Hamlet – June 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Tuesday 12th June 2012

I would rate this production higher than my experience of it; the unseasonal cold, the plethora of aeroplanes and helicopters as well as general fatigue, all combined to reduce my enjoyment of a brisk, clear and surprisingly funny performance with some interesting staging choices.

To begin with, the stage had a triangular section added on at the front, and this had steps on each side for access. In front of the balcony was a scaffold, with a narrow platform along the top and a ladder at our end (stairs at the other?). I thought they would make more use of this, for the battlement scenes for example, but it only served as the lobby. Underneath this platform was an entranceway with benches and lots of hanging space, where cast members would lurk either before an entrance or, more usually, to play their instruments – there was plenty of music in this production. Ropes were strung between the two main pillars and between the left-hand pillar and the scaffold, and red curtains were draped over them, allowing for the arras and for some nifty changes during the Mousetrap scene. I noticed some chalk marks in the centre of the stage, for all the world looking like they were due some roadworks, but these simply indicated the locations for the steps and boards that created the makeshift locations. The two boards were leaning against each pillar, while the three sets of steps were short and wide, and were used in various configurations, even doubling as thrones when the boards were slotted in behind them. Finally, there were two brooms, which played a small but entertaining part in the Mousetrap.

The cast pottered about the stage beforehand, chatting here and there and generally getting the stage ready for the show. The costumes were 1930s working class, though the women had smarter frocks, and the king and queen each had a fancy robe to wear over their clothes so we would know who they were. With only eight actors, it was quite an achievement that we always knew who was who, and some of the little cameos were great fun, Osric especially. When I realised that Claudius and Gertrude were doubling as the player king and queen, I was immediately intrigued as to how they would pull this off – more on that story later.

They began with a song; didn’t hear the words clearly, but it was a lively number. From the program notes, I was aware that this touring production, while based on the Folio version of the play, had been informed by the First Quarto version, itself reckoned to be from a touring version. Although I was aware of some cuts, it didn’t distract me in any way, and the story was told in full, not bad for less than three hours.

After the song, the boards were placed in a forward-pointing V-shape on the stage, and the steps were also placed at the sides, creating the battlements. Francisco was huddled there, spear in hand, and with a warming brazier by his side. I noticed he took it with him when he left – bit selfish, I thought, even if does help to keep the stage clear. Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo did the usual chat, with the ghost (Dickon Tyrrell, doubling with Claudius) entering through the crowd and walking up the right-hand steps. He was wearing a great-coat with a dusting of grey on the shoulders, and did look pretty imposing, sword in hand. After striding across the stage, he exited on the left-hand side(?), leaving Horatio to fill the others in on the military situation. The ghost reappeared through the middle entrance, glowered briefly at Horatio’s impertinence, then turned and strode quickly off stage back right.

The court scene was set up by placing two sets of steps at the back of the chalk square and removing the boards. Claudius stood on the steps to address the court – Hamlet stood, alone, on the front triangle – and as Claudius mentioned Gertrude, he held out his hand to her and she joined him on the steps. The business of state was dealt with very quickly, with Voltemand and Cornelius being despatched to Norway, and Laertes given permission to leave for France. Hamlet’s comment ‘I am too much i’ the sun’ got a good laugh – the sun had no intention of shining today!

Once the court had departed, Hamlet gave us his first soliloquy, and I liked the way it was clearly directed at the audience instead of being a personal speech which the audience just happens to overhear. Michael Benz’s delivery was quick and clear, and while this style didn’t allow for much sense of introspection, nor much detail in the characterisation, the story was nice and easy to follow. I also spotted that when Hamlet compares his father and uncle, his choice of comparison likens his father to Hercules, indicating just how much he hero-worshipped the man, while deprecating his own abilities at the same time. Bernardo was absent from the delegation reporting the ghost’s visitations to Hamlet, and the appointment for that night’s vigil was soon arranged.

Polonius’s house used the steps in combination, with Laertes and Polonius having to climb over one set of steps to enter the house, or so it seemed. Laertes’s warning to his sister was brief (would that he got that trait from his father!) but was clearly motivated by his concern that Hamlet, regardless of his affection, was not free to choose his own wife. Polonius’s concern, as expressed later, was that Hamlet was just toying with Ophelia, and that she would be cast off as soon as someone better came along. Laertes nearly escaped this time; only the firm grasp of his father’s hand prevented him from leaving until he had sat through the long litany of fatherly advice, although even these wise words had been edited. There was almost no delay after Laertes left before Polonius asked Ophelia what they had been talking about, and that exchange was soon completed as well, with Polonius forbidding Ophelia to spend any time with Hamlet.

The battlements were set up again, and before long the ghost was on the prowl. He stood in the front right corner of the stage, majestically beckoning Hamlet to follow, while Hamlet dealt with Horatio and Marcellus. As he broke free from them, threatening them with his sword, the ghost turned and left, with Hamlet close on his heels. I had thought the scaffold platform might be used for the next scene, but again it was all done on the main stage, and rattled through in a pretty standard way. When Horatio and Marcellus arrived, I thought Hamlet might have been thinking of telling them the truth, but then he changed his mind and informed them that villains are arrant knaves, a case of stating the bleedin’ obvious. For the swearing section, they crossed the stage a couple of times to follow the voice, and Hamlet’s demonstration of head-shaking and the rest raised a few laughs.

With the stage cleared, Polonius threw a small bag of money to Reynaldo with the opening remarks of the next scene. Reynaldo seemed to be quite up to speed on his job this time, but took careful notes in his book of all that Polonius said, which made it easier to jog his memory when necessary. I don’t remember hearing the ‘carp of truth’ line, but the bulk of the dialogue was covered, and Christopher Saul’s Polonius warmed the audience up by bringing out the humour nicely. Ophelia’s speech was good; I was aware of how frightening such an experience would be, and her description conjured up very clear pictures in my mind.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made an amusing entrance, carrying not just bags but tennis rackets and one or two golf clubs as well. Presumably to reflect the inconsistency in their names between the First Quarto and the other texts, Claudius got their names completely wrong this time, calling Guildenstern by a mangled version of Rosencrantz’s name and calling Rosencrantz ‘Guggenheim’. Gertrude doesn’t get a chance to correct him till they’re nearly out of the door, but with their names so well known to the audience, we had a couple of good laughs from this mistake.

I forget where they did the ambassadors bit; it may have been before R&G, or possibly just after, but either way Polonius didn’t introduce them. Steve had the impression that Voltemand was an inexperienced ambassador who had been hoodwinked by the King of Norway into believing that he, the king, had been completely unaware of Fortinbras’s intentions. In reality, he had probably instigated the whole thing, and when his plot was discovered, simply fobbed the Danish ambassador off with a plausible excuse, while at the same time arranging a way for Fortinbras and his troops to get onto Danish soil without opposition. A neat trick. I saw none of this myself, but I’ve been concerned about this Polish expedition ploy for many years, and I like it when there’s some sign of discomfort over it, unless it’s dropped completely, of course.

Polonius’s long rambling speeches were well appreciated today, and he stood at the front of the triangle to read the letter from Hamlet to Ophelia, with the king and queen on either side. That done, they soon finished plotting to overhear Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia, and when Hamlet himself turned up with his book, he was dressed in a strange outfit, as befitted his pretence of madness. He wore a vest, red shorts, white leggings and a red biretta; the outfit on its own raised a laugh. After Polonius’s departure, Hamlet looked very happy to see R&G, as he had been with Horatio. Through the opening greetings, and the banter about fortune’s ‘privates’, which was followed by a physical man-dance which also had us laughing, Hamlet seemed unconcerned about their arrival, but that changed pretty quickly when they proved completely unable to think of any plausible lies to cover their requested presence. Hamlet’s speech about his lack of delight in the physical world was well done, especially following such a jokey start to the scene, and Rosencrantz’s explanation of his laugh seemed genuine this time.

The actors arrived, and I was immediately aware that the Mousetrap was going to be tricky to stage with this casting. The player’s speech was fine, and Polonius’s chatter very entertaining as usual. The ‘rogue and peasant slave’ speech was very good, again talking to the audience and involving us at every stage. The next scene was also brisk, and soon the curtain had been drawn across one of the ropes for Claudius and Polonius to hide behind while Ophelia spoke with Hamlet. ‘To be or not to be’ was OK, and Hamlet’s confrontation with Ophelia brought out a lot of his anger, though without the violence that is often used to get the point across. Ophelia was facing the curtain when Hamlet asked her where her father was; I couldn’t see her reaction, but Hamlet was immediately aware that something was going on, and upped the tempo of his diatribe. After he left and Ophelia had expressed her reactions, Polonius and Claudius were typically unsympathetic to the poor girl, with Polonius snatching back the book he’d given her at the start of the scene.

Next came the big scene: the Mousetrap. Hamlet gave some brief advice to the players before asking for Horatio’s help to scrutinise the king during the performance. Two thrones had been set up to the rear of the pillars, and when Claudius and Gertrude arrived with the rest of the court, they sat there ready for the start. From our side view, I didn’t see the curtain being drawn across at first, but it was, and we could see the actors change their costumes and rearrange the set for the players. With this done – it only took a few seconds – the curtain was drawn back and the play began, with the husband and wife carrying out the dumb show. The boards had been removed from the steps, which then became the bed the player king lay on. With the king killed by poison, the queen is at first distraught, but was soon distracted when the poisoner presented her with some gaudy baubles. The whole dumb show was done at a lively pace, and with only a few comments from Hamlet and Ophelia, they then went straight into the actual play. Much cut, the player king was soon lying on the bed again while his wife left him, and the curtain was swiftly drawn across the stage. A few quick changes, and it was drawn back again, so that we could hear the minimal exchanges between Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius. Again the curtain, and this time a dummy represented the sleeping ruler. When the poison was poured in the dummy’s ear, a little smoke poured out, and then we heard the line ‘the king rises’. The king and queen came out of the audience and exited at the back of the stage, leaving Hamlet on the stage with Horatio.

R&G were followed by Polonius, and the lines about the shape of the cloud were more relevant here with the open roof (and plenty of clouds to look at!). Claudius knelt to say his prayers at the very front of the V, while Hamlet came on from the back, went through his usual thought process, and left to visit his mother. With Claudius’s final lines, we were finally at the interval, and I could stretch my stiff legs a bit.

For the restart, and the closet scene, the side curtain was drawn again to provide an arras; otherwise, Gertrude’s room was rather bare. Polonius was killed very quickly, and the body covered with the curtain. When comparing Gertrude’s two husbands, Hamlet held two small photos in front of her as she knelt at the front of the stage; although he seemed to get through to her at this point, once he’d seen the ghost and she couldn’t, she became more concerned that he was actually mad. She stood next to the ghost at one point, and he raised his hand as if to touch her, but she moved again before he could. When Claudius turned up, she seemed more convinced of Hamlet’s madness than colluding with him to keep Claudius in the dark.

The next scene had Hamlet lugging a body, wrapped in the red cloth, up to the platform where he left it. R&G came on stage while Hamlet was still up there, and he came down quickly to speak to them. The dialogue with Claudius was nicely done, with humour in the comments about heaven and hell, and the father/mother conundrum.

Fortinbras was definitely present in this production, and with a small change to his costume, Peter Bray gave us a strong military leader, very decisive and ruthless. Hamlet’s soliloquy after the soldier’s explanation was very truncated but got the point across – now he’s going to take action! Ophelia’s mad scenes were OK – they’re not my favourite – but Carlyss Peer has a lovely singing voice, and again the dialogue was very clear. She didn’t carry anything with her, but picked up imaginary flowers from the ground, which in some ways was even more moving than seeing an Ophelia with armfuls of flowers or weeds. Laertes burst onto the stage without the usual preamble, and was very forceful at first. Again I found myself thinking that Claudius was chancing his arm when he talked about ‘such divinity doth hedge a king’ – didn’t do his brother much good.

Horatio came on alone to read his letter, and then Claudius and Laertes did their plotting. Gertrude reported Ophelia’s death, and then played the part of the second gravedigger, with the boards being set up to create a ‘raised bed’ grave. I nodded a bit during this section, but perked up when we got to the next scene, with Hamlet telling Horatio about R&G. Osric was a wonderful peacock of a man, primping his way across the stage, and got more laughs than most of the comedy bits.

The fencing scene was as brisk as the rest of the performance, and Hamlet was soon two hits to nil up. Gertrude drank the poisoned wine, despite Claudius’s warning, and sat to the right of the stage afterwards, where she eventually collapsed. The warlike volley was noticeable, but although the ambassador from England was mentioned, he didn’t appear on stage for the finale. Instead Fortinbras (Osric must have run away when people started dying – a wise move) strode on stage, and with only a few lines established his intentions. I was aware that his line ‘with sorrow I embrace my fortune’ echoed Claudius’s words at the start, about ‘mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage’. His ‘go, bid the soldiers shoot’ was not specific in this production; I assumed it was a salute to Hamlet, but it wasn’t fully clear.

Fortinbras then stood at the front of the stage and started drumming one foot on the floor, creating a strong beat. Ophelia came on and began to ‘wake up’ the other dead bodies, starting with Laertes. Eventually the whole cast were on their feet, singing, dancing and playing their instruments to finish off with a happy number, slightly bizarre for a tragedy. We clapped along all the same, and applauded when they took their bows. The overall response from the audience was very positive; while I accept that a touring production has to limit itself, I did feel that such a quick tour through the play’s highlights left a lot to be desired. On the plus side, the story and lines were very well delivered, and I did get some fresh insights, which I like. On the down side, the level of humour meant that I felt less involved with the characters – this is a tragedy, after all. The performances were all very good given the choices made, and I hope they get equally responsive audiences on tour.

Finally, the brooms. During the Mousetrap, when Gonzago was lying on his bed the first time, two attendants were standing behind him, waving fans made of gold leaves stuck on the business ends of the brooms. Whether it was the movement or the draft, I don’t know, but Gonzago was irritated by them, and made an impatient gesture for them to stop, which caused a ripple of laughter.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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