by William Shakespeare
The Globe, London
23rd April 2014
Globe to Globe production
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole / Bill Buckhurst
An auspicious day to see Shakespeare’s greatest play, for Shakespeare died on the 23rd April, and tradition holds that he was born on the same day, exactly 450 years ago. And an auspicious location, at The Globe. It was performed last week across the river in a replica of private theatres (why didn’t they just use Sam Wanamaker’s Playhouse at The Globe for that?) and this was its first day out in the open air on the big stage. And it did rain enough to wet the end of the platform stage too.
This is a “touring Hamlet” designed to go forth from The Globe, and to tour the entire globe (small G) for the next two years, including North Korea, though what they will make of uncles, brothers, nephews in high places slaughtering each other remains to be seen. What they will make of Ophelia in a thin, off-shoulder petticoat in Iran is another question.
As a result, it’s a small cast Hamlet, doubling up, though at twelve, not to Reduced Shakespeare Company levels. It’s not the first small cast version we’ve seen, and the last was disconcerting because they used the rogue short First Quarto text (2200 lines) rather than the one we know and love. This programme notes talk about using the proper First Folio text (3600 lines), but at Quarto length and arranging of scenes for touring a pared down production, so pacier, shorter. I’m not sure what happened tonight, because we asked and they said it ran 7.30 to 10.10 including a 15 minute interval, but it actually ended at 22.35, so really not much shorter than other “full” productions. We also lost the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune line.
I have never seen Hamlet get this many laughs, and I’ve never seen a funnier nor better done play-within-a play. The play within a play’s mime section was tears down the face hilarious and they did it fighting through a loud circling helicopter … the Globe should definitely complain to Air Traffic Control, because I reckon it was eyeballing the Globe. When we realized that the company of twelve’s essential doubling up meant casting Claudius and Gertrude as Player King and Player Queen, we couldn’t see how they could possibly do both observer and observed simultaneously. Astute use of a curtain enabled them to switch through 180 degrees in our imagination and the big surprise was shortly after a curtain closed on them as player king and queen, Claudius and Gertrude fought their way through the pit to the stage to send the players packing. This was the Murder of Gonzago at Pyramus and Thisbe levels of comedy.
It was also refreshing not to see a concept loaded onto the story. It was modern dress, but with crowns, cloaks, swords unashamedly permitted without need for explanation. It worked. It wasn’t political situation or a fascist state or a mental hospital or a school, it was just Hamlet in a kind of timeless Denmark.
It was the right decision to go large in the acting for touring 200 plus countries, even to go VERY LARGE INDEED. Polonius was extremely funny and Rawiri Paratene played him as unusually hyperactive and spritely. Comic business throughout was very good. But hang on, this is Hamlet. And it certainly lacked gravitas. When you had serious stuff between Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude in the second half, you can’t take the switch to “no comedy” for the solid ten minutes or so. These three, plus Old Hamlet / The Gravedigger were all traditionally excellent accomplished actors with some weight and seriousness, yet able to play funny too. The gravediggers’ scene is one of the bard’s can’t fail pieces, but this was especially well done … by both gravediggers, Hamlet and Horatio.
In general though, I’m not so sure the rest of the cast were as accomplished as Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes and Old Hamlet /The gravedigger at making the shift from comedy to serious.
It was the first night at the Globe, full up, and you can see their travelling set in the middle of the massive stage surrounded by trunks presumed to look as if for transporting stuff, with planks to create battlements, graves, thrones. Of course The Globe is a far bigger stage than they’ll be using in some places, and they strove to use it all. Excellent BUT it left a lot of movement looking undisciplined or carelessly blocked, probably because it was blocked in the smaller area. The players scenes stuck to the tighter area and were meticulously blocked, but at other times we got aimless movement, or vague attempts to use the entire stage. I wondered if a much larger stage had added time, but while I can understand five minutes, twenty-five seems unlikely.
The programme shows photos of the actors, without matching roles. Naeem Hayat and Ladi Emeruwa share the role of Hamlet, alternating, and only Naeem Hayat, as Hamlet, was in tonight’s cast. It would seem a way of keeping interest over two years, plus you’d need at least one spare actor available every night with contingencies worked out to replace anyone by shifting along. Looking at online photos, there is a lot of rotation.
Laertes falls. L to R: Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude … the cast on April 23rd.
I don’t like not having a casting list at all. A big minus on the programme. If they need to do that for rotation, respect for the actors’ work suggests an RSC style free cast list for the evening. Rawiri Paratene was Polonius, Keith Bartlett was old Hamlet, John Dougal was Claudius, Miranda Foster was Gertrude, Tom Lawrence was Laertes, Matthew Romain was Horatio … I think those were right. Tom Lawrence introduced the evening. Keith Bartlett as the gravedigger had us all wish Billy (Shakespeare) an appropriate happy birthday, and I love such assured moving away from the text like that.
They inevitably had to go youngish to engage actors for two years on the road, and so Hamlet looked close to the age in the script, rather than the expected acclaimed and famous actors ten or fifteen or twenty years older than the text. You can’t expect the actor, Naeem Hayat, to have the weight of Jude Law, Rory Kinnear, Michael Sheen or Jonathan Slinger, just to name the last four Hamlets we’ve seen. At least, not yet. He has great physical presence, and strength of personality, but he needed to dance around somewhat less, and his voice, with a somewhat soft-r, is not his strong point, though enunciation and interpretation were excellent.
Hamlet & Ophelia
So we had a young Hamlet and a young Ophelia (Jennifer Leong). Part of the loss was not knowing where Hamlet was coming from, mad, scheming or whatever. Hayat had charisma, but the degree of comedy left him rather Hamlet as Prat. This was not a psychologically considered performance at all. Ophelia was an unusual interpretation and though she did mad well, it didn’t work for us. It’s a really hard part to do, as it’s interminably wet and the madness is a swine, but we both thought her weak.
One oddity that I might have misheard is that as Polonius is stabbed through the arras, Hamlet said something about “old man.” But Hamlet thinks it’s Claudius, and Polonius is “the old man” not Claudius.
Claudius, in this production, like Gertrude can be younger and more virile, not being landed with having the normal 40 year old famous thespian as son. It does make it easier to see a physical passion between them as it puts them in their forties rather than their sixties, but this production wasn’t played for passion or sexuality, neither in Claudius and Gertrude, nor in Hamlet and Ophelia.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern work as a pantomime brokers’ men comedy act, which is becoming standard, and the tennis rackets were good, as was singing the Latin “old school song” with Hamlet.
It’s great to have music, but I’d question whether To The Begging I Will Go suits the theme, and while it’s great to see all the actors playing, the melodeon and mandolin looked more props than vital.
If you’re playing to audiences in so many countries, the physical comedy is a given. So should be the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes. Elizabethan audiences looked forward to the sword fights which were a major attraction. The fencing bit was feeble, though they broke into a magnificent rolling and punching fist fight on the ground.
Having worked with non-native speaker audiences so much in my life, I accept and agree that playing the parts larger, milking every bit of comedy, and a vigorous production is the way to go, and this ticks all those boxes extremely well. It’s also right to go Peter Brooks style multi-ethnic for such a tour. It might be the first time I have thought a Shakespeare was played TOO MUCH for laughs though. I have previously quoted my old tutor’s belief that if even the most serious speeches were making the groundlings restless, the Kings Men would have sent on the dancing bear for a couple of minutes light relief! But even so too much of the tragedy was abandoned in pursuit of comedy. It went down a storm, and I hope it does so right round the world, as I’m sure it will. They make much in the programme on brevity, the soul of wit, but in the end it was not particularly brief. A major issue is that the direction and ensemble acting in the Play-Within-A-Play was so outstanding, that it outclassed the rest of the production. It is a fun lively vigorous production, but it doesn’t do Hamlet full justice.
And in the end, the play’s the thing.
Hamlet, RSC 2016 Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet, Stratford