NT Live Broadcast 23 March 2015
Manchester Royal Exchange Production
Directed by Sarah Frantcom
Cinema broadcast directed by Margaret Williams
As chance would have it, I saw both Macbeth and King Lear last week, and now Hamlet. The three major tragedies in six days. It might be overkill. I feared for my stamina and for theatre seat sores.
This was recorded a few months ago, rather than being “live” and Maxine Peake spoke about it on Radio Four. So this isn’t “live” in the NT live sense, but it s a welcome move of the NT Live / RSC Live concept to recording a major provincial production. Maxine Peake was interviewed by Clive Anderson a month before this broadcast, and long after it had ended. She described a dry run for cameras on Thursday, then multiple camera filming on Friday and Saturday. Was she joking about small cameras being attached to actors? She said that before a major speech on the Saturday she was assailed in the wings to be powdered down because her face was redder on camera than on the Friday.
Note the director credit for cinema broadcast. This is a stage beyond NT / RSC Live which focuses on one performance. We know from the interview that this is three performances cut together, not broadcast live, heavily edited from multiple cameras. It is therefore a big step further away from live theatre, and we are getting closer to (say) Olivier’s filmed Othello from the 1960s, except of course we have live audience(s). We also had the faint rumble of trains a few times, which you don’t get in Wimborne, Dorset where we saw it. And we all looked round for an audience mobile phone, but it was very faint, and I’m sure it was on the Manchester recording.
The Manchester Royal Exchange theatre is in the round, so there’s no set, but a variety of floor coverings. At the end the credits say it’s the 2009 Grandage Season text, and we saw that one, with Jude Law as Hamlet … still the best Hamlet role I’ve seen, though my companion still assures me (as mentioned elsewhere) that David Warner at the RSC in the 60s was better. In both productions, publicity has focussed on the lead actor, Jude Law then Maxine Peake. Otherwise, this production had no apparent similarities in my memory, except that it’s a Fortinbras-free text, not a Norwegian in sight, plus no Voltimand, Cornelius, Reynaldo, no English Ambassadors, no trudging soldiers on their way to Poland, and therefore politics-light and henchmen-light. This Claudius has to make do with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in lieu of armed guards. In spite of that, it’s not a short version, though still an hour less than the entire text. The cut point for the interval came after Polonia was dragged away, so 123 minutes in, leaving a 70 minute second half. I wasn’t watch-checking … it tells you on the programme. I would have preferred an earlier break, with after the players scene the more usual choice.
Conceptually, this has women in major roles. Maxine Peake as Hamlet plays it as a man. Polonius becomes Polonia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a male / female pair (not the first time I’ve seen this), both gravediggers are female, and the Player King is played by a woman, and the Player Queen by a man. Without swopping lines. So while the Players and Hamlet are “gender blind” the others switch the role to female.
Hamlet & Ophelia
Polonia works very well, partly because it’s so well played by Gillian Bevan, but it’s neither as doddering nor as “funny” as usual. Though she does get laughs, they’re in different places. I liked Laertes finishing her advice lines for her. Costume is doing a major job here, because most of the cast are dressed 2015, but Polonia is MadMen era smart two piece skirt suit, and Ophelia is early 60s pale blue frock and navy cardie, thus placing them both as “straighter” than the rest of the court, and so old-fashioned. Ophelia is an awful part to play, but Katie West did it outstandingly well. She looked young, innocent and totally controlled by her mother, Polonia. That added a dimension to her that has never happened with a father. She’s the girl who dresses as her mum tells her, so a generation back in time, wears the same shade of lipstick as mum, and who goes shopping with mum on Saturday, not with her peer group. She had to strip down to bra and pants for the mad scene, usually a choice of male directors, though not here. The effect is, like the sad watching eyes we are cut away to, that we feel embarrassed for Ophelia. It’s a completely “non-prurient” disrobing.
First Gravedigger and Hamlet. Alas, poor Yorick, you are an old jumper.
The other major concept was the players who wandered on as if from the side circus tent at a summer rock festival, with four children and three teens in tow. This gave Hamlet some good greetings bits and head patting for kids. When we got to the play within a play, the children did the mime show acting out of the murder of Gonzago. I still found it confusing to have a female doing the king lines and a male doing the player queen lines. The “country matters” line from Hamlet was the most separated and emphatically so that I recall. Throughout this Hamlet was heavy on crude (allegedly) masculine gestures, earlier on, holding his book as a penis and whacking on it thoroughly. The book was The Prince by Machiavelli. Ophelia later had a book which Hamlet scoffed at … Little Women. Both clever choices, but I’m not sure that you would have been able to read the titles in the theatre on the night.
The gravediggers, both Scousers, had to create a grave from a mountain of old clothes that suddenly dropped from a net to cover the stage. Then the skulls were rolled up jumpers. The accents added to the scene. It was funny, and a welcome change from Mummerset.
The killing of Polonia was done with a pistol. Laertes threatened Claudius with a pistol. They did have to fence for the last scene, and that was just about an adequate fight, but no more. The very tight close ups let us see the red stopper in the barrel of Hamlet’s gun. There was no blood at the killng, but when Hamlet reappeared after the interval, there was blood on his shirt and arms.
Hamlet, after killing Polonia
There was some nice attention to lines. When Claudius talks about Hamlet’s wish to return to university, he manages to imbue “Wittenberg” with the undertones of an Oxford graduate mentioning Huddersfield Polytechnic. Again “common” is given the snooty modern meaning rather than the original “ordinary.”
There are no weak parts. Claudius (John Shrapnel) and Gertrude (Barbara Marten) are both outstandingly good, full of subtle expressions in the background, which the camera catches in cutaways. You would have missed most if you’d been in the theatre. But this makes it feel very edited. They’re also on the old side for a young Hamlet. We’re very used to Claudius and Gertrude at that age, but that’s because we have had so many “major theatre star” Hamlets around the forty age mark. The text means he is old enough to remember Yorick well, and Yorick died 23 years earlier, so approaching thirty. He’s still studying.
One of the ghost scenes
I was about to say “while Maxine Peake is much younger” but then I looked her up on Wiki, and she was also forty at the time of the production. She would pass for late-twenties, which of course is right for the text. She plays Hamlet as emotionally younger than that even. This is a risky sentence to write, but she plays it as just post adolescent in that she is so overtly emotional in the part. This Hamlet flies off the handle fast and vigorously, and emotes flat out. Cough. Hum. I think she brings a more female emotion to the part. There, said it. Let the rotten fruit fly. This is accentuated by the sheer amount of close up and tight close up that we see. “In the round” dictates that the camera is not going to hang back on wider shots, and as well as bringing out reactive subtlety, I also think it makes a lot of speeches look “over emotional.” Or over the top. Or as the posters say, “intimate and intense.” It’s a bravura theatrical performance of full on energy with a wide expressive range, but the colder angst of a leading male actor just isn’t there. Not that it has to be. Perhaps it’s rather that a full theatrical rendition has been captured cinematically. That works fine when the film version is set back far enough to let us feel the theatre presence a lot of the time. Here it isn’t. It’s directed so tightly in, that we’re experiencing theatrical acting projection too close. I think they went just a tad too far down the “we’re making a movie” route without being able to adjust performance to camera friendly proximity.
All the adverts put “Maxine Peake” above Hamlet. You can’t get better billing than that. Google Image Search for illustrations emphasized the billing. Even when I just put the actor name, I could find no full on photos of Claudius, Gertrude, Polonia or Ophelia. A pity. They deserve to be seen as well!
There is at least one major Hamlet a year, one which will be noted in theatrical histories. This was 2014’s candidate, and it’s refreshing that it’s NOT from the usual suspects … RSC, NT, Globe … and of course the existence of the filmed version will cement that.
ASIDE: THE NAMES IN HAMLET
I’ve often wondered about this. Claudius, Horatio and Polonius have Latin names. Ophelia and Laertes are both Greek. They’re brother and sister, so that doesn’t seem random. Gertrude is German, as sound Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet is from an older story about Denmark. Fortinbras seems made up … strong in arms? Gertrude means strength of a spear. Claudius as the king, could be the Latinization of regal names (which is why we have Jacobean and Caroline drama). But “clawed” may be association. No conclusions, just wondering!
Hamlet, RSC 2016 Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet, Stratford