Hamlet – May 2013 (1)

Experience: 7/10

Public Understudies Performance

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Tinuke Craig

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 16th May 2013

These understudy runs can be really good fun and very interesting; seeing how an actor manages to find their own performance within an established production can be enlightening, so we were keen to see how the understudies would handle their roles in this unusual, design driven production. Apart from Greg Hicks playing the roles of Claudius and the ghost – John Stahl was unavailable – everyone else was playing a different part while most of the other leads – Jonathan Slinger, Pippa Dixon, Alex Waldmann and Robin Soans – were occasionally on stage as extras. Jonathan Slinger took the part of Gonzago in the initial mime sequence.

The staging was virtually identical, although there were some minor changes in interpretation of characters (naturally) and some other small changes which were either new or only just visible to us this time around. We sat beside the left walkway, three rows back, and had a much better view of some aspects of the performance. The cast grew in confidence as the afternoon went on, finishing very strongly in the fight scene and the many deaths, and the audience were very appreciative.

Now for some details. I noticed that Barnardo’s torch, held behind his back, was dazzling a woman to our left; she held up her hand to avoid being blinded. Horatio was wearing a dressing gown, and Steve reckoned it was Jonathan Slinger and Robin Soans who played the workmen passing through during the opening scene. There weren’t enough surplus actors to have the ghost’s doubles appearing on his final exit, but the lighting and swinging doors were just as effective on their own.

Claudius’ opening speech was still weird, with several characters dancing on their own around the stage. When he announced his marriage to Gertrude, there was a loud noise and confetti showered down from above, as I remember it doing previously, then nothing much to report until Laertes’ departure. The physical embrace between Hamlet and Ophelia suggested to me that Laertes should really make some reference to it in the way he gave Ophelia his advice, but Chris Jared played it pretty straight. I noticed Ophelia making a little ‘yap, yap, yap’ hand movement as Polonius girded his loins for the “precepts”; I hadn’t seen that before and I don’t know if that was just Kiza Deen’s choice or not.

Things were pretty standard from here for a while. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turned up, and Hamlet was invoking their childhood friendship, they showed each other the scars on their arms where they had presumably taken a blood oath; this was in the regular production as well. I was much more aware that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were childhood friends of Hamlet, and that he probably hadn’t seen them for a long time, hence his happiness at their arrival later shading into suspicion as they were unable to give him prompt and honest answers to his questions.

The player king was having a close relationship with the booze in this performance. He refused the soup on offer to the actors and took a swig from his flask instead. This presumably explains why he was more belligerent when Polonius interrupted him, leading to Polonius’ next comment “That’s good. Mobled queen is good” being conciliatory in tone. There was also some laughter coming from one person in the audience during the player king’s speech, and the actor chose to direct his lines against Fortune towards that area. Claudius strode onto the stage as Hamlet was saying “I’ll have these players…”, but he and Hamlet ignored each other. This was preparation for the next scene where R&G report back to the king and queen; the other characters also came on stage before Hamlet finished his speech and left, which was somewhat distracting on this occasion.

After R&G’s report back, Claudius and Polonius hid between the two sets of double doors on the left, and were just visible through the glass. Ophelia was sitting on the bench near the front as before, and this time Hamlet was singing “If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit…” as he came on at the back, walking along the row of chairs. Again, the “to be or not to be” was slightly out of place, as Hamlet had already clearly seen Ophelia before sitting down on the steps to deliver the soliloquy. He was clearly upset by Ophelia avoiding him, expecting their physical relationship to continue despite his earlier behaviour (not mad, then, just a bloke).

When Hamlet got angry during this scene, both Claudius and Polonius left the inter-door area, presumably in case he went over there and spotted them. They returned after a short while and then Claudius left again on his own shortly before Hamlet left the stage and Polonius re-entered it. As Hamlet had removed Ophelia’s jumper and skirt during his tirade against women, Polonius gave her his jacket to wrap around herself. When Claudius returned, he stood over Polonius, who was sitting on the bench, and uttered the one word “love” with emphasis, clearly sceptical that this was the cause of Hamlet’s madness – got a laugh as well.

Hamlet gave Horatio the Polaroid camera, and while he was telling the actors how to do their job, I couldn’t stop myself looking at Jonathan Slinger, who was standing in for a player and sitting on the opposite side of the stage – what was going through his mind? The play within the play was much as before, but this time I realised that the young woman dressed in black had a skull and crossbones on her T-shirt, and represented the bottle of poison which was being held up for all to see by the female ‘brother’. I also spotted that the player queen (a man) was holding a heart-shaped loaf of bread, which she tore in two on discovering her dead husband. When the murderer attracted her attention with the rising of his libido, she gave one half of the loaf to him. From this angle I could see Claudius’ reactions, and he became increasingly uncomfortable as the play went on. Eventually he jumped to his feet and strode around a bit before calling for a light, which prompted Horatio to take his picture.

When Claudius tried to pray, I noticed he picked up the prayer book which Ophelia had left on the bench and held it as he knelt down. Hamlet left him to his devotions, and when he entered Gertrude’s closet he was carrying a large bunch of red roses – I suspect this was the same in the earlier performance. At least it explains why he thought it might be Claudius behind the curtain; stopping off at a 24-hour florist before visiting his mother would have given Claudius plenty of time to get there first.

Hamlet’s argument with his mother was very clear, and I noticed that he left the picture of his father – the ‘good’ brother – with his mother while he prowled round the stage, berating her. Initially, Claudius was affected by news of Polonius’ death, but then his “It had been so with us” caused a reaction from Gertrude, as if this confirmed Hamlet’s accusation against him. There was a knocking sound as Gertrude left the room, which made me think she was going to say “Wake Polonius with thy knocking! I wouldst thou could!”, but that’s a different play.

When Hamlet was brought before Claudius, there was another brief wordless appearance by Ophelia. She rushed on stage and was caught by some of the attendants, possibly R&G, and taken away before she could speak to Hamlet. When the set was changed by the Polish soldiers, I saw this time that there was a misty picture of a tree on the backdrop.

The benches had been left lying on their sides by the soldiers, and when Ophelia came on wearing her wedding dress, she and Horatio set them up again and she placed flowers on them from the bouquet she was carrying, ready for the ceremony – those Elsinore florists are doing great business with this production. As she proceeded to sing her song, I was aware of a sense that things were getting worse and worse for Claudius and Gertrude, and that Ophelia’s genuine madness contrasted with Hamlet’s feigned symptoms, although both were occasioned by grief. Ophelia insisted on Laertes joining in “a-down a-down”, with Claudius and Gertrude on backing vocals doing “a-down-a”. She took a foil from the back wall, and after trailing it round the floor she stood centre front and used the point to stab herself in the hand, using the blood to mark the foreheads of the others. (There was no blood today, but she would have if there had been.)

Horatio was given the letter from Hamlet after these scenes had finished and before Claudius and Laertes’ second discussion.  Gertrude came on by the far right door while Claudius was thinking up plan B; he stopped abruptly when he saw Gertrude, not wanting her to know about the conspiracy. It was the sight of the champagne bottle and glass which he’d carried on and left near the back of the stage that suggested the second plan to him.

The gravediggers were next, and as Hamlet sat down by the senior gravedigger to discuss burial details, I was taken with a casting connection – there was Jacques sitting next to Touchstone, discussing mortality. These little flashes give an extra dimension to an ensemble company doing a number of plays together, a bit of fun for us regular audience members.

After Hamlet had agreed to the match against Laertes, Claudius came on stage carrying the fencing mask and gave it to him, reflecting the way the ghost had given Hamlet his mask earlier. Jonathan Slinger was the one sweeping the piste before the contest – another ‘ghost’ – and this time I spotted Claudius taking the poisoned foil off the wall to give to Laertes via Osric. Gertrude started to react to the poison in the drink when Hamlet and Laertes were fighting for real, and when the doors were locked, following Hamlet’s order, it was a strong echo of the play’s opening when Hamlet unlocked those same doors.

Claudius was standing on the stage at the back when Hamlet gave him the glass this time, and as he considered his options (very limited), Hamlet sat in the middle of the lower stage facing him and applauded Claudius as he took the drink. This echoed the earlier play nicely. Claudius had time to put the glass back on the table before dying, and Horatio picked it up from there before catching the dying Hamlet. To finish the play there was the sound of a drum, and as Horatio walked towards the back of the stage, the alarm went off, the sprinklers started up and a lone soldier walked onto the platform at the back, silhouetted against the backdrop. The soldier just stood there, and then the lights went out.

They did a great job today, and we gave them plenty of applause. They didn’t have much time to bask in the afterglow mind you, with another regular performance scheduled that evening. I gather they were pretty tired that night, but did manage to down a few glasses in the Dirty Duck to celebrate, and rightly so.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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