By William Shakespeare (more or less)
Directed by Lyndsey Turner
Venue: Barbican Theatre
Date: Thursday 29th October 2015
With so much hype around this production, it was hard to avoid seeing any of the comments or reviews, but we still managed to come to it with open minds. And we found it brilliant! Not the best we’ve ever seen, perhaps, but with an outstanding central performance and some ingenious and thought-provoking changes to the usual text. The set design was amazing, and although the extended first half was asking a lot of the audience, the overall length was reasonable, especially with Fortinbras included in the line-up.
We got in early, and although Steve had brought his passport, there was no sign of anyone asking for proof of identity; presumably they’re more relaxed at this late stage. With the curtain down there was no chance of noting up the set design beforehand, so I entertained myself by observing the audience. More young folk than usual, noticeably more women, and all were well behaved as far as I could see. The ushers were holding up signs to remind people that there was to be no photography and to switch off mobile phones, and apart from a few flashes before the start, nothing untoward happened during the performance itself. (Other than my coughing, but I’ll get to that in due course.) We sat right of centre a few rows back.
They started a few minutes late with the lights going down and some music playing. It was a ballad, and as the curtain opened to reveal Hamlet sitting at the front of the stage, we could see that he was playing an old LP on a portable gramophone while looking at pictures of his dead father. To the left was a packing case, behind him stood a grey wall with a door, and after we’d been allowed a few minutes to observe Hamlet’s grief, there was a knock at the door. Hamlet’s response was immediate – “Who’s there?” – and we were into a new Hamlet, where lines had not only been cut but had been given to all sorts of different characters, and were also repeated at appropriate moments. Some may also have been added, but I’m not familiar enough with any version of the original to register these, and since I will be mentioning changes to my text (and there will be many) I had better specify that I’m using the Oxford Complete Works* Kindle version for the purposes of these notes.
Horatio was the new arrival, and began with “hail to your lordship”. Hamlet greeted him warmly, and enquired as to his reason for being in Elsinore. Already he seemed a bit guarded, reluctant to assume that even such a close friend could be fully trusted, but Horatio’s answer reassured him. They spoke briefly about the short interval between funeral and wedding, and that was all. Hamlet did say “Methinks I see my father”, which raised my expectations, but nothing came of it. A servant came on to tell Hamlet that the guests had arrived, and Horatio left. Once alone, Hamlet picked up a jacket from the case beside him, and I assume it had been his father’s, since he held it close and smelled it deeply, similar to Michael Sheen’s portrayal at the Young Vic.
As he left the stage, putting the jacket on, the full magnificence of the main set was revealed when the wall was lifted out of the way. I couldn’t take it all in at first, but I’ll give as detailed a description as I can here, since this was the setting for the rest of the play. Imagine that, instead of the Barbican containing a theatre in which there was a massive set showing part of a Danish royal palace, we had been temporarily transported to a Danish royal palace onto which had been grafted the Barbican auditorium: that’s what it looked and felt like. It was truly astonishing.
A huge central table was laid for a lavish feast, with a gleaming white table cloth, candles, foliage decorations, glasses, etc. Above all this hung a massive collection of branches with either flowers or leaves, I forget which, and two massive chandeliers. The table was positioned at an angle across the stage, and had room for around twenty guests – I was too stunned to count. The room containing it was also huge. The far left wall had an upper balcony which followed the wall around to meet the wide staircase in the back left corner. The rear wall was also angled forwards, though it still left plenty of room for the right hand double doors to be well back from the front of the stage. A taller set of double doors stood behind the table, and there were double doors in the left wall too, underneath the balcony, with single doors along the balcony for the upper rooms.
All of this was painted in a pale green colour, looking formal rather than dingy. The walls were adorned with swords, shields, animal heads (mostly deer), extra pairs of antlers – there were lots of those on the table as well – and portraits; presumably one of these would be Hamlet senior. I know there was a piano by the right of the rear double doors later on, but I’ve no idea if it was there from the start or brought on after the banquet was cleared. I’ve probably missed some other details as well, but this should give a general impression.
When the rear double doors opened later on, I was amazed to find that there was another vast space behind the main set, a corridor by which the guests left after the meal and which was used for various purposes during the performance. I knew that this was a big stage, but I’d never seen just how big till now. The costumes were in keeping with a modern dress royal family, so the combined effect was of a long-standing dynasty with power and influence.
Claudius and Gertrude made their entrance down the grand staircase, resplendent in their formal evening wear. They were so far away that it took me a moment to register their arrival, but the dinner guests were quicker off the mark and applauded the happy couple as they walked down to join the throng. And it was a throng: not only a large number of guests, which made it harder to spot Hamlet amongst them all, but a host of servants to attend to their needs. During the meal, two servants stood at the doors to left and right, and others moved around to refill glasses, etc.
After seating Gertrude at the head of the table, Claudius stood beside her to make his opening speech. Hamlet sat down in the centre on the far side, having joined in the toast with the others. The ambassadors came on to the balcony to be given their mission, and again one of them was a woman, Voltemand this time. Polonius was remarkably brief when admitting that he had given Laertes leave to go, and Laertes himself made less of an impression than usual, stuck behind the table as he was. There had been no sense of Claudius ignoring Hamlet at this point, and when he did turn to speak to him, I wondered if Claudius saw Hamlet’s extended mourning as some sort of threat to himself, reminding everyone of the king they had just lost, or if he simply considered his grief to be unnaturally prolonged, as his words suggest. (None of this was provoked by the performance, but when we see these plays so often, such ideas tend to come along fairly frequently.) Hamlet’s responses were entirely appropriate for the grieving son we saw at the start, and with Gertrude’s plea to Hamlet coming immediately after Claudius’ speech, there was no indication that Hamlet was rebuffing Claudius by acquiescing to his mother.
This led into “oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt”. The action appeared to freeze as Hamlet stepped up onto the table and launched into this well-known soliloquy. He then came to the front of the stage to talk with us directly, and managed to make this speech absolutely personal to him, an expression of the agony he was going through. I realised after a short while that the action behind him hadn’t frozen but had gone into very slow motion, so that when he returned to his spot on the far side of the table, the guests were also standing, ready for the party to break up with Claudius’ “Why ‘tis a loving and a fair reply”. The double doors opened behind them, and we had our first glimpse of the deeper recesses of the palace, although from our angle we couldn’t see very far. The guests followed their hosts out, leaving Hamlet on his own.
Horatio came in with Marcellus and Barnardo. The opening lines of this scene had already been spoken, of course, so after Hamlet’s initial greeting of the other two men, Horatio got straight to the point. He hadn’t seen the ghost this time, he was just acting as a go-between, so Marcellus and Barnardo shared Horatio’s descriptions between them. This gave the two minor roles more to do, which is no bad thing, and although it did reduce Horatio’s involvement, it also removed some of the troubling inconsistencies of his character: he knows the king well, he’s only seen him once; he doesn’t know the customs of the court, he knows all about the political situation with young Fortinbras (more on that story later). I have a note that the line “By heaven I charge you, speak” was inserted here, and raised a laugh, but I’ve forgotten exactly how it was used.
After they all left, Hamlet having spoken the final lines of the scene, Ophelia came back on with a camera. As she sat at the table, the large branches were being removed from it and the chandelier raised back up, and then the servants got on with clearing the rest of the banquet away. Laertes came down the stairs carrying a suitcase, and the short scene between them was fine if unremarkable. From his hand gesture, Laertes was including both of them in the rank of “unvalued persons”, and I got the impression that he was bolting the door to an empty stable as far as his sister’s relationship with Hamlet was concerned. We could see some of the other guests in the background through the open doors at the back, adding to sense of a busy, well-peopled court.
I think they sat together at the piano and played a duet at one point, before Polonius came on and read out the precepts from a book. I liked this touch; it suggests they’re not precepts which he follows himself, but a bit of fatherly spin – do as I say, not as I do. Laertes left through the rear doors, and they swung shut behind him. Ophelia was lying down to photograph a cup on the floor when Polonius began to question her about Hamlet. Again, Polonius had fewer lines than usual, and as I recall, Ophelia went upstairs to her room after his instructions; her bedroom was the door just to the left at the top of the stairs. Everything had been cleared from the table by now, and the table itself had been removed by the end of this scene.
To create the platform, the lights were dimmed and Marcellus and Barnardo came on to the far left of the balcony. The double doors on the left opened up and a small caravan of trolleys carrying crates were brought through what had been the dining room, forming an orderly queue as they reached the right hand side of the stage. Several soldiers accompanied them, and Marcellus shouted out to their supervisor to ask what was going on? The supervisor replied with Horatio’s explanation about the threat from young Fortinbras, and thus we were given the necessary information in a very sensible way.
The trolleys were mostly out of the way when Hamlet and Horatio joined the two watchmen, and the initial dialogue all took place in that small corner. The ghost appeared through the rear double doors, wearing a very scruffy formal military uniform, similar to some of the costumes worn during the banquet scene earlier. For the later encounter between Hamlet and the ghost, the carpet was rolled back to create an opening for the ghost to walk down at the end as he said “remember me”, holding up his hand as he left. The carpet was rolled back afterwards, and the chandelier was lowered again and lit to give more light.
To be honest, I wasn’t taken with the ghost scene. This production was all about Hamlet, and as a result the supporting characters, although played by excellent actors, were all decidedly muted. Here we needed to see a much more substantial portrayal of the previous king; whether the ghost is just in Hamlet’s mind or a ‘real’ presence, this is our chance to see the man whose death has put Hamlet into an agony of grief. Cut back on the strength of the other characters if you must, but Hamlet’s own performance can only be helped by showing us real depth of feeling between the father and son in this scene. This production just didn’t go far enough in that department, and I found my attention flagging a bit.
It picked up once the ghost was gone – “Canst work i’th’ earth so fast?” got a laugh – and the others swore their oath on Hamlet’s hand rather than a sword. Once he was left alone, Hamlet stayed on stage and went over to the area under the stairs, where he spent some time pulling out a large trunk and bringing it to the front left of the stage. When he opened it, we could see it was a dressing-up trunk, full of fancy items for children to wear. As Ophelia came down the stairs in her pyjamas and dressing gown, Hamlet tried on a Native American headdress, quite magnificent with lots of feathers. He also tried on a jacket, and kissed Ophelia before heading off stage.
Some work tables and a large board on an easel were brought on fairly briskly through the rear double doors. There was also a smaller table near the front of the stage with a chair. The main tables were in a line from the doors to the front, and had lots of office-related paraphernalia on them, including a red telephone, typewriters and lots of paperwork. This appeared to be Polonius’ work space, and he began with “how now, Ophelia, what’s the matter?”; forget Reynaldo, Polonius either wasn’t interested in his son’s activities in France, or we weren’t included in that briefing.
Ophelia had just seen Hamlet behaving strangely, and for once we were privy to that encounter, so although her descriptions were a bit odd, her emotional reaction was more understandable. Things got even worse for her when her father signalled to his assistants – they were not alone in this office space – and some men went upstairs to her room and began searching it for anything relating to Hamlet. That shocking invasion of her privacy told us everything we needed to know about this father/daughter relationship. She ran up the stairs to try and stop them, but we could see that they had found a letter, and then they closed the door on her. Not sure where she went after that.
Claudius, Gertrude and more of their staff came on, and Polonius re-entered carrying a letter. Again he was brisker than usual, leading to “more matter with less art” being trimmed. Gertrude read the letter herself, then Claudius held out his hand for it and she passed it over; I had the impression that they were working well together as a team.
Claudius and Gertrude agreed to Polonius’ scheme to eavesdrop on Hamlet and Ophelia, and left the old man alone. Hamlet marched on to the stage wearing a simplistic red military uniform, like an outsize child’s costume, and beating a drum. He put the drum down on the table, stepping up onto the table himself during his little chat with Polonius; he certainly seemed to be more than a little mad. In fact he seemed to have regressed to boyhood, and this allowed him to be funny as well as expressing his unhappiness. He mimed hanging himself on the second “except my life”, and after Polonius’ departure, this led Hamlet very appropriately into “to be or not to be”, which he delivered sitting cross-legged on the end of the table.
The lights went down after this, Hamlet left the stage and Polonius brought on the ambassadors. Claudius and Gertrude came down the stairs and dealt with the political matters first before Polonius came back down again carrying a book and with Ophelia in tow. She was told to play the piano to “colour your loneliness” and Polonius and Claudius went through the doors on the right to listen in. Soon Hamlet came on, dragging one piece of a very large toy fort. I forget how their conversation started, but he was pretty rough with her, more so when she made some movement which alerted him to the possibility that they were being watched.
She was pretty wretched when he left, but at least she was allowed to deliver her lines before Claudius and Polonius came out from their hideaway in the corner. Polonius was writing in his notebook as he entered, and ignored her as thoroughly as only Polonius could. When they left, Hamlet brought on some tall toy soldiers and moved the fort to the centre of the stage, while the office furniture was removed by the servants. He also barricaded the doors on the left by placing two long planks across them. Fortunately, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived on the left balcony, so didn’t have to use the doors. They were met by Claudius and Gertrude, and again they went with Claudius getting their names wrong and Gertrude doing it correctly.
They didn’t have far to go to meet with Hamlet, as he was still busy sorting out his fort downstairs. He came out of the building to put a record on, which turned out to be martial music, then he went back inside, and when he stood up again he had a rifle on his shoulder and did a little series of movements as if he were on guard duty, in time to the music. He welcomed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern warmly enough, but was wary as well, and soon spotted that they had been sent for by the king and queen. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were pretty rubbish at the spying game, and not particularly memorable in other ways: they failed to get a laugh from Hamlet on “faith, her privates we” and when it came to “man delights not me”, neither man was smiling, making Hamlet’s line “though by your smiling you seem to say so” completely inaccurate.
They also failed to mention the travelling group of actors, but to be fair to them, Polonius came on at the strategic moment and got the news in first. He read out the information about the company from his little book, and Hamlet crept up behind him while his attention was on that. The questions Hamlet normally asks of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were directed at Polonius instead, and to make room for the actors they moved the fort and toy soldiers out of the way.
They were quickly into the speech by the player king, and Hamlet loved the phrase “coagulate gore”. Polonius was again uncharacteristically silent during the speech, so naturally Hamlet didn’t have to make any comment about Polonius’ low-brow tastes or encourage the actor to continue. Steve spotted that during this part, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were watching Hamlet closely. We didn’t get the speech in full however, as part-way through the lights shifted and the actors went into the extreme slo-mo that we first saw in the banquet scene so that Hamlet could deliver his “o, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy. I found this technique a little distracting this time, as I was more aware of the rest of the cast moving very, very slowly behind Hamlet, so that this speech didn’t come across quite as strongly as the earlier one had. But it was good nonetheless, and it seems like a more accessible way to do these speeches for a modern TV-watching and cinema-going audience. I was also tremendously impressed by the other actors, managing to slow their movements down so much – not an easy thing to do.
Hamlet completed his soliloquy just in time, and applauded the player king along with the rest of the group on stage. His retort to Polonius was changed to “God’s sake, man, much better”, and once Hamlet was alone he took out his own notebook and began planning the theatrical trap for Claudius, jotting down a few items as he went.
A small stage was brought on by the servants and set up in front of the rear double doors, with benches or chairs for the audience to sit on, so that the on-stage audience would be facing that stage. They also decorated the area with more of the flowering branches that had been so noticeable at the banquet earlier. The actors were rehearsing while this was being done, and I noticed that the additional lines inserted by Hamlet for the Player King included “smiling, damned villain” – a nice touch. Hamlet interrupted him to give him some advice, and when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived, dressed more formally in suits, they were sent back stage to help the actors get ready.
Horatio came on carrying a box which held a plate with a commemorative picture of Claudius, the new king. This was one of the more bizarre changes to the dialogue, as it was Horatio who complained that “[thine] uncle is King of Denmark, and those who would make mows at him while [your] father lived give twenty, forty, an hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little.” He got quite worked up about it too, so although he did at least get some extra lines, the fact that he had been even more bland than usual up to this point made his tantrum a bit puzzling. I think Hamlet said a few lines to him about the play, but they may have been cut entirely. Either way, Hamlet himself was holding the box with the plate as he went over to the right hand doors for his exit, and nearly forgot to leave it on the small table by the piano – he had to turn back a little to drop it off there.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern came on with Claudius and Gertrude, and it was Gertrude who declared “these words are not mine”. Hamlet interrupted Polonius when he was talking about his own acting career, and for once there was no mime to start the play: they went straight into the action. After conferring with his queen on the little stage, the player king came forward onto the front of the main stage to lie down for his nap. Hamlet put on a jacket and then carried out the murder, making it as close as possible to the details of his father’s murder which he’d learned from the ghost, and dropping his own commentary on the play. It took me a while to spot it, but his jacket had “KING” on the back in white letters. He also repeated the “smiling, damned villain” line.
I didn’t see much reaction from Claudius during the performance, but now he rose, grim-faced, and left, calling for a light. While the actors cleared the chairs away, Hamlet did a bit of dancing – there was jazz music in the background, presumably another record – and I think he spoke briefly with Horatio, who had been watching on the left balcony. By the time Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had finished talking with Hamlet, Horatio had gone, and the actors were also told to leave.
The stage was still present when Claudius came on with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He made it clear somehow that they had initially come from England, possibly changing a line to “and he to England shall return with you”? Polonius headed off to witness the encounter between Hamlet and Gertrude, leaving Claudius alone on the stage. He did his best to get in a repentant frame of mind, but it was never going to be easy given, as he himself pointed out, that he wasn’t planning on giving up his ‘booty’ anytime soon. However, he conveniently knelt down in the middle of the stage just as Hamlet came on via the front left balcony door.
What an opportunity! Hamlet took a knife from the large display of weaponry on the wall beside him, and came down to murder Claudius. Only he had second thoughts, as he tends to do, and withdrew just before Claudius rose and told us how fruitless his efforts had been. He also left the stage, and then Polonius and Gertrude came down the stairs, discussing how to handle the wayward prince. Polonius hid behind the curtain of the little stage, and when Hamlet stabbed him, it was clear that he really regretted killing the wrong man. His comparison of Gertrude’s two husbands used the portrait to the left of the right-hand doors for his father, and the conveniently positioned commemorative plate for Claudius.
I had been suffering from a cold for a few days before this performance, and I had stocked up on cough sweets, tissues etc. before we got to the theatre, so I was hopeful of a clear run all the way through the performance. However around this time I realised I had left too long a gap between sweets, and once the tickle in my throat got going, I knew from experience there was no stopping it. So just as the ghost came through the curtains of the stage to confront Hamlet with his laziness, I began making my way out of the auditorium, trying to keep my coughing to the minimum as I went.
Once out, I was helped by the ushers, and one of them led me to the viewing room, round the other side of the auditorium and up two flights of stairs! I wasn’t finding it so easy to breath anyway, but I managed the exertions – just – and then I could sit in total privacy and watch the rest of the first half on the screen, while inflicting my coughs on no one else – as good a result as possible in the circumstances. As I sat down to watch, Gertrude was asking Hamlet “what shall I do?”, and I was slightly surprised that there was a lot of laughter from the audience – this isn’t usually the funny bit, but there you go. Hamlet wrapped Polonius up in one of the curtains, and dragged the body off stage.
When Claudius came on, I saw no sign of Gertrude drawing back from him, though of course I was getting less detail on the screen than I would have seen from my seat. But Steve confirmed later that there was nothing to be seen, so again an opportunity to strengthen the secondary characters was missed. Horatio came on and was sent to find Hamlet; he did some dog movements, and then the lights began flickering. Others were running around looking for Hamlet and again they were moving like dogs, suggestive of hunting. Hamlet was finally brought on with an armed guard, and again there was more laughter than I could account for, although this scene does have a lot of potential humour in it. Hamlet was sent off to England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern went with him, and Claudius was left alone on stage to tell us what he wanted the English court to do to his nephew. At the end, I forget whether he left the stage or just stood there, but as the lights went down, black ‘snow’ started streaming onto the stage from all angles (except the front), blown on by strong winds. And that was where they (finally!) took the interval.
After making my way back to my seat, Steve and I conferred on what I’d missed – not much apparently. I acquired some of the black confetti from our seats (for the archives) but as the metal curtain had descended for the interval, I had no idea what was happening behind it. When the curtain opened again, the stage had been transformed. Huge drifts of black ‘snow’ filled the doorways to left, right and centre, with a veritable glacier of the stuff flowing out through the rear double doors. This was now the soldiers’ camp, and there were several of them around, some visible through the doorway at the back. Hamlet came on from the left side with his hands tied behind his back and escorted by Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and two armed guards – taking no chances. He spoke to one of the other soldiers, asking what was going on, and was duly informed about Fortinbras’ activities – we could see Fortinbras himself halfway up the mound of black stuff towards the back. One of the soldiers (who were Marcellus and Barnardo) asked “will’t please you go, my lord”; he was deferential in manner, and clearly unhappy to be treating Hamlet as a prisoner. There was another section of slo-mo as Hamlet gave us his thoughts on action vs inaction, and then they were all off to England.
For the next scene we were back in the castle, and this was where the massive heaps of black detritus began to get in the way. They may have been symbolically suggestive of the collapse of Claudius’ regime, but they were a nuisance for just about everybody, as the actors had to pick their way carefully over the uneven ground – a nightmare for those in high heels. When Gertrude came down the stairs she was dressed in her slip and barefoot, so at least walking on the stage wasn’t going to be quite so hazardous for her, at least at first. When she agreed to see Ophelia, servants brought her a dress and shoes, so that she would be presentable, and they dressed her on the stage.
One of the servants went off to fetch Claudius after Ophelia came on singing. Her insanity led to her saying all sorts of lines which are normally spoken by others, including “if you find him not this month…”, the first line of Hamlet’s letter – “to the celestial and my soul’s idol…”, the poem in that letter – “doubt that the stars are fire…” and more from earlier in the play. This had the advantage of making the loss of her relationship with Hamlet and her father’s death more clearly the cause of her madness. Steve informed me later that he spotted a bald patch on her wig, suggestive of hair-tearing; if we were seeing this again I would look out for that.
After she left, Laertes, assisted by a number of young men, all armed, broke into the palace and threatened Claudius, who had fallen to the ground at the front of the stage. Even from the prone position, Claudius managed to deflect enough of Laertes’ anger to begin negotiations, and this time the other men stayed at the back of the room until Laertes dismissed them on Claudius’ “it shall as level to your judgement pierce as day does to your eye”.
Having calmed Laertes down, they were immediately confronted by the second visit from Ophelia. This time she came on front left, dragging a trunk. She swept the black stuff away from around the trunk with her hand, and when she saw Laertes, she went over to the piano and began playing the tune they’d played together earlier. Her lines were more consistent with the text, as far as I can remember, but when she dished out the rue she said it was for “repentance” – an appropriate gift for Claudius. The flowers she gave out were made of metal, and she sang the song “he is dead and gone, lady” very slowly and softly, like a hymn.
While Claudius worked on Laertes, Ophelia went back over to the piano, and was still sitting there when the two men left. Gertrude was also present at this point, standing by herself on the left of the stage having been largely ignored by everyone else. Ophelia got up from the piano – the music continued playing, and walked off at the back very slowly and sedately, which took too long from my point of view and caused the energy to drop a bit. Gertrude put the flowers she was carrying on the ground and opened the trunk. She pulled out a mass of papers – wasn’t quite sure if they were letters or photographs, possibly both – plus the camera, and suddenly realised what Ophelia was going to do: leaving the camera behind meant she wasn’t coming back. She ran off after her, or rather she stumbled as quickly as she could in those heels across the ruined waste of the former royal palace to try and prevent Ophelia’s suicide.
Horatio came on, received the letter from the messenger and obligingly read it out loud for all to hear. He went off with the messenger, promising to bring him to the king, but he needn’t have gone anywhere because Claudius and Laertes came on as soon as they’d left. This is one of the problems with having such a specific set, beautiful though it was – it’s harder to get that the scenes aren’t all in the same place, and although they managed this well in the first half by means of the lighting changes and the use of furniture, etc., this post-apocalyptic desolation was insistently unchanging, and didn’t lend itself to the sort of flexibility required by these quick changes of location.
Another issue with this production was the relative weakness of the supporting cast. Not in terms of the actors’ abilities, I hasten to add – in that respect the supporting cast was very strong – but in terms of the amount of detail they were allowed to create in their characterisations. To make Hamlet and his predicament more pronounced, the other actors were having to tone down their performances, making them seem two-dimensional, and during this part of the play, when Hamlet was off stage for a lengthy period, that weakness became more pronounced. We should be engaged with Laertes’ desire for revenge and Claudius’ need to protect his own political position and indeed his life. However, I found I wasn’t really that bothered tonight, so although the plot details came across clearly enough – no complaints about their diction – the energy of the performance was definitely dropping several notches.
While Claudius and Laertes went through their usual conversation, a servant removed Ophelia’s trunk. Horatio (and the messenger?) brought on the letters, and Claudius read both the one for him and the one for Gertrude – naughty boy. Gertrude herself came on at the back during the later stages of the plotting, but she was too emotionally upset to take in what they were saying. When Claudius did see her, she came forward and spoke directly to Laertes, fumbling for her words because she was so affected by what she had seen. She was nearly in tears, and I got the distinct impression that she had been there, down by the waterside, trying to save the poor girl. When Laertes left, Claudius followed him up the stairs telling Gertrude to follow, but she left by another way. Claudius paused on his way up and turned round to see if she was coming, and saw that she wasn’t – the first sign of a split between them.
Hamlet and Horatio were on next, and I noticed that Hamlet had a bandage round his left hand, presumably covering a wound from the battle with the pirates. The gravedigger, here doubled with the ghost, came on at the back accompanied by a woman with a clipboard – health and safety, I assume. The gravedigger took an orange-coloured flask out of his wheelbarrow to illustrate his explanation of drowning oneself, using the cap separately from the flask. He asked the question about “what is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter”, and she gave the usual wrong answer. I was surprised, after so much had been cut from the play, that this section was included, but I welcomed it as a bit of light relief.
He didn’t have to dig too hard once he did start work, as an opening had appeared in the middle of the stage. He rummaged around in the hole for a bit, and to keep himself company he put on his radio, singing along to the music and using a bone as a microphone. (I forget what the song was.) He threw a skull well away from the hole to the edge of the stage, and when Hamlet approached him to discuss life, the universe and everything, the gravedigger produced another skull – Yorick’s – from the hole. They got some of the humour out of this conversation, as well as cutting some of the lines, and the energy began to lift again.
When the sound of drumbeats heralded the funeral procession, the gravedigger put Yorick’s skull in his barrow, and moved out of the way. The priest was very sanctimonious, and clearly disapproved of this “hugger-mugger” disposal of Ophelia’s corpse (my use of the word, not an insertion in the script). Laertes leapt into the grave to cuddle his dead sister’s body – she was wrapped in a shroud this time – and leapt back out of the grave to attack Hamlet when he came forward. They were pulled apart, and after Hamlet said “I loved you ever”, he paused, and I wondered if he had suddenly realised the cause of Laertes’ anger. Hamlet left, Claudius sent Horatio after him, and then he and Laertes continued to plan for Hamlet’s death while the gravedigger filled in the hole.
After they left, Hamlet and Horatio came back on, and we learned most of the details of the trip to England and the switching of the royal instructions so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be killed. Hamlet held up a gun at one point, and was completely unconcerned about his former friends’ fate. Voltemand came on to deliver the king’s message about the wager and Hamlet agreed to fight Laertes, despite Horatio’s concerns.
While Hamlet was putting on his white fencing jacket, the floor was swept to clear it for the match. Laertes was already in his fencing garb, which was all in black. They stood facing each other, and Claudius stood between them; when he said “take this hand from me”, he placed Laertes’ hand in Hamlet’s to encourage a truce between them. Hamlet’s apology was relatively sincere, but Laertes stayed aloof.
The spectators sat on chairs on the left hand side of the stage, although Horatio watched events from the right hand side. The fight looked convincing enough, and Hamlet didn’t take long to score the first hit. Claudius did the usual toast and dropped the poison into the cup, which Hamlet waved away, so the servant holding it stayed to the left side of the spectators. After the second hit – Laertes was taking the match more seriously now – Gertrude came over to mop Hamlet’s brow, and while Hamlet was distracted, Laertes stabbed him with his poisoned sword. Then all hell broke loose.
Hamlet grabbed for Laertes’ sword and Laertes punched him. But then Hamlet got the poisoned sword off him, Laertes grabbed another rapier and they fought for real. There was a brief bit of slo-mo as Hamlet skewered Laertes, and it was after this that Gertrude drank the cup of poisoned wine. She collapsed quickly, and it was up to Horatio to announce that the drink was poisoned, a rather bizarre thing for him to say – how did he know? After Laertes’ confession, Hamlet stabbed Claudius and poured the rest of the wine down his throat.
All of this happened very quickly, and there was a good deal of dialogue cut to help it along. Laertes exchanged forgiveness with Hamlet, and on “I follow thee”, Hamlet himself fell to the ground. He didn’t even have the strength to grapple with Horatio for the cup, but instead had to persuade him to stay alive so that his story could be told. His last words were edited to “I die, Horatio. The rest is silence”.
Fortinbras came on at the back, and despite his weak delivery we got the gist of his comments: something very bad had happened here. They gave Horatio the final line – “go, bid the soldiers shoot” – and then the lights went down for the end of the performance. The audience went into rapturous applause, most seemed to be standing, and they had to take several sets of bows before Benedict himself stepped forward and got us to be quiet (it took a while). He also got us to sit down – he’s got very good manners – and then put the case for helping the many refugees who are currently homeless across our planet. The collection afterwards would be for Save The Children, and having applauded loudly again, we gave generously on our way out, very happy with our evening.
Discussing the production afterwards, Steve rated it slightly lower than I did: 7/10 for the first half, 8 for the second and 8 overall. We both felt the total standard wasn’t as high as the David Tennant RSC production from 2008, but the central role was at least as good, with Benedict Cumberbatch giving a brilliant performance. The focus had been on Hamlet’s grief, and they brought these aspects out very well, presenting a coherent set of behaviours given Hamlet’s challenging situation.
The changes to the text were interesting, with most of the alterations working very well and a few not, but on the whole it was a thumbs-up. As well as noting the deliberately lower-key supporting performances, we felt that Laertes was rather weak, but on the whole we blame the director and not the actors. The audience were fine, and although I wasn’t the only one coughing, there weren’t many distractions from behind us, and certainly no flash photography. So hopefully this production has not only hooked some more youngsters on theatre, but has given them a good education on how to behave at most performances.
Writing these notes has been trickier than usual – the massive number of changes slowed me right down – and I feel I’ve only captured a very basic sense of what the production was like as a theatrical experience. Still, it’s better than nothing, at least for me and Steve, and it’s certainly given us a record of a very different version of Hamlet from the usual.
*The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Second edition, edited by John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me