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.

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Hamlet – February 2016

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Produced by STF and Tobacco Factory Theatres

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Wednesday 24th February 2016

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

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Hamlet – October 2015

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare (more or less)

Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th October 2015

With so much hype around this production, it was hard to avoid seeing any of the comments or reviews, but we still managed to come to it with open minds. And we found it brilliant! Not the best we’ve ever seen, perhaps, but with an outstanding central performance and some ingenious and thought-provoking changes to the usual text. The set design was amazing, and although the extended first half was asking a lot of the audience, the overall length was reasonable, especially with Fortinbras included in the line-up.

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Hamlet – August 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 15th August 2013

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

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Hamlet – May 2013 (2)

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 31st May 2013

It’s an interesting experience watching a production over several performances, especially in a long run. The ‘normal’ expectation is for growth: actors will develop their roles, the cast will work better together, and a deeper and broader view of the play will emerge through both the actors’ greater experience and the repeated viewings, which are often helped by a different angle. When we first saw this production during the previews, we were confident that the next performance we saw (ignoring the understudy run) would have come on considerably. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Jonathan Slinger still hasn’t got to grips with his role as the vacillating prince, and although there were some interesting changes to some of the staging, and some improvements in individual performances, it would seem that our enjoyment last time round was largely based on the surprise factor, which was understandably lacking tonight.

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Hamlet – May 2013 (1)

Experience: 7/10

Public Understudies Performance

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Tinuke Craig

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 16th May 2013

These understudy runs can be really good fun and very interesting; seeing how an actor manages to find their own performance within an established production can be enlightening, so we were keen to see how the understudies would handle their roles in this unusual, design driven production. Apart from Greg Hicks playing the roles of Claudius and the ghost – John Stahl was unavailable – everyone else was playing a different part while most of the other leads – Jonathan Slinger, Pippa Dixon, Alex Waldmann and Robin Soans – were occasionally on stage as extras. Jonathan Slinger took the part of Gonzago in the initial mime sequence.

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Hamlet – March 2013


Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 25th March 2013

For such a well-known play, it was refreshing to see a distinctly different take on many aspects of the story, coupled with a version of the text which dropped many familiar lines. Of all David Farr’s productions at the RSC that we’ve seen, this one is definitely the strongest, and as this was only the eleventh performance (press night tomorrow) there is plenty of scope for the actors to develop their roles within the overall structure. Mind you, they’re starting from a high baseline, with much to enjoy already in this lively, if a tad over-long, production.

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Hamlet – June 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Tuesday 12th June 2012

I would rate this production higher than my experience of it; the unseasonal cold, the plethora of aeroplanes and helicopters as well as general fatigue, all combined to reduce my enjoyment of a brisk, clear and surprisingly funny performance with some interesting staging choices.

To begin with, the stage had a triangular section added on at the front, and this had steps on each side for access. In front of the balcony was a scaffold, with a narrow platform along the top and a ladder at our end (stairs at the other?). I thought they would make more use of this, for the battlement scenes for example, but it only served as the lobby. Underneath this platform was an entranceway with benches and lots of hanging space, where cast members would lurk either before an entrance or, more usually, to play their instruments – there was plenty of music in this production. Ropes were strung between the two main pillars and between the left-hand pillar and the scaffold, and red curtains were draped over them, allowing for the arras and for some nifty changes during the Mousetrap scene. I noticed some chalk marks in the centre of the stage, for all the world looking like they were due some roadworks, but these simply indicated the locations for the steps and boards that created the makeshift locations. The two boards were leaning against each pillar, while the three sets of steps were short and wide, and were used in various configurations, even doubling as thrones when the boards were slotted in behind them. Finally, there were two brooms, which played a small but entertaining part in the Mousetrap.

The cast pottered about the stage beforehand, chatting here and there and generally getting the stage ready for the show. The costumes were 1930s working class, though the women had smarter frocks, and the king and queen each had a fancy robe to wear over their clothes so we would know who they were. With only eight actors, it was quite an achievement that we always knew who was who, and some of the little cameos were great fun, Osric especially. When I realised that Claudius and Gertrude were doubling as the player king and queen, I was immediately intrigued as to how they would pull this off – more on that story later.

They began with a song; didn’t hear the words clearly, but it was a lively number. From the program notes, I was aware that this touring production, while based on the Folio version of the play, had been informed by the First Quarto version, itself reckoned to be from a touring version. Although I was aware of some cuts, it didn’t distract me in any way, and the story was told in full, not bad for less than three hours.

After the song, the boards were placed in a forward-pointing V-shape on the stage, and the steps were also placed at the sides, creating the battlements. Francisco was huddled there, spear in hand, and with a warming brazier by his side. I noticed he took it with him when he left – bit selfish, I thought, even if does help to keep the stage clear. Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo did the usual chat, with the ghost (Dickon Tyrrell, doubling with Claudius) entering through the crowd and walking up the right-hand steps. He was wearing a great-coat with a dusting of grey on the shoulders, and did look pretty imposing, sword in hand. After striding across the stage, he exited on the left-hand side(?), leaving Horatio to fill the others in on the military situation. The ghost reappeared through the middle entrance, glowered briefly at Horatio’s impertinence, then turned and strode quickly off stage back right.

The court scene was set up by placing two sets of steps at the back of the chalk square and removing the boards. Claudius stood on the steps to address the court – Hamlet stood, alone, on the front triangle – and as Claudius mentioned Gertrude, he held out his hand to her and she joined him on the steps. The business of state was dealt with very quickly, with Voltemand and Cornelius being despatched to Norway, and Laertes given permission to leave for France. Hamlet’s comment ‘I am too much i’ the sun’ got a good laugh – the sun had no intention of shining today!

Once the court had departed, Hamlet gave us his first soliloquy, and I liked the way it was clearly directed at the audience instead of being a personal speech which the audience just happens to overhear. Michael Benz’s delivery was quick and clear, and while this style didn’t allow for much sense of introspection, nor much detail in the characterisation, the story was nice and easy to follow. I also spotted that when Hamlet compares his father and uncle, his choice of comparison likens his father to Hercules, indicating just how much he hero-worshipped the man, while deprecating his own abilities at the same time. Bernardo was absent from the delegation reporting the ghost’s visitations to Hamlet, and the appointment for that night’s vigil was soon arranged.

Polonius’s house used the steps in combination, with Laertes and Polonius having to climb over one set of steps to enter the house, or so it seemed. Laertes’s warning to his sister was brief (would that he got that trait from his father!) but was clearly motivated by his concern that Hamlet, regardless of his affection, was not free to choose his own wife. Polonius’s concern, as expressed later, was that Hamlet was just toying with Ophelia, and that she would be cast off as soon as someone better came along. Laertes nearly escaped this time; only the firm grasp of his father’s hand prevented him from leaving until he had sat through the long litany of fatherly advice, although even these wise words had been edited. There was almost no delay after Laertes left before Polonius asked Ophelia what they had been talking about, and that exchange was soon completed as well, with Polonius forbidding Ophelia to spend any time with Hamlet.

The battlements were set up again, and before long the ghost was on the prowl. He stood in the front right corner of the stage, majestically beckoning Hamlet to follow, while Hamlet dealt with Horatio and Marcellus. As he broke free from them, threatening them with his sword, the ghost turned and left, with Hamlet close on his heels. I had thought the scaffold platform might be used for the next scene, but again it was all done on the main stage, and rattled through in a pretty standard way. When Horatio and Marcellus arrived, I thought Hamlet might have been thinking of telling them the truth, but then he changed his mind and informed them that villains are arrant knaves, a case of stating the bleedin’ obvious. For the swearing section, they crossed the stage a couple of times to follow the voice, and Hamlet’s demonstration of head-shaking and the rest raised a few laughs.

With the stage cleared, Polonius threw a small bag of money to Reynaldo with the opening remarks of the next scene. Reynaldo seemed to be quite up to speed on his job this time, but took careful notes in his book of all that Polonius said, which made it easier to jog his memory when necessary. I don’t remember hearing the ‘carp of truth’ line, but the bulk of the dialogue was covered, and Christopher Saul’s Polonius warmed the audience up by bringing out the humour nicely. Ophelia’s speech was good; I was aware of how frightening such an experience would be, and her description conjured up very clear pictures in my mind.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made an amusing entrance, carrying not just bags but tennis rackets and one or two golf clubs as well. Presumably to reflect the inconsistency in their names between the First Quarto and the other texts, Claudius got their names completely wrong this time, calling Guildenstern by a mangled version of Rosencrantz’s name and calling Rosencrantz ‘Guggenheim’. Gertrude doesn’t get a chance to correct him till they’re nearly out of the door, but with their names so well known to the audience, we had a couple of good laughs from this mistake.

I forget where they did the ambassadors bit; it may have been before R&G, or possibly just after, but either way Polonius didn’t introduce them. Steve had the impression that Voltemand was an inexperienced ambassador who had been hoodwinked by the King of Norway into believing that he, the king, had been completely unaware of Fortinbras’s intentions. In reality, he had probably instigated the whole thing, and when his plot was discovered, simply fobbed the Danish ambassador off with a plausible excuse, while at the same time arranging a way for Fortinbras and his troops to get onto Danish soil without opposition. A neat trick. I saw none of this myself, but I’ve been concerned about this Polish expedition ploy for many years, and I like it when there’s some sign of discomfort over it, unless it’s dropped completely, of course.

Polonius’s long rambling speeches were well appreciated today, and he stood at the front of the triangle to read the letter from Hamlet to Ophelia, with the king and queen on either side. That done, they soon finished plotting to overhear Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia, and when Hamlet himself turned up with his book, he was dressed in a strange outfit, as befitted his pretence of madness. He wore a vest, red shorts, white leggings and a red biretta; the outfit on its own raised a laugh. After Polonius’s departure, Hamlet looked very happy to see R&G, as he had been with Horatio. Through the opening greetings, and the banter about fortune’s ‘privates’, which was followed by a physical man-dance which also had us laughing, Hamlet seemed unconcerned about their arrival, but that changed pretty quickly when they proved completely unable to think of any plausible lies to cover their requested presence. Hamlet’s speech about his lack of delight in the physical world was well done, especially following such a jokey start to the scene, and Rosencrantz’s explanation of his laugh seemed genuine this time.

The actors arrived, and I was immediately aware that the Mousetrap was going to be tricky to stage with this casting. The player’s speech was fine, and Polonius’s chatter very entertaining as usual. The ‘rogue and peasant slave’ speech was very good, again talking to the audience and involving us at every stage. The next scene was also brisk, and soon the curtain had been drawn across one of the ropes for Claudius and Polonius to hide behind while Ophelia spoke with Hamlet. ‘To be or not to be’ was OK, and Hamlet’s confrontation with Ophelia brought out a lot of his anger, though without the violence that is often used to get the point across. Ophelia was facing the curtain when Hamlet asked her where her father was; I couldn’t see her reaction, but Hamlet was immediately aware that something was going on, and upped the tempo of his diatribe. After he left and Ophelia had expressed her reactions, Polonius and Claudius were typically unsympathetic to the poor girl, with Polonius snatching back the book he’d given her at the start of the scene.

Next came the big scene: the Mousetrap. Hamlet gave some brief advice to the players before asking for Horatio’s help to scrutinise the king during the performance. Two thrones had been set up to the rear of the pillars, and when Claudius and Gertrude arrived with the rest of the court, they sat there ready for the start. From our side view, I didn’t see the curtain being drawn across at first, but it was, and we could see the actors change their costumes and rearrange the set for the players. With this done – it only took a few seconds – the curtain was drawn back and the play began, with the husband and wife carrying out the dumb show. The boards had been removed from the steps, which then became the bed the player king lay on. With the king killed by poison, the queen is at first distraught, but was soon distracted when the poisoner presented her with some gaudy baubles. The whole dumb show was done at a lively pace, and with only a few comments from Hamlet and Ophelia, they then went straight into the actual play. Much cut, the player king was soon lying on the bed again while his wife left him, and the curtain was swiftly drawn across the stage. A few quick changes, and it was drawn back again, so that we could hear the minimal exchanges between Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius. Again the curtain, and this time a dummy represented the sleeping ruler. When the poison was poured in the dummy’s ear, a little smoke poured out, and then we heard the line ‘the king rises’. The king and queen came out of the audience and exited at the back of the stage, leaving Hamlet on the stage with Horatio.

R&G were followed by Polonius, and the lines about the shape of the cloud were more relevant here with the open roof (and plenty of clouds to look at!). Claudius knelt to say his prayers at the very front of the V, while Hamlet came on from the back, went through his usual thought process, and left to visit his mother. With Claudius’s final lines, we were finally at the interval, and I could stretch my stiff legs a bit.

For the restart, and the closet scene, the side curtain was drawn again to provide an arras; otherwise, Gertrude’s room was rather bare. Polonius was killed very quickly, and the body covered with the curtain. When comparing Gertrude’s two husbands, Hamlet held two small photos in front of her as she knelt at the front of the stage; although he seemed to get through to her at this point, once he’d seen the ghost and she couldn’t, she became more concerned that he was actually mad. She stood next to the ghost at one point, and he raised his hand as if to touch her, but she moved again before he could. When Claudius turned up, she seemed more convinced of Hamlet’s madness than colluding with him to keep Claudius in the dark.

The next scene had Hamlet lugging a body, wrapped in the red cloth, up to the platform where he left it. R&G came on stage while Hamlet was still up there, and he came down quickly to speak to them. The dialogue with Claudius was nicely done, with humour in the comments about heaven and hell, and the father/mother conundrum.

Fortinbras was definitely present in this production, and with a small change to his costume, Peter Bray gave us a strong military leader, very decisive and ruthless. Hamlet’s soliloquy after the soldier’s explanation was very truncated but got the point across – now he’s going to take action! Ophelia’s mad scenes were OK – they’re not my favourite – but Carlyss Peer has a lovely singing voice, and again the dialogue was very clear. She didn’t carry anything with her, but picked up imaginary flowers from the ground, which in some ways was even more moving than seeing an Ophelia with armfuls of flowers or weeds. Laertes burst onto the stage without the usual preamble, and was very forceful at first. Again I found myself thinking that Claudius was chancing his arm when he talked about ‘such divinity doth hedge a king’ – didn’t do his brother much good.

Horatio came on alone to read his letter, and then Claudius and Laertes did their plotting. Gertrude reported Ophelia’s death, and then played the part of the second gravedigger, with the boards being set up to create a ‘raised bed’ grave. I nodded a bit during this section, but perked up when we got to the next scene, with Hamlet telling Horatio about R&G. Osric was a wonderful peacock of a man, primping his way across the stage, and got more laughs than most of the comedy bits.

The fencing scene was as brisk as the rest of the performance, and Hamlet was soon two hits to nil up. Gertrude drank the poisoned wine, despite Claudius’s warning, and sat to the right of the stage afterwards, where she eventually collapsed. The warlike volley was noticeable, but although the ambassador from England was mentioned, he didn’t appear on stage for the finale. Instead Fortinbras (Osric must have run away when people started dying – a wise move) strode on stage, and with only a few lines established his intentions. I was aware that his line ‘with sorrow I embrace my fortune’ echoed Claudius’s words at the start, about ‘mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage’. His ‘go, bid the soldiers shoot’ was not specific in this production; I assumed it was a salute to Hamlet, but it wasn’t fully clear.

Fortinbras then stood at the front of the stage and started drumming one foot on the floor, creating a strong beat. Ophelia came on and began to ‘wake up’ the other dead bodies, starting with Laertes. Eventually the whole cast were on their feet, singing, dancing and playing their instruments to finish off with a happy number, slightly bizarre for a tragedy. We clapped along all the same, and applauded when they took their bows. The overall response from the audience was very positive; while I accept that a touring production has to limit itself, I did feel that such a quick tour through the play’s highlights left a lot to be desired. On the plus side, the story and lines were very well delivered, and I did get some fresh insights, which I like. On the down side, the level of humour meant that I felt less involved with the characters – this is a tragedy, after all. The performances were all very good given the choices made, and I hope they get equally responsive audiences on tour.

Finally, the brooms. During the Mousetrap, when Gonzago was lying on his bed the first time, two attendants were standing behind him, waving fans made of gold leaves stuck on the business ends of the brooms. Whether it was the movement or the draft, I don’t know, but Gonzago was irritated by them, and made an impatient gesture for them to stop, which caused a ripple of laughter.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – January 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Young Vic

Date: Wednesday 18th January 2012

We were taken on another of the Young Vic’s ‘journeys’ on the way in today. I presume this was to get us in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate the production’s design concept. Well, it got me in the mood alright, a foul mood. I don’t like being made to go on these long treks regardless. At least there weren’t any steps this time, and thankfully it wasn’t raining while we waited outside, but this kind of thing just isn’t for me. This particular trip took us round the theatre, in by a back door, past assorted installations which related to the lunatic asylum concept – signs on doors about treatment schedules, a window looking into the gymnasium with the fencing apparatus, etc. – and various members of the cast sat, stood or moved purposefully along corridors looking like hospital staff. We finally emerged through an office onto the stage itself. While this makes a welcome change from the RSC’s ‘look, don’t walk’ stage policy, it didn’t add anything to my understanding or enjoyment of the play. We were lucky to see the play today mind you; as we were walking along one bit of corridor I wondered what was behind a wooden drop-down panel. I opened the clasps – it wasn’t locked – and saw a lot of electrical stuff in there. I don’t know if it was part of the installation or a genuine part of the theatre’s electrics, and I didn’t tamper with anything, but still….

The set was mostly open at the start, with the seats on three sides. The office at the back had a desk, probably two or three chairs, some lockers and another keypad door off to the right as you look at it from the seats. There was glass from floor to ceiling between the office and the rest of the stage, with glass double doors in the middle. The back wall looked like a school gym, with a basketball hoop on the left, and we learned very quickly that there were two electronic doors that covered the whole of the glassed area, eventually – they moved very slowly. The central flooring looked like carpet tiles, and there was a coffin sitting on planks above a hole towards the front of the stage, with a well worn (leather?) overcoat and a dagger lying on top of it. I tested the weight of the dagger- pretty heavy.

They didn’t add much furniture during the performance, just the chairs and small wheeled medical tables which could store files, medicines, that sort of thing. They did remove a large chunk of the stage at one point – more on that story later – and they also used the upper left balcony for one scene; again, I’ll record that when I get to it. Overall the impression was of institutional drab, with some high tech bits but mostly old style, stuff that would fit into a 60s production, say. Entrances were limited to the office doors, either side at the back and a passage through the middle of the seats at the front, and characters often came and sat on the stairs at each front corner.

The performance started with Hamlet alone on stage, looking at the coffin, and obviously going through an emotional experience. I did wonder if he was going to go into ‘To be, or not to be’ at this point – now that would be an interesting choice – but he didn’t. He did snatch the coat and dagger off the coffin and held them tightly, breathing in the smell for some time. Then he took them away and some of the asylum staff came on and lowered the coffin into the hole, replacing the floor afterwards.

Perhaps now would be a good time to mention the costumes. The asylum staff wore green uniforms with orange markings, the chap whom I assume was in charge wore a suit, Polonius wore a strange grey coat over shirt, trousers and a sort of waistcoat/gilet, and Gertrude wore an off-white dress with a flared skirt, knee-length, and over it she wore a kind of lacy pinafore – this disappeared at some point. Hamlet wore a kind of tweedy suit, changing to institutional drab after the abortive trip to England. Laertes was a natty dresser, with a tweedy green suit and brown boots, while Ophelia wore a simple frock in pale colours, until her stint as Osric when she wore riding breeches, shirt and cravat. Other characters wore relatively modern dress – the player king wore a camel overcoat – and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both wore severe grey outfits. I noticed when they arrived that they were given trainers to put on instead of their own shoes, and when Reynaldo was talking with Polonius about his trip to France, he also changed out of his hospital uniform into civvies. Horatio also wore a dark suit, possibly black. I’ll describe the Mousetrap costumes when I get there.

The opening scene proper used an almost full blackout and torches to create suspense, which worked reasonably well. The electronic doors had been closed, so there was a sense of security procedures in operation, and the ghost’s appearance was heralded by a flashing red light and some sound effects – it reminded me of the effects used in Jekyll to indicate the change of personality. The ghost itself was mainly a silhouette, with someone wearing the coat and casting a big shadow. The dialogue for this scene may have been cut, as a chunk of it relates to Fortinbras who was minimally involved today, but to be honest I don’t remember much of the dialogue from this scene at all. Perhaps it was cut, perhaps it was the delivery, perhaps I was still sulking from the enforced tour of the premises – we may never know. I did wonder who was wearing the overcoat, as the cast list didn’t include a ghost, but I didn’t have to wonder for long.

At the start of the next scene, Hamlet turned up on stage with a suitcase and a bag, carrying a piece of paper. At first I thought he might have been a new arrival at the clinic, looking to get in for some treatment following the death of his father. There was no one else around at first, so he took one of the chairs and put it a bit away from the doors, with his bags beside it. As he waited, quite fidgety and impatient, others started to arrive. Gertrude and Polonius started putting out more chairs, including the two black ones with arms. Someone – it may have been Polonius – brought on a trolley table, which went between the two black chairs, and the other characters began to turn up as if for a therapy session. Hamlet held Ophelia’s hands for a few moments before she moved on to embrace Laertes, and Gertrude and Polonius had a little competition over who got to sit in the other black chair – the more central one was clearly for Claudius.

Still fidgety, Hamlet had to endure a very truncated speech from Claudius, with no ambassadors and scarcely any mention of Fortinbras. When he moved forward to ask for leave to go, he was clearly frustrated when Claudius turned to Laertes next. Finally it was his turn, but his request was turned down, and I think Claudius tore up his papers – he’d already torn up the ones relating to Fortinbras when he said ‘so much for him’.

I didn’t get a great deal from this scene other than Hamlet’s eagerness to leave, but at least they rattled through it at a good clip. The next scene brought Horatio on to broach the subject of the ghost’s appearance, and this was good and brisk too; no ‘season your admiration for a while’, this Horatio got down to business very abruptly. The end of this scene used a staging choice that I’ve not seen before, and which they repeated at least once more; Horatio was about to leave, but was called back when Hamlet addressed his next words to her – “My father’s spirit in arms!” The rest of that short speech was also spoken to her, and she ended up leaving with Hamlet instead of before him. It was different, and it worked, although as I don’t feel they made much of Horatio’s character in this production, never mind the fact that they’d cast a woman in the role, it was rather wasted.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but it may have been during this extra bit with Horatio that Gertrude was seen behind them, looking for pills in the office. It’s clear that she’s a junkie and that Claudius is supplying her with pills, and their kissing in the office before they head off for some privacy was pretty unpleasant, suggesting that Claudius was manipulating her through her addiction. Hamlet saw them, and his disgust was obvious.

The next scene was Laertes’ leave-taking. He came on carrying a bag, and Ophelia folded a shirt for him. When Polonius arrived he was carrying a box, such as fancy dresses are presented in, and gave it to Ophelia. But it wasn’t for her – this was a parting gift for Laertes. When telling him to wear good but not gaudy clothes, Polonius opened the box (Ophelia had left it on a chair) and took out a jumper, which he brought over to hold against Laertes’ chest. It was an embarrassingly bad gift, very nerdy, and we laughed a lot at this all too recognisable family situation.

For once, Polonius was quite cuddly with his children, holding Ophelia’s hands, embracing her and Laertes, and seemed genuinely concerned for their welfare. He gave Laertes a wodge of money, as usual, and tried to do it discretely without Ophelia seeing (as if). His worry about Hamlet’s vows of love being false came across clearly, and seemed to be his main motivation for telling her to avoid him in future.

With Laertes gone, I think the security doors were closed for the next platform scene, but it was difficult to tell as most of the scene was played in darkness. The opening section had some of the staff going through the office at the back, clearly having a party, and going out through the side door, leading to the lines about the king taking his rouse. Then there was a complete blackout. At least the lines that were left came across clearly, and then the lights started flickering, the electrical sounds came on, and with some light coming back we could see the ghost. Hamlet, dressed in his father’s coat, seemed to be possessed with his father’s spirit (or insane of course) and spoke the ghost’s lines in a deeper, richer voice. His audience was Horatio and Marcellus, both too stunned to speak, understandably. It also meant we didn’t get Hamlet’s own responses to the ghost apart from one line – I forget which one – and a lot of the later lines were cut as well as they would have been inappropriate. The ghost didn’t speak during the swearing bit, so wasn’t mentioned, and the whole effect was to have the ghost as completely internal to Hamlet’s mind, a product of his grief and jealousy and the strongest emphasis on the psychological aspects of the play that I’ve seen.

After they left, Polonius and Reynaldo turned up, although if you didn’t know the play you wouldn’t have known it was Reynaldo; Polonius’s memory loss extended to that character’s name, and he glossed over it by carrying on. The only charge which Polonius suggested that Reynaldo put on Laertes was drabbing, and there was another moment of memory loss before the scripted one. Polonius looked like he really had forgotten the line at this point, and repeated himself to try and get back into it, which he eventually did. I suspect this was a genuine lapse, but given the nature of this scene, I can’t be totally sure. After Reynaldo’s departure, Ophelia came on to give the account of Hamlet’s apparent madness, and again Polonius was more emotionally involved in his daughter’s life than most other productions, really listening to her and being troubled by the mistake he’d made about Hamlet’s motives.

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived, they were shown into the main room and were soon joined by the king and queen for their little chat; this was when they changed shoes. Rosencrantz was easily distinguished from Guildenstern this time, being played by a woman. They still went with Claudius getting the names wrong and Gertrude correcting him; in this production, and given the controlling nature of this Claudius and drug-addled performance of Gertrude, I think it might have worked better if Claudius had got it right, and then had to cover for Gertrude’s mistake – I’d certainly be interested to see that tried some time.

Forget the ambassadors; next we were straight into Polonius and Ophelia’s entrance and the long-winded exposition on time, brevity, madness and the rest. Despite his relatively caring manner so far, Polonius was quite callous in this scene, making Ophelia read out the letter from Hamlet herself. He interrupted to complain about the word ‘beautified’, and snatched the paper away from her when she started talking about bosoms! He searched through the letters to find something more suitable, and gave her what looked like a postcard to continue reading. There were some cuts, and for once Polonius didn’t recommend execution as a fitting consequence if he’s wrong about the cause of Hamlet’s madness; I assume they took a line or two from another version of the play – haven’t had time to check it out.

When Polonius confronted Hamlet after the king and queen left, he took out a recording device – he’d shown it to all of us earlier during Claudius’s first speech, so we could see what it was and also the red recording light – and his asides were spoken into the machine as if he was evaluating Hamlet’s condition, a nice touch given this context.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were next up, arriving as Polonius left, and during this scene I started to get the impression that Rosencrantz had a serious crush on Hamlet. The ‘man delights not me’ interchange was more pointed because Rosencrantz was a woman, and I started to wonder about Hamlet. Apart from Ophelia, here are two other women – Horatio and Rosencrantz – who appear to be close friends of his; what is this man up to? Is he a serial heart-breaker? Is he just completely unaware of his effect on women? I watched closely through the rest of the play and couldn’t make up my mind about this.

The players were definitely in a touring production – only three of them this time. Hamlet was OK at delivering the lines, needing a bit of support from the actors to remember it all, and then the player king took over. This wasn’t the strongest delivery I’ve heard; he was sitting down for most of it, and did the speech pretty briskly, but it worked OK. Hamlet didn’t ask for The Murder Of Gonzago, and therefore couldn’t ask to insert any extra lines this time, leaving me wondering how the play would be staged. Hamlet’s soliloquy was OK, nothing memorable, and then the king and queen came on again to hear R&G’s report. At one point I remember Claudius giving Gertrude a credit card so she could go off and do some shopping; she left very happy, and it may have been this scene where it happened.

I did wonder if Polonius and Claudius would hide behind the hospital screen in the corner, but they closed the security doors halfway and lurked in the office instead, with Claudius poking his head out from behind the security door at least once to see what was going on. We also lost Claudius’s admission of guilt in this scene, which again gave the impression that he may not have done the murder after all, and that it may just be Hamlet’s delusion that we’re dealing with.

Ophelia was sitting on the steps near us during ‘to be or not to be’; it was an OK speech with nothing significant to report. Hamlet was already showing his disgust at women but things got really nasty after Ophelia’s hesitation about where her father was. Hamlet didn’t leave the stage at the usual point, so Ophelia’s lines about ‘a noble mind’ were spoken in his presence, but he did leave before Polonius and Claudius came back on. Their final lines seemed to be severely cut, and soon they were preparing for the play.

There was no dialogue for the play at all. With Claudius and Gertrude sitting in the black chairs, Hamlet used a megaphone to introduce events. He and the actors did a short procession playing pipes, and then one of the actors put a blindfold on Gertrude as she was dancing with Hamlet. She then danced with the player king, without necessarily knowing who it was. Then a devil-figure crept behind the chair that Claudius was sitting on and leapt up, joining in the action. He took over from the player king, and as he and Gertrude swivelled together to a Roy Orbison number, he gave her an apple – she correctly guessed what it was – and a necklace strung with pill bottles, which she recognised and ruefully acknowledged. By this time the player king was lying down on the far side of the stage, and the devil character came over to this side of the stage to get his vacuum hose pumped up for action. When Gertrude realised what it was, or what it represented, she wasn’t happy, and I think she left the action at that point. Meanwhile devil-man was lengthening his hose considerably, and it eventually became a snake which coiled its way over to the sleeping king to bite him in the ear. Things became very confused at this point, with Hamlet yelling some of the lines through the megaphone which made them hard to hear, and Claudius stalking off and calling for light in a remarkably reasonable voice. I don’t remember what everyone else got up to, I just had the impression of a load of people running around. Only Hamlet was left on the stage as I remember, and then they took the interval.

The restart was at the same point, with Horatio and then R&G talking with Hamlet. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed a lot of reactions to the play, and those I had seen were pretty muted, given the chaos around them. Fortunately with all the cutting we were soon through this bit. When Rosencrantz pointed out ‘My lord, you once did love me’, her anguish was very evident, and from Hamlet’s reaction I got the impression that he hadn’t known or had forgotten how she felt and was embarrassed and uncomfortable to be around her distress.

With Hamlet off to visit his mother, Claudius returned with R&G and sent them to prepare for the journey to England. Polonius passed through on his way to Gertrude’s closet, and then Claudius was finally left alone to reveal to us (or not) the level of his guilt. Would they cut this as well, or would we finally know the truth?

This scene took place in the office at the back. Claudius went in and closed the doors, and then treated us to as hammy a display of temper as I’ve seen on stage. He flung some papers off the desk, threw over one of the lockers and then stood in some ‘I’m suffering’ poses for a while, finally sinking onto his chair and putting his head in his hands – totally unbelievable. We did get some of the lines via the loudspeakers though. Hamlet came on during this part and spotted Claudius. He fiddled with some switches in a cabinet to the right of the office doors, and suddenly we could hear Claudius talking in the office. Not the full speech, but enough. Hamlet’s choice to leave him till a more suitable opportunity made sense at this point, and I found myself thinking about the contrast between the scientific emphasis on psychology and the spiritual references in the play, mostly made by Hamlet in this version. He was starting to come across as a religious obsessive, whose delusions made his choice not to kill Claudius appear rational to him. His disgust with the effect women had on men now came into focus as another aspect of this obsession, a puritanical streak which has been known to lead some people to become serial killers. I wasn’t sure if the production as a whole supported this interpretation, but it was an interesting angle to pursue.

Fortunately, the loudspeakers were still on after Hamlet left, so we could hear Claudius’s final lines of this scene. Then we were in Gertrude’s chamber, which strangely enough also seemed to be in this central hall. Polonius hid behind the hospital screen – three curtained sections on wheels – and was soon despatched. He must have been in a strange position behind the curtain, judging by the location of his stab wound, in the ear. Hamlet took on the ghost persona again briefly, after some more flickering from the lights; I think we just got a line or two about looking to Gertrude. The total lack of any other spiritual manifestation really put the emphasis on Hamlet’s madness in this scene; otherwise there’s nothing much to report.

After Claudius had learned of Hamlet’s slaughter of Polonius, we saw Hamlet drag the body onto the stage, looking for a place to hide it. He went over to the left-hand side of the stage and tested the floor tiles. Finding what he wanted, he pulled up a few tiles and the drainage cover under them – pause to mime a bad smell – and then lugged the body over to put it in the hole; I got the impression it had dropped some way down, so god knows how R&G were going to get it back again. He put the cover and the floor tiles back just in time before R&G came on stage. Rosencrantz seemed a bit huffy now, as I recall, but at least she’d stopped crying.

The next scene started with Claudius on the phone to some unspecified person talking about how tricky the situation was. Then Hamlet was brought on by two guards and put in a chair with wheels. As he was being strapped in, they did some of the usual dialogue between Hamlet and Claudius, and then Claudius gave him a tablet with some water to wash it down, followed by an injection – this man really takes no chances. However Steve spotted that Hamlet spat out the pill after he’d been left alone. Bizarrely enough, the attendants simply wheeled Hamlet over to the back of the stage on the right, where he’s conveniently placed, yet again, to turn on the loudspeaker and hear the end of Claudius’s phone call, which turned out to be with ‘England’. So Hamlet doesn’t need to read R&G’s commission to know what the king’s planning. Then he was wheeled back to the left side of the stage while one of the attendants fussed about with a blanket to put over him. As he was doing this, the TV in the office was showing something in black and white; when Hamlet asked the attendant what it was – the attendant had been looking at it himself – we got the very basic information about Fortinbras.

The next scene, scene V, covers Ophelia’s madness and Laertes’ return from France. I had been praying for a release from the boredom for some time, and finally I had a reprieve – I snoozed. So nothing to report for this bit, although the reprieve was short-lived, as even these scenes were cut to the quick (according to Steve who remained relatively alert throughout). Horatio received the letter from Hamlet in a room on the upper left-hand side of the stage, and read it out. I kept wanting her to have difficulty reading Hamlet’s writing – don’t know why, maybe I was just desperate for something to entertain me. They left immediately to take the other letters to the king, and shortly afterwards, after Claudius and Laertes had been discussing their plot centre stage, the messenger duly arrived at the office doors. As he gave the letters to the king, Horatio stood in the doorway observing what was happening, until the messenger was dismissed and she left as well.

The plotting continued without much of interest, and then Gertrude arrived to inform them of Ophelia’s death. The speech was delivered well enough, but it was the hem of Gertrude’s dress that I noticed – it was stained brown, as if she’d been with Ophelia at the time and tried to save her, but couldn’t. That little touch was one of the most moving things in this production for me, firing my imagination into overdrive as I pictured Gertrude’s despairing attempts to rescue the drowning girl. Or perhaps she got there too late, and stained her dress when she waded into the water to hold the dead body. Whatever, it was a touching moment.

For the burial scene a large square section of the stage floor was lifted up. Hamlet came on stage, I think after the four corners had been attached to the wires, and stood looking at the area of ground revealed by this manoeuvre. It was a pretty noisy process, and they added music or sound effects, so there was no dialogue during this bit – very wise. Horatio joined him at this point, with the floor out of the way, and with the gravedigger taking his place, Hamlet started discussing death and bones. Within the sandpit was a shallow trench with two piles of sand on either side and some white bones gleaming in the bottom. A blue box stood by the head of the grave to take these bones, and was gradually filled by the gravedigger, though he put one of the skulls to one side. As Hamlet recited the possibilities for each skull, the gravedigger inspected it, often scraping off some muck, before adding it to the box. It was slow and tedious, I’m sorry to say, until Hamlet actually struck up a conversation with the man. The standard humour went down pretty well, and then came the burial.

With such a small cast, there were never going to be many mourners, but I was still surprised to see only Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes turn up. The priest’s arrival was interesting; from the side of the sand pit, under the stage, a figure emerged as if from another grave. It was Polonius, still with the bloody gash on the side of his head but now wearing a crucifix and carrying a Bible as well. Hamlet was stunned to see him, putting his hand to his ear, an action which was mirrored by this new arrival. Suddenly, he snapped into being the priest, and looked at Hamlet strangely, while Hamlet was still clearly disturbed by this ‘apparition’. I’ve no idea what was meant by this, so I can’t say if it was effective or not, but it did use the necessary doubling in a thought-provoking way.

The burial itself was OK, though Gertrude only had some bits of a flower from her buttonhole to throw on the grave. Some of the sand was thrown on Ophelia, carefully avoiding her face, before Laertes told them to stop. The fight between Hamlet and Laertes was fine, and for once I felt that Hamlet wasn’t so much trying to best Laertes’s love for his sister as claim his own love to be the equal of it.

When the characters all left the stage, I wondered what they would do with the pit – nothing, was the answer. They left it as it was, with Ophelia’s body still lying there. Hamlet and Horatio came on at the back, and Hamlet brought Horatio up to speed with the grim fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then things got a little spooky again. For Osric’s entrance, the dead body in the grave rose up and dusted herself off, to reveal that she was now in riding breeches and a shirt with a ruffled collar. Hamlet was transfixed again, and found it difficult to talk to this person, while Osric was remarkably calm – being dead seems to do that to people.

With the match agreed, some of the staff came on and started raking the sand to level it out. I thought this might mean they would have the fencing match in the pit, but it was not to be; they did it at the back, although the pit came in very handy by the end for all the dead bodies. The table with poisoned wine (no ‘union’ that I saw) was at the front of the pit, the rack of swords was at the back of the stage, and the fencing was done behind the pit. Laertes ended up in the pit when the enraged Hamlet chased and killed him, Gertrude collapsed towards the back of the stage, and Claudius ended up in the pit, don’t remember exactly how, although Hamlet not only stuck him with the sword but forced him to drink the remaining wine. The cups were cheap plastic – I mean, really! Hamlet died in Horatio’s arms down in the sandpit, and then Fortinbras turned up.

His men were dressed in black, and all wore black fencing masks. They opened out a large black plastic sheet to cover the pit over entirely, with Horatio walking out of the pit just ahead of it. They put Gertrude’s body in the pit, removing a corner of the sheet and then replacing it. They’d finished the lines by now, so this all seemed a bit ho-hum. It was worth it, though, as Fortinbras himself came to stand behind the pit for the final climactic moment of the play. As he stood there, he took off his mask, and it was….. Hamlet! At least, I assume it was Hamlet. It was Michael Sheen, of course, and perhaps he was Hamlet, perhaps Fortinbras was Hamlet’s half-brother, perhaps this was another ghost risen from the dead…… The staging didn’t make anything clear, but it was a dramatic moment, and a good finish to the performance.

Despite all these interesting choices, I wasn’t that taken with this production. I find the emphasis on the reality ‘experience’ doesn’t support the imaginative aspects of theatrical performance. In fact, I’m increasingly aware of how important the imagination is to theatre of all kinds, and I’m less impressed when productions seem intent on blocking it at every turn.

The psychological emphasis in this production was the main choice that I liked, but after thinking about it, and especially through writing these notes, I realised that they didn’t go as far as they could have. How about cutting Claudius’s guilt out altogether? The plot to kill Hamlet would then be a consequence of Hamlet’s madness rather than outright villainy on the part of Claudius. It’s an intriguing idea, but I don’t feel this production quite had the balls to go that far. Instead I felt they were doing the old striptease routine – setting up some question marks to provoke discussion amongst the audience, without realising that we actually discuss these plays quite a lot already, and what we want to see is the cast and director figuring out some answers – much more likely to provoke discussion, I find. Anyway, I’m glad I’ve seen this, and that it’s brought out some different staging choices to enrich my experience and understanding of the play. I’m also glad I don’t have to sit through it again, as the bits between the concept set pieces – e.g. ghost scene, burial scene – were very pedestrian.

The central performance by Michael Sheen was very good, and if the production had supported it more I would have been very happy. Despite the quality of the cast, however, the rest of the characters seemed two-dimensional compared to Hamlet, and that naturally affected my overall experience. Steve would have rated this slightly higher – 5 star – but otherwise we agreed that it was not as good as we’d hoped. I’m even considering ignoring future Young Vic productions, as I no longer seem to be part of their target audience; I’m confident I won’t be missed.

Our final conclusion is that this production was too much of a mish-mash. They tried to combine the realism of the asylum setting with an impressionistic version of the play, which left us feeling dissatisfied with the whole. For example, we weren’t sure if the characters in the play were actually people in the asylum hierarchy or inmates who were doing a bit of drama therapy. If Hamlet was the ‘ghost’ in the platform scene with Horatio and Marcellus, was he also the ‘ghost’ they saw at the start? And if it was just his madness, why did the lights flicker?

We’ve seen productions which raise such questions before, but the best of them lead to greater awareness and understanding of both the play and the production. For example, the touring Coriolanus we saw many years ago in the Swan, with Greg Hicks in the lead role, used a Japanese setting and incorporated a geisha-like court reporter noisily typing when Coriolanus was being interrogated by the Romans about his actions. Despite some choices which were puzzling on the night, we realised after some time to consider that they were showing a cultural change from old-style nobility to modern western-style decadence. This enhanced our understanding, and left us with an even greater respect for the performance and the work that had gone into it. The more we consider this Hamlet, however, the less sense it makes, and the less interesting the questions it raises become. This is usually a sign that not enough work has been done, which is a shame, as some of the ideas were worth exploring more fully.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – May 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Conrad Nelson

Company: Northern Broadsides

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Saturday 28th May 2011

It was interesting to see this only a couple of days after Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The set had two ramps slanting across the stage at right angles, with stool-steps behind, for easy access as well as seating. The back of the forward ramp, which ran right to left, had an inbuilt piano, which was used to good effect, while the ramp on the left, which ran roughly back to front, included a nifty two-door grave, reminiscent of an Andersen shelter (more on that story later). Around the back were some strange wire thingies – several pairs of wires stretched floor to flies, with a large trapezium of white material between them at about the level of the balcony. A strip of dark gray Lurex was wrapped around the base of these wires, with some grouped together and some pairs done individually. Only the central group was different – the fabric was plain black, and for the second half it was pulled up to form the arras behind which Polonius hid; the rest of the strips only came up two or three feet. There were a couple of chairs for Claudius and Gertrude during the play scene, and various other implements were brought on as needed, but that was pretty much it.

I have no idea what the wire and cloth arrangements were meant to be, but at the start, we soon realised we were in the Second World War period. It started with a public service announcement about switching off all phones, done in the plummy tones and formal language of such things, and then the opening scene was preceded by an air raid siren; this made me think that the wire sculptures might represent search lights, but apart from that fleeting thought, nothing much came of them. There was also a piper at the start – fine playing, but no idea why.

The first scene was done in near darkness, with torches, and Francisco was standing right beside me for his few lines. The strong northern accents were well to the fore from the off, although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were Scottish, and Hamlet had spent so long in Wittenberg that he often lapsed into RP with odd flashes of ‘up north’. For once, it’s Horatio who asks what all the warlike preparations are for, and Marcellus or Bernardo who tells him – this makes much more sense than the usual format. The ghost appears on the balcony, wearing a fetching white cape and a fencing mask, while waving his sword around in slow motion. Although it gives the lie to the later reports to Hamlet about the ghost’s expression, etc., this staging did have the advantage of allowing them to show the ghost flitting around a lot with the use of some poles and duplicate capes and masks – the ghost appeared on either side of the stage before disappearing altogether.

The next scene began with a lively jazz number, which perked things up no end. Actually, it started with one man coming on, hat pulled down, with his jacket slung over his shoulder. He walked slowly to the end of the ramp on the right, lifted the piano lid, sat down, and played a chord. Slowly, deliberately, repeating it once. I thought, oh, it’s the death march, and then he picked up the beat, the tune began to swing, and as the lights came up the rest of the band came on stage to treat us to a great little jazz number. Ophelia, in a gorgeous evening dress with more swags than a Palladium curtain, stood at a microphone on the ramp in front of the pianist, and sang the songs from her mad scene – ‘valentine’ and ‘how should I your true love know’ – all nice and lovely in this context. Gertrude arrives on the other ramp, and sashays about a bit, to applause from the court. Turns out Claudius was the piano player. Hamlet played double bass, Polonius the cello, and the rest all seem to be playing anything and everything from time to time. Talented bunch. This upbeat start to the scene makes Claudius’s speech much lighter in tone, and he comes across as a pretty good guy. Cornelius  has become Cornelia again, while Fortinbras is referred to as ‘she’ – I wasn’t sure I’d heard it right first time round, but we even get to see and hear her in this production, so there’s no mistake.

All this while, after the music stopped, Hamlet has been sulking over near us, sitting on the corner of the ramp. When he gets involved, he simply stands up to say his lines, putting some heat into the “Tis not my inky cloak” bit, but otherwise seeming a bit static. Left to himself for the “too, too solid flesh” speech, he does start to move around, dropping to his knees and other signs of suffering. The dialogue came across well enough, though.

The scene with Horatio was fine, as was Laertes’s leave-taking. Ophelia can be quite snappy in this production, and it comes out here as well as in the mad scene. Polonius needed to refer to a little notebook for some of his precepts, a reflection on the character rather than the actor, but judging by Laertes’s reaction to the contents of the envelope Polonius gives him, he’s a generous man to his children.

The platform scenes had some problems, mostly in the second phase, when Hamlet talks with his father’s ghost. The ghost appeared on the balcony at first, and disappeared quite quickly, but came through the rear entrance onto the ramp almost before Horatio and Marcellus had finished making their exits that way. Whenever the ghost was on stage, they played church-type music in the background – organ playing, choir singing – but this time it was loud enough to drown out a lot of Hamlet’s lines. Of course, it didn’t help that his back was turned to us for most of this scene, but one way and another I hardly heard a word he said. The ghost was loud and clear, and mercifully short compared to usual. Hamlet is much different after this encounter – much more lively and energetic. He also has his father’s sword, which the ghost gives him – strange ghost, this – which is handy for the swearing scene. He also scrawls something in chalk on the right-hand ramp which I couldn’t see, but it related to “meet it is I set it down”, so I assume the word ‘villain’ was in there at least. Nobody else seems to see this, or the other stuff he writes later, and I wasn’t taken with it as a staging choice.

Polonius sends Reynaldo off to France with the usual instructions, although he doesn’t mention drabbing as a potential slur on Laertes’s character, whether from brevity or morality I couldn’t tell. Ophelia’s report on Hamlet’s mad appearance was OK, and it started to bring out the lack of physical contact between father and daughter, unlike her fond embraces with Laertes earlier on. Polonius was more disturbed by the error he’s made in cutting Hamlet off from Ophelia than I’ve seen before, and his concern seemed genuine.

Now for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and if you couldn’t tell them apart before, you wouldn’t have had a hope this time around. Apart from their suits – one a light tan, the other grey – they were identical. Twins or brothers, I’m not sure, but since I focused on their outfits I was fine. Claudius gets it wrong (again!), then we hear from the ambassadors, and finally Polonius struts his stuff with Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia.

For Hamlet’s next entrance, he’s carrying a fishing basket, rod and stool, and wearing a waterproof and hat. He dumps this stuff at the bottom of the ramp, and he’s busy getting things out of the basket while talking to Polonius. The fishmonger reference is therefore apt, though I felt it was a bit contrived. Still, it was fun. He also has a book, which is used for the “Words, words, words” bit, and he chalks “gone fishing” on a small blackboard and props it on a stool, which got a laugh.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the usual tough time of it, and then Polonius introduces the players. They’re very jolly. One chap in particular is keen to give a speech himself, but it turns out Hamlet wants one that’s not his to give – I thought he looked a bit disappointed. Hamlet’s intro was significantly helped by a prompt from the lady player, and the rest of the speech was very well delivered. I was aware of Hecuba snatching up the blanket to cover her naked body, and I had an unexpected glimpse of a physical aspect to her relationship with Priam. The player wasn’t at all bothered about Hamlet’s request for The Murder of Gonzago, so the general public obviously aren’t suspicious of the succession.

I wasn’t sure when the interval would be taken – not at “the play’s the thing” this time – so we continued with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting to the king and queen on their lack of progress. Then there’s the setting up of the confrontation between Ophelia and Hamlet, and then the big one – “To be, or not to be”. OK, everyone wants to find their own way of doing it, but this choice just wasn’t that good. Hamlet uses the chalk again, and scrawls the question on the top of the left-hand ramp. I could see the writing this time, but that really didn’t improve things. He treated the first part of the speech like a pros and cons list, writing under “not to be” such things as “die”, “sleep”, “dream”; all this writing was done with his back to us and it felt more like an old-fashioned classroom talk than a vibrant dynamic speech about Hamlet’s internal philosophical wrestling. He recovered a bit with the latter part of the speech, but on the whole this was not a good version of this important section of the play.

The meeting with Ophelia was much better, with Ophelia being a little snappy again when she tells him “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind”. She’s also very upset at Hamlet’s ranting, sobbing and distraught and in need of a hug when her father and Claudius re-emerge. Polonius isn’t keen, and avoids her altogether. I wasn’t sure if Hamlet was aware of Polonius’s presence after “Where’s your father?” – it just wasn’t clear.

The advice to the players was fine, and with Claudius and Gertrude sitting on the left-hand ramp, the play got underway. The opening mime sequence was a very fresh take to my eyes. Two players brought on a wheelbarrow, placing it well up on the right-hand ramp, and they were wearing smocks. With some music and ‘effects’ – they used a watering can, I think – first one row of flowers stood up in the barrow, then the next, and finally the man sorts of leans down and rests his head on the flowers to have a kip. The woman leaves, and another chap comes on with the poison, and actually invites Claudius to come on stage and pour it into the sleeping man’s ear! It was all very jokey, and I could see why Claudius wouldn’t be too worried by it. In fact, it was entertaining enough that I wasn’t watching the court’s reactions at all. When the dumb show king dies, he literally kicked the bucket. Yes, literally! There was a bucket on the ramp, he stood up, staggered about a bit, then stopped to deliberately kick the bucket off the ramp, and then collapsed and died. It was very good fun.

For the second part, the players did a lovely version of Brief Encounter. The loving couple were Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard to a T, including the little fur stole she wore and the clipped accents, which sounded strange with Shakespeare’s dialogue, but the reference was worth it. When the poisoning happened, Claudius reacted strongly and stalked off, calling for a light. The rest of the scene was pretty standard, and then the interval.

The second half started with the short scene between Claudius and first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then Polonius, followed by the attempted reconciliation with heaven. Fine Time Fontayne, as Claudius, gave one of the best performances today, and this speech was particularly well done, leaving him sitting on the front ramp in the appearance of prayer when Hamlet arrives on the scene. Standing close behind Claudius, he’s ready to strike, but has second thoughts. It’s one of those odd things; why should he think that Claudius would go to heaven when he’s committed murder? And a brother’s murder at that? The belief that forgiveness is always available for repentance must have been very strong for the doubts to stand any sort of chance in Hamlet’s mind. Anyway, we want the rest of the play, so fortunately Hamlet decides against taking this perfect opportunity, and heads off to his mother’s room. Claudius is then free to tell us how ineffective his efforts have been, and also leaves the stage.

Hamlet is soon with his mother in her chamber, with Polonius ensconced behind the arras, partially visible to us. This scene seemed a bit flat to me, although the dialogue came across well enough. Gertrude was certainly upset by the whole thing, but I didn’t get any sense that she realised that Claudius was a murderer. And she must have had excellent eyesight, because the two pictures Hamlet was holding up for comparison were rather small, and he was standing several metres away from her during that bit, though of course, she would be able to remember what each man looked like. The ghost was fine, but for once I wondered if it would be possible to drop the physical presence and just hear the ghost’s words, so that the audience could relate more to Gertrude’s point of view, assuming the production has decided that she doesn’t see the ghost, of course. For once, Hamlet doesn’t bid his mother not to do the things he tells her to do, but he does drag Polonius’s body away, thankfully.

Despatching Hamlet to England doesn’t take long, and then we meet Fortinbras and her army, followed quickly by Ophelia’s first mad scene. This wasn’t too bad, with Ophelia throwing papers around and singing snatches of the songs she sang at the start of the play. There’s more menace in her threat that “my brother shall know of it” than usual. Then Laertes arrives, and when Ophelia returns she has a small bunch of flowers in her hand to distribute. She’s already thrown the papers about, and also drops a lot of the flowers, so the stage is beginning to look rather untidy, and gets more cluttered as the play continues.

Horatio reads the letter from Hamlet standing in the balcony, and then Claudius and Laertes seal their pact to kill Hamlet down below. Gertrude reports Ophelia’s death, and then the gravedigger comes on to prepare for Ophelia’s funeral. He opens up the doors to the Andersen shelter, and starts pulling skulls out of it (why are there never any other bones?), leaving one of them perched on his spade, leaning against the wall. Hamlet and Horatio walk on behind him, and as they talk, the gravedigger tosses fresh skulls over his head which they catch. The skull on the spade is Yorick’s.

The funeral is very brief, just a quick up, down and across, and the priest is done. Hamlet and Horatio are crouched by the end of the right-hand ramp, and Hamlet is pretty vigorous in attacking Laertes over who loved Ophelia the most.

Now we’re into the final phase, and Hamlet recounts his adventures at sea to Horatio. The sequence with Osric was good, with Osric’s hat being bent out of shape so that he looked ridiculous when he put it back on. Osric and Reynaldo were one and the same, by the way – Andy Cryer did very well with this part. Osric’s fussiness was clear, and he obviously had a prepared speech – he checked his clipboard from time to time – and was easily flustered by Hamlet’s responses.

The fight scene worked fine. The poisoned cup was set on a stand to the left, the combatants had fencing gear on, and the fighting itself was reasonably good. Hamlet is standing with his back to Laertes, who’s on the ground, when Laertes cuts him on the back of the leg, and then Hamlet’s furious and unstoppable in his determination to get back at Laertes. Even without a sword, he overcomes Laertes and cuts him in return. The queen has already drunk the poison, and it’s all going horribly wrong from Claudius’s point of view. It gets worse. Hamlet stabs him, pours some drink down his throat, then carries the cup over to Laertes to exchange forgiveness with him; Laertes dies before Hamlet can complete his side of the bargain.

After that, it’s a quick trot to the end of the play, with Fortinbras turning up and making her claim to the throne. All jolly good fun, and despite some dubious choices in the staging, and a dreadfully sparse audience, we gave them a warm reception at the end. I felt the Second World War theme was underused, and the performances were sometimes patchy, but on the whole it was the usual sound, well-spoken no-nonsense Northern Broadsides production. The music was lovely, and well-chosen, although I’ve already made it clear that the ghost’s accompaniment was a bit too much.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me