Monday, 25 August 2008

Hamlet - RSC 2008

Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK.

Very occasionally, a piece of theatre comes along that is so moving, so emotionally charged, that it stays with you long after its run has finished and its actors moved on to new projects. Gregory Doran’s Hamlet will, I believe, be one such production.

By casting well-known and well-loved actors David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in the leading roles of Hamlet and Claudius, Doran has ensured that all seats will be filled, and with a more diverse audience than perhaps would usually attend such a production. As well as the serious Shakespeare buff and the usual overseas tourist, the audience of the Courtyard Theatre seemed to contain a larger than usual proportion of pre-teenage children, clearly there to see their hero Tennant perform, as well as a goodly percentage of adults who had come to see the well-seasoned and always magnificent Stewart. In the lobby and the gift shop the names buzzed and flitted about - Tennant, Stewart, David, Patrick - whispered in awe or spoken of as old friends. An audience is always excited before a play but not often to this level. Throughout the performance the children (as well as the adults) were remarkably well-behaved: the younger ones watching wide-eyed and the older ones subtly nudging each other and grinning, all succeeding in seeing the three hours and thirty minutes of performance through to its end.

David Tennant plays Hamlet (with English accent) as a wreck of a man, slowly unwinding from his spool. Pale-faced and standing alone at his mother’s wedding, he speaks to Claudius with words wet with saliva, barely controlling the grief and anger bubbling up from within. His first soliloquy - ‘O, that this too too solid flesh’ – is heart-rending to watch, spoken by a man in the midst of a deep depression, whose wounds are so raw that we feel the sting of his touched nerves with every word he utters. Deadened of mirth throughout the wedding, Hamlet becomes manic after seeing the ghost of his father. Distraught but now with a purpose, his 'feigned' madness bites a little too hard to be wholly unreal, as with every word and movement Tennant shows us a man sinking rapidly deeper into mental illness, a process that is both frightening and pitiable. And yet the key to Tennant's success as Hamlet is honesty and understatement, stripping back the lines until they expose their truth in a way that is utterly simple and wholly real. That most famous of Shakespeare's soliloquies - 'To be, or not to be' - is spoken simply, and with the quiet purity of a man not merely philosophising about death, but longing to be there. Starting off in a tightly buttoned suit, with slicked back hair and polished shoes, Hamlet progresses to a grubby red t-shirt (featuring a faded imprint of chest and rib bones) and blue jeans, with mussed hair and bare feet. Later, when he is back in a suit for the presentation of the players, he retains his bare feet and temporarily gains a gold crown (part of the players' costumes), giving him a comic aspect that is at odds with his current emotional state.

Tennant is extremely physical in the role, leaping and racing about in his passions, (indeed at one point he is tied to a chair to keep him still) and this freneticism well conveys his state of mind. His relationship with Ophelia is played with great tenderness, subtly touching her hand as they pass each other, unable to believe her betrayal when she hands back the letters he has written her. His reaction to this is played 'more in sorrow than in anger', as though he blames himself and his behaviour for her rejection of him, tipping him over the edge into despair, and leaving him only one true friend, Horatio, on whom he can rely. His verbal attack on his mother is that of a sad and jealous little boy, further emphasised when his father's ghost sits on the bed beside his mother, and Hamlet strokes his father's arm, trying to will his family back together. Yet for all his wading through grief and anger, Hamlet himself is actually the cause of many moments of mirth within the play, and at this Tennant also excels, keeping a fine balance between the comic and tragic as he mocks and rebels, making fun of Polonius, perfectly mimicking Claudius' throaty bark, and calling goodnight to his mother whilst dragging a corpse offstage. Tennant just gets everything right in the role - the balance, the tone, the timing - and has the energy to sustain his focus right through to Hamlet's death scene. He is truly exceptional as the tortured prince, and will certainly be a hard act for future Hamlets to follow.

Patrick Stewart plays both Claudius and (with beard) the dead king raging for his revenge. All too often played with obvious signs of treacherousness, Stewart's Claudius shows no outward trace of malevolence, only real-seeming concern for Hamlet and for the effect of Hamlet's actions on the court. This Claudius is regal and upright, utterly composed and completely in control. As an usurper he may make a better king than his dead brother. His confession of his murderous act suggests that he is sorry for it but that it was a necessary evil. Having set events in motion he takes each new development in his stride, deploying damage control strategies where possible, and accepting the inevitable when things spiral out of control, as with the poisoning of Gertrude, and ultimately his own slaying. At the start of the play, during his speeches to the court, he turns to Laertes when all expectations were that he would address Hamlet next, deliberately slighting the prince for all to see and setting the tone of their relationship with this one small act. Stewart is spry and strong, and his Claudius is terrifying in his reserved fury. When he stops the play that Hamlet has asked to be enacted, he does not rage and shout, but merely walks over to Hamlet and shakes his head in disgust before departing. Again, small though this action may be, it is enough to show us exactly what is going on. Since his return to the stage Stewart has played many fine roles, and his elegant rendition of Claudius will count amongst them.

As well as its two leads, the overall casting in this production is excellent, with not a wrong note amongst the whole cast. Penny Downie plays Gertrude as an intelligent woman, a loving mother and a Queen twice-over. She is not uncaring about the death of her first husband - she recoils in pain at the memory - but has made, from her viewpoint, a sensible decision in remarrying. She is careful to show hospitality to Hamlet's friends, and weeps over her son's madness. Indeed after Hamlet attacks her marriage she appears unsure of how to react to her husband, although in the end her instinct is to trust him. Mariah Gale gives us a refreshingly young and spirited Ophelia, a girl who, like any modern teenager, fidgets and dances about whilst being lectured by her brother, at one point even laying down on the floor in a fit of childishness, and then pulling two condoms from his packed suitcase to highlight the hypocrisy of his advice to her. But despite her teasing she does take his lesson on board, along with the advice of her father, and it is this confusion as to how she should respond to Hamlet, rather than any enforced behaviour, that sets off her string of troubles. Gale is a delight to watch, and is particularly convincing in her grief, stripping off her clothes in rage, and then deadened and muddied giving out her sad flowers. Oliver Ford Davies is a very likeable Polonius, well-meaning rather than interfering, a loving father and a good man. His advice to Laertes (Edward Bennett) is clearly oft-repeated to both children, as they are able to finish his sayings for him. The affection that this family hold for one another is shown in a marvellously simple gesture, as Polonius hands a wad of notes over to Laertes for his travels, who surreptitiously folds it into Ophelia's hand as he hugs her farewell. This is a very real depiction of a family and one which makes what is to follow all the more tragic.

In this production Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Sam Alexander and Tom Davey) are physically very different from each other, one tall and dark and the other short and blond. Far from being treated as the interchangeable entities often seen in this play, these two have distinct personalities. Their welcome by Claudius and Gertrude and the repetition and confusion of their names, here signifies only how little Claudius knows about Hamlet and his friends. Peter De Jersey as Horatio is sturdy both physically and emotionally, Hamlet's rock throughout until he tries to follow the prince to his death.

The crew of Hamlet also deserve a mention, as lighting designer Tim Mitchell, composer Paul Englishby, and sound designers Jeremy Dunn and Martin Slavin all contribute to creating the intense atmosphere of the play. I was particularly struck by Robert Jones' set design: a stunning creation of black marble floor, and huge mirrored panels at the back of the stage, reflecting not just the actors but the audience too. These reflections are slightly distorted, as in beaten metal, and could be said to represent a multitude of things: the surveillance within the court, Hamlet's distorted personality and his musings on himself, the warped sensibilities of Claudius, the mirror held up to nature as we see ourselves looking back from beyond the stage. Chandeliers drop from the ceiling, further glittering and reflecting, throwing light on and leaving in darkness. The set as a whole is majestic and quite fitting for a palace, and like the production itself, deceptively simple. When Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet from behind the glass, they are visible as silhouettes, shadows, and when Hamlet kills Polonius (in this case by shooting) who is hiding behind the arras, several panels shatter and fracture creating further disharmony. The costuming is a mixture of several twentieth century styles, with the older generation dressed formally and in attire from the earlier decades and Hamlet and his friends in clothes from the latter years, but all with an elegance and sense of purpose.

Splendid though the rest of the company may be, Gregory Doran's vision and direction is what has shaped this piece and what holds the action together. Starting the play by plunging the audience into darkness, with swirling mist visible only by the torchlight of the actors on stage, Doran sets up an atmosphere of anxiety and apprehension that carries through the production. He chooses to be risqué (Hamlet's pronunciation of the C word in the phrase 'country matters'), comic (the dumb-show king's springing genitals), and highly poetic (David Tennant quite literally holding a 'mirror up to nature' and slowly turning it to reflect it's light across the audience on every side). He chooses to play with the text to create a cliff-hanger in the interval, splitting Hamlet's soliloquy 'Now might I do it pat' into two parts, leaving Hamlet with knife raised above Claudius at the end of part one and completing the speech in the second half of the production. By making these choices Doran has created a Hamlet that is much more real, more subtle, more rich and more deep than any production that has been seen in a good many years. He has brought out the nuances of the text, made motives transparent, and shown a clarity of thought and action in the character relationships, creating a production that genuinely touches the audience. At the end of the show the audience can applaud the actors but are unable to give the director the appreciation he deserves. Gregory Doran has created a masterpiece and it may be years before we see a Hamlet this good again. 

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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