January 18, 2002: Shakespeare, Hamlet

RSC Barbican

One thing about the high price of theatre programs in London (now £2.50  – £3.50 — a cost that feels outrageous to many Americans, who are used to getting them for free) is that on occasion they are actually worth the money. This is especially true of Royal Shakespeare Company programs. The program for this Hamlet features two intelligent essays on the play (by Steve Sohmer and Ger­maine Greer), a chronology of the plays and biography of the playwright, and short articles on “The Back-story” (the new word for what happens before the action begins), the script, and Shakespeare’s sources — and then still another piece, by Frank Kermode, on the language of the play (probably adapted from his recent book on the language of Shakespeare) — along with several pages of rehearsal photos and the usual credits and bios of actors and others connected with the production. This is far more than can be read in the minutes before the play begins or in the brief time of the two — yes, two — intervals of this nearly uncut, four-hour performance. No matter. It provides food for reflection, if not necessarily on topics focused on by this particular production. All this for £3.00 — one of the few real bargains left in a London that becomes more dear at every visit. (Still, the average cost of my sixteen theatre tickets this trip was not much over $40.00 at the current rate of 1.44 to the pound sterling: about half the price of sixteen plays on and off Broadway.)

Two intermissions, yes, and just in the right places. I always ask my students about placing intermissions, two of them, in the course of an uncut production. They don’t get the right answer often, because they don’t keep track of the time scheme as they read. There are two natural and obvious breaking points: one at the end of Act I, between which and the beginning of Act II enough time has elapsed for the King’s emissaries to travel to Norway and back; and in the temporal continuity that follows Ophelia’s noting of the time lapse since Hamlet’s father’s death as “twice two months.” The sequence that begins in Act II goes on in an uninterrupted series of events until Hamlet, on his way to board the ship that is to take him to England and his death, encounters Fortinbras’s Captain (having just missed Fortinbras himself) and reflects, in his last soliloquy, on his long delay in accomplishing his sworn vengeance. The next sequence, beginning late in Act IV, occurs after an interval long enough for Laertes, in Paris, to get the news of his father’s murder and for Ophelia to lose her wits. So: the best places for the two intervals are in the clear interstices of the action. But if you aren’t playing the text uncut, the end of Act I is far too early; the breaking point towards the end of Act IV is far too late; and so you have one unfortunate and unhappy choice or another, somewhere in the deep and vast middle of the play, to interrupt the great momentum that has begun to build up; and then you have to begin building it all over again.

Marvellous to say, this production broke for intervals at just the right places, thereby emphasizing the discontinuous time of those two points. This brought an interval after about an hour, and then another about three hours into the play. This could be deadly in a poor, flagging production. But this production had such remarkable pace, such pitch and moment, that the audience was held willingly captive, and even seemed a little sorry when it was over.

The Hamlet: a young actor named Samuel West, with impressive experience in theatre, film, and television, and in over thirty radio plays. A stupendous feat, to play an uncut Hamlet; West does it triumphantly. He has a truly remarkable sincerity and authenticity about him; one senses absolutely all of him present in even the briefest utterance. He speaks the speeches trippingly, taking his char­acter’s own advice. Every word is audible without being in the least forced. A man of middle stature, his face is mobile, well proportioned, and pleasant with­out being handsome; no Olivier, Gielgud, or Barrymore here. Rather, he comes across as a perfectly ordinary person who, by the time we first see him, has already suffered what feels like the shock and loss of a lifetime. He never recovers from it until the graveyard scene, where West plays the change that has come over Hamlet in the course of his watery journey as a temperate acquies­cence, troubled but not utterly destroyed by his discovery that the dead person being buried is Ophelia. Here he erupts in anger and is ready to fight Laertes to the finish then and there, were he not separated, by the King’s orders, from his antagonist.

The Ophelia: Kerry Condon, who looks sixteen, the age she plays as Mairead, the fearless, eagle-eyed sharp-shooter in The Lieutenant of Inishmere. This is uncon­­ventional casting — again, like West, in the direction of the ordinary, the girl at the supermarket checkout — who turns out to be exactly right for the role. No Jean Simmons here. No forlorn beauty. Just a young woman, hapless and power­less, caught far beyond her depth. The mad scene was almost matter-of-fact, very low-key, with singing almost under the breath: singing to herself, a sign of a total inward turning, in which condition other living beings have a two-dimensional unreality. This actress is brand new to the professional stage, having done exactly one play (in Liverpool) before this season with the RSC, along with a TV appearance and two or three films (one being Angela’s Ashes). Her Irish and her English voice are equally good. She should go far.

The play overall: a version of modern dress. I.ii, where Claudius goes public with his new occupation and new wife, was done in tuxedos and dressy dresses, as if he were the new CEO of Denmark, Incorporated (the director, Stephen Pimlott, seems to have taken a leaf from the Ethan Hawke film of Hamlet). There are pistols and knives, no swords. When Hamlet calls on his companions on the battlements to swear on his sword, it is clearly a knife. No apology, no embar­rassing moment here: clearly, the modern dress and all the accoutrements of violent modern life are presented as metaphor — a way into the play that makes it intelligible and worthy of our notice. This is “modern” right up to date, in fact. In the mousetrap scene, Horatio uses a camcorder to take close-ups of Claudius and Gertrude; the images are projected from a point far upstage onto a portable translucent screen in the center of the stage, allowing us a perfect view of the proceedings. In Claudius’s chamber, Hamlet’s “Now might I do it pat” soliloquy is spoken with Hamlet holding a pistol in both hands, extended at arm’s length (we’ve seen this gesture thousands of times now in films and on TV) just short of touching the back of Claudius’s head. And in the next scene, in Gertrude’s closet, the projection screen has been given double duty as the arras behind which Polonius hides. When he cries out, Hamlet takes him out (the right expression for this event) with a single shot from his pistol.

Consistent good acting throughout, though Christopher Good seems to me miscast as Hamlet’s father (he is fine as Osric — a usual doubling, along with Alan David’s doubling of Polonius and the First Gravedigger; yes, there are two of them!). Good also played Sir Andrew in the current Twelfth Night, and I thought he was weak there too, or else not well directed. In any case, his tall, gaunt frame, gray hair flying, was not convincing as the father of this ordinary, somewhat round-faced, medium-height Hamlet.

But that’s but a trifle here. Other casting and acting more than made amends. Marty Cruickshank did a fine imitation of a corporate wife who evidently must not say no. The most she can do is to comment briefly, if painfully, about her “o’er-hasty marriage” with Claudius. The best of this character for an actress is of course the closet scene. Cruickshank’s Gertrude is convincingly conscience-stricken by what Hamlet tells her; she looks for the first time, it seems, into her soul and finds there all that she has striven to hide from herself. Her love for her son is crystal clear, even when he acts in a way that makes her fear for her life.

The set: a bare stage, with double doors way up stage in the center. Wings, of a sort (the motif observed in the RSC Twelfth Night, but here used with great ingenuity as vertical channels in which lights can travel, as they do, up and down, and swiveling and also changing color to suit the requirements of the scene). And there is a platform, a walkway, extended out from the edge of the stage, just wide enough for two persons to walk abreast, and issuing into a gap in the seats about six or eight rows back. Portable, rolling light stands augment the fixed verticals and are used in a masterly way to create space and atmosphere simultaneously. The result is an action that flows and continues at a rapid pace, with something of the aura and flexibility of a sound stage. Brilliant, altogether. I have seldom enjoyed a mounting of a play as I did this one.

One of the unfortunate results of cutting the text of Hamlet to two and a half hours is that what critics like to call “the exterior action” of the play gets left on the cutting room floor, resulting in an evisceration of much of the political substance of a play that must have seemed highly political to Shakespeare’s first audience; “a drama of state,” Steve Sohner puts it, “a king assassinated, a queen implicated, the succession perverted, the heir apparent run mad.” What is left is a domestic tragedy, as we typically construe it. Again, in Sohner’s words, “a father murdered, an uncle guilty, a mother shamed, a son alienated.” But play the entire text and you get both. That, in contrast to Othello, where the exterior threat is dissipated by the time Othello arrives on the ramparts of Cyprus in Act II. Hamlet has it all — if you have the sense, and the resources, to leave it intact.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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