Hamlet – October 2010

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th October 2010

We met with an unfortunate choice of performance – coughing, phones going off, voice over the public address, an understudy for Polonius, and lots more coughing in the second half – have these people never heard of cough sweets?

The set looked like a pop-up version of the Ken Branagh film, all European military style, with walls that slid on and off, or unfurled from the sides to form lots of different acting spaces. The concealed doors were under the military-style crests, while the windows had folding shutters and carefully concealed ashtrays. Apart from one wall which was gray, the overall colour scheme was off-white, and looked suitably palatial, though it’s a shame Gertrude had to make do with a curtain from Poundstretchers for her little alcove. (It has to be stabbed through and torn down many times, so presumably that’s why the stunt curtain from the rehearsal room got the job.) The costumes were modern, with a strong emphasis on the military, and there were a number of security guards in suits who talked into their cuffs a lot, and gave the production its atmosphere of constant, menacing, surveillance.

The opening scene had the soldiers hiding from each other behind the walls – who else were they expecting to see up there? Although, as the opening sound effect was a plane flying overheard, perhaps they thought the ‘enemy’ might send in paratroopers to land on top of the castle for a midnight attack (bear in mind, Marcellus apparently doesn’t know what the heightened military activity is all about, so just who would the ‘enemy’ be?).

The first court scene was done as a TV broadcast from the new king, up to “For all, our thanks.” Then the royal couple could relax – Gertrude was quick to grab a glass of champagne – and deal with the more pressing matters of state. Cornelius became Cornelia, and the ambassadors to Norway were swiftly sent on their way. Hamlet had been sitting near Claudius’s desk, and brought out some papers. He unfolded one of them and laid it on the desk for Claudius to sign, but Claudius, ignoring him (so much for the caring father image), put his feet up on the desk and tackled Laertes first. His bit of paper was soon signed (I assume it was some kind of pass to let him leave the country), and he was off.

Hamlet was not so lucky. Does Claudius ever think, during the later stages of this play, how much simpler his life would have been if he had just let the man go back to university? Anyway, Hamlet reluctantly agrees to his mother’s request that he stay, and as he does so, he tears up the bit of paper and throws it away.

When the rest of the court has left, we get Hamlet’s first soliloquy, and it was pretty good. Then Horatio and the guards arrive, and I found it a little weird that with a huge picture of the former king still in the room – it was the backdrop to the impromptu TV studio – the line “methinks I see my father”, and Horatio’s response “O where, my lord?”, didn’t acknowledge the elephant in the room. Of course, it helps the newcomers in the audience to know what the previous king looks like, but it undercuts those lines a bit, as I found myself wondering how the picture would be used and why it was being ignored.

Next up was Laertes saying goodbye to Ophelia. She was fine, all modern teenager with her soft toy and CD player. Their conversation was reasonably clear, although I found Laertes had one of the weaker deliveries of this cast; hopefully there’s some improvement to come. The understudy for Polonius was fine, and got across the man’s tedious need to waffle on at great length, while his children sat on the sofa and tried to hide their giggles at his ponderous fatherly lecture. Polonius telling Ophelia to avoid Hamlet in future was fine, and then I think we moved on to the platform scene for the ghost’s appearance.

This was fine, too, nothing much to report, except that the area the ghost took Hamlet to had some walls, which allowed Hamlet to put a smiley face on one of them at the line “villain, villain, smiling, damned villain”, and then write ‘villain’ underneath. (This logo was used later on for the T-shirts he hands out at the play.) For the swearing bit, I wasn’t clear whether Hamlet was following the ghost or avoiding him.

The briefing of Reynaldo for his trip to France, and Ophelia’s reporting of Hamlet’s madness were OK, and for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s first appearance they shunned the traditional embarrassing confusion on Claudius’s part (finally!). After they left to find Hamlet, the ambassadors are dealt with – no concern whatsoever about an army tramping over the kingdom this time – and Polonius launches into the longwinded dissertation on Hamlet’s madness. Claudius and Gertrude’s reactions were fine, and there were several laughs in this scene. When Hamlet turns up, reading, the set morphs again so we see him arriving in his bedroom and throwing himself down on the bed. Polonius talks to him there, and it was probably the most effective part of Rory Kinnear’s performance, subdued but getting across the feigned madness, his once good relationship with R&G, the onset of suspicion about them, his heaviness of heart about not only the loss of his father but the demands of the situation he finds himself in, and then his sudden quickening when he hears about the players. It’s a lot of changes, and they were done very well.

Now I’m not sure of the order of scenes here – actually, I lost track some time ago, and I’m hoping they were the same as my text, which now has the report back by R&G to the king, followed by Ophelia and Hamlet’s overheard conversation. I think there was another scene put in here – possibly the arrival of the players, but I’m not sure. However, I’ll deal with that next. The players arrived with lots of equipment in the usual modern black and metal cases. Hamlet greeted them all warmly, and the telling of the speech about the dying Priam was moving and more intimate than I’ve seen before. Polonius’s “this is too long” got a good laugh, and for once, the Player King (James Laurenson, doubling with the old Hamlet) looked nervous when Hamlet asked him to play The Murder of Gonzago. He was the first Player King I can remember to seem aware of and concerned about the consequences of performing Hamlet’s chosen play in a court where a recently deceased king has been succeeded by his brother who then marries his sister-in-law. Either the other Player Kings are as thick as two short planks, or they’re comfortable with dangerous political satire.

The overhearing scene was done using modern surveillance equipment, with Claudius and Polonius putting on headphones as they disappeared behind one of the doors. There was nothing special in the scene itself, with Hamlet realising that they’re being overheard.

The play was set up next, with a carpet laid diagonally on the floor for the stage, two chairs to the left of it for the (real) king and queen, various lights around the place, and the sound equipment at the back. The mime at the start is done quickly, with a bed being wheeled on for the king to lie on, and a big blue bottle of poison used by the murderer. The second phase, with the dialogue, was fine, although the reactions from the king and queen weren’t easy to see from our angle. Hamlet was lurking over by the spotlight on the right front of the stage, and turned it on for this part, lighting the players for the relevant part of the plot. When the king stormed off in a temper, the actors were clearly panicked, and rushed off with as much of their stuff as they could grab. The sound equipment at the back was left, though, so Hamlet used it – when he called for music, he simply flicked a switch, and some thumping beat was blasted out through the speakers, not too loud, but not quiet either. And that was the interval, with Hamlet sitting cross-legged at the front of the stage.

The second half started with almost the same setup, although the rest of the players’ equipment had mysteriously vanished to leave a bare stage. The requests for Hamlet to visit his mother were OK, and then Claudius deals with the reports from R&G and Polonius before kneeling in front of his desk to pray. Hamlet appears from behind the wall, sees Claudius through the window, and draws a knife to kill the king, before talking himself out it. Gertrude’s room appears even before Claudius is off the stage, with sofas to left and right, a large portrait of Claudius on the far wall, and the tacky curtain hanging in front of an alcove in the middle of the wall.

Now, this was one scene where our position gave us a problem. The ghost appeared on the far side of the stage, and so when Gertrude turned to look where Hamlet was pointing, we couldn’t see her reaction. It’s possible from what we saw that she actually saw the ghost, or at least something, but was denying it. Hamlet grabbed the portrait of Claudius off the wall to compare with his father’s picture, and it ended up on the floor. Polonius was stabbed through the curtain, and his body dragged off on it. Gertrude certainly didn’t want to be with Claudius after this scene.

Hamlet climbed the ladder at our side of the stage to taunt R&G about Polonius’s missing body, and then Claudius is in what looks like an interrogation room when Hamlet is brought before him. There’s no Polonius to advise Claudius now, of course, and the chap who seems to be the new second-in-command is wearing some sort of military outfit. Later on, he turns out to be Osric. There’s also an interrogation technician with a nasty-looking suitcase, but fortunately Hamlet tells all before he has to get busy with his syringe.

Again, I’m not sure of the order of scenes here, but at some point, Hamlet is handcuffed to the ladder (why?) and thus sees the arrival of Fortinbras and gets to question the lieutenant about him and the forthcoming battle. Fortinbras is well used to the technology of modern warfare, and is followed by his own camera crew, taking every opportunity to record what an excellent leader he is. Hamlet’s change of attitude here was clearly expressed, and the conversation about the small piece of land was also well done.

Now for the dreaded mad scenes. These worked better than I’d hoped. Ophelia comes on pushing a supermarket shopping trolley, filled with various packages and clothes. For the second mad scene, she dishes out these parcels instead of using flowers. One, given to Laertes, was her toy from earlier, which I could now see was Babar the elephant. Claudius got the prop bottle of poison used in The Murder of Gonzago. Nice touch.

Laertes arrived with several other gunmen, following sounds of gunfire outside, and his debate with Claudius was a bit weak, as was his reaction to Ophelia. Later, the plotting to kill Hamlet after his letters have arrived was also underpowered, and I wasn’t that moved by the report of Ophelia’s death. Things started to improve with Hamlet’s reappearance at the graveyard.

The gravedigger was on his own, the banter with Hamlet was trimmed nicely, and so we were soon into the funeral combat. The ‘grave’ was a couple of trapdoors set diagonally towards the front of the stage nearer our side. The skulls (why are there rarely any other bones?) were put in a plastic crate, and Ophelia was in a coffin. I don’t think Laertes actually picks up her body again – would have been difficult anyway with the lid nailed down – and the scuffle between him and Hamlet seemed briefer than usual.

Back in the castle, Hamlet tells Horatio about his travels, and then Osric comes along to invite Hamlet to participate in the fencing competition. At least here they made the fencing into a proper sporting contest, with a strip of matting for the piste and the usual jackets and face masks. Unfortunately, the fencing itself was so-so, and the final deaths felt a bit jumbled, which lost a bit of the tension. Hamlet did slur his speech towards the end as the poison took effect, which was good. Of course, Fortinbras is more than ready to take advantage of this opportunity, making his speech in praise of Hamlet to camera as his first media step in gaining the crown. Then he shakes hands with the remaining members of the court, all eager to be his new bestest friend.

While there were some interesting choices in this staging, on the whole I found the tedium getting to me, and I nodded off a few times as a result. Some of the lines were delivered so badly I thought they were in a foreign language, which didn’t help. Steve reckoned Horatio was the worst offender, speeding up so much with each line that he was unintelligible by about line six. I felt the problem was more widespread, and combined with some fluffed lines (Horatio obligingly leaves the stage after the burial scene although Claudius clearly asks Laertes to go), and some strange cuts, the whole production had a very patchy feel. There were some excellent parts, and Rory Kinnear gave a consistently sound performance, but the rest needs work. It’s only a few weeks since it opened, so it may come together later in its run. I do hope so.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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