Hamlet – January 2011

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 19th January 2011

This has really come on since we saw it last. There are still some weak areas, which is why it only gets seven out of ten, but there are also some gems amongst the performances.

Some of the things I noticed this time will have been in the previous performance as well; I just forgot them when I was doing the notes. For example, Polonius shows Ophelia surveillance photos when he confronts her about her relationship with Hamlet, which adds to the feeling of control. Also, the papers Hamlet and Laertes put in front of Claudius are clearly official – both are carrying their passports as well.

Things that may be new, or we saw from a different angle, include Gertrude giving a little squeal of pleasure when Claudius calls Hamlet his ‘son’, a reference which is picked up again when Hamlet says “I am too much i’ th’ ‘son'”. I don’t remember Laertes’s fellow insurgents being led off at gunpoint by palace security before, but it’s probably the same as I do have a vague memory of Ophelia being similarly dragged off, which we see just afterwards. This set me thinking about Gertrude’s report of her death – was she actually murdered? If so, it could be staged by having Gertrude read a report of the death,,,,,,but that’s another production. The actors were taken off at gunpoint after the play as well.

Laertes spoke his lines much better, but was still a weak link overall. Claudius seemed rather stilted, and his delivery was a bit rushed. We got to see David Calder this time, and he turned in a good performance as Polonius, and an absolute peach as the gravedigger, recognizing Hamlet and mouthing ‘is it him?’ at Horatio. It brought an extra poignancy to Hamlet’s recollections of Yorrick, as the gravedigger could remember the man too.

This production seemed to lose sight of the consequences of some of the staging choices. Despite being ‘realistic’ – modern dress, guns, security staff talking into their cuffs, etc. – there were some strange changes of lighting for no apparent reason (other than the need for darkness to cover the change of scenery?), and a number of line readings and other aspects didn’t fit either. For example, Gertrude has a good pair of lungs on her, so when she calls, loudly, for help, is it likely that such a massive security presence would have missed it? These were all fairly minor niggles, but they were a distraction, and showed that the production wasn’t gripping me in the way the last RSC one did.

One thing we specifically wanted to see again from this new angle was Gertrude’s reactions in the closet scene. These suggested she did see the ghost, but wanted to convince herself she hadn’t. I found Laertes’s reaction to Ophelia’s mad scene unconvincing – why doesn’t he follow her and try to protect her? He didn’t seem that affected by her suffering, mind you, so perhaps that’s why.

I was much more aware this time that the characters don’t know what’s going on, and that they’re making every attempt to sort out the situation to their own satisfaction.

The fight scene was much better, though even to my untrained eye Laertes didn’t look like much of a fencer. Again, Claudius seemed relatively unmoved by Gertrude’s imminent death, and just stood around by the far wall after Hamlet has called for the doors to be locked. Not much of a life, not much of a death.

I noticed during the play scene that Polonius reacted more than Claudius to the poisoning of Gonzago – did he know of the plot that put Claudius on the throne? Was he involved? I think we should be told.

I nodded off during the ghost scene – after Ophelia’s mad scenes, it’s my least favourite of the play, although recent mad scenes have been a lot better (or maybe I’m just able to handle them better), but I don’t think I missed much.

Hamlet’s “speak the speech trippingly…” was set up by a mime showing him rehearsing the player queen – a nice touch. Not just a critic, then, also a nervy author.

For the Fortinbras scene, Hamlet was handcuffed to the ladder far left as before, but this time I didn’t see it being set up, so it just seemed peculiar that he would be handcuffed somewhere and left unprotected like that.

It was interesting to see this again, and although I’m a little disappointed that Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet wasn’t supported by a better production, I enjoyed myself well enough.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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