Hamlet – August 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 15th August 2013

The Prince is now in the building! After our earlier visits in March and May had left us wondering if Jonathan Slinger would ever get his performance together, I’m delighted to report that his Hamlet is now alive and kicking until the final seconds of this splendid production. With the rest of the cast putting their all into the show, this is one of the strongest versions of Hamlet we’ve seen. Tonight we sat by the right hand walkway, with a good view across the stage diagonal. Some extra aspects were clearer from this angle, and although there were one or two minor changes to the staging, on the whole the production was as I noted it up before. The strength of the central performance was the main difference, and it changed the standard tremendously.

When Hamlet came on at the start, he broke down in tears for a short while before recovering himself. It was after this that he looked at the swords in the back right corner, went over to them and found an old wooden sword; I’m tempted to say ‘his’ old wooden sword. I certainly had the impression that he was recalling happier days with his father when he did a little fencing practice on the piste.

The battlement scene was as before, although the ghost wasn’t wearing his mask the first time he came on stage, but was wearing it the second time; I may have recorded it wrongly in my earlier notes. This allowed the doubles to be masked as well. I was close enough tonight to identify the two workmen, even through the gloom: John Stahl and Cliff Burnett.

As we already had a program, we didn’t bother buying another one, so we were unaware that Charlotte Cornwell was indisposed for this performance. We realised she had to be when Karen Archer, familiar to us from the understudy run as well as the rest of the season, came on as Gertrude. She seemed a little nervous at first, which is understandable if the last time she played the role was back in May, but she soon got into the swing of it again and by the closet scene she was giving as good as she got.

Hamlet’s soliloquy at the end of the first court scene – “O that this too too solid flesh would melt” – was much better, giving us an emotional baseline for the Prince’s journey. When he said to Horatio “methinks I see my father”, Horatio moved back swiftly and looked around in case the ghost had appeared again, which got us laughing. Hamlet hugged Horatio before he left, and this relationship became much clearer with a strong performance in the lead role.

I reckoned it was Ophelia who pulled away from Hamlet when her brother came through the door. This started me thinking along the lines that she’s the one who’s not happy for others to know about their relationship. Also it made me wonder what Hamlet’s view of her behaviour would be, and this triggered some interesting thoughts later on. Laertes’ speech wasn’t as clear as I would have liked, and I noticed that Ophelia still didn’t pay much attention to her father’s “precepts”. When Polonius forbade her to spend time with Hamlet, it made me think that Hamlet would see this as an unexpected rejection, and that wouldn’t help their relationship at all.

Back on the battlements, Hamlet was doing a bit of mime to convey the drinking that was going on elsewhere, holding a big bowl and glugging it back. Just then the ghost turned up, and this time round I didn’t spot any reaction on the ghost’s part to Hamlet’s various attempts to speak to him. Even “father” didn’t raise a flicker. The ghost did have his back to me, so I may have missed something, but his slow, steady progress across the stage seemed pretty smooth and undisturbed to me. Hamlet’s choice of delivery was unusual too, keeping the words rather flat and unemotional. The ghost still beckoned him away, and the usual fight to stop Hamlet leaving ensued, with Hamlet winning and heading off stage.

In the gym, the scene between Hamlet and his father’s ghost was much more moving. We had heard from Jonathan Slinger that he had wanted this father and son to have a close relationship, and persuaded Greg Hicks and David Farr that it would work by doing an exercise where they played the scene as if Hamlet senior was on his death bed, talking to his son. The emotional impact was strong, and clearly informed this scene which came across like a deathbed scenario in many ways. I was particularly aware of the ghost’s instruction to “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be a couch for luxury and damned incest”, while the advice to Hamlet to leave his mother alone to her own conscience tied in nicely with the closet scene.

Horatio was clearly upset by the change in his friend once he and Marcellus caught up with him. He tried to hug Hamlet but was put off, and the crazy behaviour and words of the prince were naturally a concern for both of them. They took the oath, and then Marcellus left after “your fingers on your lips, I pray”, while Hamlet kept Horatio back for the final couplet – “The time is out of joint” –  which helped to reconnect them.

Polonius and Reynaldo were good value again, and this time when Ophelia entered and stood, shaking, by her father, he stared at her for a long time before pointing to the side of the room. His “what was I about to say?” followed on naturally. With Ophelia’s story, I could see that she was worried that her refusal to see Hamlet had caused his strange behaviour, and while the background to their relationship still wasn’t fully clear, the consequences of their choices were making more sense in this production. I also got the impression that Hamlet may have been sad at the prospect of losing Ophelia; his revenge project wasn’t guaranteed to be a success and might result in his own death.

Claudius wasn’t entirely sure about which of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was which, but while Gertrude confirmed the names, she appeared to correct him slightly with her emphasis on “gentle Rosencrantz”. Cornelia was still interrupting Voltemand at every opportunity during their brief report, and later on, during the discussion of Hamlet’s love letter, Polonius was rushing his lines. I know Gertrude asked him to speed up, but this was a bit too much. After his talk with Hamlet, Polonius began to leave the stage but turned back, surprised, when Hamlet exclaimed, very loudly, “these tedious old fools!”

When Hamlet got Rosencrantz on his back, he kissed him, and “buzz, buzz” was said by R&G later on as if it were a catchphrase from their childhood times. The player king didn’t get any soup at all with Hamlet’s demand for a speech straightaway, which was one sign of Hamlet’s selfishness. Mind you, when Hamlet was telling Polonius to take care of the players – “let them be well used” – he took the bowl and chucked the soup on the floor, indicating that it wasn’t good enough for them. The “rogue and peasant slave” speech was much better, and I picked up on “make mad the guilty”, which seemed to trigger the Mousetrap strategy.

As the text makes clear, Hamlet’s encounter with Ophelia has been set up by a summons so he would expect to be meeting Claudius and Polonius. From Jonathan Slinger’s chat yesterday, he chose to sing the Ken Dodd song as part of Hamlet’s pretence of madness, but when he arrives and finds the other two aren’t there, he loses that energy and instead has a few moments of reflection on his situation. In this case, “To be, or not to be”. This time the speech worked well. Hamlet cried on “to sleep – no more” and lay on his side for the second round of “To die, to sleep”, sitting up a little later to finish the speech.

As he drew towards the end of the famous lines, I became aware that Ophelia was watching him. I’ve no idea when she began to stare at Hamlet, but although that seemed a little odd, it was soon overtaken by the disastrous interaction between the two of them. Hamlet was affectionate this time and wanted to get close, but Ophelia was being a good girl and kept him at a distance. Upsetting, of course, but Hamlet’s behaviour was too violent a reaction; it was clear he had issues with women. The language and his forceful delivery supported this interpretation, and he even took a knife to her hair as well as ripping off her clothes and smearing her face with the black stuff so thoughtfully provided by the side of the stage.

Polonius gave Ophelia his jacket to wear when he came on stage following Hamlet’s departure, and Ophelia, after putting the jacket on, said her lines about Hamlet’s madness to her father. When Claudius came on, she started to pick up the scattered “remembrances” which Hamlet had tossed on the ground earlier, and it was during this activity that she heard Claudius’ plan to send Hamlet to England; at that moment she looked up, startled, at her father.

Hamlet had some difficulty getting the actors’ attention at the beginning of the next scene. He started “Speak the speech…” twice to no avail, and had to ring a hand bell to get them to shut up and listen. There was no reaction to his comments; the players and then R&G simply left to prepare for the play. Horatio was clearly involved in the stage management of this production, and Hamlet took away his clipboard so that his friend could concentrate on the Mousetrap planning session. Hamlet picked up the Polaroid camera to give to Horatio towards the end of the scene.

For once, the mime at the start of the play-within-a-play was so entertaining I hardly watched Gertrude or Claudius. The king on stage had a crown so tall that it kept tipping over, and there was some laughter at the way it veered left than right, finally coming to rest in an upright position. The actions of the ‘villain’ and the dancing bottle of poison were good fun, and I don’t think there was anything to upset the royal couple watching the performance. I did spot that Claudius became fidgety after “none wed the second but who killed the first”, while the player king took out a letter during this scene, suggesting he’d had the results of his medical tests and it didn’t look good. Horatio was watching Claudius intently as the moment approached, and as soon as Claudius called for a light, he sprang up and took the photo. With the play stopped, there was general chaos apart from Horatio and Hamlet, who went onto the empty platform at the back to celebrate the success of Hamlet’s stratagem. Holding the standard lamp from the p-w-a-p set under his chin, Hamlet ended the first half with the lines “For some must watch, while some must sleep, so runs the world away”.

The second half continued from that point, with Hamlet doing a little dance on the bench where Gertrude and Claudius had been sitting earlier. With R&G and then Polonius seen off, the “witching time” speech was nice and clear, and I suddenly became aware that Hamlet hadn’t really had an opportunity to kill Claudius before now. There’s a chance coming up, of course, but it does seem a bit harsh for the ghost to talk about Hamlet’s “blunted purpose” when the poor chap has hardly had time to draw breath since the chat on the battlements. This realisation reflected the pace and energy of this production, which was fairly rattling along.

I was also aware that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were indeed happy to work on Claudius’ behalf when they agreed to accompany their old friend to England. I assume they were concerned for Hamlet’s welfare and expecting to take good care of him, and that his execution would have shocked and horrified them, but there was a strong sense that they’d picked a side to support and it was the wrong one. As a side note, one aspect of seeing any grouping of Will’s plays in a season is the inevitable crossover moment, so when Claudius said “All may be well”, I was immediately reminded of the King of France’s line at the end of All’s Well – “All yet seems well”.

Karen Archer’s performance as Gertrude was much stronger in the closet scene, and the argument between mother and son was really striking sparks. Gertrude was convinced that Hamlet wouldn’t hurt her – “Thou wilt not murder me” – but changed her mind as he brandished his dagger; she became really scared at the prospect of being attacked. The murder of Polonius seemed a little quicker tonight, and then the scene settled down into Hamlet’s attempt to show his mother the extent of her wrongdoing, “th’incestuous…bed” of the ghost’s earlier speech. This time I spotted that Hamlet was using the Polaroid photo of Claudius, taken by Horatio, to show her the difference between her two spouses, and that worked very well for me, given the identical-twin nature of the two brothers. The effect was to bring up Gertrude’s own deep grief at the loss of her first husband, and allowed Hamlet’s words to have more of an impact. She looked up at him on the word “murderer” – this was news to her – and Hamlet handed his mother the ever-present prayer book to help her “confess yourself to heaven”. Their encounter was as dramatic and as clear as I can remember, and set us up nicely for the long downhill stint.

After the hammering sounds of Polonius’ body being hidden, Hamlet came on stage dunking his tea bag in his mug and with noticeably more blood on him than I recall from previous performances. Claudius was very concerned about “the distracted multitude”, both here and in the later scene with Laertes, giving us a vivid sense of a man whose options were rapidly disappearing. When Hamlet was led onto stage to meet Claudius, he came on behind one of the gentlemen, and was copying his movements which raised a laugh. Ophelia’s sudden entrance without speaking made more sense this time round; she had obviously heard of her father’s death and wanted to check for herself that it was Hamlet who had killed him. She looked down at the blood, and her expression of shock was a good bridge into her later madness.

I was glad to hear the soldier’s story of Fortinbras’ expedition come across well, despite the set being changed at the same time. When Ophelia stood at the end of the piste she held out her arm to be taken by her father, who naturally wasn’t there. She reached forward into what would be her own grave area on “lay him i’th’ cold ground”, which sent a shiver up my spine, and when she was marking the others with her blood, I noticed she put some on Gertrude’s chin as well this time. Horatio obligingly stepped forward to receive his bloody mark – what a gentleman.

When the letters arrived from Hamlet, Claudius was shocked to find his execution plan hadn’t worked, and keen to find an alternative. At the graveyard, the sense of Hamlet’s connection with Yorick was very strong again, and the fighting between Hamlet and Laertes was soon broken up, with both men being held apart as they traded words instead of blows. Horatio wasn’t particularly upset to find that “Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to’t”, but he was less happy when Hamlet again refused a manly hug just before the fight.

Claudius was paying very close attention to the short conversation between Hamlet and Laertes before the fencing began, as if he wanted to make sure there would be no awkward revelations nor any change of heart on Laertes’ part. No chance of that – Laertes was as unbending as Claudius could have wished. Hamlet’s line “these foils have all a length” was a statement rather than a question. With Claudius dying on the platform after drinking the poison, Hamlet took off the crown and placed it on his own head while refusing to shake hands with Laertes, who collapsed back onto the stage to die. Horatio made little whimpering noises when Hamlet wrestled the poisoned drink away from him, but Hamlet did give him the crown on “I do prophesy th’election lights on Fortinbras”. I realised tonight that when Hamlet took his final steps along the piste he was walking towards Ophelia in her grave, a touching moment. The final part of the play was the same as before, but we were much happier at the end of this performance than we were in May, and already considering another visit to enjoy this much improved production.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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