Hamlet – May 2013 (2)

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 31st May 2013

It’s an interesting experience watching a production over several performances, especially in a long run. The ‘normal’ expectation is for growth: actors will develop their roles, the cast will work better together, and a deeper and broader view of the play will emerge through both the actors’ greater experience and the repeated viewings, which are often helped by a different angle. When we first saw this production during the previews, we were confident that the next performance we saw (ignoring the understudy run) would have come on considerably. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Jonathan Slinger still hasn’t got to grips with his role as the vacillating prince, and although there were some interesting changes to some of the staging, and some improvements in individual performances, it would seem that our enjoyment last time round was largely based on the surprise factor, which was understandably lacking tonight.

The noise of the chains being removed from the doors at the start was more noticeable to me this time, and Steve spotted that Hamlet was writing in a notebook while he sat at the front of the stage with the battlements scene unfolding behind him. Horatio’s choice of sword was unfortunate, as the end was bent which made it look a bit silly. He put it down the second time he spoke to the ghost, and nearly touched the ghost’s fingers before the cock crowed.

The dancing that started the first court scene came across more clearly – I think it was our position which did that, as we were still central but further back. I could see that the steps reflected fencing moves, which made more sense of the masks the non-royals were wearing. Presumably this was a way of honouring the dead king, recognising his love of swordsmanship. When Claudius determined that there would be loud noises every time he drank that night, he motioned to Polonius who acknowledged the order and left immediately to arrange matters.

To be fair to Jonathan Slinger, he was competing with a mobile phone during the central part of the “too, too solid flesh” speech, and the distraction was enough to destroy the rhythm of the scene. He paused for quite some time after Horatio announced that he had seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and I felt the tension build. Already Steve and I were seeing a great deal of improvement in Alex Waldmann’s Horatio, and this was the one part that we both felt was much stronger than in the preview.

I was aware that both Laertes and Polonius have a similar attitude towards Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet. Looking at the siblings tonight, I wondered if Ophelia was meant to be an older sister, heading for spinsterhood unless she finds a husband fairly soon. The dowdy clothes and bundle of schoolbooks added to that impression. Ophelia was caught up in her own thoughts prior to the “precepts” speech, and didn’t seem to pay much attention during it either.

Back on the battlements, I couldn’t see any response from the ghost to Hamlet’s attempts to communicate, but that may have been my angle – I had a great view of his back. He still beckoned Hamlet to follow him, so something must have registered. I spotted that Hamlet not only compares himself disparagingly with Hercules in a later scene, he makes a reference here to the Nemean lion before rushing off to join the ghost – “As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve.” Hamlet comforted the ghost after the story of the murder, hugging him close, and later, after writing the “damned villain” reminder in his journal, he spat on the page. Although it seemed clear tonight that they could, I did wonder whether Horatio and Marcellus are supposed to hear the ghost’s “swear” each time, or whether the scene could be played without that to increase their concern over Hamlet’s mental state.

Given our increased familiarity with this ensemble, I had the pleasant experience of actually knowing who was who when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived on stage tonight. Gertrude showed a slight exasperation with Polonius’ oratory at the beginning of the letter scene, and became shorter with him when the letter he produced actually seemed relevant. When Polonius pointed to the door to tell Ophelia to leave, Gertrude, behind Polonius at that time, waved her hand to try and keep Ophelia with them, but it wasn’t noticed and Ophelia left.

When Hamlet came on stage reading tonight he was wearing the fencing mask – how did they know it was him? The mock-shagging of Guildenstern was vigorous enough to topple the chair over, with Hamlet landing on top of his childhood friend. The spliff they were sharing was more in evidence tonight, and when the actors turned up I was aware that Hamlet greeted them as “old friends” too; they’re coming at him from all directions at this point in the play, but apart from Horatio, these ‘friendships’ with Hamlet will prove very troublesome for everyone.

The player king held out his own arms to prompt Hamlet for the correct start to the “Rugged Pyrrhus” speech, and after Polonius’ interruption, the actor looked sternly at him for the beginning of the Hecuba section. Hamlet didn’t think of trapping Claudius with the play until the later part of his soliloquy, hence the absence of any request to the actors when they left – makes sense.

Hamlet was singing the Ken Dodd number Happiness as he made his way across the back of the stage before the really big number – “To be or not to be”. This time, his delivery of the famous speech was pretty appalling. He seemed to be working his way systematically through some list of vocal techniques in an effort to do something fresh with the soliloquy, instead of delivering the lines based on his character’s thoughts and emotions. This was true of some of the other lines as well, and convinced me that he still hasn’t found his inner Hamlet, always assuming he has one.

When he looked through the box of “remembrances”, he made a mumbling noise as if reading out one of the love letters. I found myself thinking that it would be interesting if they had included a pregnancy test in amongst the trinkets – where else would Ophelia hide such a thing, given her father’s control-freak approach to parenthood? Ophelia hid briefly behind the chair at the front of the stage after Hamlet had ripped off her skirt and jumper, and as she was picking up the letters and other items  during Claudius and Polonius’ conversation, it was clear that she was aware of the intention to send Hamlet to England.

Hamlet used a hand bell to get the actors’ attention for his lecture on how to act – cheeky bugger – and with no comments from the players, we were soon through that section. Claudius was wearing a fencing mask when he came into the gym, which startled Hamlet – was it his father’s ghost? Claudius took the mask off before he sat down and made no reference to it in his behaviour. Gertrude was very loving with him before the play started; not quite ‘get a room’ standard, but easily enough to upset a sensitive, grieving son. Only one additional point from the play-within-a-play: the stage queen put her dead husband’s hand on the bread heart a couple of times but it fell off each time. Only then did she realise he was dead. The sofa used by the p-w-a-p royal couple was thrown off the stage by the soldiers after Claudius rushed out, and later became the sofa in Gertrude’s closet. How appropriate.

During the interval, Steve mentioned a connection he’d seen between this play and As You Like It. Rosalind describes the expected appearance of a love-sick man, a condition which Orlando signally fails to manifest but which is remarkably close to the description Ophelia gives of Hamlet’s appearance in her closet. No Complete Works handy to check the details at the time, but given that we saw As You Like It two nights ago, the passage was clear in our minds. Well spotted, Steve.

As the second half started, Hamlet sent Horatio off to fetch some “music”, and was dancing on one of the benches as he waited for his return. All Horatio could find were a couple of recorders, and he handed them apologetically to Hamlet. “’By and by’ is easily said” was missing, and I was aware tonight that Hamlet has to cast off many of his old friendships as part of his growth into kingship material, in a similar fashion to Prince Hal.

There was far too much coughing tonight during Claudius’ pre-prayer soliloquy – get some cough sweets! – and I noticed that while praying, Claudius’ mouth was moving, which reminded me of the movements made by the ghost’s mouth. Two brothers who each needed to unburden themselves, perhaps.

In the closet scene, I was reminded of the downside of having the same actor to play both of Gertrude’s husbands – how can Hamlet make a valid comparison between them? It works well when a production is trying to bring out Hamlet’s jealousy and the possibility of real mental illness, but when Hamlet’s relatively sane it takes a very good Gertrude to pull it off. We were in safe hands with Charlotte Cornwell. Hamlet dragged the blanket off the sofa at one point and took Gertrude with it, and there was laughter at Hamlet’s “Goodnight mother” as he took Polonius’ body off stage. This Gertrude didn’t react to the line “It had been so with us”, but she clearly wasn’t keen on any more physical contact with Claudius, which he seemed to understand as being part of her distress over Hamlet’s actions.

After depositing Polonius’ body, Hamlet had made himself a mug of tea which he was drinking as he came on and announced “Safely stowed”. The “convocation of worms” wasn’t “politic” tonight, which I felt was a pity, given Polonius’ choice of career. On to the mad Ophelia scenes; she hugged Claudius during the early stages of mad scene I, and for the final song of that section she acted out the last four lines (“Quoth she ‘Before you tumbled me….”) by kneeling on the right and then the left at the front of the piste. In mad scene II, for the “you must wear your rue with a difference”, she rubbed off the blood on Claudius’ forehead, smeared some blood on her lips and kissed him. Quite disturbing. Later, when Claudius was doing his best to win Laertes over, Laertes nearly interrupted the first of the “special reasons”, showing how lowly he rated it as an excuse.

On to the graveyard scene, and for once it struck me in the early part of the scene that Hamlet doesn’t know who the grave is for. One of the disadvantages of familiarity with these plays is missing some obvious points like that. I noticed that Laertes was very careful when he placed Ophelia back in the grave – apparently the shallow depression has been carefully padded to make it possible for her to lie there for so long.

I found Hamlet more convincing from the graveyard scene on, perhaps because the soliloquys were all done. In the description of R&G’s fate, I noted the phrase “not shriving-time allowed”; it reminded me that Hamlet senior had also died “with all my imperfections on my head”. Hamlet stopped Horatio from hugging him at one point. Laertes grabbed a spare foil off the wall when Hamlet took the poisoned one away from him, possibly the same one which Claudius had replaced earlier. Claudius did try to escape his fate via the now-locked doors, while Hamlet sat cross-legged in front of the stage to applaud his death. For once Laertes was actually able to stand up to “exchange forgiveness” with Hamlet.

Hamlet and Horatio had their final conversation towards the back of the piste, with Horatio cradling Hamlet in his arms. After “The rest is silence”, Hamlet took a few steps down the piste before collapsing. Then there were drums, and when Horatio asked “Why does the drum come hither?”, a soldier appeared at the back of the stage in silhouette, an alarm went off and the sprinklers started spraying water over the stage. End of play.

Despite our general feeling of disappointment, we managed to glean some new insights into the play, so the evening wasn’t wasted. I wasn’t so distracted by Ophelia’s corpse this time, and with Horatio in particular being much stronger this time around, there were some nice touches to enjoy. We have another viewing arranged for later in the year and it’s good that our expectations will be nice and low, as we’re more likely to appreciate the performance from that perspective.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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