Hamlet – February 2016

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Produced by STF and Tobacco Factory Theatres

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Wednesday 24th February 2016

Interesting to see another production of Hamlet here after Jonathan Miller’s excellent version with Jamie Ballard back in 2008. This didn’t reach the same heights, but as it was an early performance we expect the overall standard to improve. And there was a lot to like here, with a brisk edition of the text and some lively sword-fighting. We hope to see it again once they’ve settled into it more, but in any case this was a good start. [Didn’t manage to make the second viewing.]

The stage floor was grey this time, looking like concrete but with some tiling patterns showing through. The pillars were colour-matched with the floor, and there were four matching benches, one on each side of the stage. The main entrance had been framed with a manorial-style set of doors, with leaded windows over them through which lights were shining before the start. The far left exit had leaded windows too. The pillars each held a candle sconce, complete with candles, on their inner side, and that was pretty much it for the starting set. Furniture was removed and brought on as needed, and I’ll mention anything relevant in that department as I go. The costumes were period Elizabethan, which led to some unfortunate baggy breeches, but on the whole the design of the production worked well. We sat in the front row, middle of the right side, and we were sad to see a number of empty seats.

The play began in darkness, with the lights coming up a little bit for the meeting between Francisco and Barnardo. They were soon joined by Horatio and Marcellus, and the ghost put in an early appearance too, wearing armour to fit the description later in the play and looking very pale. Having seen him disappear off again, they skipped the political discussion about Fortinbras and so the ghost’s second appearance happened pretty soon after its first. The subsequent dialogue was also curtailed, and they quickly left to find Hamlet and give him their news.

As they took off their cloaks and left, the court came on, bringing with them a throne (or two) and a strip of carpet. When the new king and his queen arrived, the attendant courtiers sat on the benches, so we could see over their heads – very thoughtful. Claudius’ edited opening speech was a bit rushed – they were scheduled to do the play in two hours and forty minutes, with an additional twenty-minute interval, therefore speed was of the essence – so although I heard what was left of the lines clearly enough, the sense of them wasn’t quite there yet, with the delivery lacking variation and emphasis. The ambassadors were mentioned, but did not appear. I spotted Hamlet lurking in the main doorway, and after Laertes was given leave to depart for France, Claudius turned his attention to his nephew/stepson/heir.

When Gertrude went over to Hamlet, the rest of the court rose, but fortunately Hamlet came into the middle area for his dialogue, and the rest of the bystanders discretely moved out of the way. Again the dialogue was trimmed down and delivered quickly, so that there was nothing to be made from Hamlet’s choice to comply with his mother’s request.

With the court off stage, Hamlet gave us his thoughts on his mother’s second marriage. He was definitely upset about it all, and although I’ve seen it done with more passion, this was still a good start in such a brisk production. His meeting with Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo went well, and with Alan Coveney playing Horatio, a much older actor than usual these days, I wondered if he was actually one of Hamlet’s tutors with whom he was friendly, or just a mature student. Either way, their friendship was evident, and they soon agreed to meet up that night on the platform to see if the ghost would walk again.

The carpet had already been removed before Hamlet left the stage, and the throne was removed immediately afterwards so that Ophelia and Laertes could spend some time together before his departure. With the dialogue rattling past, I wasn’t sure how far things had gone between Hamlet and Ophelia, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had gone all the way. Polonius gave Laertes a purse when he came on, and then delivered the usual litany of good advice before seeing his son off shipwards. He then asked Ophelia about her private conversation with her brother, and on finding out that they had discussed Hamlet, warned her to stay well away from the prince. There was some trimming here, but not a lot.

Next up was the scene on the platform, where Hamlet waited with the others. I think the drinking lines were cut, so the ghost put in another early appearance, and beckoned Hamlet off stage with him once he realised it was his son who had spoken. The others tried to hold him back, but the struggle was quickly over, and Hamlet left the stage to follow his father’s ghost, with the other two quitting the stage soon after.

I found the scene between Hamlet and the ghost a bit dull. I know the story, and with little emotion coming across, I didn’t get much sense of their prior relationship, although the dialogue was clear enough. I also noticed that one of Hamlet’s stockings had fallen down – accident or design? When Horatio and Marcellus joined him, his wayward behaviour hinted at his future pretence of madness, and despite the ghost encouraging Hamlet’s associates to “swear”, they didn’t move around to follow the sound this time, with lines such as “we’ll shift our ground” being dropped.

We got the full Reynaldo this time, and his inclusion allowed us to see Polonius’ fading memory at first hand. It was nicely done, and since we’d seen Hamlet with “his stockings…down-gyved to his ankle” earlier, I found Ophelia’s description of her encounter with the prince more affecting than usual, and more clearly linked in time to the events on the battlements. Polonius was also affected by her tale, although not so much out of sympathy for her situation as for the potential political fallout from a lunatic heir to the kingdom.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were ushered in as Polonius and Ophelia left, and didn’t have to wait long for the arrival of the king and queen. They were a pair of nice young men, not the brightest, but polite and keen to do their duty. They went with the traditional choice of Claudius getting their names wrong, and I was also aware this time, from talks that we’ve attended, that it’s not just the names that Claudius mixes up. He describes Guildenstern as “gentle”, i.e. of the rank of gentleman, whereas it’s Rosencrantz who deserves that name – Guildenstern is a real pleb.

Polonius delivered the news of the invisible ambassadors’ return, handing Claudius a letter which the king obligingly read out loud, informing us all of the satisfactory conclusion of the Fortinbras affair. Then Polonius went into his long-winded prologue, which Gertrude did her best to shorten, before bringing Ophelia on to witness her letter being read out – not a pleasant experience for anyone. They made the usual plans to oversee a meeting between the two young people, and then Gertrude spotted Hamlet approaching – damn good eyesight that woman – and they scarpered, leaving Polonius to confront the prince on his own.

The reason I hadn’t seen Hamlet coming was that he had been hiding up by the control box (near left corner), and came down that set of stairs with his book just as the others had left. His stocking was still round his ankle, and as he spoke with Polonius, he twirled him around as he described the “slanders” which the writer made against old men, giving him a little push on “like a crab, go backward”, so that Polonius did, indeed, go backward.

When Polonius left, Hamlet went straight into “to be or not to be”, holding up the book to indicate that this was the subject matter he’d been reading about. He did a fair job of the speech, getting the meaning across pretty well, and that was followed immediately by Ophelia’s entrance, carrying the gifts she wanted to return to him (or rather, the gifts she’d been told to return to Hamlet). Hamlet was no more unpleasant than usual, but after he asked “where’s your father” – I saw nothing from Ophelia to trigger the question – he left the stage through the main entrance, returning a few seconds later to grab Ophelia and deliver his angry rant against marriage.

When he did finally leave, Ophelia was naturally upset, and her father was disgracefully unconcerned about her feelings. He and Claudius agreed to send Hamlet to England, and that was that. Of course, with this editing, we hadn’t yet heard definitively that Claudius was guilty, and this way of doing things can be interesting in the way it creates ambiguity, especially for those new to the play. Here it was more a reflection of restricted time, but the story flowed nicely through these scenes, so I have no complaints.

Next up were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet had returned to the stage first, and on their arrival he tidied himself up a bit, pulling up his stocking and putting a smile on his face. He was genuinely glad to see them, and nearly told them what was going on. After “were it not that…”, he paused before adding “I have bad dreams”, choosing to be circumspect instead. He soon figured out that they were on a mission from the king and queen, and slipped into his half-crazy act to deflect their questions. He was again delighted to hear about the players’ arrival, and the dialogue was, as usual, trimmed to limit the debate on boys’ companies. Hamlet did mention his father’s picture though, and then Polonius came on to introduce the players.

Hamlet’s initial attempts at the Pyrrhus speech needed a prompt, but then he got into the flow of it and did reasonably well. He sat down to let the player king get on with the rest of it, and we were treated not only to a good delivery of the speech itself (Christopher Bianchi, doubling with the ghost), but Polonius’ interruptions as well. When they were done, the players left without Hamlet asking for extra lines, and I got the impression that the idea of using the play to test whether Claudius was guilty or not only came to him when he said “I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play…”.

Once off, the stage was reset for the play, with one bench on either side and two chairs at either end. Hamlet came on with the actors, who were in costume, and gave them the usual advice, slightly trimmed, all of which was very clear. He also had the opportunity to have a quick word with Horatio before the court came on. The king and queen sat in the chairs near the main entrance, and Ophelia sat on one of the chairs at the far end. She was unhappy with Hamlet’s teasing, though how he was going to sit with his head in her lap on that chair, I’ve no idea.

They skipped the dumb show altogether, and began the performance with the prologue followed by the opening discussion between the husband and wife. I noticed some discomfort from Gertrude during all this, and possibly a twitch or two from Claudius, but on the whole he seemed quite calm. Once the husband was sleeping on the ground, the murderer brought on the bottle of poison and showed it around the audience while Hamlet indulged in some more ‘banter’ with Ophelia. Claudius became noticeably more uncomfortable as the killer described the effect of the poison, and soon leapt to his feet, stepping away from the stage and then calling for a light as he ran off.

Horatio went off to get a recorder, and when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interrogated Hamlet, he was much more flippant in his replies to them. There was genuine emotion in Rosencrantz’s “my lord, you once did love me” – I certainly found it moving. But Hamlet didn’t, nor was he impressed by Polonius’ attempts to bustle him off to his mother’s closet for a stiff talking-to. Hamlet gazed up at the ceiling – just where was this scene taking place? – as he described the multi-faceted clouds, but although Polonius looked up at the first one, he kept his gaze steadily on Hamlet for the other two, the weasel and the whale, suggesting that he was no longer interested in pandering to the prince’s madness, real or feigned. Hamlet held the recorder against Polonius’ cheek, and the older man took it off with him, leaving Hamlet to tell us the time and his plans for speaking to his mother. He left, and they took the interval.

During the break, we discussed the performance so far, and agreed that it was a good production: we were assuming that all the weaknesses in delivery could be explained by the relatively early performance. I was minded to liken the pace to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s execution – “not shriving time allowed” – which triggered the thought that perhaps Hamlet treated them so harshly because his own father had been given no chance to cleanse himself of his sins. As we discussed and ruminated, the chairs and benches were removed, a rather uncomfortable-looking chaise was brought on and placed roughly in the middle of the stage, while a small table with a crucifix was placed front left. The candles in their sconces were lit, and we settled down for the second half.

They began with the conference between Claudius and the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern duo. Rosencrantz’s flattery of Claudius was a bit too gushy, and Guildenstern pulled him away before he went too far. The crucifix area was lit at this point, while the chaise was in darkness. After Polonius’ brief comments, Claudius was left alone to reveal to us at last that he was indeed the villain who had taken his own brother’s life. As he knelt in front of the crucifix, Hamlet came on to our left and spotted his opportunity. In this production, however, he had scarcely moved a foot towards Claudius before he paused to think through the ramifications of killing the king. He sheathed his dagger again, and went off to visit his mother, while Claudius, unaware of his narrow escape, rose from his fruitless prayers and also left.

A quick change of lighting – crucifix dark, chaise lit – and we were in Gertrude’s closet. A curtain was swiftly hung over the entrance to our left to provide Polonius’ hiding place, and even that windbag could only manage a few lines before Hamlet was upon them. Mother and son had a short sparring match, and when Hamlet heard the noise from behind the curtain, he eagerly stabbed Polonius, clearly hoping he’d got Claudius instead. He pulled the curtain down so that when Polonius fell, he landed squarely on top of it – makes it easier to remove the corpse.

For the comparison of her two husbands, Hamlet used his own locket with his father’s picture, and Gertrude’s new locket with Claudius’ image: she was suitably appalled, although Hamlet’s relative youthfulness couldn’t quite excuse his arrogant assumption that older folks don’t have anything going on below the waist.

When the ghost arrived, I fully believed that Gertrude couldn’t see him, and that she was very concerned about Hamlet’s mental state. I don’t always get that from this scene; apart from the acting itself which was good, I suspect the intimacy of the venue helped as well. The ghost kept close to Gertrude, and reached out his hand to her face at one point, but she remained oblivious. After the ghost had left, Hamlet pointed to the table and crucifix on “confess yourself to heaven”, and she went over and knelt down to get started. As Hamlet was removing Polonius’ dead body, he picked him up by the heels and hit them together three times on “foolish prating knave” before dragging Polonius’ corpse off.

When Claudius came on, he picked up the dagger which Hamlet had dropped after stabbing Polonius. Gertrude was very upset as she reported events to him, and Claudius realised the situation was even more problematic than he’d suspected. He sat on the chaise for a brief spell while the lights were lowered and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spoke with Hamlet in the space to our left, and then continued with the next scene as the lights came up again. Someone handed Claudius a letter, which I managed to see had “England” written on it, so this was clearly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s commission to the English court.

Hamlet’s verbal sparring with Claudius went fairly well, although they didn’t get much humour out of “seek him i’th’ other place yourself”. Hamlet’s departure was swiftly followed by Fortinbras’ arrival, and to underline what a positive, go-getting role model Fortinbras was, there was the sound of drumming behind Hamlet’s dialogue with the captain. They kept that short scene to the main entrance area, so that the central area, minus the cross and table, and with a cloth covering the chaise, could become some other part of the palace.

Gertrude came on with Horatio, and soon we saw why she was reluctant to meet with Ophelia. Taking her cue from Hamlet’s dishevelled appearance, Ophelia’s hair was down and she had lipstick smeared over her face. She sang most of her lines, and threw a real strop at Gertrude when the latter interrupted one of her songs. She grabbed Claudius during her second song – “tomorrow is St Valentine’s day” – and pulled him onto the bed with her. She carried on like this for a while before she left, and while it wasn’t the most moving expression of her madness that I’ve seen, it was still pretty good.

Every so often we hear a line in one of these plays which we would swear we’ve never heard before, even though, when we check the text, there it is. Tonight it was Claudius’ line “where are my Switzers?” I suspect it’s because that line is said during Laertes’ violent entry to the palace, with lots of gunfire and/or shouting covering it up, and there may also have been the occasional cut or change to the line. What came across tonight was how nervous Claudius was, not at all sure of his own safety in the face of Laertes’ onslaught, even though it was only Laertes himself who came through the door to challenge him.

Claudius rallied pretty well once he was face to face with the man – I think some of Gertrude’s interjections may have been cut – and was just getting things onto a calmer footing when Ophelia arrived. She ran to Laertes and kissed him, before picking up imaginary flowers and giving two to Laertes (rosemary, pansies), two to Gertrude (fennel and columbine) and rue to Claudius. She pointed to the floor on “there’s a daisy” and bent down to pick it up. It was quite moving to watch her.

After she left, Claudius quickly arranged to bring Laertes up to speed with the events surrounding his father’s death. Horatio came in on his own, reading the letter from Hamlet, and someone delivered the other letters to Claudius as he continued to plot with Laertes. The tension was building now, and Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death kept the pot boiling nicely. With the plan to kill Hamlet all set, the stage was cleared and we moved outside for the funeral scene.

Last time they kept the grave off stage and just brought on a barrow full of earth and bones. This time they carried on a structure with four earth walls, so the sexton could stand in it to do her work, tossing out skulls as necessary. It was a neat way to stage this scene, given that the floor is the floor here, and not covering up a vast space underneath, readily accessible by trapdoor. The structure stayed near the main entrance, ready for a speedy getaway when the scene was over.

The discussion of suicide was cut, as was the sexton’s puzzle, but we did get her singing a couple of verses – don’t remember what – and chucking out the skulls at the end of each verse. Hamlet’s thoughts on death were entertaining, and the quips that passed between him and the sexton were also enjoyable. She made at least one lewd gesture during this, but I forget exactly where, and they dropped the “thirty years” line, which was just as well given this Hamlet’s youthfulness. Hamlet’s reaction to finding out that he was holding Yorick’s skull gave me the sense that he really knew the person he was talking about, and while his earlier lines about the possible origins of the skulls had been detached, his prior knowledge of a specific person whose skull he was now holding brought the reality of death home to him; this time it was personal.

There were torches at the front of the funeral procession, and Ophelia’s body had been covered with a sheet before they brought it in on a stretcher. After Gertrude placed some flowers on the body, Laertes picked up his sister’s corpse in his arms, telling them to “pile your dust upon the quick and dead”. When Hamlet ran on to challenge the extent of Laertes’ brotherly love, they fought briefly, and Hamlet did look as though his passion for Ophelia was real.

When the funeral was over, the grave structure was carried off, and a couple of benches brought back on. Hamlet told Horatio what had happened on board ship, and shortly afterwards Osric arrived to inform Hamlet of his uncle’s wager. He executed a fancy bow at first, and kept up the slightly fussy behaviour while he was on stage. The dialogue was fairly full, but didn’t drag, and soon the court arrived with trumpets, benches, thrones and swords, ready for the fight.

They were precise about the weapons used – rapier and dagger, as Osric had specified. Hamlet made his apology to Laertes, who, as he said, remained aloof. They selected their rapiers, and Laertes made no effort to change his first choice. Nothing happened after the first hit, but after the second Claudius offered the poisoned drink to Hamlet. He refused, and took Osric’s cloak to wrap around his hand instead of using his dagger for the next bout.

It all went very fast after this point. The sword fighting was well done, and after Hamlet achieved the third hit, Gertrude took a swig from the drink herself, despite Claudius trying to stop her. Laertes took another rapier from the box and wounded Hamlet with it, and they began to fight in earnest. Hamlet got the poisoned rapier from Laertes and caught him on the arm just as Gertrude collapsed. Laertes grassed up Claudius, so Hamlet stabbed his uncle with the rapier, and after exchanging forgiveness with Laertes, he took the rest of the poisoned drink himself. His dying speech to Horatio was quick, and I don’t think he mentioned Fortinbras as the likely successor.

As Hamlet lay cradled in Horatio’s arms, Fortinbras and the English ambassador came on. There was a rumbling sound in the background – cannon fire? – and the drumming that we’d heard before. Fortinbras was quick to spot his opportunity, and was already marching off to organise the displaying of the bodies before the final line “go, bid the soldiers shoot”. In some productions, this can have a menacing effect; here it just seemed business-like and determined, but none the worse for that.

There was plenty of applause at the end, and although we’ve heard since that this was not a successful or happy production, we both enjoyed it well enough.

© 2016 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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