Hamlet – November 2008


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Courtyard Theatre

Thursday 6th November 2008

Another amazing performance. This time we saw it from the front row round the right hand side, so we caught a lot of details we’d never seen before, and missed very little of the major stuff, so it was a marvellous evening.

I didn’t notice any significant changes in the staging, but again the performances had all come on, and I did find myself noticing things about the play, partly this version, and partly in general. Firstly, it really hit me during the Ophelia/Laertes/Polonius scene, that Ophelia has confided in her brother, but not told her father. This does not bode well for that relationship. We spotted the way Ophelia took Polonius’s arm, by stealth as it were, after reporting Hamlet’s madness, and how often Polonius gives her a handkerchief instead of something more supportive. I also noticed that when Claudius asks Polonius how Ophelia has responded to Hamlet’s overtures of love, Polonius talks entirely about himself. He knows absolutely nothing about Ophelia’s response to Hamlet, and clearly doesn’t feel the need to, either. I also saw an echo of the way Polonius strides off to tell the king and queen about Hamlet’s visit to his daughter, leaving an upset Ophelia trailing in his wake, in those occasions when Claudius does much the same thing to Gertrude, noticeably the funeral scene, where Hamlet suddenly becomes ‘her’ son again. To finish off Ophelia (that’s an unfortunate phrase, “finish off” is an unfortunate phrase), I found the mad scenes less moving this time, but still found that I wasn’t embarrassed to watch them. Ophelia’s emotional disturbance is clear to see, and this time I got more from Gertrude and Claudius’s reactions. And Ophelia did clasp hands with Hamlet briefly as she left the stage after the first court scene.

I saw a lot more of Hamlet’s expressions during that early scene, as we now had him to our left. I had the same sense of a private squabble in a public space, and while David Tennant didn’t change expression much, there were a few eye movements, and slight changes of expression to indicate that he found his mother’s marriage unacceptable, especially to that man. I noticed that when he talks about how wonderful his father was, he speaks almost entirely about him in relation to Gertrude, about how much he loved her, not about his achievements as a ruler, or any other personal qualities. I also considered, for the first time, that this ghost has come from purgatory, so if he is Hamlet senior he must have led a less than blameless life to have so many sins to purge. So Hamlet’s praises are undercut yet again.

I also saw a lot more of Horatio’s reactions to Hamlet’s clowning around; I think some of these were stronger than before, as well as us being better able to see them. Following the play scene, when Hamlet gets the recorders, he throws one to Horatio, who normally catches it (well, he has twice before to our knowledge). Tonight he missed, and the recorder fell against the steps. When Hamlet tried it again, Horatio still missed, and this time the recorder split in two parts. Horatio sat on the steps putting it back together again, and trying to keep a straight  face (failed) while Hamlet made remarks like “clumsy” and “it was a bad throw”. How Rosencrantz and Guildenstern handled it I’ve no idea. Horatio and Hamlet had a lot of fun with the crazy cloud sequence, and Polonius was as stroppy as I’ve ever seen him. [Robert Smallwood had told us earlier that “presently” in Shakespeare’s time meant NOW!]

Back to the play scene. From our angle we could see all the court as they sat there, and so most of the reactions were very clear. Polonius covers his face with his hands at the crudity of the initial dumb-show – clearly not to his taste. When the going starts to get tough, he looks very concerned, and glances at the king. The ladies in the audience get their fans out (one dropped hers tonight, but recovered it discreetly), and most of the court are looking worried. When Claudius asks if there’s any offence in this play, he’s looking to Polonius, whom he would have expected to check these things out, but it’s Hamlet who answers. Horatio has been watching the play, but when the moment draws near, he has his right hand up to his face and is looking directly at Claudius. Hamlet is mouthing the words along with the murderer, indicating that this is the speech he’s given the actor to perform. Claudius spots what’s going on, and his call for a light is very controlled. He holds it together well, but later we see how much it’s rattled him, as it’s only now that we hear him admit even the slightest degree of guilt. It’s interesting that although he’s soliloquising, I felt no sympathy with him as he’s been set up as a complete villain by this time.

The bedroom scene was clearer from this angle, and the relationship between mother and son was touching. I found myself thinking that if only he could have told Gertrude how he felt a lot sooner there might not have been a play. She so loves him, and wants to keep him from harm, but he knows he has other things to do. I like that we get to see very quickly how she responds to Hamlet’s plea to keep away from Claudius – she hugs him for comfort within minutes of Hamlet leaving, although to be fair, she hasn’t let on that Hamlet’s not mad (but then does she even believe that?).

The troop movements were visually interesting from this angle, as the stick wavers were reflected multiple times in the edge-on mirrors, making it look like a much bigger army was on the move. Again, I noticed how cool Claudius was when Laertes is waving a gun in his face, and how ironic his lines about the divinity that protects a king. We didn’t see Gertrude’s reaction when she realises the cup is poisoned, but we saw a lot of other reactions that we hadn’t noticed before. I saw Claudius look to see which cup Gertrude had taken before telling her not to drink. And I saw that Hamlet cuts Claudius’s hand with the sword before making him drink the poison from the cup – is this new?

There was another pause that Claudius makes which I spotted tonight. During the negotiations with Laertes, and after the letters from Hamlet, there’s a moment when Laertes is heading to the back of the stage, and I saw Claudius think of something, pause for a moment as if to consider the implications, and then call Laertes back.

In addition to all the minor points, I saw another pattern in David Tennant’s performance.  I reckoned he was playing Hamlet on a journey to kingship. There are a number of words and lines, including a line from Claudius about not letting Hamlet’s madness “reign”, and Hamlet’s choice of pronoun in “we defy augury”, that indicated he was gradually coming to accept his place as rightful ruler of Denmark. Robert Smallwood had clarified that when Hamlet announces himself during the funeral scene as, amongst other things, “the Dane”, he means the king of Denmark, not just somebody from that country. It’s something I would need to look at in more detail, and I don’t know if I’d just missed it before, but it seemed very evident tonight.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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