By William Shakespeare
Directed by David Farr
Date: Monday 25th March 2013
For such a well-known play, it was refreshing to see a distinctly different take on many aspects of the story, coupled with a version of the text which dropped many familiar lines. Of all David Farr’s productions at the RSC that we’ve seen, this one is definitely the strongest, and as this was only the eleventh performance (press night tomorrow) there is plenty of scope for the actors to develop their roles within the overall structure. Mind you, they’re starting from a high baseline, with much to enjoy already in this lively, if a tad over-long, production.
Again we had to put up with an industrial grunge setting, this time in the form of a large shed which houses a school gym. There was a fencing piste marked out down the middle of the thrust and a small raised stage behind. A large conference table was positioned on this upper stage, appearing to lead off past the right hand wall into the wings. There were chairs around it, with the largest being at the end we could see, clearly the king’s seat. There were double doors back left facing us with glass panels so we could see people coming, another door back right, and above these a V-shaped roof with six large skylights and both strip lighting and old-fashioned bulbs.
The gym floor on the thrust was raised slightly off the main stage, leaving a border around the edge and on the walkways of industrial cinder debris which contained a few bones for good measure. Steve reckoned the whole place had been built on a graveyard. I could see a shallow depression in the cinders centre front, where there were also a few skulls poking out. I surmised that Ophelia’s grave would be in the vicinity, and so it was. The gym had old-style wooden benches – remember those from school? – and lots of fencing equipment. There were also strip lights built into the edge of the stage, and these plus the ceiling ones were used to indicate the ghost’s appearance and possibly at other times as well. The costumes suggested late 1950s, early 1960s, but it wasn’t entirely clear.
At the start, Hamlet unlocked the doors of the gym and entered to spend some time alone with his memories of his father, as if he’d just come from the funeral. He indulged in a bit of sword play, then there was a noise and Hamlet said “Who’s there?” Meanwhile Barnardo, Francisco and Marcellus emerged onto the stage very quickly and continued the scene, using flashlights as the stage was very gloomy. Hamlet sat at the front of the gym floor all through this bit, while Horatio seemed to be wearing a dressing gown (or maybe that was his style of coat). The ghost, played by Greg Hicks, was dressed in grey fencing gear with a mask covering his face to begin with. He walked on very slowly on the right walkway with a foil in his right hand and clutching forward with the other, as if he wanted to communicate with someone in the land of the living. He returned later on the left walkway, and for his final exit there were two doubles positioned by either door at the back who appeared briefly in a flash of light, one after the other, and then disappeared again.
Marcellus’ question about the fuss and bother going on in Denmark was triggered by a couple of workmen passing from the left doors through the gym to the door on the right, carrying something I couldn’t make out in the gloom. Their cheery “evening” to the characters on stage raised a laugh, and Horatio’s subsequent explanation put the situation very clearly.
The ghost hunters left quickly and then the court arrived, allowing Hamlet to return to the action. Not that he was very active as such; he got up and stood in the front left corner wearing a hangdog expression, while Claudius (Greg Hicks again) stood centre stage to deliver the opening speech of the scene. While he did this, the rest of the court glided around in their fancy clothes and wearing fencing masks, a very odd sight which distracted a bit from the speech. Gertrude joined Claudius when he mentioned her; fortunately she wasn’t wearing a mask, and perhaps this staging was intended to highlight the royal couple in case we were too dim to work it out for ourselves. When the intro was over, the rest of the actors removed their masks and we began to learn who was who.
The lights had been switched on by this time, so at least we had a better view of what was happening, and if I hadn’t known that Claudius was a villain I wouldn’t have guessed it from his demeanour. He’d been drinking, obviously, and was perhaps a tiny bit over-jovial at times, but on the whole he appeared to be a competent and effective king who took care of business while enjoying the delights of his new marriage. There were some laughs from a few of the audience when he spoke about the natural progression of fathers dying before their sons. He was sitting on the rear stage at this point, lolling a bit in his chair, but apart from appearing a little drunk I wasn’t aware of the reason for the laughs. He also appeared to be perfectly content to have Hamlet as his heir, and I got the impression that he was in a very happy place, having achieved what he’d wanted in life: the crown and Gertrude.
Polonius was as brief as I’ve ever known him when asked about Laertes’ requested departure. “He hath, my lord. I do beseech you give him leave to go.” That’s it. Only the YPS Hamlet was briefer, and even then Polonius stretched the “hath” out to ridiculous lengths to convey the sense of the rest of the lines. This version must be some kind of record. It alerted me to the possibility that this Polonius (Robin Soans) would be significantly different in interpretation than any I’d seen before, so I was keen to see how the rest of his role would be played. Be patient, all will be revealed in due course.
Gertrude was clearly an older, more matronly figure, which did hint at the possibility that Claudius married her to strengthen his hold on the crown rather than out of love, but there were sufficient shows of affection between them to scotch that idea early on. However I was aware that Claudius wasn’t going to get an heir of his own from this marriage, which was emphasised when he declared to the court that Hamlet was ”the most immediate to our throne”. The line “Be as ourself in Denmark” was chanted by the entire throng before the court swept out, leaving Hamlet to his first soliloquy.
Jonathan Slinger has had plenty of practice at delivering Shakespeare’s lines, and that experience shone through during his whole performance. This was our first real opportunity to see how he would portray this most difficult role, and he established himself pretty well during the speech. Some words were extended beyond the normal length – the second “God” for example was an anguished howl of a word – and he made the emotional aspects of Hamlet’s situation very clear. I wasn’t entirely convinced at this point, as he did seem a little older and more authoritative than I’m used to, but I chose to go with his performance and see where it took us in hopes of browsing in pastures new.
Horatio entered on his own at first and Hamlet hardly glanced at him, moving over to a bench to sit down before realising who the newcomer was. They hugged for quite a while, then Marcellus entered and the dialogue began. Hamlet didn’t respond to Horatio’s self-deprecating comment about “a truant disposition”, but his own comments about “thrift” were amusing to him and Horatio. It was good to see Hamlet laugh, and it made me very aware just how important this relationship was to him; this was the only man he could trust and share his feelings with honestly and fully, and but for the ghost’s demand for revenge, Horatio’s presence might have helped Hamlet to get over his grief.
Horatio was rather jumpy in this scene, not sure how to break his news. He sat on one of the benches and when Hamlet said “methinks I see my father”, Horatio and Marcellus glanced around in case the ghost had turned up again. After that was sorted out, Horatio took the plunge and rather blurted out “I think I saw him yesternight”. The rest of the story was soon told, and they departed, leaving Hamlet on his own again, but not for long.
We’d heard in the director’s talk earlier that Ophelia has more to do in this production than most. This was one example. Before Hamlet left the stage, she entered carrying a large bundle of exercise books. She saw Hamlet, dropped the books, and rushed into his arms. He in turn embraced her, they kissed, and but for Laertes’ arrival they might have fallen foul of some law or other about sexual acts in a public place. Hamlet left, and Laertes’ words of advice about him to Ophelia seemed very pertinent. I didn’t see much in her reactions during Laertes’ speech – the lighting was ridiculously gloomy again – but I did catch one or two expressions which suggested he was bolting the stable door much too late.
Polonius arrived followed by a clerk who held papers for him to sign. The leave-taking with Laertes was much as usual, but there were no obvious reactions from either Ophelia or Laertes as far as I could see, which allowed the “precepts” to stand on their own for once. Whatever the reason for this staging, I found myself noticing that Hamlet actually follows most of the precepts listed by Polonius. He gives his thoughts no tongue, except to us, and is very careful to consider his actions. He grapples Horatio to him with “hoops of steel”, while appearing to be friendly “but by no means vulgar” to others. Most notably he is very wary “of entrance to a quarrel”, but once he does “take arms”, he certainly comes off best, the little matter of a poisoned blade aside. This clarity was very interesting, and it also supported the portrayal of Polonius as a very competent politician, the behind-the-throne guy who practically runs the country, regardless of who wears the crown. This was different from most of the recent productions I’ve seen, and again I was intrigued to see how this would play out.
Ophelia picked up the exercise books after Laertes left, and I wondered why she had them. Was she a teacher, or just a very busy student? I may get round to reading the program notes sometime, or perhaps I’ll have a chance to ask at some event or other; for now this was simply one of those strange bits of staging that may not have an explanation. I didn’t think Ophelia was as daunted by her father as usual; she seemed a much stronger character, which is fair enough, but then she does go mad later on so I would expect some sort of vulnerability to be on show. Pippa Dixon was also playing her in a plain skirt and Scandinavian knitwear which, Forbrydelsen notwithstanding, is not remotely attractive. The question of what Hamlet saw in her was beginning to take root in my mind, and while I accepted the fact of their love for each other as presented in this performance, I wasn’t as fully convinced as the director seemed to be that his production has nailed this relationship. We shall see.
There were a number of occasions when the cast for the next scene entered before the end of the previous one, which has been done often enough that I don’t have a problem with it (and at three hours thirty-five running time, briskness is welcome). This may have been one of those times, as I seem to remember Hamlet walking past Ophelia without seeing her. They had the noises off for the carousing and Hamlet’s explanation of it – just what is Horatio’s background, for heaven’s sake? – and then the ghost was back for another stroll along the ramparts. This time he crossed the front of the stage from right to left, and when he reached the left walkway, heading off, he beckoned with his free hand for Hamlet to follow. Horatio and Marcellus held Hamlet back at first, but he struggled free and with so much fencing equipment around the place he soon had a sword off the back wall to menace them with. For some strange reason, Horatio sat briefly on a chair in the middle of the stage, before rushing off to follow Hamlet as per the dialogue. Horatio liked a sit down; he was forever finding a bench or chair he could rest his weary bones on, ignoring royal protocol with abandon, not to mention impunity. Alex Waldmann gave a decent performance in the part, but I suspect this portrayal will come on for practice. I also noticed that actors rushing off stage along the walkways were being very careful where they trod. The lumpiness of the cinders suggested that the surface was not suitable for any pace faster than an amble; hopefully there will be no trips to the hospital during the run.
Hamlet re-entered alone, and the ghost joined him a few moments later through the right hand door. Hamlet found he could actually touch the ghost, holding his hand first and then they embraced, with the ghost sitting on the chair in the middle of the stage and Hamlet kneeling next to him. The ghost either dropped his fencing mask and Hamlet picked it up, or Hamlet senior gave the mask to Hamlet junior; I forget which. Either way, when the ghost left, with Hamlet trying to drag him back and howling again with despair, the ghost’s mask was still with him, and featured in several further scenes.
Hamlet wrote down the smiling villain point in a little notebook, and when Horatio and Marcellus caught up with him, he was all frivolous and gay with them; we laughed at his jokey behaviour. The ghost’s “swear” was accompanied by a change in the lighting, first in the middle of the stage, then on the rear stage, and finally at the front. Hamlet’s examples of what the others are not to do was given in full this time, and Jonathan Slinger did each phrase with appropriate actions and delivery so that this section was funnier than I’ve seen before. Marcellus left first, and Hamlet held Horatio back to deliver the final lines of the scene.
Polonius and Reynaldo were up next, and this was a very interesting scene. Polonius gestured Reynaldo to sit on the chair in the middle of the stage, sitting on one of the benches himself. When the lecture began, Polonius stood and went over to Reynaldo, and as the ‘forgetful’ bit loomed up, Ophelia ran into the room and grabbed her father. I realised this was her reaction to the encounter with Hamlet, and it gave Polonius the perfect excuse for needing a prompt to continue his discussion with Reynaldo. After a long look between father and daughter, Polonius pointed to the chairs stacked by the left wall, and Ophelia went over to them and sat there till her father was free. He, meanwhile, took Reynaldo over to the opposite corner of the stage to complete his explanation, taking care to mouth the word “brothel” quietly so that Ophelia wouldn’t hear it. After Reynaldo’s departure, Ophelia told her father about Hamlet’s visitation, and Polonius seemed to be genuinely sorry that he’d mistaken Hamlet’s intentions. His “beshrew my jealousy” showed more concern for Ophelia than many a Polonius has shown in the past.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived separately, carrying large suitcases which they put down beside a couple of chairs at the front and back of the stage. A female servant brought them drinks, then as the king and queen arrived she took their suitcases away. Claudius was charming towards them, a little hesitant over who was who but getting their names right at least. Gertrude did correct him on the “gentle” bit, and she was remarkably friendly with “gentle Rosencrantz”, even kissing him! I realised afterwards that “gentle” may signify a higher social rank, supported by their different dress and underlining the king’s minor social embarrassment at getting this wrong.
Voltemand and Cornelia were each so keen to deliver their report that they kept interrupting each other, getting in the next bit of the line before the other could finish. Not that they had much to say; the request for safe passage was dropped, and so they were off stage soon after they had arrived. Polonius was then free to ramble for a bit, which Claudius took with humour, unlike Gertrude. Mind you, she wasn’t as snappy as some Gertrudes we’ve seen. Ophelia was called on by her father and stood near the middle of the stage where he indicated. His line “I have a daughter” was funny with her standing there, and then he rather creepily gave her the letter to read out. This had the effect of allowing us to hear the love letter as Ophelia experienced it, while underlining her father’s domineering nature. Claudius nodded a few times during this recital, presumably recognising the sort of thing young men write to the objects of their affection. Ophelia was sent packing once she’d read out the letter, as were Claudius and Gertrude once Hamlet approached.
The fencing jacket which Hamlet now wore was hanging loose, so the straps were reminiscent of a straightjacket, entirely appropriate. He was clutching the fencing mask the ghost left him, and holding a sheet of paper which he appeared to be studying intently. When Polonius enquired about the subject matter, Hamlet screwed the paper up but still held it, indicating it occasionally as he referred to its contents. Hamlet greeted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern very warmly, even mock-rogering Guildenstern as he sat on a chair at the front of the stage to illustrate “Faith, her privates we.” He grabbed Guildenstern’s legs and held them while he humped away; it seemed a bit over the top to me, but at least it didn’t go on too long.
Hamlet’s suspicions of his two old friends grew gradually, and the difference between his relationship with them and that with Horatio was very clear. Rosencrantz appeared to be thinking only of the players when he laughed this time, and much of the following discussion about the players was cut (not unusual). The exchange between Polonius and Hamlet was funny, while the actors themselves had clearly fallen on hard times; they were preceded by a servant carrying a tray with bowls of soup on it, and they fell on the food like starving folk. I felt sorry for the player king who had to stop eating to deliver a speech. Hamlet’s intro was reasonably good, and I could see the player king mouthing the words along with Hamlet once he got going.
The player king sat in the middle chair to deliver the lines, without much action, but the delivery was so clear that I could see every aspect of the scene he was describing in my mind – a brilliant piece of acting. After Polonius’s second interruption, Hamlet instructed him to take care of the players but didn’t ask the player king about adding in extra dialogue to The Murder Of Gonzago. The beginning of “rogue and peasant slave” was delivered from that chair in the centre, but as Hamlet moved into the questions “Am I a coward” etc., he got up and started to prowl round the stage, addressing various sections of the audience. The lines were clear but I didn’t get such a definite sense of the emotional changes this time.
After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had reported to Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius and Claudius prepared for the confrontation between Ophelia and Hamlet. Ophelia had been sitting on the steps up to the stage at the back during R&G’s report, and now her father provided a book for her to read. Claudius avoided telling us of his guiltiness at this time, and Ophelia sat towards the front of the stage on a bench while Hamlet came on via the rear stage.
At this point I would have been perfectly happy for the scene to continue with “Soft you, now, the fair Ophelia!”; the energy was just right for that encounter. Instead, we got “To be or not to be”, and for once I felt it wasn’t in the right place. I even felt it could have been dropped altogether – wouldn’t that be shocking! – or even put right at the start of this production when Hamlet came on alone. I listened closely to the words tonight and I still consider it would be a brilliant opening gambit – get it out of the way early plus set up Hamlet’s situation and the major themes of the play perfectly. If any production (and actor) could get away with it, this one could. But it was not to be tonight, and it felt a bit like one of those show-stopping mega-hits in a musical, where everything else has to hang about for a bit while the big number goes down. Not that Jonathan Slinger did a poor job of the speech, just that I felt it could be put to better use elsewhere.
The confrontation with Ophelia started to go wrong when she pushed him away from her. With a glance at the double doors through which her father and Claudius had left to overhear the conversation, Ophelia tried to follow the ‘script’ according to her father’s wishes, but Hamlet’s rejection of her was quite upsetting. He went so far as to grab some black stuff and smear it on her face during the relevant section, and after he left, with a somewhat girly run as I recall, Polonius came back on and sat on a bench and Ophelia delivered her lines to him. I think Polonius sent her home before or just after Claudius arrived on stage – he certainly didn’t need his later lines to Ophelia, having been on stage during her speech – and with Claudius arriving so much after Polonius, I realised from his “I have in quick determination set it down” that the delay was due to him getting some quick paperwork done. This again supported the idea of Claudius being decisive and competent.
The next scene was the preparations for the play within the play. Hamlet’s speech to the players was good, with mention of the groundlings being accompanied by a look at the nearest section of the audience, which got a laugh. Apparently these players had not reformed themselves at all, so Hamlet’s censure passed without comment.
The stage was rearranged for the play, with a curtain being drawn across the front of the rear stage and one of the benches being placed across the middle of the main stage for the king and queen to sit on. The other bench was put to the side of the gym. Horatio had armed himself with a Polaroid camera and sat on that bench along with other courtiers during the play. The king and queen had their backs to me and blocked my view of the stage a little, so I didn’t get the clearest picture of the players’ performance, but this is what I can remember. The curtain was drawn back and a backdrop showed a castle on a hill in the distance. There was a man with a ludicrously tall crown, so tall it needed its own attendant to make sure it didn’t fall off. On came a woman; we could tell she was a woman by her dress and tall hat with a veil, though the beard might have suggested otherwise. They made some loving gestures, I think, then the man managed to lie down, with the attendant making sure his crown lay down with him. The woman left, and another man came on, played by a woman who was wearing antlers and a white shirt. A long strip of cloth(?) hung down between her legs. He/she indicated through fairly crude mimes that the crown and castle were what she wanted, and then she produced a large bottle. At this point the attendant, another woman, took off her jacket and danced around for a bit. Some modern music had kicked in for this bit, and with her long straight black hair I was reminded of the 60s. Dressed all in black, the attendant straddled the man in a sexual manner and assisted the antler wearing chap to pour poison in the man’s ear, whereupon he shook his legs and died. The woman with the beard then came back and was shocked at first to discover her husband dead, but she soon noticed the other chap’s rising interest in her – the strip between his/her legs lifted into a horizontal position – and she gave him something she was carrying, not sure what.
The curtain was drawn again, and after Hamlet and Ophelia’s short exchange, it was re-opened to show a revised set. A picture frame had been put over the castle, a sofa and standard lamp were now on the stage, and a man and woman were sitting on the sofa, dressed very like Claudius and Gertrude. Their lines were brief – David Farr had told us that he specifically went for the shortest version of this play-in-a-play he could find – and from the back I wasn’t sure just how much Claudius and Gertrude were reacting to the performance. Once the poisoner made to do his work though, Claudius stood up, and when he did call out “light”, Horatio took his picture, with the flash going off in response to Claudius’s call. The actors took a little while to realise what was going on, and then they rushed around trying to get away, but were gradually rounded up by the security men. Horatio and Hamlet jumped onto the rear stage and from behind the curtain we heard them celebrating, and then they took the interval.
The second half restarted from the same place. Very little had been tidied up, and the antlers and a couple of balloons had been added to the stage. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern got nowhere with Hamlet – he could easily stay ahead of them verbally – and Horatio brought on the recorders. When Polonius arrived, Hamlet looked up through the nearest skylight to describe the cloud shapes, with Polonius joining him, and when Hamlet asked them all to leave, Horatio left as well.
Nothing to report on the witching hour speech, and then the stage was redressed for Claudius’ repentance and Gertrude’s closet scene. The benches were righted and moved back to the sides of the stage, and a sofa was brought on and covered in a cloth – pretty basic. One of the courtiers – Reynaldo? – was counting out money during the early part of the next scene, and gave the bank notes to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the appropriate moment. They were briefer than the full text, and Polonius was also brisk when describing his planned eavesdropping: there was a general sense of things speeding up. Claudius finally told us he did indeed murder his brother, and I’ve never heard a better delivery of the lines, even if it did sound a bit like the next item on his to-do-list. Hamlet snuck on through the left-hand doors and spotted Claudius kneeling in the middle of the stage. This time he wasn’t just about to strike before he reconsidered, he was still a few steps away from the praying king when the thought struck him about Claudius having a clean soul. His analysis of the situation seemed reasonable, though of course we knew that Claudius was anything but purged of his sin.
For the closet scene, Gertrude was on the sofa and Polonius hid behind the curtain on the stage which was drawn half-way across. When Hamlet heard Polonius call out, he ran up on to the stage and pulled the curtain down, wrapping it around Polonius who was sitting on the chair. Then Hamlet stabbed him through the curtain, and when he threw enough of it back to see who he’d killed, Steve noticed that the line “I took thee for thy better” had been cut.
Gertrude seemed to realise what she’d done in marrying Claudius this time. David Farr had commented on how quickly some older widows marry after their bereavement; it’s not because they didn’t love their former partner, but because they feel the lack of their company and want to fill the void in their lives. And with advancing years, people recognise the need for speed – they may not be around much longer. With this information in my mind, I saw how Gertrude could have married so quickly to a man who reminded her of her dead husband, but when shown the contrast between the two men, she could also undergo an abrupt change of heart. She certainly followed through in this production, flinching away from Claudius when he tried to touch her. Given her obvious distress, he didn’t take it personally, but she didn’t relent, so there was none of their previous affection in any of the later scenes.
Back in the closet, the ghost entered by the right hand door, leaving that way as well. Hamlet was sitting on a bench front left of the stage, while Gertrude was on the floor in the middle. They took a pause before the final chunk of dialogue, with Hamlet apparently going to leave his mother alone; his matter-of-fact “goodnight mother” was funny, given the emotional storm we’d just witnessed. She brought him back with her “what shall I do now”, and after she’d reassured him that she would keep his secret, he did finally leave, dragging Polonius’ corpse with him; at least he didn’t disparage the man with the “foolish prating knave” comment.
Claudius was soon back on stage, and organising everyone to address this latest outrage by Hamlet. His “it had been so with us, had we been there” made it clear that he now saw Hamlet as a threat to be removed rather than a sick heir to be cured. Once Hamlet was sent away, Claudius confirmed his villainous nature by telling us that he’d ordered the English king to kill Hamlet.
The next scene showed us Hamlet encountering the Polish troops, and this was where the stage underwent its biggest change. The soldiers took up a lot of the raised platform’s flooring on either side of the stage, leaving the fencing piste jutting forward from the stubby remains. This exposed more of the cinder underlay, while the stage at the back was also cleared and its back wall removed. Hamlet’s short conversation with the Polish Captain and the beginning of his subsequent soliloquy were partly obscured by all the noise, but it did get the set change done without slowing the action.
The benches had been moved to the sides of the stage, and Horatio made a brief appearance, sitting on one of them to receive the letter from Hamlet before dashing off stage. Ophelia’s mad scenes were staged in a way that was new to me, and I’ll describe both of these bits together. She came on wearing a wedding dress with a veil over her face and carrying a small bouquet. As she sang her song, she handed her bouquet to Horatio so that she could place small sprigs of flowers on the benches, presumably for the guests. Then she took back her bouquet and stood at the front of the piste, ready for her wedding.
At first I was a bit sceptical about the wedding dress choice – where would she get a wedding dress at short notice? – but then I realised that she’d already bought it in preparation for her expected marriage to Hamlet, and the extent of her trauma was clearer. When she said “to think they should lay him i’th’ cold ground” I was aware of this line referring to both her father and Hamlet, don’t ask me why. For the next madness bit, she handed out small sprigs of some herb or other, and then cut her hand with a knife which she got from somewhere (pay more attention next time) and used the blood to leave a mark on people’s foreheads instead of giving them flowers.
Before Laertes’ arrival there were loud sounds off stage. Laertes came in with at least two soldiers whom he sent out to guard the place while he talked with Claudius. Gertrude was nowhere near Laertes when Claudius told her to “let him go”, suggestive of his controlling nature perhaps? Claudius handled this tricky situation pretty well, I thought, speaking authoritatively and keeping his attention on Laertes to see how he was reacting. After Gertrude interrupted their second conference with the description of Ophelia’s death, Claudius was very concerned to keep Laertes’s temper under control.
The gravedigger had a helper this time, so we got a lot of the jokes, and they did it well enough to be funny, too. The ‘grave’ was simply a shallow depression at the front of the stage, and as he cleared the space first one skull then another went flying across the stage. Hamlet’s Q&A with the gravedigger was entertaining, and for his final trick the gravedigger produced an articulated skull, with the jaw attached, for Hamlet to comment on (and then break). I really got a sense of that speech this time, the awareness that this had been a living, breathing person whom Hamlet had known, yet all that was left was his skull. Hamlet tossed the skull down to a young woman in the front row on the left (yeugh); she kindly passed it back later.
The funeral procession came on from the back, giving Hamlet and Horatio plenty of time to hide over on the left of the stage. The body, still in the wedding dress which now looked bedraggled from her time in the river, was placed in the shallow depression and lay there uncovered and unprotected for the rest of the play. I had concerns during the fencing match, I can tell you! Fortunately Hamlet and Laertes didn’t scoop her up out of the pit during their argument. Hamlet certainly showed a lot of passion in this scene, but it felt out of step with the rest of the performance for me, and not quite believable.
Hamlet’s description of R&G’s final voyage was good, and Osric (Michael Grady-Hall) was a nice little cameo of affectation, having so much difficulty holding his hat while manoeuvring the paperwork about the wagers out of his briefcase that he put the hat back on his head and left it there. Horatio helped Hamlet to dress, and when the others arrived, Hamlet’s apology to Laertes was pretty full while Laertes was very brief in his answer. When it came to the foils, Claudius actually gave the second foil to Laertes himself – taking no risks – before sitting at the back of the stage to watch the fight.
The fencing was fine, and when Hamlet set the drink by, the female servant took it over to the left side of the stage by the doors. Gertrude went over there to take the drink, and there was no realisation on her part at Claudius’ warning. When Laertes attacked Hamlet outside of the match rules, the advantage of the piste was that the unregulated fighting was clearly wilder and for real. This was when I was most concerned for Ophelia’s ‘corpse’. With the death of Gertrude and Laertes’ revelation of the plot, Hamlet soon had Claudius at sword point up against the left wall on the rear stage. After an appeal to the court to help him, Claudius recognised the inevitable and drank the poisoned cup like a good boy, soon dying from it.
Hamlet’s final words were spoken as he lay in the middle of the stage, having prevented Horatio from taking a drink as well. The reason – that he needed Horatio to tell the truth about these events so that his reputation wouldn’t be tarnished – was very clear, and after his death (I think we got “the rest is silence”) and a couple of lines from Horatio, the military noises started up again, Horatio reacted with alarm, and the lights went out. Not even a sight of Fortinbras this time, a very abrupt ending.
I enjoyed this performance a lot; it had a liveliness about it and some novel ideas, and it will be interesting to see how the production develops over the summer. I’m still not sure about Jonathan Slinger in the lead role – time will tell on that one – but the production as a whole was coherent and certainly supported the choice of an older Hamlet. Greg Hicks was excellent as Claudius, almost taking over the play at times, and Robin Soans as an effective Polonius made a nice change from the bumbling versions we’ve had recently. From previous experience we know that the set will have faded into the background more the next time we see it, which will help, and we can concentrate on the finer details. Speaking of which, I liked the black border round the free cast lists – a nice touch.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me
It would be too easy to dub this the worst Hamlet I’ve (n)ever seen. The combined effect of the design and the peculiar (lack of ) lighting made it terribly hard to see the actors’ faces. The worst was to be seated in the Circle and being on the receiving end of Blinding Strip Lights round the edge of the stage during the supernatural scenes and for the finale.
I can only imagine how off-putting the strip lights were, Peter. Odd that a lighting design which seemed determined to keep the RSC’s electricity bill down should splurge on such an unnecessary and unhelpful effect, but that’s one of the problems which we perceive with a lot of modern design: unhelpful to the production and the performances and all done at vast expense. Thankfully, there are still some good designers around; we can only hope the ‘duds’ improve at some point.
That’s enough of the ‘grumpy old woman’ for now.