Hamlet – August 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 19th August 2008

This was an absolutely superb production. The director’s version of the text, culled from different sources, kept the action moving along nicely, and the story hung together really well. The performances were beyond excellent, and gave me lots of insights into the play. We’re seeing this again a couple of times, and I’m looking forward to it.

The set was basically the mirrored screen and polished black floor we’d seen for the Dream, with beds, chairs, etc brought on as needed, not that there was much of that. Francisco paced about the darkened auditorium, with distant clanging noises sounding faintly, and using a torch to see where he was going. The other characters entered along our walkway, also with torches. With almost no other lighting that I could see, the effect was quite creepy. Torches were shone on the ground, and the beams reflected up into the air, looking like spotlights, and giving us just enough light to see what was going on. The ghost was in full kit – armour, helmet with raised beaver – and walked among them twice, giving them ample opportunity to reach out and touch him, if they so desired. But nobody thought of this simple test, and just as well, or the play would be over pretty quickly.

The political commentary between the ghost’s two appearances was nice and crisp, and for the first time I was aware that Hamlet senior won land by killing Fortinbras senior (they had no imagination when it came to naming their children, these folk), and the extent of that land may be larger than I’d realised – at the time I thought it might even have been the whole kingdom of Denmark, which gives a completely fresh picture of the habits of these Scandinavians in relation to kingship. Checking the text again, I find it unlikely that the land won was that significant, but that’s certainly the impression I had while watching this performance.

After these characters leave, planning to tell Hamlet, the court arrives on stage with elegance and some pomp. Hamlet is first to arrive, after the servants, takes a glass of champagne and stands on the corner to our right. He’s in a decent black suit, hair slicked back, and looking grim rather than sorrowful. Gertrude looks radiantly happy, dressed in a lovely white gown, and playing the gracious hostess for all she’s worth. Claudius is firmly in control, and there are just one or two hints that Gertrude has been coaching him in what to say (or do those come later?). I noticed there was a churchman there as well – I’m not good with religious uniforms, and he’s not an official character, so I’ll call him a bishop for these notes. Cornelius has had a sex change and become Cornelia, but otherwise the scene is much as expected, although Claudius actually looks at Hamlet before addressing Laertes.

I was aware of the public nature of this scene. Gertrude in particular is having to deal with a domestic tizzy at a public ceremony, and although she comes across as very loving, I could see the tightness in her manner. She didn’t want Hamlet fucking up this big day for her and Claudius, but also didn’t want to have a full-on screaming row with him in front of the court. Hamlet’s position also seemed more in the public eye, and there was that sense of everyone being watched throughout the play – not watched so much as in surveillance, but simply because there were servants around, or reporters, or paparazzi types, that kind of thing, ready to seize on any gossip they could about the royal family. Later, when Polonius arrives to say a long farewell to Laertes, he has Reynaldo with him, who hovers in the background until Polonius dismisses him so that he can have a quiet word with his daughter. That sort of thing was very apparent.

When the court leaves, Hamlet’s emotional state becomes very apparent, too. He delivers his first soliloquy from the back of the stage, curled up in a ball, almost sobbing with grief. His distress and anger are clear through every line, but he manages to pull himself together enough to welcome Horatio enthusiastically when he arrives with the others.

After the greetings, and Horatio’s agreement that the marriage came remarkably soon after the funeral, Horatio is startled to hear Hamlet say he thinks he sees his father, and is clearly unsure how to broach the subject of his own sighting of the ghost. But only for a moment. Perhaps he realised the risks involved in telling the suffering Hamlet such news, or perhaps he was worried that he might be thought crazy. Either way, he decides to go ahead, and unfolds the whole story. Hamlet is certainly amazed, and I sensed he was excited by the possibility of seeing his father’s ghost, but I was also aware that he was keeping a little aloof, holding back from believing instantly, which I thought would tie in well with his later choices.

Now Laertes comes on stage, with servants bringing his bags. He’s carrying his foils. Ophelia enters as well, and she’s busy sorting out some piece of cloth and putting it in one of his cases while he warns her not to take Hamlet’s show of affection too seriously. She’s very light-hearted and a bit coquettish, showing us both that she’s a young woman becoming aware of her own attractiveness, and that she has a good relationship with her brother, for all that he’s been abroad for a while. She even rummages in his suitcase and discovers his condom stash to illustrate her “primrose path” comment. Laertes has to hide them pretty quickly, as Polonius arrives just then.

His advice to Laertes is obviously well known to both of them – they even complete “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”. Once Laertes has left, Polonius, with a slight sideways movement of the eyes, shows that he’s picked up on Ophelia’s parting comment to her brother. His mood changes, and he starts to question her, sending Reynaldo away so as to be private with her. She’s compliant, willing to tell her father everything he asks about – she’s unlikely to say a word more than she has to about what’s passed between her and Hamlet – and she’s also willing to obey his order not to see Hamlet again, although not happy with it.

Now we’re on the platform again, and Hamlet with Horatio and Marcellus arrive to watch for the ghost. The trumpet and cannon bit was fine, but I’m always reminded that Horatio is something of an enigma. Is he Danish? He doesn’t seem to know the royal court’s customs, he hasn’t seen the king more than once, but he knew him well enough to confirm the ghost’s identity. It’s a difficult part, with less than the average amount of personality for a Shakespeare character who’s on stage for so long, but I see him more as a necessary plot device; not only does he stop Hamlet having to soliloquise even more than he does, but he shows us that Hamlet is still capable of an affectionate relationship with someone he trusts. It’s just that right at this moment he’s surrounded by a bunch of devious bastards, some of whom may want him dead. Hamlet’s ready acceptance of Horatio contrasts with the way his initial welcome turns to mistrust of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are clearly working for the king and queen. Horatio also allows us to see that Hamlet is indeed feigning madness, as otherwise they couldn’t have the relatively straightforward conversations that they do have.

Back to the performance now, and when the ghost arrives and gestures to Hamlet to follow, he has the usual trouble getting away from his friends. I don’t remember now if he drew a gun, or if it was a dagger, but he heads off after the ghost with the others deciding to follow and protect him. The empty stage is very useful here, as there’s nothing to get in the way. The ghost, also played by Patrick Stewart, tells his story, and Hamlet is clearly affected by it. This seems to be the first time he thinks of revenge. It’s understandable that he chooses to act a bit crazy when Horatio and Marcellus catch up with him, as it’s a lot to take in. I found myself wondering when the ghost is bellowing “swear” at them, whether they were shifting their ground to match up with the ghost, or running away from it. It makes more sense to me if they’re trying to stand on the same bit of ground, though I’ve never seen it done that way – they always seem to be steering clear of it. But then the bellowing is hard to locate, so maybe I’ve completely misunderstood that scene all this while.

Polonius gives Reynaldo his lesson in using deception as an interrogation technique. It’s a lovely scene, and I wish it was done more often, as it shows us a lot more of Polonius’ character, and in this production also sets up the idea that it’s OK to use a lie to get at the truth. Shortly after this, we see Hamlet again, and I was aware that that’s the very strategy he’s using to find things out himself, what with the pretend madness. Oliver Ford Davies has been one of our favourite actors for many years, and his ability to get across Polonius’ senior moments was lovely. I saw him as a shrewd politician who’s worked for the previous king for many years, but who’s now reaching his retire by date. I also wondered if perhaps some of the younger politicos in the Danish court were wary of backing Claudius too soon, whereas Polonius saw it as an opportunity at the latter end of his career. In any case, he’s obviously the chief minister, with Claudius relying heavily on him as well as Gertrude.

After Reynaldo leaves, Ophelia enters, all upset because Hamlet’s paid her a visit and was acting strangely. She’s already come a long way from her carefree attitude during her first scene; first she was downcast at her father’s disapproval, now she’s disturbed by Hamlet’s behaviour. I fear for her sanity if this goes on.

If I’ve remembered the order of scenes correctly, this is where Hamlet gives us “to be or not to be”. The speaker earlier today who told us of the three texts for Hamlet, pointed out that this speech was the most often moved, and that there were often concerns about placing it where it supports Hamlet’s emotional journey. Here I found it suggesting that Hamlet’s enthusiasm for revenge is already on the wane, and he feels the unfairness of being asked to carry out this task. Or I may have completely forgotten what came next.

Claudius and Gertrude welcome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the usual warmth, and again, Claudius has to be corrected by Gertrude as to which is which. It was also clear that this was probably her idea, that she’d coached Claudius in what to say – his speech was rather prepared and formal – and that she was working hard both to support Claudius and charm these lads from Hamlet’s youth. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were the usual sort, both willing to help out royalty, and there was little else to report from this bit. As Gertrude is ushering them out, Polonius begins to tell Claudius that he’s figured out why Hamlet’s crazy – doesn’t use so few words, of course – and Claudius tells her of this as she rejoins them. Naturally she wants to know right away, but she keeps her patience while the returning ambassadors are dealt with.

I was pleased to see the bit about allowing safe passage for Fortinbras across Danish land has been dropped. Frankly, it’s a bizarre proposal, to allow a chap who’s been raising an army to fight you to simply say, oops, sorry, and let him bring those very troops onto your soil so he can allegedly attack someone else! Stupider people than Claudius would baulk at that, so here it’s cut, and as a result he doesn’t come across as such a dumbo. Other productions have indicated that Polonius, or the second ambassador, have disagreed with the wisdom of this agreement, but here it was avoided altogether.

As a result, the ambassadors are off stage very quickly, and the remaining group can get down to business, Polonius having brought Ophelia along. Polonius is as fond of hearing himself speak as Gertrude is frustrated at how long it’s taking him to get to the point. Understandable, of course, this is her son they’re talking about. Good job she’s got manners, or she might have brained him with some heavy ornament for keeping her on tenterhooks. Then Polonius swings from being long-winded to tactlessly abrupt, in declaring that Hamlet’s mad – it made poor Gertrude jump. Claudius seems to find the whole thing funny – he’s obviously figured out what Polonius is like, and has to hide his grins behind his hand a lot. This also suggested to me that he’s not concerned about Hamlet on a personal level, but as a direct threat to himself.

Polonius’ reading of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia is as laboured as one would expect from such a greybeard, though he has to be pretty nippy to keep it out of Gertrude’s hands – she’s all over him trying to get a peek. Once the details are known, I think Gertrude is a bit happier; at least this would be a reasonable explanation for Hamlet’s apparent madness, though I don’t think she’s completely convinced. Neither is Claudius, but he does like the method suggested by Polonius to check it out. As Gertrude leaves, she comments that she hopes that Ophelia may be the cause of Hamlet’s distraction, but has to think for a moment to remember her name. Obviously, Ophelia hasn’t been much at court, so Gertrude hasn’t bothered to memorise it. It’s a nice touch.

Polonius gives Ophelia a book to carry and pretend to read – she’s also clutching some letters – and he and Claudius hide behind one of the mirror panels. This may be where “to be or not to be” was done (pay attention next time!), but in any case, Hamlet encounters Ophelia, goes through all the usual chat, realises they’re being watched and then goes completely Looney Tunes, after which she’s left there, more upset than ever at what she’s seen. Polonius and Claudius emerge, and the last bit of their scene is deferred, as we haven’t set up the play yet. Ophelia struggles off, dropping her book, which Hamlet, re-entering, picks up. This is the book he’s holding when Polonius accost him with “What do you read, my lord?”, and so we are led into Hamlet’s meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This was nicely done. For the first time, we saw Hamlet not join in the laughter about their comparison of themselves to fortune’s privates. He obviously finds that a bit low for his taste, which is why Rosencrantz has to think hard to find an excuse for laughing at “man delights not me”. He obviously was thinking of women at that point, but doesn’t want to be caught out in another crudity, so he’s relieved to remember that the players are coming to Elsinore. This distracts Hamlet so much that he forgets their role as spies to welcome the players.

Again, it was a first for me to see Hamlet not managing to remember the speech perfectly after his initial false start. The players have to prompt him, and although they are kind in their response, he’s not that much cop as an actor in this production. I realised as well, for the first time, that the reason he chooses this speech is because it shows a wife’s deep grief for the loss of her murdered husband, the very thing he wants to see from his own mother. He’s completely engrossed in the speech, and there’s more of a sense of focus with this Hamlet.

I think the next bit was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting back, mentioning the play, and then as Gertrude ushers them out, Claudius and Polonius confer, making it clear she’s not needed, so she leaves. I was reminded of the way Lady Macbeth is increasingly left out of things by her husband once the killing really gets going, and this exclusion is clearly not to Gertrude’s liking. She is the one who’s been helping Claudius establish himself after all, and she presumably saw herself as a more powerful figure now that she had a junior partner. Not anymore. Claudius and Polonius agree that Hamlet will be shipped off to England after the play, as his madness is too dangerous to leave him free.

The stage is set for the performance now, and I did find myself wondering when they were going to take the break. It’s sometimes done after “the play’s the thing”, and nowadays is often taken after the play itself, but there aren’t a lot of places to do it conveniently past this bit. It’s not that I was getting bored at all, just that I was aware that an interval should be coming up, and I wondered where they would take it. Anyway, Hamlet does his usual bossy bit with the actors, and then he’s left alone to talk with Horatio. Although Horatio is a bit of a blank character, I could really see Hamlet’s affection for him, and how much he values him as a person and a friend.

The king and queen enter, with entourage, and take their seats. There are two fancy seats towards the back of the stage, though still on the thrust, a rug across the middle, and I remember some curtains hanging down at the back – I presume they brought some structure onto the stage to back the seats. Hamlet takes a chair over to the front of the stage, to share with Ophelia, and the rest are positioned to the sides of the royal box.

The opening mime for the play was much coarser than I’ve seen before, and so it may not have got its point across so well. The actual play was performed by characters in Elizabethan costume – the queen was in a black dress that might have been worn by Elizabeth herself – and upsets Claudius as usual. His reaction was quieter than usual, however – he walks to the front of the stage and picks up one of the lanterns himself, looking at Hamlet, before heading off. Hamlet is jubilant, and I don’t remember if Horatio heads off to get the recorder when Hamlet asks for it, or one of the servants, perhaps a player. Either way, it arrives in time for Hamlet to issue his musical challenge to Guildenstern. When Polonius comes on, and Hamlet baits him with the cloud shapes, Horatio laughs at his teasing of the old man.

After Hamlet has had his say about the witching hour, Claudius bustles on with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to arrange for Hamlet’s immediate departure for England. This fits well with the earlier scenes – Claudius was already sensing danger, and now he’s convinced that Hamlet has to be got out of the way, and the sooner the better. Polonius comes on to tell the king that he’s off to watch over Gertrude and Hamlet’s conversation, and then Claudius is left alone.

I’m not a fan of projectile vomit on stage, so I was glad that Claudius only retches at this point. Mind you, it looked pretty severe. He does his best to attempt prayer, and again I was reminded of Macbeth and his moral dilemmas. As Claudius kneels down, towards the front of the stage, Hamlet enters at the back. As he walks across the stage, he spots the man he wants to kill, and coming forward, he raises his knife above the unheeding king and says “now might I do it.” And the lights go out. That was a great way to take the interval, and for all that I know the play well, it still felt like a cliff-hanger. Brilliant.

The second half naturally opened with the same dramatic image, and this time Hamlet takes a step back to consider the situation. For once, I felt his reasoning about not killing Claudius came across as trying to get the best possible revenge rather than a delaying tactic. Now we need a bedroom for Gertrude, and it’s a splendid one, with a large bed, bedside table, dressing table, etc. As all this is wheeled on, we see Gertrude obviously upset, cause she’s at the fags and the booze, having taken off her wig. This is how she behaves when she’s not on show, and it gives her a very human touch. She and Hamlet have a ding-dong family row, and then Hamlet hears the noise of Polonius. He lunges across the bed, grabs the gun from Gertrude’s bedside table, and shoots Polonius through the mirror, which rotates to show the shattering effect, while Polonius staggers to the ground, dead. I suspect the timing of the effects was a bit off tonight, as it didn’t seem quite right.

I was sure I heard some lines tonight that I haven’t heard before in this scene – giving the mix and match approach to the text, it’s not impossible. I couldn’t always make out what Hamlet was saying, but his anger came across clearly, and given the circumstances the less than perfect diction was acceptable. The ghost sits on the bed while Hamlet is comforting Gertrude – I thought she was doing her best to avoid seeing the ghost, although she seemed to feel him brushing her hair with his hand, running her own hand over her hair immediately afterwards. Following this bit, Hamlet sounds much calmer and saner than before. There’s an unusual reaction from Gertrude towards the end of this scene. When Hamlet’s finished having a go at her, she laughs. I got the impression this was because she just can’t take it all in. The situation is worse than she thought – either Hamlet’s mad or her new husband murdered her first – and what on earth does Hamlet expect her to do about it? She shows more signs of extreme emotional distress, verging on madness, than I’ve seen before in this scene. She also reneges on her promise to Hamlet, and continues her relationship with Claudius, although she doesn’t tell about Hamlet feigning madness. Best of both worlds? Or does she just think he is actually mad? Or does she simply prefer that option over the other one?

When Claudius arrives, there are several servants coming in with him, and Gertrude suddenly realises she’s only in her silk pj’s, and feels vulnerable. Claudius is now much more concerned about keeping his own power than about his relationship with Gertrude, which is presumably why she  seems much more unhappy from now on.

The guards who rush off with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dolled up in all their finery, so they seem even more absurd when they have a mini-pile up on one of the walkways as they finally catch up with Hamlet. The comedy is emphasised when Hamlet makes his escape through one of the guard’s legs. It’s a bit like the Keystone Cops chase in David Tennant’s Comedy of Errors. When they do bring him on stage to confront Claudius, he’s on a wheelie chair, hands and feet taped to it, and with a strip of tape across his mouth. Claudius doesn’t seem to mind hurting Hamlet when he rips it off, but then neither did we, as Hamlet’s reaction to it got a good laugh from the audience.

Also present are the bishop who was in the first court scene, and a doctor. Hamlet says his lines about looking for Polonius in heaven directly to the bishop, and the doctor gives him a jab of something before wheeling him off for his trip to England. I suppose it could have been his travel inoculation, but from the context I suspect a sedative would be more likely. Good job Claudius wasn’t filling the syringe.

Ophelia’s madness was very well done. She’s angry as well as crazy, and it’s difficult to watch, but not as embarrassing as this bit usually is. She also has a lovely singing voice, even though she has to sing crazily. The first time she’s wearing her dress from earlier, but the second time she’s down to her slip, and she looks like she’s been getting into all sorts of rough places to pick her weeds and things. Her legs are muddy and bloody, and she’s carrying stuff that looks ready for the compost heap. She gives items to everyone, even the servant in the background. Laertes is angry as well as weeping, and Claudius is concerned that this anger will take him over, after working so hard to get it contained. Gertrude’s expression suggests weariness, but also that she considers there are other priorities for her now. She seems to be less bothered by the political needs.

Of course, Laertes has turned up between Ophelia’s bouts of madness, and I found it ironic that Claudius would tell Gertrude to leave Laertes alone with his speech about the divinity that hedges a king – didn’t work too well for his own brother, did it? He came across to me as quite a poker player here, willing to take calculated risks. Gertrude’s speech about Ophelia’s death came across as we’d seen in the talk on Monday, adding each bit to flesh out the story. There didn’t seem to be any spin, and I wondered if she’d actually seen her death but been unable to help. (This was confirmed next day by Penny Downie when she came to chat to the Summer School – her take was that Gertrude watched from an upstairs window, and couldn’t get help in time.)

I was also very aware during these scenes that when Claudius is dealing with Laertes at first, he’s assuming Hamlet will be killed in England, so Laertes’ desire for revenge will have to be diverted somehow. He’s been looking for a suitable time to broach the subject of Hamlet’s death, and then just when he might be able to, the letters come from Hamlet, Claudius stealing the one for Gertrude as well. His mind works quickly, and he’s soon plotted a way to bump Hamlet off without putting himself at risk, then tests Laertes’ resolve before showing him the plan, winding him up in the process. He’s also careful to make sure there’s a plan B. He is such a crafty schemer that I can’t believe Hamlet’s derogation of him to Gertrude. He obviously has ability, and has probably had to endure years in relative obscurity while his brother was king, with other people assuming he only got where he was because he’s the king’s brother. It would sour better people than Claudius.

The scene with Fortinbras’s troops came in the middle of these court scenes, and I liked the fact that Hamlet is on his own. I realised he was now on his way back to Denmark – the usual staging has him reflecting on Fortinbras’s rampant activity versus his own pathetic lack of effort, while being carted off to England by his old school chums – but here he’s done up like  a backpacker, looking like he’s hitched his way back to Denmark. We don’t actually see Fortinbras at this time; his troops are indicated by helicopter sounds, and some men in combat fatigues waving those little light wands around. Some other men were rushing around being busy, while one of the military chaps explains to Hamlet what’s going on.

The gravedigger is next. I hadn’t taken a great liking to Mark Hadfield’s performance as Puck, but I thoroughly enjoyed his cheerful gravedigger. There was a chap in a fluorescent jacket there for the gravedigger to put his question to. He gets his papers signed – Health and Safety probably – and takes away the cones, and then Hamlet and Horatio come along, strolling through the graveyard, Hamlet still with his backpack. They’re about to pass by entirely, when a skull gets thrown out of the grave and lands with a clunk on the stage. Hamlet does some rarely heard lines about what that person may have been in life, and the same with another skull that comes sailing through the air. Then he questions the gravedigger, and gets the usual cheeky replies, which the gravedigger finds extremely funny. Horatio is not engaged with this, and is looking around until Hamlet talks directly to him about Yorrick. I could really see Hamlet’s connection with someone from his childhood. How creepy is that, looking at the skull of someone you once knew?

Hamlet and Horatio came and sat by us on the ramp when the funeral procession arrives. Hamlet is very cut up to find out it’s Ophelia who’s died. His fight with Laertes seemed pretty real. Again, Claudius seems to be distancing himself from Gertrude a bit, or perhaps not realising the support she needs at this time, as he’s too caught up in his own concerns about keeping the crown. The way he tells her to put a watch on her son, speaks volumes.

Burial over (the bishop was present, again), we move to the concluding scenes. Hamlet is putting on a shirt as he re-enters, and discussing the situation with Horatio. We don’t get the details of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths tonight, but we do get Hamlet’s dismissal of their end. He’s quite callous when he wants to be. The scene with Osric was a bit over my head, but I did get that Hamlet is playing verbally with him, speaking as fantastically as he can to reflect the other man’s overblown dialogue. Horatio helps him on with his fencing jacket.

The rest of the court turns up, and it took me a while to notice Gertrude. She’s completely out of sorts now, and finds the jollity of the proceedings totally inappropriate. She’s dressed in black, just as Hamlet was at the start of the play. Claudius is all smarm and charm, and Laertes is stiff and formal. His acceptance of Hamlet’s apology is truncated, so he doesn’t talk about standing aloof, but he isn’t very friendly either. Hamlet’s first hit is very quick – Osric really teased out the start of the first bout – and the second is almost as quick. Gertrude comes across to our corner to give Hamlet her napkin, and when she hears Claudius tell her not to drink, she clearly realises what’s in the cup. I don’t know how much her decision to drink it is so she can quit a world she now finds too unpleasant, and how much to save her son, but it was a very moving moment for me, and very powerful.

Soon they’re fencing again. Laertes gets his chance and cuts Hamlet across the back of his neck. Hamlet is furious, and although Laertes has put his foil back amongst the others, fights his way through to find the untipped one. Various racks and stands are tipped over during this, so the stage is becoming a bit of a mess. Hamlet gets Laertes, the queen is dying, Laertes blurts out the truth, and Hamlet gives Claudius the cup at rapier point. No one stirs to help him, so he drinks it and dies. Now Hamlet is feeling death sneaking up on him, and collapses into Horatio’s arms. Horatio has one last go at dying with him, but Hamlet finds enough strength to keep the cup from him and tip the contents out. After Horatio’s last lines to Hamlet’s body, and with the drums rolling and mirror doors opening and Fortinbras just stepping through to look at the strange scene, the lights go out. A lovely way to finish, though probably a bit puzzling for those who don’t know the play so well, as we didn’t see Fortinbras in the earlier military scene.

Despite that, this was an excellent production, and the performances were some of the best I’ve seen. Mariah Gale as Ophelia was very good, young and light hearted at first, and clearly happy about her relationship with Hamlet, but it all goes wrong when he’s not himself anymore. Her madness at losing a father mirrors his pretend madness. Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius was perfect as an old man losing his train of thought and getting too caught up in the words. Patrick Stewart as Claudius was perfect as a scheming villain who would repent if he could – an echo of Macbeth? He showed more of Claudius’s thought processes than I’ve seen before. Penny Downie as Gertrude was just beautiful, with much more of an emotional journey than I’ve seen before, and lots of lovely details in the performance, such as her encouragement of Claudius when they’re talking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She obviously knows all the people at court, and she’s keen that they accept Claudius as the new king, so she’s using her political nous to help him prepare, even prompting him once, I forget where.

And then David Tennant as Hamlet was superb. He is the one so many young people have come to see, and he didn’t disappoint, so hopefully there’s a lot more of the younger generation hooked on theatre now. He showed a great range of emotions, was very active physically and very expressive, from leaping around the stage to curling up in a ball. Much more active than reflective, in fact, though there was plenty of that as well. Hamlet’s thought processes came over quite well, though not as well as the emotions. He has tremendous stage presence, and was totally believable as a potential king.

The ideas about madness that we were given during today’s Summer School talk didn’t quite fit with what I saw. I was aware that Hamlet is telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stuff that isn’t necessarily true, as he doesn’t trust them. Instead of explaining that he’s unhappy because he’s found out his uncle killed his father and married his mother to get the crown, which would be very dangerous, he resorts to vagueness. So any idea that he’s suffering from a condition where he is avoiding looking at the root cause of his unhappiness has to be taken with a large block of salt. Based on tonight’s performance, Hamlet is only too well aware of his predicament, and the causes of it, and it does him great credit that he manages to stay as rational as he does in the circumstances. If Freud and the others analysed Hamlet based on his overt speeches, without taking into account the context in which they were said (this is a play, after all), then they missed the point entirely. At least Hamlet didn’t have to pay them for their time.

Also, we were told about the options to use “your philosophy” or “our philosophy” – tonight it was “our”.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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