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

The Children’s Hour – April 2011


By Lillian Hellman

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Comedy Theatre

Date: Wednesday 27th April 2011

I haven’t seen this play before, so I don’t know if the problems I experienced were down to the writing, acting or production; possibly a combination of all three. It felt lacklustre and dated, and several of the performances were on the weak side, so not the best afternoon I’ve spent in the theatre.

The set was all distressed wooden walls to start with. There was a very tall window on the left, a door in the back wall also on the left, impossibly tall bookcases to the right of that, and another door at the back of the right wall. A sofa stood middle and left, with a desk and chair to the right of the stage, a stove front right, and there were one or two other bits of furniture around the place. It looked basic but comfortable. For the second act, we moved to a more elaborate drawing room, with panels lowered to section off the sofa area (much posher sofa), and a table with flowers on the right instead of the desk. A good design, but the changes did take a while. The final act was back in the original room, but without the comfortable bits.

The opening scene wasn’t clear to me at first, though the subsequent action explained it a little. A small girl came into the schoolroom with a book and looked around, trying out various places to sit and read, eventually finishing on the sofa. Another two girls crept in, looking over her shoulder, and then they shared the book with her, although she didn’t want them to. Finally a larger group of girls came in, there was a mad scramble to look at the book, leading to a tussle between the original girl and a bigger girl, and the book was torn. The original girl runs out, crying, I think. All of this was wordless. I suspected the book was mildly pornographic – and given their ages and the period of the play, that could mean very mild – and I was left with the impression that the smaller girl was unhappy at the school and not making friends. All of this was correct, of course, but it still didn’t help me get into the play when the opening was so unclear. And it took so long!

The actual opening scene – the first with dialogue – was nearly as bad. The girls came into the room again, only this time they’re as noisy as a bunch of young girls can be. Think St Trinian’s, but noisier. One or two actually seemed to be doing schoolwork of some sort, while others were horsing around, until their teacher, Lily Mortar (Carol Kane), came in and the lesson began to take some sort of shape. Trouble is, the dialogue was delivered so variably, that I couldn’t follow much of this scene. The teacher was no help either; she was clearly meant to be a scatty type, a former actress who was trying to instil some refinement in the girls (like Miss Jean Brodie but without the brains), but the resulting affected accent was almost impossible to make out. It took at least twenty minutes before I started to get a handle on the piece, and it had some ground to make up by then.

Finally, the main action got underway with the late arrival of the original small girl, Mary Tilford (Bryony Hannah), who presents the teacher with a bunch of flowers as part of her excuse for being late – she’d taken a walk outdoors. When the class was over, the other teachers arrive in the room, first Karen Wright (Keira Knightley) and later Martha Dobie (Elizabeth Moss). Karen spots that the flowers which Mary gave to Lily were actually retrieved from the waste bin, and not picked on a walk in the woods as Mary had claimed. This leads to an inquisition, during which Mary’s sociopathic nature comes to the fore. When she’s accused of something by an authority figure, she flatly denies it, then she complains of being persecuted, then she threatens to tell her grandmother (the school’s main benefactor), and finally she fakes a heart attack, collapsing on the floor. The teachers put her in the next room, which is Karen’s bedroom, and ask Dr Joseph Cardin (Tobias Menzies), Karen’s fiancé and Mary’s uncle, to check her out when he arrives a short while later.

In the meantime, Karen and Martha have a conversation about their situation, whereby we learn of their struggle to set the school up, the prospect of financial stability in the near future, the problems caused by Mary and how they would like to get shot of her, their dependence on Mrs Tilford, Mary’s grandmother, Karen’s imminent marriage to Joseph, and the need to sack Lily, Martha’s aunt, as she wasn’t adding to the girls’ education in a healthy way. This leads to a confrontation between Lily and Martha, where some unkind things are said on both sides, including the allegation that Martha is jealous of Karen’s marriage (true), and not for the right reasons (not yet in evidence, m’lud). I thought at the time that they were a bit rash talking so loudly when Mary, the school’s problem child, was in the next room, but then they didn’t have a lot of options if we were going to eavesdrop.

Joseph soon sorts Mary out, health-wise, but she’s still caught up in her desire to be seen as the victim of other people’s persecution, a subject she knows a lot about, as we soon learn when she’s left alone with her school chums. The teachers have decided to split Mary and her two friends up, as she’s a bad influence on them, which only fuels Mary’s persecution complex. She decides to run away to her grandmother’s house, and in order to get some cash, she intimidates one of her friends quite brutally, showing us an even less pleasant side of her personality. She is brought the cash and her coat in mime at the front of the stage during the scene change, which helped to while away the time.

At Mrs Tilford’s town residence, Mary is greeted by Agatha the maid, and about the only person in that household who has their head screwed on straight. She isn’t taken in by Mary’s story of being ill, although she clearly cares for the girl, but it’s the grandmother that Mary has to work on, and she does this with a predatory instinct, feeling her way into an allegation that will make her grandmother carry out the revenge that Mary herself is not capable of, through lack of years rather than lack of malicious intent. Once roused, Mrs Tilford (Ellen Burstyn) acts swiftly, too swiftly for her own good. She tries to call the teachers, presumably to check on their side of the story, but as they’re not available, she decides to call her nephew, Joseph instead. He’s busy – he is a working doctor, after all – and this leaves a worried Mrs Tilford alone with her emotions, clearly not a sensible option for the women in this family. Instead of staying calm, she starts phoning round the other pupils’ parents, and before you know it, the school is defunct.

Long before Joseph comes round to help his aunt, several girls have been removed from the school, and one of them, Rosalie Wells (Amy Dawson), arrives at Mrs Tilford’s house to stay overnight as she can’t travel back home until the next day. Mary gets to work on her immediately, threatening to tell about all about Rosalie’s theft of another girl’s bracelet unless Rosalie backs Mary up in whatever she says. Nasty piece of work, this Mary. Rosalie agrees, and then the girls are taken into another room for milk and cookies, or whatever, and the adults start arriving for the major confrontation of the play.

Naturally, Joseph is appalled at his aunt’s actions, and the teachers, who show up and force their way into the house, are both angry and confused. They have no idea of the cause of this calamity, and when they find out they’re shocked and even more angry. They threaten legal action, while Mrs Tilford stays aloof and self-righteous – what had been a possibility is now downright certainty in her mind. Joseph does his best to instil some sanity into proceedings, but there’s no scope for rational discussion at this point, and finally he has to reject his grandmother and her nonsense totally. Of course, they insist on checking things out with Mary, who sticks to her story, despite clear proof that she couldn’t have heard or seen what she claims to have heard or seen. When it looks like things might go against her, she pulls out her ace in the hole, Rosalie. At first, with Mary behind her and out of her eye line, Rosalie scoffs at the possibility of any wrongdoing between Karen and Martha, but when Mary comes forward and makes it clear she wants Rosalie to back her up, we see an about-turn so fast it must have left friction marks. Rosalie is desperately upset about the whole thing, but the damage is done. Mrs Tilford is a believer again, and the stage is set for somebody’s downfall.

The final scene is back in the schoolroom, stripped down to the bare essentials. Martha and Karen have apparently lost their case for slander, the school is no more, and the two women are in a kind of internal exile, unable and unwilling to venture out to face the hostility of the local community. A succession of visitors allows us to piece their story together, including a local delivery man who brings them food, Joseph, Lily and Mrs Tilford. Lily’s arrival isn’t welcome; she avoided the trial, and so her crucial testimony was missing, leading to the collapse of the teachers’ case. Both women are hostile to her, and I can’t say I blame them. Joseph is more upbeat – he’s arranged for all three of them to move out west and start new lives on a farm. Martha heads off to make them some food, while Karen and Joseph have to face what lies between them. She pushes him to ask her if the allegation was true, and although she tells him it wasn’t, and he appears to accept that, it’s clear their relationship is on rocky ground. Personally, I felt that was more to do with her neurotic personality; she didn’t seem willing to deal with her situation and build a new life for herself, while Joseph seemed to be working hard to make things better for both of them.

With his departure, Karen has decided that it’s all over, and she’s going to be living in that house for the rest of her life, unloved, neglected, and miserable as sin. When Martha comes back in, all spruced up to enjoy a celebratory meal, she soon realises what’s happened, and finally we get the revelation that would come as no surprise to anyone who’d stayed awake this far – Martha feels guilty because she’s realised she did have some ‘forbidden’ feelings for Karen. Despite seeming the more balanced of the two, it’s Martha who heads into the next room to top herself, so when Mrs Tilford turns up, at the death so to speak, it’s too late for forgiveness, on her part or anyone else’s.

The audience reception was much warmer than my own response, and I’m glad they enjoyed it. I found it lacking in real interest; the false allegation drama has been done better (The Crucible), and lesbianism is no longer the unmentionable taboo it was in the 1930s, although to be fair we aren’t exactly overflowing with plays on the subject either. Elizabeth Moss and Ellen Burstyn gave good performances, but I found Keira Knightley a bit weak. I couldn’t get a handle on her character, who seemed to be strong one minute and fragile the next. Tobias Menzies did a good job as the doctor/fiancé, and Bryony Hannah was fine as Mary, but I think the best performance in many ways was Amy Dawson as Rosalie, completely believable as a pre-pubescent swot with deep insecurity. If the delivery of lines had been better from the start, and the opening, silent, scene more accessible, I might have enjoyed this more. As it was, I’m glad I’ve seen the play, but I won’t be champing at the bit to see it again.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Parlour Song – May 2009


By Jez Butterworth

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Alemida Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th May 2009

This was a perplexing piece; very well written language-wise, with three very good performances and a fascinating set, but I’m still not sure what it was about. Mind you, when a playwright gets away with describing cunnilingus as a good ice-breaker, the afternoon’s got to be enjoyable.

The set was basic black, with two quarter revolves facing the back to start. The sides of these sections formed a screen, and at the start this had a misty picture of a forest of tree trunks projected onto it, a bit like a Chekov setting. Lines from the play were also projected at the start of each scene, like titles, and there were other images to add to the atmosphere. The two quarter sets held a sitting room on the left and a dining room and bedroom on the right, although at the end, all the missing items appeared on the left side (couldn’t see the stuffed badger, though). Some scenes were played in front of the screen, and on one occasion the two bits of screen came forward to create a V shape, similar to the position the revolves took when they swung round. There were conifers in a hedge to each side of the stage, and what with the lighting effects and projected images, the whole production had a dreamlike, surreal quality.

The play is set during a long hot summer, with Ned (Toby Jones) blowing things up all over the country (he’s a demolition expert) and Joy (Amanda Drew) his wife ‘disappearing’ various objects from the house while seducing Dale (Andrew Lincoln) their neighbour and Ned’s close friend, this despite the fact that Dale is also married with kids. It becomes (fairly) clear that Joy is planning to run away from Ned, and  preferably with Dale, but he bottles it (this is when he finally thinks to mention the two kids who are so important to him!) and she ends up staying with Ned. Finally, the rain comes, and I’m left wondering, was that a one-off and all down to the heat, or is there more to the story? I misunderstood that Ned killing his wife was part of his dream, so I was a bit confused when she reappeared, especially as the body double they’d got for Amanda Drew fooled me completely. I mean, I know she’s a good actress, but two places at once? (It’s been a long week.)

The early scenes in particular were excellent. Dale did a lot of talking to the audience, then we’d get a little scene, and so on, and the dialogue and characterisation were spot on. There was a lot of humour too, with different parts of the audience reacting more strongly to certain lines – the people along our row really enjoyed the line about Kosovans – but it didn’t feel divisive in this performance. I loved the exchange about Falkirk, where Ned’s sure he hasn’t shown Dale his video of that demolition job, and Dale has to describe the whole thing in detail before Ned remembers.

The workout scenes were also good. Initially, Ned asks Dale to help him get a bit fitter, and so Dale takes him through an exercise session, during which Ned is telling this long-winded story about how he came to buy his new bride a heavy soapstone bird bath from his share of the fifty pounds he’d found blowing along the street. The story gets in the way of the exercising, and the ultimate point is that that morning, the bird bath had disappeared. Not something Ned could have misplaced, or misremembered. The story itself is quite good fun, but the humour of this bit is mainly in the way the lads work out, with Ned almost rupturing himself with the first exercise, and Dale looking like a complete poseur.

The second session is similar, in that the comedy is all physical. This time, it’s just Ned exercising in his own sitting room using weights, and then working up to the bar bell which is just a bit too heavy for him. His little jogs and puffing out his breath were good fun, and then when he did get the bar up over his head he couldn’t control it properly, so when Dale arrived he had to topple over towards the sofa to get out of the awkward position he’d got himself into. Great fun. There was also the look that Joy gives him over dinner where we can clearly see that she’s not enjoying their relationship at all, and the bit in the bedroom, when Ned is listening to a tape that Dale’s lent him about satisfying a woman sexually, was just hilarious. That’s when we get to hear about the ice-breaking effects of cunnilingus, and get to enjoy Ned practising his tongue wiggles.

There were a lot of scenes and I found I wasn’t fully engaged all the time, but overall the performances kept it going and made it worthwhile.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Hothouse – August 2007

Experience: 7/10

By Harold Pinter

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Friday 31st August 2007

This was a real treat. We were up in London for other reasons this weekend, and got to see an evening performance at the National. Wow. I suspected the atmosphere would be different from matinees, and it certainly seemed to be – more lively, more of a buzz.

I hadn’t seen this play before, and I found it very typical of Pinter’s style, though clearly dated. It shows a version of Stalinist Russia, where people disappear and odd things happen, and the person in charge has to watch their back in case their second-in-command wants to take over. A bit like a Klingon ship, but less overt.

The set was a series of angled walls, which gave us Roote’s office, a staff room, and a wider view including the stairs with another room above. The décor was very fifties/sixties institutional drab. The plot was simple – a patient has died and another patient has given birth. Everybody skirts around these facts, and one of the junior members of staff is tortured to confess to being the father. Eventually, Roote (Stephen Moore) is bumped off and Gibbs (Finbar Lynch), as the last man standing, takes over the institution. There’s also a woman member of staff, Miss Cutts (Lia Williams), who seems to spend all her time latching on to whichever man is in power to ensure her safety, and Lush (Paul Ritter), the only other member of staff who could stand against Gibbs, but who seems to be on the downward slope.

What I enjoyed most about this production was the wonderful language. Pinter has a musical way with words. He finds not just a minor key, but a menace key, and manages to keep it going. It’s partly what’s not said that does it. There’s also a lovely use of repetition, when Gibbs is sort of informing Roote about the two patients (two digits are transposed, hence the confusion), the one who’s died and the one who’s given birth. The dialogue is virtually identical, with some details changed to suit the different circumstances, but otherwise it’s a straightforward reprise. Until the end, that is, when after plying Gibbs with lots of descriptive statements about the woman, Roote ends up saying “Never met her!”.

There’s also a lot of silence and stillness in this production, which are very effective. In addition, there were some wonderfully menacing sound effects, a susurration of suffering, which made the staff nervous and suggested the unrest growing in the asylum. Lovely stuff, and I’m glad we could fit it in.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me