Hamlet – March 2016

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Simon Godwin

Company: RSC

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 29th March 2016

This was a fascinating production. The choice of setting – the Central African Kingdom of Denmark – added spice and plenty of colour to the usually dour atmosphere, and the combination of clear dialogue and some strong ensemble performances made for an enjoyable and occasionally gripping evening. I still have reservations about a few of the staging choices, and there were some periods when the energy dropped a bit, but Paapa Essiedu showed his star credentials with his intelligent and mercurial portrayal of the central character. We could see some echoes of his Romeo from last year at the Tobacco Factory, but these were very slight, and didn’t detract from his amazing stage presence and total embodiment of his role. I will be very interested to see this again and indeed any future productions in which this young man participates.

Even before the start, the set had our minds reeling. The floor consisted of wooden tiling, which cunningly concealed the two large trapdoors centre stage. They were also partly obscured by seven plastic chairs, arranged across the stage facing towards the back. (Trust Steve to spot the three-two-three formation, suggesting the rugby team’s forward line were gathering for a pre-match strategy meeting.) There were steps up to the stage at the front, and the usual walkways were in place. At the back of the stage was a geometric-patterned wall which proved to be remarkably versatile later in the evening. Above the stage hung several blue squares and rectangles: I wasn’t sure at first if these were screens or just panels, and I’m still no wiser having seen the performance – I’ll have to pay more attention next time.

I did spot the four-leaf fans hung even higher above the stage, which came down for some of the interior scenes, and the blue downlights on the auditorium pillars – very atmospheric. The musicians were on the middle pizza-slice balconies, while the upper ones held seating, and I’ll mention now that the auditorium was fairly full. We sat on the centre aisle a few rows back, and our view was excellent almost all the way through.

Now for the intriguing aspect of the opening set. On a dais back left stood a lectern. Behind it hung a long banner with a university crest on it – a circle with a torch being supported by a stylised open book. And the name of the University? Wittenberg, of course. The same crest was on the lectern, and on a cloth which covered a table back right, partly obscured from us by the chairs. We were very excited – how was this production going to start? I wondered if they would go straight into “to be or not to be”, with Hamlet, or possibly one of the professors, delivering it as a philosophical discourse. We might even get the speech again later on as Hamlet came to realise the reality of the words.

But it was not to be. About five minutes before the start, smoke began to waft onto the higher levels of the set. When it was time, the lights went down and we could hear a number of the cast trooping onto the stage. There was chanting as well, but I couldn’t make out any words. When the lights rose again, Hamlet was standing right by me in the centre aisle, the chairs on stage were occupied, and a professor was standing at the lectern. He declared, in ringing tones, “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”, and Hamlet came forward to receive his degree. He stopped on the way to embrace a fellow student, and again I will have to pay more attention next time now I know what Horatio looks like.

When this was done, the lights went down again, and as the Wittenberg furnishings were removed, a glass-sided coffin was brought on and across the right to left diagonal. I could see the body inside, and it was followed by at least a couple of drummers – lots of drumming in this production. This was obviously old Hamlet’s funeral, and as the coffin was wheeled off stage, Hamlet was left behind in its wake. He stood staring up at a window high on the right side of the back wall, where two figures stood. I thought it was Claudius and Polonius standing there, but Steve reckoned it was Claudius and Gertrude – makes more sense, and the understudy run the next day confirmed that it was indeed the happy couple.

This all happened more quickly than I can write it down, and with the music still pounding away, I didn’t spot the guard post rising up out of the ground back right, ready for Barnardo to come out of it for the next scene. It seemed to have popped out of nowhere, but again the understudy run helped me out. There was also a vertical metal contraption by the dais on the left, which had two tannoy loudspeakers attached halfway up, but as this was a rather gloomy part of the stage at this point, I only noticed it later in the scene. For now, Barnardo and Francisca carried out their exchange dressed in modern desert fatigues and carrying semi-automatic rifles (as far as Steve could tell).

Horatio and Marcellus arrived in good time, and Barnardo was just getting into his stride with yet another repetition of the ghost story, when a strong spotlight was shone at them from the left walkway area and he broke off. They acted as if they could see the ghost, but despite craning round as far as I could go I saw nothing, so I assume the light itself stood in for the spectre. There were also two spotlights, one on each of the musicians’ balconies where a drummer sat or stood, dressed in a red robe. These drummers also seemed to symbolise the ghost, and this would become more apparent during the later scenes. For now, we had to make do with the characters’ descriptions, and while this is a reasonable way to stage this section, it was a bit confusing for a while.

Having got over the shock of the ghost’s (non) appearance, Horatio obligingly explained to the other two about Fortinbras and his designs on part or all of Denmark. He had climbed up onto the top of the guard post – it had a grid design for its walls – and spoke to them from there. He was still up there when the spotlight paid its second visit, this time over the right walkway, and since it was even more ephemeral than your average ghost, they didn’t bother trying to strike at it when it left.

With the ghost gone, an abbreviated version of the cockcrow hypothesis led directly into Horatio’s “but look, the morn in russet mantle clad” – Steve thought Horatio might have dropped the “high” part of the hill’s description, but wasn’t sure. With all three agreeing to report the ghost’s visits to Hamlet, the music started up again for the scene change, and the guard post lowered down, allowing Horatio to jump off from a lower height and run off stage.

A strip of lightweight carpet was drawn forward from underneath the dais, and two wooden thrones, with patterns carved into their backs, came forward to rest on the dais itself. A couple of cloth strips in a pink and purple pattern hung down over the back wall, and on one of them was hung a portrait. Again, Steve and I were divided on this: I thought it was a picture of Old Hamlet with Gertrude seated beside him, while Steve opted for Claudius being Gertrude’s companion. To be fair to both of us, the likeness wasn’t that great either way, even if we were only a few rows back. Another brightly coloured cloth in yellow and green hung behind the wide entrance back right, and a couple of the fans had been lowered and were circling lazily.

The front steps had been spotlit, and the royal court came down the centre aisle, with Claudius and Gertrude at the front. Claudius went up the steps first, looked around as if surveying his domain, and then brought Gertrude up to join him. Polonius then bustled up and ushered the remaining characters into place: Laertes and Ophelia to the left walkway and the two ambassadors to the right. Of course, I didn’t know who was who at this point, but it saves time to write it as if I did. One of the ambassadors was a woman: Cornelia (it would seem that Voltemand is difficult to feminise). Hamlet remained in the central aisle for now, ignoring Polonius’ attempt to beckon him on stage. Eventually Polonius gave up and moved to the back, standing in line with the thrones and holding his clipboard.

Claudius was dressed in military uniform, another reason why I thought the portrait was of the previous king, as there the king was dressed in a suit. After his opening address, Claudius dealt with the ambassadors, who took their instructions and left. Laertes was next, although Hamlet had moved forward as if expecting his uncle’s attention, and had to hover at the front of the stage until it was his turn. I noticed Ophelia glancing over at him at one point. Laertes gave Claudius a piece of paper, presumably his request for permission to return to France. When he was finished, Claudius screwed the paper up and threw it over his head, where Polonius caught it neatly and tucked the paper in his pocket – that got an early laugh.

Finally, Claudius turned to Hamlet, who was standing front right. The initial lines were well-delivered, but it was when Hamlet came to “I know not seems”, that the quality of his prince became clear. Each word was so precise that I was totally aware of the difference between the inner and outer lives, the external behaviours which “a man might play” and the genuine internal emotions and thoughts which are harder to express. After the king and queen had made their views known, Hamlet had to force himself to cooperate with his mother’s request, and he was quite emphatic about the “you, mother”. Claudius was happy with this reply, but skipped the drinking plans.

Left alone on stage, Hamlet wandered around for a bit and then launched into “o that this too too sullied flesh..”, an unusual interpretation of the line, but it worked well. Again, Paapa Essidou’s delivery was impeccable, and I began to notice that his movements were very precise and coordinated with the lines in such a way as to make their meaning exceptionally clear. I’m not talking about some crude semaphore or sign language effect, but a much more subtle correlation between the words and the underlying emotions and thoughts, which made this portrayal crystal sharp. One example of this was the way he blew out his breath and opened his arms wide after “mourned longer”, giving him quite a long pause before he said “married with mine uncle”, which allowed the emotional content to sink in. And although his movements were almost choreographed, his performance didn’t seem stilted or affected in any way. It will be interesting to see how much these movements change over the course of the run.

Horatio was greeted with a big hug, after which Hamlet went over to Marcellus and may have shaken his hand, while Barnardo got a wave along with his greeting – Hamlet clearly didn’t know the chap, but being in the presence of Horatio and Marcellus gave him some credit with the prince. After “I shall not look upon his like again”, the two guards moved forward into the room and looked around to check if anyone was listening in. Hamlet noticed this, but as it only took them a few moments to check for eavesdroppers, Horatio was soon into his story. The guards’ boots were a bit clunky as they walked across the stage, and even though it was a short pause, I felt they could do with shortening it even more. Horatio’s description of the ghost’s appearance, backed up by the other two, was pretty straightforward, and they were soon all off stage with a promise to meet up later.

More drumming, and the set was changed again. An orange table and two matching chairs were brought on and placed centre stage. The thrones were taken back and a panel descended to create a bit of wall behind the table to the left, with a strip of ceiling above. The wall and ceiling lights were pink, and there were some items on the table which I couldn’t identify at first, but one of them turned out to be the multi-coloured box in which Ophelia kept her gifts from Hamlet: think of a shoe box which had been covered in sticky-backed plastic, à la Blue Peter, and you won’t be far away.

Laertes came on with a rucksack and some other luggage, which included a stick poking out of a box. He gave Ophelia the usual warnings, and she didn’t seem particularly concerned about any of them. Having said that, I was finding it hard to make out Laertes’ dialogue, so perhaps she had the same problem. Laertes nearly got away in time, but then Polonius came on, and a look of resignation passed between his two children at the prospect of another lecture. Polonius was carrying his briefcase and a green paper bag, and gave both the green bag and a kiss to Ophelia when he came in – this was a more tactile Polonius than most. She opened the bag, and it clearly contained some edible goodies, as she was stuffing her face with the contents for most of the rest of the scene.

Having put his briefcase down, Polonius then proceeded to take off his jacket and folded it carefully before giving it to Ophelia to hang up. This was happening at the same time as he delivered his “precepts” to Laertes, and I found it very distracting. Polonius was another whose delivery wasn’t the greatest, and for once I was almost oblivious to the good advice he was giving his son. Laertes finally made his escape, and as Polonius settled down in one of the chairs, Ophelia fetched his slippers for him. In their subsequent discussion, to illustrate the depth of Hamlet’s feelings for her, she pulled a T-shirt out of the box, which was greeted with laughter; I couldn’t see it clearly, so I don’t know if it was just the general idea of a T-shirt or if there was something printed on it apart from the big red heart. There was also a heart-shaped card amongst her treasures. Polonius grabbed the T-shirt, and she chased him round the table for a bit to try and get it back, eventually succeeding. Polonius told her to stay away from the prince, and they left the stage.

Back on the battlements, Horatio was standing on the roof of the guard post when the scene began. We heard a low booming sound, and Hamlet explained about the local drinking customs. When the ghost ‘appeared’, it was on the upper balcony, and since there was no physical ‘presence’, there could be no reaction to “I’ll call thee Hamlet, King, father, royal Dane”, which was a little disappointing. The others had to wrestle Hamlet quite severely to stop him from going after the ghost, and had him on the ground at one point. But in true Herculean fashion, for all his assertions to the contrary, Hamlet freed himself and got hold of a gun to stop the others from coming after him. Not that they were going to oblige him on that score, of course.

For the ghost’s actual appearance, the guard post and other items were cleared away and smoke began to pour out of the central area. The two drummers came on stage and were again spotlit, but it wasn’t clear at this point whether they were going to represent the ghost in some way or if we would get a more substantial manifestation. As it turned out, the ghost of Hamlet’s father did rise up through the stage floor, though the smoke was so thick it was hard to see him at first. The fog started to clear when he began his conversation with Hamlet, and as he moved around a bit, we ended up with a very good view of him. He was wrapped in a very colourful cloth, and looked like the traditional image of an African tribal chief. The drummers remained to one side, eventually ending up back left, and Hamlet senior walked over to the dais on “list, o list” to deliver his tale of how he was murdered. There was more smoke to cover the ghost’s exit back down through the trapdoor at the end, and the drummers also left when he’d gone.

The story was told quite well, but as there was little input from Hamlet, the emotional quality was lost and it became more a recitation of facts. Hamlet took out a small book to make notes, especially the “smile and smile and be a villain” bit. When the others arrived, Hamlet acted all chirpy and shook their hands before going into his eccentric dialogue. The ghost contributed his “swear” several times; they shifted ground to be on top of it, and Hamlet took out a dagger for them to swear the final oath on. They bolstered their commitment by sharing blood: Hamlet cut their hands and his arm, and I think they all put their hands on the ground, although I couldn’t see it clearly as they were crouched in a circle for this bit.

More drumming, and we were back in the Polonius household – orange table and chairs, etc. Polonius was giving Reynaldo his instructions, albeit in a very limited form. Basically, he just told him to ask what Danskers were in Paris, gave him some money and sent him off. Having said that, I’m not sure it was Reynaldo he was talking to: the character wore a deep fuchsia-coloured suit and appeared later, in the same suit, as Osric. Whether this meant that Osric was being sent to Paris, or that Reynaldo was covered by “all other parts will be played by members of the company”, I don’t know, but I suspect Reynaldo had been given the elbow. Either way, he didn’t have much to do. Ophelia rushed in just after Osric/Reynaldo had left, wearing only her underwear and a robe – well, she was at home, after all. Her story of Hamlet’s behaviour was affecting, and it certainly moved Polonius: his “I am sorry” showed genuine concern for his daughter.

To the sound of drumming – what else? – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (female) entered the throne room. Claudius and Gertrude were canoodling in the entrance back right, but broke off to greet their guests, with Claudius getting the names wrong (again). Hamlet’s school friends were only too willing to help the king and queen, and had even brought presents from England with them. Guildenstern gave Claudius a box of shortbread, while Rosencrantz handed Gertrude a telephone kiosk-shaped teapot. Both presents were passed onto a nearby servant to take away, and from the expression on his face as he left the stage – Byron Mondahl doing an excellent job in a smaller part – he considered the gifts to be cheap tat best consigned to the bin.

By this point in the play I was finding it difficult to make out Gertrude’s characterisation. I could hear her lines well enough, but she seemed to be spending a lot of time just grinning at people; otherwise her face was fairly inexpressive, and there was little in her delivery of her lines to suggest her personality. Perhaps she was meant to be a vacuous trophy wife, but I couldn’t even be sure of that with so little to go on. It was one of the weak areas of this production for me – maybe it will improve, maybe not: time will tell.

Polonius entered to announce the ambassadors’ return, plus a teasing promise to uncover the root cause of Hamlet’s madness. But business first: the ambassadors delivered their good news, and there was no reference to a request for “quiet pass through your dominions”, only Fortinbras’ capitulation. Claudius was jubilant, and when the ambassadors left, Polonius launched into his own long-winded expostulation. Claudius and Gertrude whiled away their time with bit more billing and cooing – as good a way to get through one of Polonius’ speeches as anything. Even so, Gertrude showed her impatience with the time he was taking, and Claudius waggled a finger at her to encourage her to be patient.

Polonius read out the heart-shaped letter, and by now this scene was starting to get some giggles from the audience. Not from Claudius and Gertrude though, who took the idea of Hamlet being in love with Ophelia seriously. From her responses, we reckoned that Gertrude was unhappy with the idea of Hamlet being mad, but mad for love was much more acceptable.

The king and queen left Polonius alone to talk to Hamlet, who, with Horatio’s help, had come on carrying a ladder. Horatio was dressed as before, but Hamlet had really gone to town on his outfit. The basic suit was cream, I think, but it had been daubed with so many other colours that it was hard to tell. The paint had also reached Hamlet’s face, and a skull had been painted (in green, I think) on the back of the jacket.

They set the ladder up under the portrait at the back of the stage, and Horatio left the prince to his own devices. Although Hamlet was carrying a book, he also had a can of bright pink spray paint: I could tell what colour it was as he sprayed some graffiti across the portrait. He made good use of both props during his conversation with Polonius: the book provided “words, words, words”, while he shook the can menacingly in Polonius’ direction later on, causing him to back off rapidly. He also put a couple of Ladies and Gents toilet signs on the relevant thrones; the Ladies sign fell off during his chat with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The dialogue with those two old friends was good, and Hamlet’s changing attitude towards them came across clearly. Rosencrantz laughed after “man delights not me”, and Hamlet replaced the fallen Ladies sign while Rosencrantz explained his reason for laughing. Hamlet was so pleased to hear that the actors were coming, he skipped and gambolled about for a bit, which added to the impression of his insanity.

The actors arrived singing and playing a variety of instruments, including a drum and a flute. There were also at least two large suitcases, and one chap rode on stage on a bicycle. Some of the ‘cast’ were handing out flyers – damn, too far from the front for one of those – and once they were all on stage together they went into a very lively dance: Hamlet joined in.

There was a small spot of audience participation as they prepared for the speeches. Hamlet gestured towards the audience when he mentioned that the play “pleased not the multitude” – cheeky boy – and after stumbling on his first attempt at the speech, he picked up a mask from one of the cases which had been opened, and held it in front of him as he spoke the correct lines. There was a slight reaction from the first player, but overall the actors received Hamlet’s contribution without comment.

When it came to the player king’s turn to do the speech, we were in for a real treat. Hamlet handed him the mask to continue, and he also held it, moving it around as if it were, indeed, the mask of Pyrrhus. Another actor rummaged in the case and produced a second mask which he held in front of his face to represent Priam, and although he didn’t say a word, he fell down as Priam fell, lying on the floor as Pyrrhus made to strike him again.

Polonius’ interjection – “this is too long” – drew a good laugh rom us all, and then they came to Hecuba. One of the female actors – three of them had been sitting behind the player king – got up and began to move to the left side of the stage. As Hecuba’s entrance was described, she walked slowly over to Priam and mimed the “burst of clamour” by throwing back her head and shoulders and opening her mouth wide to let out an almighty scream – silently. It was incredibly moving, all the more so for being unexpected, and my eyes were distinctly moist at this point. The whole scene worked brilliantly, and was one of the best ways I’ve ever seen that speech staged. The effect was a cross between puppetry, mime and acting, and made the story come alive.

Polonius took most of the players off, but the player king was still packing up his case when Hamlet asked if he could add some lines to the play, to which the actor agreed. He left, and Hamlet knelt in front of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he asked them to leave him as well. The ladder was also removed at some point, as it wasn’t on stage when Hamlet began his “o, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” speech. His movements here were very precise, and I became even more aware of how important this was to Paapa’s performance. Hamlet took the Gents’ sign off the throne as he left.

For the next scene – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting back to Claudius and Gertrude – the stage was changed quite dramatically. A large blue groundsheet was brought on and laid over the centre of the stage. Various large canvases were either lowered down or placed at the back. Most of these were abstract or had sketches of royal items, such as a crown, and words like “KING” painted across them. They demonstrated clearly the state of Hamlet’s mind, and perhaps Claudius and Gertrude would have done better to hire an art expert to give them an insight into Hamlet’s psyche. A set of paint-smeared stairs were lowered down back left in the area of the dais, and Claudius and Gertrude came down those to meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had been looking at the canvases. Polonius and Ophelia followed after, with Ophelia carrying her box of gifts. Polonius and Claudius hid behind the canvases at the back and Ophelia must have been off stage on one of the walkways, because when Hamlet came down the stairs and sat on the dais for “to be or not to be”, he was alone.

The famous speech was nicely done, with a rising inflection at the end of “and, by opposing, end them”, emphasising that he was, indeed, considering a question rather than making a statement. When he’d finished the speech, he picked up a brush and pot of paint. He spotted Ophelia and greeted her with “nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered”, before starting to paint green letters on a board which was lying on the groundsheet, partly covered already. He grabbed Ophelia’s box of gifts on “get thee to a nunnery”, and wiggled a bundle of letters at her on “breeder of sinners”. After that he walked round the stage, tossing items out of the box.

His behaviour got worse after that. He took his jacket off before grabbing Ophelia and pulling her onto the groundsheet, then smeared green paint on her forehead. He put green paint on his own cheeks at “God gave you one face..”, and when he was done with that he lifted up the board he’d been working on earlier and we could see the words “SERPENT KING” had been added to it. He threw the board down and left by the stairs, leaving Ophelia distraught, green-faced and sitting on the floor. She got her full quota of lines, but they didn’t add much to what we’d already seen.

When Claudius and Polonius came out from their hiding place, Claudius spotted the board and picked it up – “there’s something in his soul…”. Polonius offered Ophelia his hanky, but she ran off up the stairs – personally, I don’t blame her. Polonius tried to maintain that he had been right all along – typical – and we heard the first mention of the English option for dealing with the wayward prince.

For the play scene, there was more music and dancing to cover the set change. The groundsheet was removed, and a large square platform rose up from the floor, covered by a multi-coloured cloth. The canvases were still hanging at the back, but I think the board was removed, or perhaps it was placed at the back to keep it out of the way. Hamlet stopped the music and dance to give the actors his pearls of wisdom, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hovered in the background. To be fair, his pearls were pretty brief, and when Polonius came down the stairs, the actors left to get ready.

Horatio came on with what looked like a serpent costume in his hands. It turned out to be Hamlet’s jacket – the cream one with all the paint marks – and a serpent headdress; Hamlet put them on. There was more drumming as Claudius and Gertrude arrived and took their seats – coloured plastic ones – near the stairs. Other courtiers were milling around, and Polonius stood briefly on the platform when he described his own acting career at university. Ophelia sat front right, and we noticed that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were cuddling together front left, almost on the walkway.

Hamlet sat and beat a drum front left as the actors came on. They began with a dance, and then the prologue took to the platform while the other actors crouched around it. They shared the dialogue among them, and after the prologue the king and queen stepped up onto the stage. He wore a military jacket and a crown, and was provided with a Zimmer frame part-way through the dialogue to emphasise his advanced years. She had a lot going on with her costume, but I particularly liked her ‘wings’, made of ruched netting. She looked directly at Gertrude on “ever be a wife” – not afraid of upsetting important people, then – and when the king wanted to have a snooze, he handed his crown to his queen and was helped to lie down by the others.

Lucianus wore red and had long hair. Hamlet stood behind Claudius’ chair as he explained how Lucianus was going to poison his brother and take his wife and crown. This was too much for Claudius, who rose and left, followed by the others. Hamlet and Horatio compared notes, and then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern came back on to deliver the message from Gertrude. “My wit’s diseased” seemed to be missing, and I wasn’t sure if they included Rosencrantz’s “my lord, you once did love me” – I’ll look out for it next time.

During the “witching hour” section, Hamlet took a gun out of a backpack which he’d left front left, next to the drum. He held it up so we could all see what it was, then wrapped it up again in a white cloth and took it off with him. At least, I think he went off – he went behind the large canvases back right, and I couldn’t tell if he actually left the stage or stayed back there in hiding. As he left, Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern came down the stairs. I checked my watch – one hour and forty minutes in, and my seat was starting to feel uncomfortable. Still, we’ve done longer than that with some performances, and the interval couldn’t be far away. Just a quick wriggle in my seat…

With Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius all off about their business, Claudius bent down at the back of the platform and picked up a crucifix! How did that get there? He placed it on the corner of the platform nearest him, and launched into “o, my offence is rank!” Hamlet came out from behind the canvases as Claudius knelt down to pray, took out his gun and aimed directly at his uncle. Lights. Interval.

Of course, it’s not an original choice these days, but it does give a nice cliff-hanger feel to the play, and even though we had to wait for one hour and fifty minutes to get a break, it keeps the second half to a more reasonable length. The stage wasn’t tidied up during the interval, naturally, although the “SERPENT KING” picture was placed against the wall at the back.

They began the chanting again for the restart. I couldn’t make out the words, but I suspect it was something African which would have relevance for the play. When the lights went up again – they took their positions in darkness – Hamlet was still pointing his gun at Claudius, but paused to think about the situation instead of firing. In fact, he paused to over-think the situation, and talked himself out of a prime opportunity to get revenge. He tucked the gun into his waistband at the back, and left to the sound of drumming.

The covering was removed from the platform along with any remaining props from the play. A fresh set of covers and some cushions were brought on to turn the platform into Gertrude’s bed – big enough, but a bit hard for my liking. Gertrude herself was in her pyjamas, with a robe over them, and was still wearing her jewellery. Her hair was down, and she flopped back onto the cushions as Polonius droned on and on about what she had to do. A long curtain was hanging behind the bed – Polonius’ hiding place, natch – and one of the leaf-shaped ceiling fans had been lowered down at the front of the stage.

I think Hamlet took the gun out when he was forcing Gertrude to listen to him, and this prompted her fear that he might kill her. Hamlet reacted to a noise behind the curtain, and as he made to shoot whoever was there, Gertrude dived back onto the bed. With one shot, the curtain fell down on top of Polonius’ body – I don’t know if he pulled it down or not – and when Hamlet removed the covering from Polonius’ face, he was clearly disappointed to find it wasn’t Claudius. He showed his remorse at killing the wrong man by taking off his jacket and laying it over Polonius’ top half.

Mind you, Polonius was well out of it. Gertrude had more to endure, as Hamlet carried out his promise to “set you up a glass where you may see the inmost part of you”. To show the difference between his father and his uncle, he needed two pictures to compare. He used a picture of Claudius on the front of a magazine – Gertrude had been reading it when the scene started – and for his father’s image, he took off his T-shirt. Now, I may not be a great fan of tattoos, but in this case, putting a black ink picture of Hamlet senior on this Hamlet’s dark skin was simply silly. We were only a few rows back, and I could barely make it out, so God knows what folk in the back rows made of this bit. Perhaps they thought Gertrude had gone crazy as well, reacting strongly when she looked at Hamlet’s left shoulder. Normally I have no objection to young men getting their shirts off in the cause of theatre, but I reckon they need to rethink this. It’s fair enough that Hamlet would get a tattoo done, but they ought to make it clearly visible if they want to use it in this way in this scene.

“The rank sweat of an enseamed bed” led to Hamlet rearranging the cushions a lot – he threw them off the bed. He was trying to remove the cover as well, but as Gertrude was still kneeling on it, he couldn’t move it much. The ghost came on back left, and Hamlet could see him over Gertrude’s shoulder: she looked all around, but claimed that she couldn’t see anything. A quick aside – Steve and I have discussed this point, and we agree that we prefer it when Gertrude can see the ghost, but wants to pretend she can’t (for whatever reason). Apart from anything else, Marcellus, Barnardo and Horatio have all seen it, so why should Gertrude be exempt? It’s fine if she never looks in the ghost’s direction, of course, and since she’s likely to be in a fraught emotional state at this time, that would be understandable. But many directors never seem to consider this point: I wish they would.

Aside over, we weren’t entirely sure if Gertrude had seen the ghost or not, so we plan to watch more closely next time. I felt she didn’t, but as I’ve mentioned before, I found her less expressive than I’d like, so perhaps that influenced my understanding of the situation. She was certainly much stroppier than necessary afterwards – “the lady doth protest too much”, perhaps? Or she could just have been upset at seeing just how crazy Hamlet was.

In any case, Hamlet put his T-shirt back on before preparing to drag Polonius’ body off. He came back briefly for “one word more”, and then left with the corpse – that curtain came in very handy. Gertrude was sobbing as Claudius came on with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in tow. She confirmed that Hamlet was mad, though whether she believed it herself after that scene, I’m not sure. She didn’t obviously shun Claudius as they left, but she wasn’t smoochy with him either – not surprising, given recent events.

Some music played as the bedclothes were removed and the platform lowered down again. Hamlet pointed the gun at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they caught up with him, but a security man in a suit crept up behind him and took the gun, holding Hamlet down on the floor until after the beginning of his dialogue with Claudius. (Act four, scenes two and three were run together for this, with Claudius’ opening lines to scene four omitted.) Hamlet’s cheeky responses to Claudius’ questions were getting some good laughs now – the audience had finally warmed up – and Hamlet waved his hand at Claudius on “farewell good mother” – another laugh. We got Claudius’ final lines, telling us what he expected the English court to do to his nephew, and then the drumming started up again for the next change of scene.

We’d already had the small balcony appearing on the back wall at the start; this time we got a full-width balcony which went from about half-way up the wall to the top. There was blue sky behind and the sound of seagulls calling as Fortinbras came on at the left. His troops also marched on – all three of them – and Hamlet (in handcuffs), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived via the left walkway. After the conversation with the captain, a sailor appeared up on the balcony, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern took the luggage up with them while Hamlet ruminated on his situation down on the stage. His reasoning was very clear, as was the fact that he really didn’t understand why he hadn’t killed Claudius yet. He got a bit excited towards the end of the speech, and afterwards he joined Rosencrantz and Guildenstern up on the balcony – they had already appeared there with the sailor – and they embarked to the sound of a ship’s horn.

The balcony remained for the next scene, when Gertrude, the female ambassador and Horatio came on stage, but it was no longer down at the docks. There was an orange glow all over it, and it stayed that way for the rest of the performance. Both Horatio and the lady ambassador touched the ground to show respect to Gertrude, and although I hadn’t fully registered this action till now, I realised they’d been doing it all through the play.

When Ophelia came on, she looked a bit scruffy compared to her earlier appearance, and behaved in a distracted manner. She also showed a lot of temper too, snapping at Gertrude at least once. After Claudius joined them, Ophelia ran at Gertrude to attack her, but was stopped by Horatio, but Gertrude flinched anyway. Ophelia got very close to Claudius for the “tomorrow is St Valentine’s day” song, uncomfortably close for him, and she put his hand on her breast on “that out a maid”, so we can safely conclude that she and Hamlet had got past first base. She wasn’t clearly mad, but definitely emotionally disturbed.

A messenger appeared on the balcony to announce that Laertes was coming. We could hear the distant sounds of a mob, and then a helicopter flew above the stage and Laertes came down on a rope. The helicopter flew away, and Laertes, armed with nothing but his anger, confronted Claudius and Gertrude. One of the security guards came on with a gun, but Claudius was confident enough of his abilities and waved him away. It was all a bit bizarre, and meant that Laertes didn’t pose any real threat to Claudius and Gertrude, although the mob outside (sounds diminished now) might still be counted a danger.

Claudius was just getting into his stride in spinning recent events to his benefit when Ophelia came back on down the centre aisle. She was wearing a man’s jacket and trousers – presumably Polonius’ – and this time she looked properly mentally ill. She did some floor wiping, got the others to join in the song – “down, a-down” – and pulled out a large tuft of her own hair, using bits of it for the flowers: this was genuinely moving. She gave the rosemary and pansies to Laertes, the fennel and columbine to Claudius, and the rue to Gertrude, an unusual choice in our experience.

As she sang her final song, she took off the jacket and placed it on the ground, laying it out flat. She took off the trousers as well – her long top covered her dignity – and arranged them below the jacket, as if laying out a body. On “and on all Christian souls”, she dropped the rest of her tuft of hair onto the clothes and left, with Gertrude following her. After a bit more dialogue between Claudius and Laertes, they also left, with the suit still on the ground.

Before the next scene proper we saw Ophelia walking across the balcony, and we knew where she was going. I particularly liked this part of the set design, as it gave a sense of a much wider space outside the castle walls. Horatio came on next and crouched by the suit, looking at it. The sailor came on with the letter from Hamlet, and Horatio read it out while the sailor waited. Then they left together. Claudius and Laertes came back on to continue their conversation, and the lady ambassador brought on the letter from Hamlet – there was only letter, the one for Claudius, so he didn’t have a chance to spy on Gertrude’s correspondence.

Gertrude herself came back on a short while later along the back wall, interrupting their plotting and standing on the dais to deliver the speech about Ophelia’s death. She was barefoot, and the bottom half of her skirt was stained with muddy water, suggesting that she’d waded into the river either to try and save Ophelia or to help lift her body out. Her delivery of the speech was rather crude, I felt, and I found myself unmoved by the words for once, despite Ophelia’s own performance getting to me emotionally. Laertes picked up the clothes from the ground and held them, remembering his beloved sister and father, and took them off when he left. Claudius went off after him, but Gertrude left the way she had come.

The gravedigger scene was introduced by some chirpy music, and the gravedigger came on pushing his barrow and singing. A large square pit had opened up in the centre of the stage, and boards had been placed on either side with cloth ropes, ready for the burial. The gravedigger did a little more digging in the pit, and came up with a femur in his hand, using it as a microphone while he sang a bit more. We laughed. A large cross had been lowered down back left, a little in front of the dais, and Hamlet and Horatio came on at the back before the end of his song.

Hamlet’s chat with the gravedigger went very well, getting laughs on both of the ‘mad English’ lines – “’tis no great matter there” and “there the men are as mad as he”. I noticed that he didn’t give Hamlet’s age – very wise – and after he picked up Yorick’s skull, and informed us that he had “poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once”, he said “the bastard” and pretended to punch the skull – all very entertaining. Hamlet listened to the skull for an answer after “not one now to mock your own grinning?”, but didn’t reveal if he heard anything.

The sound of drums heralded the funeral procession, and again there was singing. Laertes carried Ophelia’s body, wrapped in white cloth, in his arms and laid it on the side of the grave. He was angry with the priest, that there would be nothing more in the way of ceremony to mark her passing, but the priest was equally robust in voicing his disapproval of the whole procedure. Others joined Laertes at the side of the grave, and they picked up the ropes to lower Ophelia’s body down; Hamlet and Horatio were on the left walkway at this point, well back from the stage. Gertrude dropped petals into the grave, and when the gravedigger wheeled his barrow forward to close the grave up again, Laertes told him to “hold off the earth awhile” and jumped into the pit to be with his sister. He may have picked her body up, but I don’t remember.

Hamlet came on and removed his cap before declaring “I am Hamlet the Dane”. He and Laertes had a brief tussle before some of the other men pulled Laertes off Hamlet. The dialogue was edited here so that Hamlet was off the stage quite quickly, and Claudius and Laertes stayed behind so that Claudius could ask Laertes how much he wanted his revenge – the delayed plotting from the earlier scene.

That done, more chanting and music accompanied the removal of the grave and the cross, while four pink braziers were brought on, one for each corner of the stage. I could also see some petals on the stage from the grave scene, lifted up when the pit was restored to ground level. Hamlet brought Horatio up to date, so we knew about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then Osric arrived, wearing a flamboyant hat, to deliver the ‘challenge’ to Hamlet. Osric’s manner was somewhat affected, but not at the top end of the Osric Affectation scale, and the hat was soon back on his head. Once Hamlet had agreed to take Laertes on – they cut the “what’s his weapon” as I recall, which in the light of their actual weapons was a good choice – Osric snapped his fingers and the stage was changed for the fight scene. Servants came on to light the braziers, which were all done at the same time, a curtain was dropped to cover the balcony (I think) and the thrones came forward to sit on the dais: all of this to the sound of drumming, of course.

Hamlet had left the stage while this was being done, and once things were ready he returned to join Laertes. Both were bare-chested, with black boots and long pink pantaloons – it sounds ludicrous when I write it, but they did actually look like fighters. Osric, jacket removed, had their weapons, which were long sticks with a larger section at one end – I don’t know what they’re called. Claudius and Gertrude sat on their thrones to watch the match, and after Hamlet’s genuine apology, he and Laertes shook hands, then grasped each others’ hands again before separating for the fight. They had two sticks for the fight, one longer than the other, so very similar to “rapier and dagger”. Claudius began with a toast, but no pearl in the cup, and then Hamlet and Laertes bowed to the king and queen, bowed to the judge (Osric) and then to each other.

The fighting was vigorous, and very noisy when the sticks clattered together. They did a fair bit of posing as well, circling each other looking for an opening. Hamlet scored first, and Claudius dropped the pearl in the drink as he congratulated him, while Hamlet jig-jogged about to keep his muscles warm before the second bout. The poisoned cup was placed to one side on a small table, and Claudius wandered round to the front of the stage to get a better view of the fighting. As a result, he wasn’t able to stop Gertrude from taking the cup and toasting Hamlet after he scored another hit.

The poison wasn’t quick-acting, so Hamlet had a chance to wind Laertes up before their third bout. On “wanton with me”, he used one of the stick to simulate an erect penis, which certainly made Laertes more aggressive in his attack. He got Hamlet down on the ground, and as he helped him up, he took advantage of the opportunity to cut Hamlet on the leg using a knife which had been concealed in his shorter stick. Hamlet was enraged by this treachery and got the knife off Laertes, using it to stab his opponent. By this time, Gertrude had reacted to the poison, and was sprawled on the throne, dying. She managed to warn Hamlet about the poisoned drink, and I assume Hamlet ordered the doors to be locked – things were happening so fast I couldn’t take it all in. Claudius tried to escape through a door in the back wall, but Hamlet caught him, stabbed him, and then forced the rest of the poisoned wine down his throat.

Hamlet was already starting to feel the effects of Laertes’ poison, and had to crawl over to that man as he lay on the floor. They forgave each other, and Hamlet just managed to get to his feet before he collapsed again. Horatio caught him, and they ended up in the traditional pose, with Horatio kneeling behind Hamlet and cradling him in his arms.

Crashing sounds off stage indicated that Fortinbras was coming. Hamlet prophesied that Fortinbras would be king and then he died, prompting a long howl from Horatio before he completed his lines. The braziers were burning low by now – only three of them were still lit – so Fortinbras came on via the right walkway to see a very gloomy scene, in more ways than one. He was accompanied by a drum and several soldiers, while the English ambassador entered by the left walkway. As the servants had all run away, only Horatio was left alive on stage, and Fortinbras spoke his lines with genuine sorrow. I thought I heard an echo of Claudius’ lines in an early scene, but I can’t spot anything in my text which suggests this, so I’ll have to keep an ear open next time.

As Fortinbras speculated on his possible future as Denmark’s ruler, he approached the thrones and sat on the one which had been Claudius’, the one on the right. I felt this was a bit tacky, not to mention creepy, as he seemed completely unconcerned to have Gertrude’s dead body sprawled on the throne next to him. His final line, “go, bid the soldiers shoot” was said from here, and there followed more drumming, but in sharp short bursts, to represent shots. The lights went down, and that was the end.

When we booked for this performance, we knew we would be seeing the STF version of the same play in close proximity. Part of the fun for us in seeing so many productions is the sheer variety of interpretations, and this particular combo were no exception. From a pared-down straightforward performance in Bristol, we came here to find a joyous, lively, exuberant, colourful version of the play, with lots of singing, dancing and drumming – the drummers came on stage to take their bows. Having read the program now, I can see that the tradition of sending the sons of powerful families abroad for an education was one of the supporting ideas of this production, and although I wouldn’t have understood that without reading the program notes, it’s certainly an interesting perspective. This tradition can also produce a sense of dislocation in those who return home changed by their experiences abroad, and this was clearly what they were suggesting with the opening scenes at Wittenberg and Hamlet senior’s funeral. On top of losing his father, on top of seeing his mother remarry a man whom he detests, Hamlet has to deal with all the pressures that come from a combination of high expectations and a lack of a solid base where he can regroup. It will be interesting to see what else I pick up from a repeat viewing now that I have that background in my mind.

I enjoyed much of this production. The central performance was excellent. We had high hopes after seeing Paapa’s Romeo last year, and we weren’t disappointed with his interpretation of this role. Unlike Jonathan Slinger’s attempt at this part, Paapa had his prince good to go from the start, so we look forward to catching a later performance to see how he develops his portrayal.

I did find Gertrude (Tanya Moodie) and Polonius (Cyril Nri) a bit dull in their performances, and while Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) did very well in the mad scenes, her earlier contributions were nothing special. She wasn’t helped by having a fairly stolid Laertes (Marcus Griffiths), but again this was an early performance so there’s the possibility of improvement in the future. Some of the smaller parts were excellent, especially the lively gravedigger and the players during the Pyrrhus/Priam/Hecuba scene, and overall this is an intriguing and intelligent production which is well worth catching.

Incidentally, the program notes didn’t give me any detail about the fighting sticks or what they were chanting – it was the same word, repeated many times. I did hear what it was from someone, but I’ve managed to forget it, so I’ll try to find out again another time.

© 2016 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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