a raised platform and holding out an arm towards Hamlet, face obscured by a black cloak that rendered his body shapeless, blending in with the darkness of the stage. In response, the guards moved through the motions of loading and firing longbows, almost in slow motion, turning the instinctive reflexes into a choreographed and predestined ballet with the ghost; their actions were impotent, ineffectual. Hamlet's anxiety and emotion on seeing his father were conveyed through a further, bizarre set of movements as he fought to get to him, culminating in the female actor leaping to a kneeling position on Horatio's shoulders, an unnatural position which demonstrated the extremes of his emotional response.

The nunnery scene raced past in a heartrending encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet, while Polonius and Claudius could be glimpsed standing behind a second translucent screen. Ophelia took a static position at one side of the stage, weeping and pleading with Hamlet, while he paced back and forth across the width of the stage. His restricted movement was at odds with his seemingly limitless energy, his frustration and anger being channelled into his attack on Ophelia, culminating in his brutally shoving her to the floor. This sense of a captive energy finally found a release at the end of Ophelia's madness, when she ran off-stage. Another actor took over seamlessly behind the second screen, shuttle-running across the stage, until finally emerging as the furious Laertes. This transition not only served to link the change in focus between the siblings, but also allowed the wild energy to finally be released; culminating, of course, in Ophelia's offstage death, announced shortly after (here, the siblings never met). At its heart, the production was concerned with repression and constraint, chronicling the effects of release after entrapment that destroy all they come into contact with.

A relatively kindly Polonius was the victim in the closet scene, but not a victim we were encouraged to identify with; he was simply collateral damage. More powerful was Hamlet's confrontation with his mother, during which both Claudius and Old Hamlet were brought physically back on stage, standing either side of Gertrude and forcing her to confront her choices. Polonius reappeared in the Graveyard, standing behind a raised platform on which Hamlet stood, looking down into the grave. This platform provided a focal point for the final scene, including the locked grapple into which Hamlet and Laertes entered.

Finally - it was only an hour long! I have to say, I do enjoy a Hamlet of this length much more. An extremely interesting performance, with some cracking student actors. I only hope Tom can find a way to write it all up!

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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