January 29, 1998: Shakespeare, Hamlet

RSC, Barbican

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by some unacknowledged person. This is actually a brilliant production of the play, but cut drastically in certain ways to achieve a much different emphasis. I’ve never seen a production of Hamlet in which the first scene on the ramparts of the castle was cut entirely. We begin with I.ii — but it is not the throne room; rather, it’s a wedding party, with a side scene (actually, down front, and a large desk that comes up through a trap, and that says “anteroom”) where Laertes asks and receives permission to go back to school in Paris and Hamlet is denied permission to go back to Wittenberg. In other words, the “exterior” action of the play, the threat of invasion by Fortinbras, and of course Fortinbras himself, are all cut. The play ends as it ended all through the nineteenth century, with Horatio’s words “… And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” To be exact, the very last lines of the play, involving the relation of carnal, bloody acts, are read over a loudspeaker as the lights go down.

In fact, the only references we get to passing time in the whole play are Ophelia’s “Nay, ’tis twice two months, my Lord” in the opening to the mousetrap scene. What the severe cutting has done is to make an intense, fast-paced, modern thriller out of the play. No distractions, such as Polonius’s sending a henchmea to Paris to spy on his son, are allowed to intrude.

And it works — I say this despite myself. It works. There is an intensity and drive to this production that reminded me all over again what a really wonderful play this is. It is, you might say, all things to all directors. This director is Matthew Warchus, who has done Volpone and other pieces for the RSC and RNT. He has a very sure hand. The play goes off like a pistol shot — not an inapt metaphor for a modern dress production in which Claudius is killed by Laertes’s poisoned rapier and then, for good measure, has three shots fired into his corpse from Hamlet’s pistol — the same pistol (I think) that he used to shoot Polonius through the arras.

More about Alex Jennings as Hamlet later … A very clear, intense, convincing performance. The insider as outsider, irreversibly stricken by the secret only he — and Claudius — know. I saw this production from the middle of the first row, virtually the King’s seat, and was able to catch every word, every nuance. The prime challenge for the Hamlet actor now: how to say those famous speeches, which everyone knows, as if you are saying them for the first and only time? Clyde Fitch’s description of the actors task in “The Illusion of the First Time in Acting” was never better tested than in this role. Jennings solved the problem in two ways: by bringing an extraordinary intensity, a sense of being completely caught up in the moment, to every scene, every sequence; and by following an example set, I think, by Olivier, of giving his speeches an unorthodox, counter-sensical, counter-metrical off-handedness. The rule here is: avoid at all costs any sense that there is an elaborate rhetorical pattern at work; avoid making it sound like verse, and instead make it sound like — not prose, but just ordinary, hurried human speech. To call it “prose,” to make it “prose,” is to make it something other than verse. Whereas ordinary, intense speech is just that; it’s somewhat inept, trip-over-the-long-phrases or break-’em-up delivery is aimed at being convincing because it’s no different from ordinary speech; it’s the rare emotions that make it viable as theatre language. Alas. This is a morbid, anti-heroic — okay, post-modern — age, and the actors in it are, as some famous character of Shakespeare’s said, the “abstracts [sic, the plural, by Jennings, in defiance of the text] and brief chronicles of the time.” Jennings mostly avoids the worst excesses of this faux-naturalistic dead end, but every once in a while I heard him rattle on to cover up the fact that he didn’t really know what to do with some famous speech or other — and neither did the director, Matthew Warchus, whose idea of how to cut the play and make of it a brilliant, fast-paced, simple, singular, and lucid play of intrigue was nonetheless much to my liking.



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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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