Hamlet – September 2008


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 24th September 2008

We were really keen to see this production again after our first viewing back in August. The performance didn’t disappoint, but there were some factors which took the edge of our enjoyment. Firstly, the seats were two of the narrowest you can get in this theatre, and we’re not two of the narrowest people on the planet, so we were wedged up against each other, and our neighbours, for the whole of the play. This meant I wasn’t as relaxed as I like to be. Secondly, there were so many people coughing during the first two hours that I found it harder to concentrate and really get caught up in the story, even though it was being told so well. At least the second half was quieter, and even in the first half, a lot of those coughing seemed to realise they could wait till a scene change, so the distraction level wasn’t so bad. I also realised that the circle seats are very creaky, and my hearing aids don’t handle that kind of intermittent background noise very well, so that was something of a problem for me – Steve didn’t notice it all.

Right, that’s the down side out of the way. Now for the fun stuff. I liked our position, squashed as it was, because I had a very different view of the play. Not being so close meant I didn’t feel so involved emotionally, but I was much more aware of the interactions between the characters, and there were some things I just hadn’t seen before. There were only a few changes that I noticed, and now that I’m more familiar with the order of events, I’ll try to get that down as best I can, and mention any variations from the earlier performance.

The opening scene is on the battlements, and I was much more aware of the use of the torches to bounce a light up into the face of whoever’s speaking. The glossy floor and mirrored wall at the back meant that there were at least four lots of everything, and not just in this scene. It was harder to spot that the ghost was also played by Patrick Stewart from this angle.

The first court scene starts at the back, as the mirrors open to reveal the royal family acknowledging the applause of their people. A balcony scene, as it were. Hamlet didn’t stand out quite so much from this angle, although I was much more aware of Gertrude managing the event, and glancing across to check on Hamlet from time to time, making sure he doesn’t spoil her big day. Again I had the sense of her trying to give her son a good talking to, but being constrained by the public nature of the occasion.

Hamlet’s “too, too solid flesh” was still good, and leads into the scene where Horatio arrives to tell him of his father’s ghost. After this comes Laertes’ leaving scene, and this was certainly as good as before. From the Circle, I could see Ophelia lying down when Laertes is giving  her his “good” advice, and doing a starfish imitation – the physical equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears and going “la, la, la, la”. Not a new action, but more clearly seen from the higher position. Polonius was just as good, and so to the next night time venture onto the platform. Hamlet draws a short sword on the others to stop them following him, and the rest of the scene is as before. I wasn’t so sure this time whether they were running away from or towards the sound of the ghost during the swearing part.

I think the next scene was Ophelia reporting Hamlet’s strange behaviour to her father, followed by the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at court. When they leave, Polonius steps forward with the information about the ambassadors’ arrival, and the possibility that he knows why Hamlet is mad. The ambassadors are still dealt with swiftly, and then we get the lovely tediousness of Polonius for a while. He summoned his daughter on stage at the start of this bit, and she’s standing there while all this is going on. They resolve to test out the “mad in love” theory, and as Hamlet is coming along right about that time, Gertrude is sent off, Ophelia is given a book, and Claudius and Polonius hide behind the mirror.

Hamlet does “to be or not to be”, and then Ophelia enters again to give him back his gifts. It’s a difficult scene, especially as Hamlet later claims he loved Ophelia, but I guess we have to allow him some leeway, as he’s had a challenging few days. He hears a noise about halfway through their talk, and realises they’re being spied on, and that’s when he turns nasty towards her. I recognised this as the same response he has to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; he doesn’t know how complicit she is in whatever plots are on the go, so he shuts her out completely. After he leaves, Claudius and Polonius re-enter, leaving the mirror open. Ophelia is sent home, Claudius leaves, and Polonius tackles Hamlet as he comes back on.

When Hamlet sees the open mirror panel, he realises where they were hiding, and goes through it to check behind, but of course, there’s nobody there now. He baits Polonius as usual, and then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turn up, and we’re into the arrival of the actors and Hecuba. After this, the scenes are much as usual, and the break was still spectacular, though not so much of a surprise. The effect with the gunshot that kills Polonius was better this time around, and Ophelia’s mad scenes were riveting. She swung from gentle dottiness to screaming rage in an instant, and all believably. Gertrude’s recognition of the danger in the cup, and her choice to drink anyway, was still powerful, and the play ended in happy tragedy, if I may use that term, as despite all the deaths I felt so uplifted to have seen another excellent performance of this production. One more to go.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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