Hamlet – May 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Conrad Nelson

Company: Northern Broadsides

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Saturday 28th May 2011

It was interesting to see this only a couple of days after Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The set had two ramps slanting across the stage at right angles, with stool-steps behind, for easy access as well as seating. The back of the forward ramp, which ran right to left, had an inbuilt piano, which was used to good effect, while the ramp on the left, which ran roughly back to front, included a nifty two-door grave, reminiscent of an Andersen shelter (more on that story later). Around the back were some strange wire thingies – several pairs of wires stretched floor to flies, with a large trapezium of white material between them at about the level of the balcony. A strip of dark gray Lurex was wrapped around the base of these wires, with some grouped together and some pairs done individually. Only the central group was different – the fabric was plain black, and for the second half it was pulled up to form the arras behind which Polonius hid; the rest of the strips only came up two or three feet. There were a couple of chairs for Claudius and Gertrude during the play scene, and various other implements were brought on as needed, but that was pretty much it.

I have no idea what the wire and cloth arrangements were meant to be, but at the start, we soon realised we were in the Second World War period. It started with a public service announcement about switching off all phones, done in the plummy tones and formal language of such things, and then the opening scene was preceded by an air raid siren; this made me think that the wire sculptures might represent search lights, but apart from that fleeting thought, nothing much came of them. There was also a piper at the start – fine playing, but no idea why.

The first scene was done in near darkness, with torches, and Francisco was standing right beside me for his few lines. The strong northern accents were well to the fore from the off, although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were Scottish, and Hamlet had spent so long in Wittenberg that he often lapsed into RP with odd flashes of ‘up north’. For once, it’s Horatio who asks what all the warlike preparations are for, and Marcellus or Bernardo who tells him – this makes much more sense than the usual format. The ghost appears on the balcony, wearing a fetching white cape and a fencing mask, while waving his sword around in slow motion. Although it gives the lie to the later reports to Hamlet about the ghost’s expression, etc., this staging did have the advantage of allowing them to show the ghost flitting around a lot with the use of some poles and duplicate capes and masks – the ghost appeared on either side of the stage before disappearing altogether.

The next scene began with a lively jazz number, which perked things up no end. Actually, it started with one man coming on, hat pulled down, with his jacket slung over his shoulder. He walked slowly to the end of the ramp on the right, lifted the piano lid, sat down, and played a chord. Slowly, deliberately, repeating it once. I thought, oh, it’s the death march, and then he picked up the beat, the tune began to swing, and as the lights came up the rest of the band came on stage to treat us to a great little jazz number. Ophelia, in a gorgeous evening dress with more swags than a Palladium curtain, stood at a microphone on the ramp in front of the pianist, and sang the songs from her mad scene – ‘valentine’ and ‘how should I your true love know’ – all nice and lovely in this context. Gertrude arrives on the other ramp, and sashays about a bit, to applause from the court. Turns out Claudius was the piano player. Hamlet played double bass, Polonius the cello, and the rest all seem to be playing anything and everything from time to time. Talented bunch. This upbeat start to the scene makes Claudius’s speech much lighter in tone, and he comes across as a pretty good guy. Cornelius  has become Cornelia again, while Fortinbras is referred to as ‘she’ – I wasn’t sure I’d heard it right first time round, but we even get to see and hear her in this production, so there’s no mistake.

All this while, after the music stopped, Hamlet has been sulking over near us, sitting on the corner of the ramp. When he gets involved, he simply stands up to say his lines, putting some heat into the “Tis not my inky cloak” bit, but otherwise seeming a bit static. Left to himself for the “too, too solid flesh” speech, he does start to move around, dropping to his knees and other signs of suffering. The dialogue came across well enough, though.

The scene with Horatio was fine, as was Laertes’s leave-taking. Ophelia can be quite snappy in this production, and it comes out here as well as in the mad scene. Polonius needed to refer to a little notebook for some of his precepts, a reflection on the character rather than the actor, but judging by Laertes’s reaction to the contents of the envelope Polonius gives him, he’s a generous man to his children.

The platform scenes had some problems, mostly in the second phase, when Hamlet talks with his father’s ghost. The ghost appeared on the balcony at first, and disappeared quite quickly, but came through the rear entrance onto the ramp almost before Horatio and Marcellus had finished making their exits that way. Whenever the ghost was on stage, they played church-type music in the background – organ playing, choir singing – but this time it was loud enough to drown out a lot of Hamlet’s lines. Of course, it didn’t help that his back was turned to us for most of this scene, but one way and another I hardly heard a word he said. The ghost was loud and clear, and mercifully short compared to usual. Hamlet is much different after this encounter – much more lively and energetic. He also has his father’s sword, which the ghost gives him – strange ghost, this – which is handy for the swearing scene. He also scrawls something in chalk on the right-hand ramp which I couldn’t see, but it related to “meet it is I set it down”, so I assume the word ‘villain’ was in there at least. Nobody else seems to see this, or the other stuff he writes later, and I wasn’t taken with it as a staging choice.

Polonius sends Reynaldo off to France with the usual instructions, although he doesn’t mention drabbing as a potential slur on Laertes’s character, whether from brevity or morality I couldn’t tell. Ophelia’s report on Hamlet’s mad appearance was OK, and it started to bring out the lack of physical contact between father and daughter, unlike her fond embraces with Laertes earlier on. Polonius was more disturbed by the error he’s made in cutting Hamlet off from Ophelia than I’ve seen before, and his concern seemed genuine.

Now for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and if you couldn’t tell them apart before, you wouldn’t have had a hope this time around. Apart from their suits – one a light tan, the other grey – they were identical. Twins or brothers, I’m not sure, but since I focused on their outfits I was fine. Claudius gets it wrong (again!), then we hear from the ambassadors, and finally Polonius struts his stuff with Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia.

For Hamlet’s next entrance, he’s carrying a fishing basket, rod and stool, and wearing a waterproof and hat. He dumps this stuff at the bottom of the ramp, and he’s busy getting things out of the basket while talking to Polonius. The fishmonger reference is therefore apt, though I felt it was a bit contrived. Still, it was fun. He also has a book, which is used for the “Words, words, words” bit, and he chalks “gone fishing” on a small blackboard and props it on a stool, which got a laugh.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the usual tough time of it, and then Polonius introduces the players. They’re very jolly. One chap in particular is keen to give a speech himself, but it turns out Hamlet wants one that’s not his to give – I thought he looked a bit disappointed. Hamlet’s intro was significantly helped by a prompt from the lady player, and the rest of the speech was very well delivered. I was aware of Hecuba snatching up the blanket to cover her naked body, and I had an unexpected glimpse of a physical aspect to her relationship with Priam. The player wasn’t at all bothered about Hamlet’s request for The Murder of Gonzago, so the general public obviously aren’t suspicious of the succession.

I wasn’t sure when the interval would be taken – not at “the play’s the thing” this time – so we continued with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting to the king and queen on their lack of progress. Then there’s the setting up of the confrontation between Ophelia and Hamlet, and then the big one – “To be, or not to be”. OK, everyone wants to find their own way of doing it, but this choice just wasn’t that good. Hamlet uses the chalk again, and scrawls the question on the top of the left-hand ramp. I could see the writing this time, but that really didn’t improve things. He treated the first part of the speech like a pros and cons list, writing under “not to be” such things as “die”, “sleep”, “dream”; all this writing was done with his back to us and it felt more like an old-fashioned classroom talk than a vibrant dynamic speech about Hamlet’s internal philosophical wrestling. He recovered a bit with the latter part of the speech, but on the whole this was not a good version of this important section of the play.

The meeting with Ophelia was much better, with Ophelia being a little snappy again when she tells him “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind”. She’s also very upset at Hamlet’s ranting, sobbing and distraught and in need of a hug when her father and Claudius re-emerge. Polonius isn’t keen, and avoids her altogether. I wasn’t sure if Hamlet was aware of Polonius’s presence after “Where’s your father?” – it just wasn’t clear.

The advice to the players was fine, and with Claudius and Gertrude sitting on the left-hand ramp, the play got underway. The opening mime sequence was a very fresh take to my eyes. Two players brought on a wheelbarrow, placing it well up on the right-hand ramp, and they were wearing smocks. With some music and ‘effects’ – they used a watering can, I think – first one row of flowers stood up in the barrow, then the next, and finally the man sorts of leans down and rests his head on the flowers to have a kip. The woman leaves, and another chap comes on with the poison, and actually invites Claudius to come on stage and pour it into the sleeping man’s ear! It was all very jokey, and I could see why Claudius wouldn’t be too worried by it. In fact, it was entertaining enough that I wasn’t watching the court’s reactions at all. When the dumb show king dies, he literally kicked the bucket. Yes, literally! There was a bucket on the ramp, he stood up, staggered about a bit, then stopped to deliberately kick the bucket off the ramp, and then collapsed and died. It was very good fun.

For the second part, the players did a lovely version of Brief Encounter. The loving couple were Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard to a T, including the little fur stole she wore and the clipped accents, which sounded strange with Shakespeare’s dialogue, but the reference was worth it. When the poisoning happened, Claudius reacted strongly and stalked off, calling for a light. The rest of the scene was pretty standard, and then the interval.

The second half started with the short scene between Claudius and first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then Polonius, followed by the attempted reconciliation with heaven. Fine Time Fontayne, as Claudius, gave one of the best performances today, and this speech was particularly well done, leaving him sitting on the front ramp in the appearance of prayer when Hamlet arrives on the scene. Standing close behind Claudius, he’s ready to strike, but has second thoughts. It’s one of those odd things; why should he think that Claudius would go to heaven when he’s committed murder? And a brother’s murder at that? The belief that forgiveness is always available for repentance must have been very strong for the doubts to stand any sort of chance in Hamlet’s mind. Anyway, we want the rest of the play, so fortunately Hamlet decides against taking this perfect opportunity, and heads off to his mother’s room. Claudius is then free to tell us how ineffective his efforts have been, and also leaves the stage.

Hamlet is soon with his mother in her chamber, with Polonius ensconced behind the arras, partially visible to us. This scene seemed a bit flat to me, although the dialogue came across well enough. Gertrude was certainly upset by the whole thing, but I didn’t get any sense that she realised that Claudius was a murderer. And she must have had excellent eyesight, because the two pictures Hamlet was holding up for comparison were rather small, and he was standing several metres away from her during that bit, though of course, she would be able to remember what each man looked like. The ghost was fine, but for once I wondered if it would be possible to drop the physical presence and just hear the ghost’s words, so that the audience could relate more to Gertrude’s point of view, assuming the production has decided that she doesn’t see the ghost, of course. For once, Hamlet doesn’t bid his mother not to do the things he tells her to do, but he does drag Polonius’s body away, thankfully.

Despatching Hamlet to England doesn’t take long, and then we meet Fortinbras and her army, followed quickly by Ophelia’s first mad scene. This wasn’t too bad, with Ophelia throwing papers around and singing snatches of the songs she sang at the start of the play. There’s more menace in her threat that “my brother shall know of it” than usual. Then Laertes arrives, and when Ophelia returns she has a small bunch of flowers in her hand to distribute. She’s already thrown the papers about, and also drops a lot of the flowers, so the stage is beginning to look rather untidy, and gets more cluttered as the play continues.

Horatio reads the letter from Hamlet standing in the balcony, and then Claudius and Laertes seal their pact to kill Hamlet down below. Gertrude reports Ophelia’s death, and then the gravedigger comes on to prepare for Ophelia’s funeral. He opens up the doors to the Andersen shelter, and starts pulling skulls out of it (why are there never any other bones?), leaving one of them perched on his spade, leaning against the wall. Hamlet and Horatio walk on behind him, and as they talk, the gravedigger tosses fresh skulls over his head which they catch. The skull on the spade is Yorick’s.

The funeral is very brief, just a quick up, down and across, and the priest is done. Hamlet and Horatio are crouched by the end of the right-hand ramp, and Hamlet is pretty vigorous in attacking Laertes over who loved Ophelia the most.

Now we’re into the final phase, and Hamlet recounts his adventures at sea to Horatio. The sequence with Osric was good, with Osric’s hat being bent out of shape so that he looked ridiculous when he put it back on. Osric and Reynaldo were one and the same, by the way – Andy Cryer did very well with this part. Osric’s fussiness was clear, and he obviously had a prepared speech – he checked his clipboard from time to time – and was easily flustered by Hamlet’s responses.

The fight scene worked fine. The poisoned cup was set on a stand to the left, the combatants had fencing gear on, and the fighting itself was reasonably good. Hamlet is standing with his back to Laertes, who’s on the ground, when Laertes cuts him on the back of the leg, and then Hamlet’s furious and unstoppable in his determination to get back at Laertes. Even without a sword, he overcomes Laertes and cuts him in return. The queen has already drunk the poison, and it’s all going horribly wrong from Claudius’s point of view. It gets worse. Hamlet stabs him, pours some drink down his throat, then carries the cup over to Laertes to exchange forgiveness with him; Laertes dies before Hamlet can complete his side of the bargain.

After that, it’s a quick trot to the end of the play, with Fortinbras turning up and making her claim to the throne. All jolly good fun, and despite some dubious choices in the staging, and a dreadfully sparse audience, we gave them a warm reception at the end. I felt the Second World War theme was underused, and the performances were sometimes patchy, but on the whole it was the usual sound, well-spoken no-nonsense Northern Broadsides production. The music was lovely, and well-chosen, although I’ve already made it clear that the ghost’s accompaniment was a bit too much.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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