Written On The Heart – January 2012 (1)

8/10

By David Edgar

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 5th January 2012

The opening scene of this new play by David Edgar was well complicated, with all sorts of historical characters, done up in drag most of ‘em, chattering on about different bits of the Christian Bible and which English word they should use for which Hebrew, Latin or Greek one. This was a hastily summoned meeting of several of the important members of the translation committee (who were 54 men in total) with the Bishop of Ely (at his London residence apparently) to finalise the last few controversial verses of the new King James Bible. It was hard to follow and a little dry at times, but as we learned in the post-show session, David Edgar had likened this bit to The West Wing, where no quarter is given to the uninitiated audience, and characters talk freely and fast in full blown jargon until we catch up.  Fortunately there was also some humour to keep us going, mainly through the political aspects of the different choices, and with the Bishop refusing to put in an appearance for a while (busy praying) the stage gradually cleared so that we could savour some discussions between just two or three characters at a time. Much easier to follow, and now I felt I was getting a handle on the debates. A lot was at stake, literally in the case of the Protestant Martyrs burned by Queen Mary, and it was enlightening to see such passions involved in what to us is now a very abstruse and academic subject.

This first scene was set in London in 1610. The next scene took us to Flanders in 1536, while the third scene, set in Yorkshire in 1586, bridged the gap between then and 1610, to which we returned for the final scenes. For Flanders, a small square platform rose up from the bowels of the stage, containing a table and chair, a stool, an unlit stove, and William Tyndale. This was Tyndale’s prison cell, and as he was due to be executed very soon, a Catholic priest had been sent to persuade him to recant his ‘heretical’ views, particularly those relating to his translation of the Bible into English. He refused, and in his heartfelt urging of the importance of a Bible that a ploughboy could read for himself, he converted the young priest to his way of thinking. As a result, Tyndale’s translations of several more books of the Old Testament  were rescued by the priest, just in the nick of time. The guard, helpfully setting a fire in the hitherto unused stove, was planning to use Tyndale’s work as kindling; the priest deftly substituted his own now worthless papers about Tyndale’s ‘crimes’, and secured the precious translations for posterity.

They had one minor problem with this scene when the candle, blown out to distract the guard, unhelpfully went out a second time before its cue, but never mind. I did find the long opening section of this scene a bit too gloomy, in terms of the lighting rather than the mood, but I appreciate it’s a tough call when Tyndale’s main complaint is that he hasn’t been allowed any artificial light in his cell, thereby hindering his work. They had to give us a lot of information at the start of this scene, to establish who was who, when, what had happened, etc., and on the whole this worked OK, although I was surprised that Tyndale had to explain what the Pentateuch was to a priest. However I know a lot of that was to explain it to the audience, and I’m sure many of them were grateful for that. Oliver Ford Davies explained at the post-show that with David Edgar, you had to keep pushing him to explain things so the audience can follow what’s going on. He’s worked with David on a number of plays now, so he spoke from experience, and with feeling.

The next scene, in Yorkshire, is set during Elizabeth’s reign, and shows the visit of a group of clergy to a small church which does not appear to have done everything it could to remove all traces of Popery. There are still stained glass windows, pictures of saints have been reapplied to the whitewashed panels within the building (intruders, apparently) and there’s no record of the disposal of the gold chalice or some ornate vestments. The visiting group have the authority to punish the churchwarden for these offences, and one chap, a clerk, is just about to smash the windows when a local lord and his wife turn up and try to put a stop to it. It doesn’t help that this Lord isn’t as familiar with the Ten Commandments and Articles of Faith of the Church of England as he ought to be to take Communion, but at least he distracts the clerk from his mission of destruction. With some stiff warnings to the errant churchwarden, and his promise to get rid of the remaining Catholic accoutrements, the group is relatively satisfied with their work.

At the start of this scene, the young priest from Tyndale’s cell met the Archdeacon who leads the visiting group, and after a little while I realised this was the same man at two stages in his career. The archdeacon used Tyndale’s very words when expounding on the necessary changes to religious practices, and it was very interesting to see that, despite being ignored and rejected during his lifetime, Tyndale’s approach had finally become the accepted norm in England. During the course of this scene, we also get to see a discussion between the clerk, a rampant Puritan, and the Chaplain, who turns out to be a younger version of the Bishop of Ely – this is how the scenes bridge between the time zones. I didn’t follow all of their conversation, but I did gather that the Puritans were keen to disassociate themselves from the ‘impure’ in society (judge not, least ye be judged?) and the chaplain was strongly against that idea, seeing the divisions it would cause. In the second half, which is all set in London, we get flashbacks to this earlier time, with the clerk now in chains being visited by the chaplain, who has been given the same task as the young priest in the second scene – get the man to confess to save his soul. It’s not entirely clear, but it seems that the Bishop of Ely is full of guilt over his treatment of this man, whom he may have betrayed to the authorities, and whose fate he almost seems to relish. To return to the end of this third scene, the chaplain buys the chalice off the churchwarden, claiming that he can get a better price for it in York than the churchwarden could get locally, and then as the Bishop comes on stage for the end of the first half (we have covered a lot of ground, haven’t we?) passes the chalice to him.

The second half begins with the Bishop at prayer, yet again, kneeling at the altar at the back of the stage. Samuel Ward, one of the translators with a serious concern about allowing any hint of Catholic terminology into the King James Version, brings on a pile of books, a pile which he’d taken from the Bishop’s servant to take to the Bishop at the end of the first scene, another nice link. They have another chat about the choices facing them; the Bishop just wants to wash his hands of the whole thing and leave the decisions to others, while Ward is vociferous in his convictions about how a number of the verses should be translated.

Then things get a little more complicated. After Ward leaves, the Bishop still wants help with the situation, and suddenly hears a voice speaking to him. A moment or two later, Tyndale (the ghost of) walks on stage, and there follows a most entertaining conversation between the two men, with the Bishop bringing Tyndale up to date on the rash of English Bibles since his time (and even an officially approved one during Tyndale’s last year on earth!) and Tyndale having a good old rant about how much of the Catholic tradition is still flourishing in the ostensibly Protestant Church of England. It really brought home both how much of Tyndale’s battle had been won and how much had been lost.

During their conversation, we see the flashback to the younger version of the Bishop, visiting the clerk in prison, and when that finishes Tyndale has gone and the translators have turned up. Tyndale’s dictation to the Bishop, resolving the contested verses, is seized upon by the rest of the committee members as giving them the finality they need. Unfortunately the paper gets blotted with ink (the Bishop being clumsy) and they can’t read it all.

Prince Henry turns up, the Prince of Wales, with his younger brother Charles, the future king. With Henry taking charge of the discussion, the decisions are made surprisingly quickly for once, and the resulting hodgepodge, which includes the classic ‘swords into ploughshares’, is quickly taken to the printers. With the departure of the Royal entourage and most of the committee members, the Bishop has a change of heart, and accepts his servant’s offer to write a letter at his dictation to the Archbishop of Canterbury to suggest the revisions may themselves need to be revised. His servant, a woman who was brought up on the English Bible and the stories of the martyrs – her grandmother was one of those burned as a heretic in Mary’s reign – does the writing OK, but she gets very upset at the idea of changing the word of God. Her fanatical zeal for leaving things as they are (in which case the Bible she adores would still be in Latin, if not Hebrew) is terrifying, and gives a clear link to some of the religious issues facing us today, where a little learning coupled with passionate beliefs can have horrific results. However, she does agree to take the letter, and after she leaves, the Bishop starts looking up the sources for some lines from Genesis. Tyndale makes a handy reappearance to help him, and the play finishes with these men facing each other over the texts on the table.

Although I found it hard going at the start, once we got into Tyndale’s story it all flowed much better. The humour was lovely, and there was lots of it. I felt for the poor folk in Yorkshire; the Lord’s wife expressed the difficulty so many people had when they were told to worship one way, then it was changed, then changed back again, and yet again. They just wanted to be left in peace to do things the way they’d always done them. The linking of the scenes with the younger and older versions of characters was nicely done, and again the author hasn’t taken sides in this debate, just shown us the sort of things that went on to increase our understanding; we can all make up our own minds about the issues, of course.

English: William Tyndale, Protestant reformer ...

Image via Wikipedia

The crucial aspect of the whole piece is the way that Tyndale (right) emphasises the heart rather than the head; this stops it being just an intellectual debate which could have become very boring. I found I could relate to the characters and their situations, and it left me feeling I understood more of that period and the huge importance placed on theological ideas. Earthly kingdoms were at risk, never mind heavenly ones. I hadn’t realised how much I expected to hear the King James Version, and how odd some of the others sounded, although I found I preferred some of the alternatives on offer and I have a sense of liberation now that I don’t have to take any translation as gospel!

The set was pretty impressive, making the Swan feel very much like a church for most of the performance. There were carved arches with central double doors screening off the rear of the stage; these were dressed differently for the different locations. Four large circular candelabras were lit at one point, and apart from the platform for scene two there were tables and chairs brought on and off as needed. The costumes were period – this led to one approving comment from a member of the audience later – and there was music between scenes. The singers were good, but there was a little too much dissonance in the music for me.

The performances were all excellent, especially those of the two central characters, Tyndale (Stephen Boxer) and the Bishop of Ely (Oliver Ford Davies). Almost the entire cast came out for the post-show, and there were some very good questions again tonight. The cast had eleven weeks for rehearsals, but this was split between two plays, so they had to move pretty sharpish from one rehearsal room to the other at times. They covered the difficulty of the massive amounts of exposition in the play, not to mention the relatively undramatic nature of the story, and they did a lot of research themselves into various related subjects. Jodie McNee, who played the Bishop’s servant Mary, researched the Protestant Martyrs, and discovered the story of a plough girl who was burned as a heretic. With Tyndale’s emphasis on ploughboys being able to read the word of God, this girl’s story was added to the script during Mary’s passionate speech at the end of the first scene.

There was a lot more that I don’t remember now, but it was a thoughtful discussion with plenty of humour, as was the play. Having slept on it, I reckon this is such a detailed piece of work that it really needs to be seen at least twice to fully appreciate it; good job we’ve already booked.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cardenio – September 2011

8/10

By: ???

Directed by: Gregory Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 12th September 2011

This production has simply got better and better and better with practice. The story-telling tonight was crisp and clear, the humour still good although I felt the audience laughed less tonight, and the whole show has an extra sparkle to it. I do hope they get a chance to do it in London, but with the 2012 festival events piling up, and no information on transfers, I don’t know when they’ll fit it in.

Re-reading my previous notes, I see I haven’t mentioned the set before. It was fairly simple, and therefore pretty good. A set of iron railings crossed the stage at the back of the thrust, and these could be opened, shut or folded back to create different locations, such as the mountains or a nunnery. And that was it. One or two props and pieces of furniture, including the coffin that Fernando tries out for size at the start of the play, and it’s all down to lighting and acting. How wonderful.

There was a carnival procession which covered the setting up of Dorotea’s room and its removal – this was a fairly crude peasant affair, with two large dummies representing a man and a woman, with prominent gender-specific features. There was also a devil on stilts and another in a black costume with white markings – was it a skeleton? The pretend friars who carry the coffin in which Luscinda is abducted wore tall pointy masks, a bit like the Klu Klux Klan only in brown, and there was a trestle to put a large saddle on for one scene. For the most part, though, the stage was bare apart from the actors, who all did a great job.

It’s been fascinating to see a play like this three times, from different angles, and to see how it’s come on over the run. This has the feel of a very good ensemble, and even if we haven’t enjoyed all of the production concepts, it’s still been a good year. Well, the Swan reopening in itself would have been cause for celebration, and we’ve had three good plays in it to enjoy, so it’s been even better.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cardenio – August 2011

7/10

By: God only knows

Directed by: Gregory Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 24th August 2011

It was good to see this again, and as I suspected, we got a lot more out of it, mainly because we had a much better view. From the front row, no less, which led to some unexpected audience participation on my part.

The dialogue was easier to hear too, so I understood Luscinda’s arguments much better during her first scene with Cardenio. I enjoyed the way she kept trying to speak and he kept talking over her, especially as he then found his father doing the same thing to him when he tried to broach the subject of a possible marriage with Luscinda. It took a little time for the audience to warm up, I felt, but we were soon laughing at the humour, especially when Fernando was strutting his stuff. Mind you, there are parts of this play where the humour isn’t clear, and occasionally I felt the audience was a bit quiet, but overall we seemed to give the actors a decent enough response.

It’s hard to tell from such a different angle, but I suspect the performances have come on a bit since June. I didn’t spot any specific changes, but the storytelling seemed a bit sharper all round, which usually happens with experience. We were talking with our neighbours during the interval about the risks the front row audience run of finding someone in your lap, or some similar event, and then there was an extended struggle in the second half with several actors throwing themselves round the stage quite vigorously. I found myself thinking that they actually rehearse these bits thoroughly so that there are no accidents, and then I realised that Cardenio himself was lunging towards me, restrained by two other characters, and ended up with his hand just a couple of inches from my throat. I was surprisingly calm about the whole thing – Steve tells me I didn’t even flinch – and I felt honoured to be this night’s ‘victim’.

With more familiarity, the only part of the play where I thought Shakespeare might have had an influence was the scene where Dorotea, disguised as a boy, unknowingly reveals her plight to the concealed Cardenio and his two helpers (this was just after he attempted to strangle me). It was a moving scene, with typical Shakespearean features, so I wouldn’t entirely dismiss the Shakespeare DNA concept, but I’d still need much better evidence to believe it.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cardenio – June 2011

7/10

By: Very good question – lots and lots of people, but probably not Shakespeare (see below)

Directed by: Greg Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Saturday 11th June 2011

Our view was obscured again tonight as a pillar blocked a fair bit of the stage, and being so far round one side meant we couldn’t see the balcony scenes on that side. The cramped leg room didn’t help either. However, this play was much more accessible than The City Madam – we knew who every character was from an early stage, and the plot developments were clear throughout, not to mention very familiar from a lot of other sources.

First, the authorship question. We attended a talk this afternoon by Greg Doran and Tiffany Stern, hosted by Paul Edmonson, at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (listen to the podcast at http://bloggingshakespeare.com/listen-to-cardenio-in-conversation). The historical evidence, limited as it is, was unequivocal; there’s no definite evidence that Shakespeare ever co-wrote a play called Cardenio, or any other play based on the story of Cardenio as told in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Of course, there were lots of caveats and perhapses during the afternoon, but having seen the version presented by the RSC at this time, of a play adapted from an earlier play which may have been based on a possible manuscript of a play that may have been in the vicinity of Fletcher and/or Shakespeare at some time, my conclusion is that any hypothetical input Will may have had has been so squeezed out by the reworking that it’s almost a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act to put his name anywhere near the play’s title on the advertising, two inserted Hamlet lines notwithstanding. Having said that, I’m very fond of the RSC, and in these difficult times I see no real harm in them milking this ephemeral ‘connection’ for all it’s worth.

And as it happens, they’ve come up with quite a good play, Shakespeare or no. I don’t know the original story, which isn’t told in proper sequence anyway, so I can’t comment on that, but after a short spell of introducing the characters and setting up the plot, there was a great deal to like about this piece. Cardenio, the son of Don Camillo, is a friend of Fernando, the ne’er-do-well second son of Duke Ricardo, a very important man. This duke, by the way, likes to stage dry runs of his own funeral, so as to leave nothing to chance, and the opening of the play has Fernando, unknown to us at this time, sneaking on stage to have a practice go in the empty coffin. This was both weird and puzzling, but we were soon into the dialogue so I let it go.

The duke and his elder son, Pedro, are concerned about Fernando, who’s off on a horse-buying spree. Pedro has found out that Cardenio is Fernando’s friend, and also involved in the horse purchasing, so the duke sends for Cardenio to enlist his help in monitoring Fernando’s activities. The timing is a bit unfortunate, as Cardenio has just got up the courage to ask for his father’s approval of his choice of bride – Luscinda, a neighbour’s daughter and a real feisty woman as well – but the duke’s summons and his father’s excitement at the potential for preferment, get in the way. When Cardenio and Fernando end up in the vicinity of Luscinda during their travels, Cardenio takes the opportunity to visit her, and shows her off to Fernando, and that’s where the problems begin.

Fernando has already impressed us with his fickleness, rampant lust, etc. He’s wooed a young woman, Dorotea, of too low a class to be considered suitable as his bride. Using promises and a ring, he gets a chance to have sex with her, and it’s not entirely clear whether she’s given reluctant consent or none at all. With the deed done, Fernando’s love is gone, so he’s primed and ready to ‘fall in love’ again, this time with Luscinda. The ins and outs of his attempts to wed Luscinda, her attempts to put him off, Dorotea’s experiences as she follows Fernando, and Cardenio’s suffering make up the rest of the play.

There was plenty of humour throughout the performance. The subject matter – betrayal, with a side order of rape – was serious, but still there was a lot to laugh at. Alex Hassell as Fernando did a particularly good job of getting the humour out of the part without becoming either a fop or a buffoon, and all the other performances were good too. The situation was resolved in a neat manner, although I have serious doubts about Fernando and Dorotea’s marriage surviving, never mind being happy. So we’re looking forward to seeing this again, from a better position, and I’ve no doubt we’ll get even more out of it next time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – November 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Greg Doran

Courtyard Theatre

Friday 7th November 2008

Just brief notes tonight. Again, Joe Dixon has calmed down a bit, and it’s a better performance as a result. I noticed the fairies more from this angle, and the way they were using the dolls. I considered the dolls to be the way the fairies appear to the humans. There was way too much smoke during Oberon’s first ‘appearance’ – we could hardly see him for the fog – so he didn’t really ‘appear’ until it cleared a bit, which was a waste of a good entrance. Everything else was as before, but better balanced and just as enjoyable.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – November 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Courtyard Theatre

Thursday 6th November 2008

Another amazing performance. This time we saw it from the front row round the right hand side, so we caught a lot of details we’d never seen before, and missed very little of the major stuff, so it was a marvellous evening.

I didn’t notice any significant changes in the staging, but again the performances had all come on, and I did find myself noticing things about the play, partly this version, and partly in general. Firstly, it really hit me during the Ophelia/Laertes/Polonius scene, that Ophelia has confided in her brother, but not told her father. This does not bode well for that relationship. We spotted the way Ophelia took Polonius’s arm, by stealth as it were, after reporting Hamlet’s madness, and how often Polonius gives her a handkerchief instead of something more supportive. I also noticed that when Claudius asks Polonius how Ophelia has responded to Hamlet’s overtures of love, Polonius talks entirely about himself. He knows absolutely nothing about Ophelia’s response to Hamlet, and clearly doesn’t feel the need to, either. I also saw an echo of the way Polonius strides off to tell the king and queen about Hamlet’s visit to his daughter, leaving an upset Ophelia trailing in his wake, in those occasions when Claudius does much the same thing to Gertrude, noticeably the funeral scene, where Hamlet suddenly becomes ‘her’ son again. To finish off Ophelia (that’s an unfortunate phrase, “finish off” is an unfortunate phrase), I found the mad scenes less moving this time, but still found that I wasn’t embarrassed to watch them. Ophelia’s emotional disturbance is clear to see, and this time I got more from Gertrude and Claudius’s reactions. And Ophelia did clasp hands with Hamlet briefly as she left the stage after the first court scene.

I saw a lot more of Hamlet’s expressions during that early scene, as we now had him to our left. I had the same sense of a private squabble in a public space, and while David Tennant didn’t change expression much, there were a few eye movements, and slight changes of expression to indicate that he found his mother’s marriage unacceptable, especially to that man. I noticed that when he talks about how wonderful his father was, he speaks almost entirely about him in relation to Gertrude, about how much he loved her, not about his achievements as a ruler, or any other personal qualities. I also considered, for the first time, that this ghost has come from purgatory, so if he is Hamlet senior he must have led a less than blameless life to have so many sins to purge. So Hamlet’s praises are undercut yet again.

I also saw a lot more of Horatio’s reactions to Hamlet’s clowning around; I think some of these were stronger than before, as well as us being better able to see them. Following the play scene, when Hamlet gets the recorders, he throws one to Horatio, who normally catches it (well, he has twice before to our knowledge). Tonight he missed, and the recorder fell against the steps. When Hamlet tried it again, Horatio still missed, and this time the recorder split in two parts. Horatio sat on the steps putting it back together again, and trying to keep a straight  face (failed) while Hamlet made remarks like “clumsy” and “it was a bad throw”. How Rosencrantz and Guildenstern handled it I’ve no idea. Horatio and Hamlet had a lot of fun with the crazy cloud sequence, and Polonius was as stroppy as I’ve ever seen him. [Robert Smallwood had told us earlier that “presently” in Shakespeare’s time meant NOW!]

Back to the play scene. From our angle we could see all the court as they sat there, and so most of the reactions were very clear. Polonius covers his face with his hands at the crudity of the initial dumb-show – clearly not to his taste. When the going starts to get tough, he looks very concerned, and glances at the king. The ladies in the audience get their fans out (one dropped hers tonight, but recovered it discreetly), and most of the court are looking worried. When Claudius asks if there’s any offence in this play, he’s looking to Polonius, whom he would have expected to check these things out, but it’s Hamlet who answers. Horatio has been watching the play, but when the moment draws near, he has his right hand up to his face and is looking directly at Claudius. Hamlet is mouthing the words along with the murderer, indicating that this is the speech he’s given the actor to perform. Claudius spots what’s going on, and his call for a light is very controlled. He holds it together well, but later we see how much it’s rattled him, as it’s only now that we hear him admit even the slightest degree of guilt. It’s interesting that although he’s soliloquising, I felt no sympathy with him as he’s been set up as a complete villain by this time.

The bedroom scene was clearer from this angle, and the relationship between mother and son was touching. I found myself thinking that if only he could have told Gertrude how he felt a lot sooner there might not have been a play. She so loves him, and wants to keep him from harm, but he knows he has other things to do. I like that we get to see very quickly how she responds to Hamlet’s plea to keep away from Claudius – she hugs him for comfort within minutes of Hamlet leaving, although to be fair, she hasn’t let on that Hamlet’s not mad (but then does she even believe that?).

The troop movements were visually interesting from this angle, as the stick wavers were reflected multiple times in the edge-on mirrors, making it look like a much bigger army was on the move. Again, I noticed how cool Claudius was when Laertes is waving a gun in his face, and how ironic his lines about the divinity that protects a king. We didn’t see Gertrude’s reaction when she realises the cup is poisoned, but we saw a lot of other reactions that we hadn’t noticed before. I saw Claudius look to see which cup Gertrude had taken before telling her not to drink. And I saw that Hamlet cuts Claudius’s hand with the sword before making him drink the poison from the cup – is this new?

There was another pause that Claudius makes which I spotted tonight. During the negotiations with Laertes, and after the letters from Hamlet, there’s a moment when Laertes is heading to the back of the stage, and I saw Claudius think of something, pause for a moment as if to consider the implications, and then call Laertes back.

In addition to all the minor points, I saw another pattern in David Tennant’s performance.  I reckoned he was playing Hamlet on a journey to kingship. There are a number of words and lines, including a line from Claudius about not letting Hamlet’s madness “reign”, and Hamlet’s choice of pronoun in “we defy augury”, that indicated he was gradually coming to accept his place as rightful ruler of Denmark. Robert Smallwood had clarified that when Hamlet announces himself during the funeral scene as, amongst other things, “the Dane”, he means the king of Denmark, not just somebody from that country. It’s something I would need to look at in more detail, and I don’t know if I’d just missed it before, but it seemed very evident tonight.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Love’s Labour’s Lost – November 2008

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Courtyard Theatre

Wednesday 5th November 2008

There were some physical problems for me tonight. I had a small coughing fit this afternoon, similar to last year’s ones, and it seemed like it might start up again tonight, but I managed to control it, keep the coughs to between scenes, and drank lots of water to help things. Unfortunately, drinking lots of water has an inevitable consequence, and so I had to leave after the French ladies head off to hunt the deer, and just as Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel are arriving. I was let back in during that scene, so I didn’t miss too much, and if anything I had a better seat, round the other side. I was able to enjoy the rest of the play up to the interval and then rejoin Steve; hooray for the helpfulness of the RSC staff. I managed the second half without too much coughing, though I did have to pay another visit once the play finished, so my mind wasn’t fully on the performance. I did enjoy it, but I did take longer to get involved as I wasn’t seeing as much of the action in the opening scene as I would have liked (and probably sulking as a result). I saw some things better though, such as the way the lovers, apart from Berowne and Rosaline, were looking in each others’ eyes during the final song.

All the performances have come on since our first viewing, with a lot more detail everywhere. Don Armado was not quite so over the top, more controlled, and funnier. The men seemed to be less “silly” but still fun, the girls were more giggly, but still more mature than the boys. I forgot to mention last time about Berowne throwing his hat at the tree in the first scene – still haven’t seen him make it. [According to Edward Bennett, he’s managed it twice, and completely corpsed when he did.] He chatted up a woman on other side of the stage tonight. I was also reminded that the Mummers come on at the start of the second half, and a bear comes on with the Russians, but goes off in disgust when the women won’t pay him any attention. So, apart from a few distractions and some restrictions to our viewing, it was another excellent performance.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Love’s Labour’s Lost – October 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 7th October 2008

Wow! Another production where we had to talk down our expectations to avoid disappointment, only to have all expectations completely blown away by a stunning production. Ignore the critics, this performance made almost every part of the dialogue intelligible, which is a major accomplishment.

As an appetiser to the main course, we went to a pre-show director’s talk. Greg Doran was as interesting as usual, and we learned a great deal about the production, including the slightly unsavoury information that a “dish clout” was a reference to a sanitary towel in Shakespeare’s day. In fact, this play is apparently full of the filthiest language and references of all the canon, which came as a surprise to me, as Will has never seemed shy of making a coarse or crude joke in most of his other work.

Apart from the filth, there’s a scene where Don Armado, Moth and Costard do some fancy stuff with language, and in the rehearsal process they realised that they were playing with the rhythms of speech, so it seemed natural to use rap as the modern equivalent. When we saw the scene, I have to say it worked well for me, although if anything it was on the short side to get the point across fully. The political position of Navarre within France, and the actual existence of several of the characters in the records of a battle, was touched on, although I’ve forgotten some of the details now.

The choice of Nina Sosanya was also mentioned, as there are many references to Rosaline’s complexion and colour in the text, and it was felt that only a black actress could really carry this part off. There was also a fair bit of information about the different levels of maturity of the men and the women, with the women coming out on top. The choice of costumes was also mentioned –  this production has gone for Elizabethan, and very nice it looks too.

Now for the production itself. The set was bare except for the (almost inevitable) mirrored back wall and a massive tree, which spread its roots and branches wide across the stage towards the back. Long strands of vari-coloured glass leaves (more likely to be Perspex?) hung down over the stage, looking gorgeous, especially as we’d seen so much autumnal beauty on the drive up. The longer strands were raised at the beginning to allow the actors to get on the stage – why were they hung so low in the first place? – and it all looked beautiful. The bulk of both the French and Navarre courts were dressed in off-white, but Berowne and Rosaline wore significantly different clothes. Berowne was in fetching light blue doublet and hose, while the material of Rosaline’s dress had a lovely multi-coloured floral pattern on a deep blue background, which made the flowers glow when the light caught them. It was clear these were two outsiders, emphasised by David Tennant’s use of his native accent and the casting of Nina Sosanya as mentioned above.

The actors for the opening scene – the king’s would-be fellow students –  arrived gradually before the actual start. Dumaine arrived first with a guitar or lute, and sat tuning and strumming for a bit, then Longaville joined him, and started nibbling at the remnants of their picnic which were strewn all over the blanket. Berowne also turned up ahead of time, but wasn’t so keen for company, so he just lay down to one side with his hat over his face and took a short nap. This allowed the king to burst onto the scene and wake him up by dropping the chest he was carrying, and almost bellowing “Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives…”, etc. (Yes, that is the opening line, and yes, I did have to look it up.) It was an excellent speech, which got across the braggadocio of the king and at least two of his lords. Berowne looked distinctly unimpressed by it all, and remarkably keen to ditch all the tough bits of the three years’ abstinence (fasting, no women, very little sleep, etc.), but he agrees to it at long last, and in this production they actually do sign a piece of paper.

Naturally, they’re all shocked to remember that the King of France’s daughter is arriving that very day to speak with the king, and given that, if he did so, he would have to “endure such public shame as the rest of the court can possibly devise”, the king grabs the quill back sharpish, and amends the article so he can get away with doing his kingly duty unscathed. The signed declaration is then pinned to the tree.

Dull arrives with Costard and a letter from Don Armado concerning Costard’s illicit canoodling with Jaquenetta. Dull, played by Ewen Cummins, was stolid and slow. An older Dull than some, he smoked a pipe, and was a noticeable presence, even though he spoke little. His later comment about not understanding a word of what was said got a good laugh, especially as the audience had been inundated with Latin and flowery prose for a good while before that.

The king and his cronies read out Don Armado’s preposterously worded letter with every sign of appreciation. They’re clearly a bunch of youthful, vigorous fops, with hardly a brain cell between them, and that one belonging to Berowne. The king shows a bit of anger with Costard when he ticks him off, which sets him up nicely for his own comeuppance later on.

Having heard his prose style, we now see the man and his page. Joe Dixon plays Don Armado, with Zoe Thorne as the page, Moth, and it’s a wonderfully comic pairing. She just about comes up to his waist, and has a cheeky impish face. With both of them dressed identically in lavish purple outfits, and pacing majestically onto the stage, page mimicking master, it was funny enough just seeing them. Then they got talking, and the dialogue became a bit difficult to follow, partly because Joe Dixon is using an extravagant Spanish accent for this role. However, the attitudes and responses still came across clearly. Moth was running rings round his master, who was in love with Jaquenetta.

At this point, Jaquenetta, Costard and Dull turn up, so Don Armado and Moth retreat to the tree. Jaquenetta is a busy girl – she has a milk churn with her, and sets it down so she can do a bit of churning. The way she plunged that handle up and down, and up and down, had more than Don Armado’s eyes bulging. He had to fan himself when he was talking to her, only it wasn’t his face that he was trying to cool down. After she leaves with Dull, and Costard and Moth have also left, Don Armado throws himself to the ground so he can kiss the patch of stage she walked over. This man is so far gone, he’s going to make the king and his men look sensible, and what would be the fun of that?

Now all we need is for the women to arrive, and so they do. The princess of France (she doesn’t appear to have a name) arrives with her servant, Boyet, and three of her women. While Boyet heads off to check what’s happening at court (they’ve heard of the king’s vow to avoid women for three years), the princess and her ladies discuss the other men who are with the king. All three ladies seem smitten with one or other of the king’s supporters, but the princess is unmoved. When the king himself arrives, she keeps her back to him, annoyed that she’s expected to stay out in the open instead of being given proper hospitality. It’s like being told to pitch a tent in Green Park instead of being invited into Buck House. They swap formalities for a short while, as the other men and women check each other out, and then the princess turns round, and bingo! They’re in love too.

While the king looks over a written note of the princess’s suit, Berowne tries to chat up Rosaline, and gets nowhere very fast. She’s not impressed, even though she seemed to fancy him, but these women know how to value themselves. Berowne may look a bit tasty, but she’s got to check out his other attributes (oh, do behave) before she can commit.

The king and princess aren’t able to resolve the issue of the return of Aquitaine immediately – they need some papers which are still in transit and will arrive tomorrow – so the king welcomes the princess and her entourage to the field, and heads off with his men. Despite the circumstances, the princess seems happier with her lodgings than she did earlier – I wonder what can have changed her mind? As she and her women retire to the tree, Boyet is summoned by each of the king’s follower’s to confirm what their eyes have already told them – the identity of each of the queen’s women. Shock, horror! These men are in love! And with the queen’s women! What will become of their vows now? They used the side and front entrances to the stage, with Dumaine and Longaville doing “psst” noises to attract Boyet’s attention, and Berowne snapping his fingers. Boyet, played by Mark Hadfield, did a masterful job of keeping a straight face during all this. I notice from my text that once the men have gone the ladies unmask, and this would make more sense of the questions. Here they were bare faced, and it made the men seem even stupider. So that’s alright then.

The next scene brings back Don Armado and his page. Don Armado is playing a guitar, and is so preoccupied with this and making a grand entrance, that he nearly walks into the long tree branch that sweeps across most of the stage. He steps neatly to one side, accompanied by Moth and our laughter, and continues to play. Moth has a small rattling instrument, and is clearly bored at having to play it every so often; he picks his nose while he’s waiting for his next turn. Don Armado sends Moth to fetch Costard, as he wants to use him as a postman, and on his arrival, with a nasty bruise on his shin, we get the rapping dialogue amongst Don Armado, Moth and Costard. This passed surprisingly quickly and pleasantly, and I even got some idea of what they were talking about – “l’envoy”, which, if I understand rightly, is, in effect, a punchline.

Don Armado gives Costard a letter to take to Jaquenetta, and a small amount of money for his trouble. Three farthings, in fact, which he refers to as a “remuneration”, although his accent turns the word inside out. Then Berowne turns up, and also gives Costard a letter, which he wants Costard to give to Rosaline. For this task, he pays Costard a “guerdon” (I’ve got nothing). The “guerdon” is apparently  a shilling, and Costard makes his feelings vis-à-vis “remuneration” and “gardon” very clear before he exits, leaving the stage to Berowne. This is his chance to win us over, to make us feel for his desperate plight, his lovesick suffering. So what does he do? He insults all the ladies present by comparing us to “a German clock, still a-repairing, ever out of frame…”. David Tennant picked one lady in the audience to address these scurrilous comments to, but we knew he meant all of us. Mind you, she’s the one that got the wink at the end.

Knowing that Costard isn’t the brightest chap, and that he has two love letters to give to two different women, we can see comic possibilities a mile off. The good news is that we don’t have to wait that long, as the next scene gives us the pleasure of seeing Costard deliver Don Armado’s letter to the princess, believing her to be the correct recipient of it. Actually, she snatches it out of his hand, planning to embarrass Rosaline. Boyet reads it out, and the women react in a more scornful way to Don Armado’s flowery prose. It’s a nice contrast with the men’s responses in the earlier scene, and tells us all we need to know about the two groups. Men dumb, women smart. After some more word play, all leave, and we get to meet Holofernes, a schoolmaster, and Sir Nathaniel, a curate, both older gentlemen, and both somewhat grubby in the costume department. Dull is with them.

The princess and her women had been hunting deer before the previous scene, and now Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel are discussing the killing of a deer in that hunt. There’s a lot of quibbling about the precise terms to be used, and we get the impression of Holofernes as a real pedant, not as learned or as wise as he likes to think he is, but full of self importance nonetheless. Sir Nathaniel is more reasonable, but easily led, and in the company of Holofernes, always likely to be led astray. Dull says little, but does come out with some good Malapropisms, such as mangling “allusion” into “collusion” and “pollusion”.

Costard and Jaquenetta turn up, as she needs someone to read her the letter that Costard has brought her. Oops. Sir Nathaniel reads it out and we can hear that it’s of a much better quality than Don Armado’s. Holofernes is scathing about it however, at least when he’s not ogling Jaquenetta. It’s clear that when he “teaches boys the horn-book”, he has extensive experience of the subject, at least in his dreams. Anyway, Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel realise that, as the letter has been sent by Berowne, he’s in breach of his vow, and send Jaquenetta to the king to hand it over. Holofernes then undertakes, over dinner, to explain to Sir Nathaniel why the verses were very poor.

Now comes Will’s second best comedic scene of all the plays (number one for me is the ring scene at the end of The Merchant Of Venice, in case you’re interested). One by one the King and his men, starting with Berowne, arrive on stage to present their attempts at love poetry to us. As each arrives, the one on stage hides, until Berowne (up the tree), the king (behind some tree branches that conveniently dropped lower), and Longaville (behind the tree) are watching Dumaine bring on a very large book. It’s so big, it can conceal the small guitar (or similar instrument) he’s using to practise his love song. We’ve already established he’s the musician of the group, and soon he’s strumming away and singing a pretty little ditty, which the others join in. Then we get the series of denouncements, first by Longaville, then the king, and finally by Berowne, with each guilty party looking suitably abashed by their discovery. Only Berowne rampages unchallenged, lashing the others with his tongue, until Jaquenetta arrives bearing a letter which he immediately recognises. He tries to run away, but the king stops that manoeuvre. However, when the king asks Berowne to read the letter out, he grabs it and, tearing it up, stuffs as much as he can into his mouth to destroy the evidence. They gather the remaining pieces together, and discover enough damning evidence from those few fragments to force a confession from Berowne that he, too, is in love. Then follows some banter about Berowne’s love which contains a lot of the descriptions of Rosaline that led Greg Doran to cast a black actress in the part.

Although the railing has been good fun, now the lovers turn their attention to the serious business of how to get out of their vows. (Note that the option of keeping their vows doesn’t actually occur to them.) It’s Berowne’s job, as keeper of their collective brain cell, to resolve this problem, so the others leave the stage to him as they sit down across the front of it to hear his weighty verdict. In truth, it’s all flim-flam, but it’s what they want to hear, so he gets away with it. And as we want to see what they get up to next in pursuit of their loves, we’re happy too. Interval.

The second half starts with Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel after dinner, and very pleased with themselves, meeting up with Don Armado and his flotilla of Moth and Dull. Don Armado has been sent to arrange some entertainment for the visiting princess, and they decide to present the Nine Worthies later that day. The fun in this scene is firstly in the preposterous language, with Don Armado informing the somewhat horrified schoolmaster that the prince often played with his “excrement” with his fingers (meaning his moustaches), and secondly in the over-the-top performance of Joe Dixon as Don Armado. Again, I missed some of the language, but not much, and I found this scene much more entertaining than usual.

Now we get to see the princess and her entourage again. They’re sitting around on cushions, and checking out the gifts sent to them by the king and the other men. They compare notes, and the men don’t do too well out of it. Then Boyet arrives to inform them that he’s overheard the king and his crew planning a secret visit to the women they adore. Instead of turning up as themselves, they plan to arrive disguised as Russians. Boyet can hardly get the story out, he’s laughing so much. The princess decides they’ll play a trick themselves, and gets the women to swap gifts and hide their faces, which they do by lifting their skirts over their heads, like massive hoods. They certainly manage to conceal themselves, although it looks a bit cumbersome, and I wasn’t sure that the gifts were actually visible.

The men are dressed in Russian garb of Elizabethan times (apparently), and look absolutely ridiculous, with bulky coats and long beards. After a hilarious mock Russian dance routine that looked more like something the less gifted contestants on The Generation Game would do, they try to find the lady of their dreams by checking out the gifts they’ve sent, and of course Rosaline takes the lead, as she’s playing the princess. The wooing done, the Russians leave, and the women swap favours again, so that the men, returning without their disguises, will be fooled all the more.

When the men do turn up, the women make fun of them, as expected, and then Costard arrives to ask whether the Three Worthies can come on or not. They agree, and so the nobles take their seats to enjoy the pageant. Pompey does alright, but Alexander has a bad time of it, drying completely and having to be escorted off, and then Moth and Holofernes arrive as Judas Maccabeus and a young Hercules. Moth does the serpent strangling just fine, and wisely gets off stage before the heckling of Judas really gets into its stride. This is very like the heckling towards the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but here the men are seen as unpleasant, and the women are clearly not happy with their behaviour, although they do join in the teasing of Don Armado a short while later. He turns up as Hector, and is being hectored by the men, when Costard informs the company that Jaquenetta is pregnant, by Don Armado. When Costard challenges him, he refuses to remove his jacket as he has no shirt on, but he does have the “dish-clout” of Jaquenetta’s under his jacket, and this the men remove and start throwing around, with the women joining in.

This is becoming very unpleasant, and then the messenger from the French court arrives with the news of the King of France’s death, and the mood changes completely. The men are keen to get the ladies’ agreement to marriage before they head off, but the women are too smart for that. Once the new queen has set a task for her would-be husband, the others follow suit, and so the attempted wooing has been unsuccessful for this time. The play ends with a song, in praise of the owl and the cuckoo, sung by the Three Worthies cast, and then all leave the stage. Only Berowne and Rosaline linger on the two walkways, and see the owl flying around the stage – it’s a puppet worked by Samuel Dutton of Little Angel. It’s a haunting way to end this production. The play has such a strange change of mood at the end, and this finale sums it up perfectly, while allowing for the possibility that these lovers will get together after a year has passed. Or not, as the case may be.

This play is all about the language, and this production actually makes a lot of it understandable, which is no mean feat. The recognition of crudity in the language is not overdone, although the tampon tossing incident may not be to everyone’s taste, but the real joy is in the way the characters are brought to life and made entertaining while spouting some of the most difficult dialogue Will could devise, sonnets included. It’s a real treat, and we’re seeing it again (yippee!). Life is good.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – September 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 24th September 2008

We were really keen to see this production again after our first viewing back in August. The performance didn’t disappoint, but there were some factors which took the edge of our enjoyment. Firstly, the seats were two of the narrowest you can get in this theatre, and we’re not two of the narrowest people on the planet, so we were wedged up against each other, and our neighbours, for the whole of the play. This meant I wasn’t as relaxed as I like to be. Secondly, there were so many people coughing during the first two hours that I found it harder to concentrate and really get caught up in the story, even though it was being told so well. At least the second half was quieter, and even in the first half, a lot of those coughing seemed to realise they could wait till a scene change, so the distraction level wasn’t so bad. I also realised that the circle seats are very creaky, and my hearing aids don’t handle that kind of intermittent background noise very well, so that was something of a problem for me – Steve didn’t notice it all.

Right, that’s the down side out of the way. Now for the fun stuff. I liked our position, squashed as it was, because I had a very different view of the play. Not being so close meant I didn’t feel so involved emotionally, but I was much more aware of the interactions between the characters, and there were some things I just hadn’t seen before. There were only a few changes that I noticed, and now that I’m more familiar with the order of events, I’ll try to get that down as best I can, and mention any variations from the earlier performance.

The opening scene is on the battlements, and I was much more aware of the use of the torches to bounce a light up into the face of whoever’s speaking. The glossy floor and mirrored wall at the back meant that there were at least four lots of everything, and not just in this scene. It was harder to spot that the ghost was also played by Patrick Stewart from this angle.

The first court scene starts at the back, as the mirrors open to reveal the royal family acknowledging the applause of their people. A balcony scene, as it were. Hamlet didn’t stand out quite so much from this angle, although I was much more aware of Gertrude managing the event, and glancing across to check on Hamlet from time to time, making sure he doesn’t spoil her big day. Again I had the sense of her trying to give her son a good talking to, but being constrained by the public nature of the occasion.

Hamlet’s “too, too solid flesh” was still good, and leads into the scene where Horatio arrives to tell him of his father’s ghost. After this comes Laertes’ leaving scene, and this was certainly as good as before. From the Circle, I could see Ophelia lying down when Laertes is giving  her his “good” advice, and doing a starfish imitation – the physical equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears and going “la, la, la, la”. Not a new action, but more clearly seen from the higher position. Polonius was just as good, and so to the next night time venture onto the platform. Hamlet draws a short sword on the others to stop them following him, and the rest of the scene is as before. I wasn’t so sure this time whether they were running away from or towards the sound of the ghost during the swearing part.

I think the next scene was Ophelia reporting Hamlet’s strange behaviour to her father, followed by the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at court. When they leave, Polonius steps forward with the information about the ambassadors’ arrival, and the possibility that he knows why Hamlet is mad. The ambassadors are still dealt with swiftly, and then we get the lovely tediousness of Polonius for a while. He summoned his daughter on stage at the start of this bit, and she’s standing there while all this is going on. They resolve to test out the “mad in love” theory, and as Hamlet is coming along right about that time, Gertrude is sent off, Ophelia is given a book, and Claudius and Polonius hide behind the mirror.

Hamlet does “to be or not to be”, and then Ophelia enters again to give him back his gifts. It’s a difficult scene, especially as Hamlet later claims he loved Ophelia, but I guess we have to allow him some leeway, as he’s had a challenging few days. He hears a noise about halfway through their talk, and realises they’re being spied on, and that’s when he turns nasty towards her. I recognised this as the same response he has to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; he doesn’t know how complicit she is in whatever plots are on the go, so he shuts her out completely. After he leaves, Claudius and Polonius re-enter, leaving the mirror open. Ophelia is sent home, Claudius leaves, and Polonius tackles Hamlet as he comes back on.

When Hamlet sees the open mirror panel, he realises where they were hiding, and goes through it to check behind, but of course, there’s nobody there now. He baits Polonius as usual, and then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turn up, and we’re into the arrival of the actors and Hecuba. After this, the scenes are much as usual, and the break was still spectacular, though not so much of a surprise. The effect with the gunshot that kills Polonius was better this time around, and Ophelia’s mad scenes were riveting. She swung from gentle dottiness to screaming rage in an instant, and all believably. Gertrude’s recognition of the danger in the cup, and her choice to drink anyway, was still powerful, and the play ended in happy tragedy, if I may use that term, as despite all the deaths I felt so uplifted to have seen another excellent performance of this production. One more to go.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – August 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 19th August 2008

This was an absolutely superb production. The director’s version of the text, culled from different sources, kept the action moving along nicely, and the story hung together really well. The performances were beyond excellent, and gave me lots of insights into the play. We’re seeing this again a couple of times, and I’m looking forward to it.

The set was basically the mirrored screen and polished black floor we’d seen for the Dream, with beds, chairs, etc brought on as needed, not that there was much of that. Francisco paced about the darkened auditorium, with distant clanging noises sounding faintly, and using a torch to see where he was going. The other characters entered along our walkway, also with torches. With almost no other lighting that I could see, the effect was quite creepy. Torches were shone on the ground, and the beams reflected up into the air, looking like spotlights, and giving us just enough light to see what was going on. The ghost was in full kit – armour, helmet with raised beaver – and walked among them twice, giving them ample opportunity to reach out and touch him, if they so desired. But nobody thought of this simple test, and just as well, or the play would be over pretty quickly.

The political commentary between the ghost’s two appearances was nice and crisp, and for the first time I was aware that Hamlet senior won land by killing Fortinbras senior (they had no imagination when it came to naming their children, these folk), and the extent of that land may be larger than I’d realised – at the time I thought it might even have been the whole kingdom of Denmark, which gives a completely fresh picture of the habits of these Scandinavians in relation to kingship. Checking the text again, I find it unlikely that the land won was that significant, but that’s certainly the impression I had while watching this performance.

After these characters leave, planning to tell Hamlet, the court arrives on stage with elegance and some pomp. Hamlet is first to arrive, after the servants, takes a glass of champagne and stands on the corner to our right. He’s in a decent black suit, hair slicked back, and looking grim rather than sorrowful. Gertrude looks radiantly happy, dressed in a lovely white gown, and playing the gracious hostess for all she’s worth. Claudius is firmly in control, and there are just one or two hints that Gertrude has been coaching him in what to say (or do those come later?). I noticed there was a churchman there as well – I’m not good with religious uniforms, and he’s not an official character, so I’ll call him a bishop for these notes. Cornelius has had a sex change and become Cornelia, but otherwise the scene is much as expected, although Claudius actually looks at Hamlet before addressing Laertes.

I was aware of the public nature of this scene. Gertrude in particular is having to deal with a domestic tizzy at a public ceremony, and although she comes across as very loving, I could see the tightness in her manner. She didn’t want Hamlet fucking up this big day for her and Claudius, but also didn’t want to have a full-on screaming row with him in front of the court. Hamlet’s position also seemed more in the public eye, and there was that sense of everyone being watched throughout the play – not watched so much as in surveillance, but simply because there were servants around, or reporters, or paparazzi types, that kind of thing, ready to seize on any gossip they could about the royal family. Later, when Polonius arrives to say a long farewell to Laertes, he has Reynaldo with him, who hovers in the background until Polonius dismisses him so that he can have a quiet word with his daughter. That sort of thing was very apparent.

When the court leaves, Hamlet’s emotional state becomes very apparent, too. He delivers his first soliloquy from the back of the stage, curled up in a ball, almost sobbing with grief. His distress and anger are clear through every line, but he manages to pull himself together enough to welcome Horatio enthusiastically when he arrives with the others.

After the greetings, and Horatio’s agreement that the marriage came remarkably soon after the funeral, Horatio is startled to hear Hamlet say he thinks he sees his father, and is clearly unsure how to broach the subject of his own sighting of the ghost. But only for a moment. Perhaps he realised the risks involved in telling the suffering Hamlet such news, or perhaps he was worried that he might be thought crazy. Either way, he decides to go ahead, and unfolds the whole story. Hamlet is certainly amazed, and I sensed he was excited by the possibility of seeing his father’s ghost, but I was also aware that he was keeping a little aloof, holding back from believing instantly, which I thought would tie in well with his later choices.

Now Laertes comes on stage, with servants bringing his bags. He’s carrying his foils. Ophelia enters as well, and she’s busy sorting out some piece of cloth and putting it in one of his cases while he warns her not to take Hamlet’s show of affection too seriously. She’s very light-hearted and a bit coquettish, showing us both that she’s a young woman becoming aware of her own attractiveness, and that she has a good relationship with her brother, for all that he’s been abroad for a while. She even rummages in his suitcase and discovers his condom stash to illustrate her “primrose path” comment. Laertes has to hide them pretty quickly, as Polonius arrives just then.

His advice to Laertes is obviously well known to both of them – they even complete “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”. Once Laertes has left, Polonius, with a slight sideways movement of the eyes, shows that he’s picked up on Ophelia’s parting comment to her brother. His mood changes, and he starts to question her, sending Reynaldo away so as to be private with her. She’s compliant, willing to tell her father everything he asks about – she’s unlikely to say a word more than she has to about what’s passed between her and Hamlet – and she’s also willing to obey his order not to see Hamlet again, although not happy with it.

Now we’re on the platform again, and Hamlet with Horatio and Marcellus arrive to watch for the ghost. The trumpet and cannon bit was fine, but I’m always reminded that Horatio is something of an enigma. Is he Danish? He doesn’t seem to know the royal court’s customs, he hasn’t seen the king more than once, but he knew him well enough to confirm the ghost’s identity. It’s a difficult part, with less than the average amount of personality for a Shakespeare character who’s on stage for so long, but I see him more as a necessary plot device; not only does he stop Hamlet having to soliloquise even more than he does, but he shows us that Hamlet is still capable of an affectionate relationship with someone he trusts. It’s just that right at this moment he’s surrounded by a bunch of devious bastards, some of whom may want him dead. Hamlet’s ready acceptance of Horatio contrasts with the way his initial welcome turns to mistrust of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are clearly working for the king and queen. Horatio also allows us to see that Hamlet is indeed feigning madness, as otherwise they couldn’t have the relatively straightforward conversations that they do have.

Back to the performance now, and when the ghost arrives and gestures to Hamlet to follow, he has the usual trouble getting away from his friends. I don’t remember now if he drew a gun, or if it was a dagger, but he heads off after the ghost with the others deciding to follow and protect him. The empty stage is very useful here, as there’s nothing to get in the way. The ghost, also played by Patrick Stewart, tells his story, and Hamlet is clearly affected by it. This seems to be the first time he thinks of revenge. It’s understandable that he chooses to act a bit crazy when Horatio and Marcellus catch up with him, as it’s a lot to take in. I found myself wondering when the ghost is bellowing “swear” at them, whether they were shifting their ground to match up with the ghost, or running away from it. It makes more sense to me if they’re trying to stand on the same bit of ground, though I’ve never seen it done that way – they always seem to be steering clear of it. But then the bellowing is hard to locate, so maybe I’ve completely misunderstood that scene all this while.

Polonius gives Reynaldo his lesson in using deception as an interrogation technique. It’s a lovely scene, and I wish it was done more often, as it shows us a lot more of Polonius’ character, and in this production also sets up the idea that it’s OK to use a lie to get at the truth. Shortly after this, we see Hamlet again, and I was aware that that’s the very strategy he’s using to find things out himself, what with the pretend madness. Oliver Ford Davies has been one of our favourite actors for many years, and his ability to get across Polonius’ senior moments was lovely. I saw him as a shrewd politician who’s worked for the previous king for many years, but who’s now reaching his retire by date. I also wondered if perhaps some of the younger politicos in the Danish court were wary of backing Claudius too soon, whereas Polonius saw it as an opportunity at the latter end of his career. In any case, he’s obviously the chief minister, with Claudius relying heavily on him as well as Gertrude.

After Reynaldo leaves, Ophelia enters, all upset because Hamlet’s paid her a visit and was acting strangely. She’s already come a long way from her carefree attitude during her first scene; first she was downcast at her father’s disapproval, now she’s disturbed by Hamlet’s behaviour. I fear for her sanity if this goes on.

If I’ve remembered the order of scenes correctly, this is where Hamlet gives us “to be or not to be”. The speaker earlier today who told us of the three texts for Hamlet, pointed out that this speech was the most often moved, and that there were often concerns about placing it where it supports Hamlet’s emotional journey. Here I found it suggesting that Hamlet’s enthusiasm for revenge is already on the wane, and he feels the unfairness of being asked to carry out this task. Or I may have completely forgotten what came next.

Claudius and Gertrude welcome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the usual warmth, and again, Claudius has to be corrected by Gertrude as to which is which. It was also clear that this was probably her idea, that she’d coached Claudius in what to say – his speech was rather prepared and formal – and that she was working hard both to support Claudius and charm these lads from Hamlet’s youth. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were the usual sort, both willing to help out royalty, and there was little else to report from this bit. As Gertrude is ushering them out, Polonius begins to tell Claudius that he’s figured out why Hamlet’s crazy – doesn’t use so few words, of course – and Claudius tells her of this as she rejoins them. Naturally she wants to know right away, but she keeps her patience while the returning ambassadors are dealt with.

I was pleased to see the bit about allowing safe passage for Fortinbras across Danish land has been dropped. Frankly, it’s a bizarre proposal, to allow a chap who’s been raising an army to fight you to simply say, oops, sorry, and let him bring those very troops onto your soil so he can allegedly attack someone else! Stupider people than Claudius would baulk at that, so here it’s cut, and as a result he doesn’t come across as such a dumbo. Other productions have indicated that Polonius, or the second ambassador, have disagreed with the wisdom of this agreement, but here it was avoided altogether.

As a result, the ambassadors are off stage very quickly, and the remaining group can get down to business, Polonius having brought Ophelia along. Polonius is as fond of hearing himself speak as Gertrude is frustrated at how long it’s taking him to get to the point. Understandable, of course, this is her son they’re talking about. Good job she’s got manners, or she might have brained him with some heavy ornament for keeping her on tenterhooks. Then Polonius swings from being long-winded to tactlessly abrupt, in declaring that Hamlet’s mad – it made poor Gertrude jump. Claudius seems to find the whole thing funny – he’s obviously figured out what Polonius is like, and has to hide his grins behind his hand a lot. This also suggested to me that he’s not concerned about Hamlet on a personal level, but as a direct threat to himself.

Polonius’ reading of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia is as laboured as one would expect from such a greybeard, though he has to be pretty nippy to keep it out of Gertrude’s hands – she’s all over him trying to get a peek. Once the details are known, I think Gertrude is a bit happier; at least this would be a reasonable explanation for Hamlet’s apparent madness, though I don’t think she’s completely convinced. Neither is Claudius, but he does like the method suggested by Polonius to check it out. As Gertrude leaves, she comments that she hopes that Ophelia may be the cause of Hamlet’s distraction, but has to think for a moment to remember her name. Obviously, Ophelia hasn’t been much at court, so Gertrude hasn’t bothered to memorise it. It’s a nice touch.

Polonius gives Ophelia a book to carry and pretend to read – she’s also clutching some letters – and he and Claudius hide behind one of the mirror panels. This may be where “to be or not to be” was done (pay attention next time!), but in any case, Hamlet encounters Ophelia, goes through all the usual chat, realises they’re being watched and then goes completely Looney Tunes, after which she’s left there, more upset than ever at what she’s seen. Polonius and Claudius emerge, and the last bit of their scene is deferred, as we haven’t set up the play yet. Ophelia struggles off, dropping her book, which Hamlet, re-entering, picks up. This is the book he’s holding when Polonius accost him with “What do you read, my lord?”, and so we are led into Hamlet’s meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This was nicely done. For the first time, we saw Hamlet not join in the laughter about their comparison of themselves to fortune’s privates. He obviously finds that a bit low for his taste, which is why Rosencrantz has to think hard to find an excuse for laughing at “man delights not me”. He obviously was thinking of women at that point, but doesn’t want to be caught out in another crudity, so he’s relieved to remember that the players are coming to Elsinore. This distracts Hamlet so much that he forgets their role as spies to welcome the players.

Again, it was a first for me to see Hamlet not managing to remember the speech perfectly after his initial false start. The players have to prompt him, and although they are kind in their response, he’s not that much cop as an actor in this production. I realised as well, for the first time, that the reason he chooses this speech is because it shows a wife’s deep grief for the loss of her murdered husband, the very thing he wants to see from his own mother. He’s completely engrossed in the speech, and there’s more of a sense of focus with this Hamlet.

I think the next bit was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting back, mentioning the play, and then as Gertrude ushers them out, Claudius and Polonius confer, making it clear she’s not needed, so she leaves. I was reminded of the way Lady Macbeth is increasingly left out of things by her husband once the killing really gets going, and this exclusion is clearly not to Gertrude’s liking. She is the one who’s been helping Claudius establish himself after all, and she presumably saw herself as a more powerful figure now that she had a junior partner. Not anymore. Claudius and Polonius agree that Hamlet will be shipped off to England after the play, as his madness is too dangerous to leave him free.

The stage is set for the performance now, and I did find myself wondering when they were going to take the break. It’s sometimes done after “the play’s the thing”, and nowadays is often taken after the play itself, but there aren’t a lot of places to do it conveniently past this bit. It’s not that I was getting bored at all, just that I was aware that an interval should be coming up, and I wondered where they would take it. Anyway, Hamlet does his usual bossy bit with the actors, and then he’s left alone to talk with Horatio. Although Horatio is a bit of a blank character, I could really see Hamlet’s affection for him, and how much he values him as a person and a friend.

The king and queen enter, with entourage, and take their seats. There are two fancy seats towards the back of the stage, though still on the thrust, a rug across the middle, and I remember some curtains hanging down at the back – I presume they brought some structure onto the stage to back the seats. Hamlet takes a chair over to the front of the stage, to share with Ophelia, and the rest are positioned to the sides of the royal box.

The opening mime for the play was much coarser than I’ve seen before, and so it may not have got its point across so well. The actual play was performed by characters in Elizabethan costume – the queen was in a black dress that might have been worn by Elizabeth herself – and upsets Claudius as usual. His reaction was quieter than usual, however – he walks to the front of the stage and picks up one of the lanterns himself, looking at Hamlet, before heading off. Hamlet is jubilant, and I don’t remember if Horatio heads off to get the recorder when Hamlet asks for it, or one of the servants, perhaps a player. Either way, it arrives in time for Hamlet to issue his musical challenge to Guildenstern. When Polonius comes on, and Hamlet baits him with the cloud shapes, Horatio laughs at his teasing of the old man.

After Hamlet has had his say about the witching hour, Claudius bustles on with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to arrange for Hamlet’s immediate departure for England. This fits well with the earlier scenes – Claudius was already sensing danger, and now he’s convinced that Hamlet has to be got out of the way, and the sooner the better. Polonius comes on to tell the king that he’s off to watch over Gertrude and Hamlet’s conversation, and then Claudius is left alone.

I’m not a fan of projectile vomit on stage, so I was glad that Claudius only retches at this point. Mind you, it looked pretty severe. He does his best to attempt prayer, and again I was reminded of Macbeth and his moral dilemmas. As Claudius kneels down, towards the front of the stage, Hamlet enters at the back. As he walks across the stage, he spots the man he wants to kill, and coming forward, he raises his knife above the unheeding king and says “now might I do it.” And the lights go out. That was a great way to take the interval, and for all that I know the play well, it still felt like a cliff-hanger. Brilliant.

The second half naturally opened with the same dramatic image, and this time Hamlet takes a step back to consider the situation. For once, I felt his reasoning about not killing Claudius came across as trying to get the best possible revenge rather than a delaying tactic. Now we need a bedroom for Gertrude, and it’s a splendid one, with a large bed, bedside table, dressing table, etc. As all this is wheeled on, we see Gertrude obviously upset, cause she’s at the fags and the booze, having taken off her wig. This is how she behaves when she’s not on show, and it gives her a very human touch. She and Hamlet have a ding-dong family row, and then Hamlet hears the noise of Polonius. He lunges across the bed, grabs the gun from Gertrude’s bedside table, and shoots Polonius through the mirror, which rotates to show the shattering effect, while Polonius staggers to the ground, dead. I suspect the timing of the effects was a bit off tonight, as it didn’t seem quite right.

I was sure I heard some lines tonight that I haven’t heard before in this scene – giving the mix and match approach to the text, it’s not impossible. I couldn’t always make out what Hamlet was saying, but his anger came across clearly, and given the circumstances the less than perfect diction was acceptable. The ghost sits on the bed while Hamlet is comforting Gertrude – I thought she was doing her best to avoid seeing the ghost, although she seemed to feel him brushing her hair with his hand, running her own hand over her hair immediately afterwards. Following this bit, Hamlet sounds much calmer and saner than before. There’s an unusual reaction from Gertrude towards the end of this scene. When Hamlet’s finished having a go at her, she laughs. I got the impression this was because she just can’t take it all in. The situation is worse than she thought – either Hamlet’s mad or her new husband murdered her first – and what on earth does Hamlet expect her to do about it? She shows more signs of extreme emotional distress, verging on madness, than I’ve seen before in this scene. She also reneges on her promise to Hamlet, and continues her relationship with Claudius, although she doesn’t tell about Hamlet feigning madness. Best of both worlds? Or does she just think he is actually mad? Or does she simply prefer that option over the other one?

When Claudius arrives, there are several servants coming in with him, and Gertrude suddenly realises she’s only in her silk pj’s, and feels vulnerable. Claudius is now much more concerned about keeping his own power than about his relationship with Gertrude, which is presumably why she  seems much more unhappy from now on.

The guards who rush off with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dolled up in all their finery, so they seem even more absurd when they have a mini-pile up on one of the walkways as they finally catch up with Hamlet. The comedy is emphasised when Hamlet makes his escape through one of the guard’s legs. It’s a bit like the Keystone Cops chase in David Tennant’s Comedy of Errors. When they do bring him on stage to confront Claudius, he’s on a wheelie chair, hands and feet taped to it, and with a strip of tape across his mouth. Claudius doesn’t seem to mind hurting Hamlet when he rips it off, but then neither did we, as Hamlet’s reaction to it got a good laugh from the audience.

Also present are the bishop who was in the first court scene, and a doctor. Hamlet says his lines about looking for Polonius in heaven directly to the bishop, and the doctor gives him a jab of something before wheeling him off for his trip to England. I suppose it could have been his travel inoculation, but from the context I suspect a sedative would be more likely. Good job Claudius wasn’t filling the syringe.

Ophelia’s madness was very well done. She’s angry as well as crazy, and it’s difficult to watch, but not as embarrassing as this bit usually is. She also has a lovely singing voice, even though she has to sing crazily. The first time she’s wearing her dress from earlier, but the second time she’s down to her slip, and she looks like she’s been getting into all sorts of rough places to pick her weeds and things. Her legs are muddy and bloody, and she’s carrying stuff that looks ready for the compost heap. She gives items to everyone, even the servant in the background. Laertes is angry as well as weeping, and Claudius is concerned that this anger will take him over, after working so hard to get it contained. Gertrude’s expression suggests weariness, but also that she considers there are other priorities for her now. She seems to be less bothered by the political needs.

Of course, Laertes has turned up between Ophelia’s bouts of madness, and I found it ironic that Claudius would tell Gertrude to leave Laertes alone with his speech about the divinity that hedges a king – didn’t work too well for his own brother, did it? He came across to me as quite a poker player here, willing to take calculated risks. Gertrude’s speech about Ophelia’s death came across as we’d seen in the talk on Monday, adding each bit to flesh out the story. There didn’t seem to be any spin, and I wondered if she’d actually seen her death but been unable to help. (This was confirmed next day by Penny Downie when she came to chat to the Summer School – her take was that Gertrude watched from an upstairs window, and couldn’t get help in time.)

I was also very aware during these scenes that when Claudius is dealing with Laertes at first, he’s assuming Hamlet will be killed in England, so Laertes’ desire for revenge will have to be diverted somehow. He’s been looking for a suitable time to broach the subject of Hamlet’s death, and then just when he might be able to, the letters come from Hamlet, Claudius stealing the one for Gertrude as well. His mind works quickly, and he’s soon plotted a way to bump Hamlet off without putting himself at risk, then tests Laertes’ resolve before showing him the plan, winding him up in the process. He’s also careful to make sure there’s a plan B. He is such a crafty schemer that I can’t believe Hamlet’s derogation of him to Gertrude. He obviously has ability, and has probably had to endure years in relative obscurity while his brother was king, with other people assuming he only got where he was because he’s the king’s brother. It would sour better people than Claudius.

The scene with Fortinbras’s troops came in the middle of these court scenes, and I liked the fact that Hamlet is on his own. I realised he was now on his way back to Denmark – the usual staging has him reflecting on Fortinbras’s rampant activity versus his own pathetic lack of effort, while being carted off to England by his old school chums – but here he’s done up like  a backpacker, looking like he’s hitched his way back to Denmark. We don’t actually see Fortinbras at this time; his troops are indicated by helicopter sounds, and some men in combat fatigues waving those little light wands around. Some other men were rushing around being busy, while one of the military chaps explains to Hamlet what’s going on.

The gravedigger is next. I hadn’t taken a great liking to Mark Hadfield’s performance as Puck, but I thoroughly enjoyed his cheerful gravedigger. There was a chap in a fluorescent jacket there for the gravedigger to put his question to. He gets his papers signed – Health and Safety probably – and takes away the cones, and then Hamlet and Horatio come along, strolling through the graveyard, Hamlet still with his backpack. They’re about to pass by entirely, when a skull gets thrown out of the grave and lands with a clunk on the stage. Hamlet does some rarely heard lines about what that person may have been in life, and the same with another skull that comes sailing through the air. Then he questions the gravedigger, and gets the usual cheeky replies, which the gravedigger finds extremely funny. Horatio is not engaged with this, and is looking around until Hamlet talks directly to him about Yorrick. I could really see Hamlet’s connection with someone from his childhood. How creepy is that, looking at the skull of someone you once knew?

Hamlet and Horatio came and sat by us on the ramp when the funeral procession arrives. Hamlet is very cut up to find out it’s Ophelia who’s died. His fight with Laertes seemed pretty real. Again, Claudius seems to be distancing himself from Gertrude a bit, or perhaps not realising the support she needs at this time, as he’s too caught up in his own concerns about keeping the crown. The way he tells her to put a watch on her son, speaks volumes.

Burial over (the bishop was present, again), we move to the concluding scenes. Hamlet is putting on a shirt as he re-enters, and discussing the situation with Horatio. We don’t get the details of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths tonight, but we do get Hamlet’s dismissal of their end. He’s quite callous when he wants to be. The scene with Osric was a bit over my head, but I did get that Hamlet is playing verbally with him, speaking as fantastically as he can to reflect the other man’s overblown dialogue. Horatio helps him on with his fencing jacket.

The rest of the court turns up, and it took me a while to notice Gertrude. She’s completely out of sorts now, and finds the jollity of the proceedings totally inappropriate. She’s dressed in black, just as Hamlet was at the start of the play. Claudius is all smarm and charm, and Laertes is stiff and formal. His acceptance of Hamlet’s apology is truncated, so he doesn’t talk about standing aloof, but he isn’t very friendly either. Hamlet’s first hit is very quick – Osric really teased out the start of the first bout – and the second is almost as quick. Gertrude comes across to our corner to give Hamlet her napkin, and when she hears Claudius tell her not to drink, she clearly realises what’s in the cup. I don’t know how much her decision to drink it is so she can quit a world she now finds too unpleasant, and how much to save her son, but it was a very moving moment for me, and very powerful.

Soon they’re fencing again. Laertes gets his chance and cuts Hamlet across the back of his neck. Hamlet is furious, and although Laertes has put his foil back amongst the others, fights his way through to find the untipped one. Various racks and stands are tipped over during this, so the stage is becoming a bit of a mess. Hamlet gets Laertes, the queen is dying, Laertes blurts out the truth, and Hamlet gives Claudius the cup at rapier point. No one stirs to help him, so he drinks it and dies. Now Hamlet is feeling death sneaking up on him, and collapses into Horatio’s arms. Horatio has one last go at dying with him, but Hamlet finds enough strength to keep the cup from him and tip the contents out. After Horatio’s last lines to Hamlet’s body, and with the drums rolling and mirror doors opening and Fortinbras just stepping through to look at the strange scene, the lights go out. A lovely way to finish, though probably a bit puzzling for those who don’t know the play so well, as we didn’t see Fortinbras in the earlier military scene.

Despite that, this was an excellent production, and the performances were some of the best I’ve seen. Mariah Gale as Ophelia was very good, young and light hearted at first, and clearly happy about her relationship with Hamlet, but it all goes wrong when he’s not himself anymore. Her madness at losing a father mirrors his pretend madness. Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius was perfect as an old man losing his train of thought and getting too caught up in the words. Patrick Stewart as Claudius was perfect as a scheming villain who would repent if he could – an echo of Macbeth? He showed more of Claudius’s thought processes than I’ve seen before. Penny Downie as Gertrude was just beautiful, with much more of an emotional journey than I’ve seen before, and lots of lovely details in the performance, such as her encouragement of Claudius when they’re talking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She obviously knows all the people at court, and she’s keen that they accept Claudius as the new king, so she’s using her political nous to help him prepare, even prompting him once, I forget where.

And then David Tennant as Hamlet was superb. He is the one so many young people have come to see, and he didn’t disappoint, so hopefully there’s a lot more of the younger generation hooked on theatre now. He showed a great range of emotions, was very active physically and very expressive, from leaping around the stage to curling up in a ball. Much more active than reflective, in fact, though there was plenty of that as well. Hamlet’s thought processes came over quite well, though not as well as the emotions. He has tremendous stage presence, and was totally believable as a potential king.

The ideas about madness that we were given during today’s Summer School talk didn’t quite fit with what I saw. I was aware that Hamlet is telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stuff that isn’t necessarily true, as he doesn’t trust them. Instead of explaining that he’s unhappy because he’s found out his uncle killed his father and married his mother to get the crown, which would be very dangerous, he resorts to vagueness. So any idea that he’s suffering from a condition where he is avoiding looking at the root cause of his unhappiness has to be taken with a large block of salt. Based on tonight’s performance, Hamlet is only too well aware of his predicament, and the causes of it, and it does him great credit that he manages to stay as rational as he does in the circumstances. If Freud and the others analysed Hamlet based on his overt speeches, without taking into account the context in which they were said (this is a play, after all), then they missed the point entirely. At least Hamlet didn’t have to pay them for their time.

Also, we were told about the options to use “your philosophy” or “our philosophy” – tonight it was “our”.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me