Hamlet – March 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Jonathan Miller

Company: SATTF

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Thursday 27th March 2008

This was an absolutely superb production. From the start, I was riveted by the detail in each performance, so much so that a woman sitting opposite commented on my obvious absorption when our paths crossed during the interval.

The opening scene with the ghost-spotters, Marcellus and Bernardo, telling Horatio what’s being going on, was beautifully lit. From the off, the eerie gloom made me shiver, and the edginess of the characters was plain to see. Bernardo “arrives” off-stage, so that Francisco is clearly unable to tell who it is, and his anxiety adds to the atmosphere. The discussion amongst the three men got across Horatio’s scepticism and the other two’s nervousness and tension. There were three benches on the stage for the first half – one down each side and another across the back – and these were used at this point. The ghost appeared on the far side to us, to our left, and I did reckon he was looking a bit sorrowful. He didn’t stay long, and his second appearance was on the far side to our right. Horatio’s long speech to him came across very well, but sadly the ghost wasn’t impressed, and headed off. It was a great start, and really set the standard for the whole performance.

The next scene, with Claudius addressing the court, was a completely different affair. Given the small cast, there couldn’t really be much of a show of courtiers for this scene, but the small numbers actually worked very well. There was a waiting woman attending the queen, who stayed well in the background during the scene. Claudius also had a secretary waiting on him, Osric no less, and his presence was valuable throughout the play, as his reactions gave us clues to the nature of Claudius’ style of government, as well as alerting us to problems. Nicholas Gadd played this part, and I could see his character making himself very useful to Fortinbras after the play was over.

Claudius was played by Jay Villiers, and came across as a sensual but intelligent man, well suited to his chosen career, if we overlook his means of getting into it. Polonius (Roland Oliver) was a crafty character, well versed in the ways of kings and politics, but less understanding of his family. Gertrude (Francesca Ryan) was mature but attractive, and gave the impression she could have been more sensible in her choice of second husband, but was swayed by personal attraction. Laertes (Oliver Le Sueur) was fairly straightforward, while Hamlet (Jamie Ballard) was having a fit of the sulks from the word go, sitting with his back to us, dressed in black, and obviously not involving himself in the proceedings.

With the spin about Gertrude’s quick remarriage out of the way, and the minor matter of Fortinbras despatched as swiftly (we don’t actually see any ambassadors in this slimmed down version), Claudius can start being more cuddly as he deals with Laertes. Polonius starts to come into his own here, and this portrayal got across his great delight in hearing the sound of his own voice, while still managing to make him believable as a senior politician in the Danish court. With all the other matters dealt with, Claudius approaches Hamlet as if he’s genuinely concerned about him, and wants to be on friendly terms. Gertrude is certainly concerned, and Hamlet, despite being obviously distressed with grief, finally accedes to her request to stay at home instead of returning to university.

With everyone else leaving, we now get to see Hamlet on his own, and get to know more about how he’s actually feeling, and how he’s handling the loss of his father. Not well, appears to be the answer. Jamie Ballard isn’t the conventional Hamlet type, not as good looking nor as athletic as many have tended to be. Still, he managed to get the character across in great detail, both the intelligence and the emotions. In some ways, he underplayed it compared to other performances I’ve seen, which worked well in the small space, of course, but also allowed the thought processes to shine through the grief and other emotions. It was a very good performance, and made this one of the best productions I’ve seen of this play.

This production followed the text closely, and although there must have been some editing, it seemed very full, even including Polonius’ instructions to Reynaldo, which I have often seen omitted (or should that be “not seen at all”?). The pace was good, and I was very caught up in the various characters’ emotional journeys; Hamlet’s obviously, but also Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia. I found Gertrude in particular had more presence than usual for me, and her change of heart during Hamlet’s tirade in her closet made more sense to me. She really is seeing for the first time that she made a mistake, although I still think the shock of seeing Polonius killed a few yards away must have something to do with it. She spends the rest of the play subtly avoiding Claudius.

Ophelia’s mad scenes can often be a trial to sit through; these were terribly moving, all the more because they were done very simply. Instead of flowers, she carried twigs, as I recall, and this underlined her insanity. All the other characters on stage seem stunned by her actions, and the story of her death was also very moving. I wasn’t sure how they were going to do the burial scene, as the floor of the stage is the floor – there are no magic trapdoors here. They got round it by having the grave dug off stage, through the entrance, and the gravedigger brings a barrow on stage with the debris he’s dug out of it, Yorick’s skull included. Hamlet and Laertes therefore have their tussle not quite in the grave, but it all worked just fine, as this company are all about getting the text across, and fancy stagings can sometimes get in the way of that. Incidentally, Polonius was also stabbed off stage, as the nearest arras was quite some way from Gertrude’s bed.

The players were excellent. Small in number, they made up for it in quality. David Collins, the player king, did the speech about the Trojan War beautifully, following on from Hamlet’s own good beginning which was warmly received. Hamlet seemed to be very much at home with them, and sat against the pillar opposite from us, drinking it all in. The play before the king had to be kept simple, and in any case I was more concerned to watch Polonius and Gertrude, sitting to our right on one of the benches. Their reactions were fine, with Claudius visibly shaken by the analogy to his own acts. He had clearly believed that no one else knew. In this production, I was actually concerned for the safety of the players, as who knows what orders Claudius might give after a fright like that. I was also aware that this shows the darker side to Hamlet’s character, the way he’s prepared to use people, even those he’s fond of, to get what he wants, regardless of the consequences to them.

Following the play, Claudius tries to gather his thoughts privately, so we get to hear all about it (this play is a bit like Big Brother at times), and he gives us a good insight to his state of mind. Hamlet’s choice to delay killing him is clearer here, as Claudius is obviously praying, and Hamlet’s thoughts seem more like he’s actually seeking the best revenge possible rather than just finding another excuse for putting it off again.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were a superb pair of innocent pawns in all this. Claudius made the usual mistake of which was which, with Gertrude correcting him. They were distinct characters for once, with Guildenstern being more straightforward and honest, and Rosencrantz being shiftier, more willing to do the covert operations bit. Neither of them deserved to die, of course, but I could also see Hamlet’s point of view here – he’s surrounded by people who work for the man who killed his father, and who may be contriving his death as well. Apart from Horatio, who can he trust? His madness may be only partly feigned, as this situation must be putting him under tremendous strain.

In this portrayal at any rate, Jamie Ballard shows us this pressure and its effects while also showing us Hamlet’s resilience and determination. His emotions were clear throughout, as were his sense of humour and his idealistic standards. His delivery of the lines was superb, and I remember hearing and understanding many of them more clearly than before, even though I know this play well. The fight scene was unusual, in that one of the blades came off its hilt during the fight, so as well as not laughing, Hamlet had to get hold of the blade itself to kill Laertes with his own poison. We’re left finally with Fortinbras arriving at just the right moment to take advantage of all these deaths, and I was aware of the effect on what was left of the court, with the prospect of a new ruler and possible changes to come. Still, I reckoned Osric would do alright, unless he was one of the first to be shot, and Horatio should be OK as he’s the one in the know, but otherwise…

I haven’t managed to put down half of what I experienced in this production. I couldn’t do it on the night as we finished so late, and now the memories are fading. But it was a magnificent evening, and I will happily travel this far again to see this level of production.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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