Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Friday 3rd May 2013
Directed by David Farr
Karen Archer – Player Queen
Cliff Burnett – Player King
Charlotte Cornwell – Gertrude
Kiza Deen – Courtier
Daniel Easton – Reynaldo
David Fielder – First Gravedigger/Voltemand
Dave Fishley – Barnardo
Michael Grady-Hall – Osric
Greg Hicks – Claudius/Ghost
Rosie Hilal – Second Gravedigger
Mark Holgate – Francisco
Chris Jared – Fortinbras
Natalie Klamar – Courtier/Student/Player
Pippa Nixon – Ophelia
Luke Norris – Laertes
Oliver Ryan – Rosencrantz
Jonathan Slinger – Hamlet
Robin Soans – Polonius
John Stahl – Priest/Player
Samuel Taylor – Marcellus
Nicolas Tennant – Guildenstern
Alex Waldmann – Horatio
It’s compulsory to reference film or TV with Hamlet nowadays. The National Theatre did the West Wing Hamlet. The Young Vic did Hamlet Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and now the RSC has done Hamlet With The Dragon Tattoo. They’ve gone for the Scandinavian reference, and Denmark means The Killing series, so we get elaborate 50s Scandinavian knitwear and early on we have lots of electric torches being used to shed light on stuff, which is The Killing’s hallmark way of concealing cheap sets (certainly they’re never cheap at the RSC). Then we get fluorescents casting their pale glow and a general reliance on muted colours and yellow light (they bothered to hang a full roof over the set). There’s a Danish flag on the stage, furled. The Danish effect of The Killing and even Festen suits the plotting within Hamlet.
The set, Hamlet & Horatio
The set is a school assembly hall that doubles as a gym with a few wallbars (as many do) and racks at the back and side for fencing foils. The door with exit sign is institutional. It has the school Latin motto (an ironic ” healthy mind in a healthy body”) inscribed high on the wall, and steps lead up to a proscenium inner stage with dusty plush curtains. The players scenes are hard front- lit like a school play upon the stage too. One review says it’s a fencing academy, but I think assembly hall, only the roof with skylights suggest a flat-out gym. The only other school reference is Osric before the duel appearing in a school blazer and prefects’ cap. When he does so, it appears totally unreferenced. According to the Evening Standard review, Horatio is a housemaster and Ophelia a shy schoolmistress with a pile of exercise books to mark. Neither of us got that at all, though in retrospect they were exercise books, and too many to be just her own. If showing the cast as teachers was the intention, it was a total failure.
Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet did Prospero last year, and Macbeth the year before, so it’s a progression. It’s hard to know where he goes next at the RSC, as he’s too young for Lear and too white for Othello. He was a young Prospero (though Prospero has a 15 year old daughter, so 39 is logical). He’s one of the oldest Hamlets at 40 … the text is quite clear that Yorick was buried three and twenty years ago, and young Hamlet was born thirty years ago. He doesn’t look a lot younger than Claudius.
Slinger gives a powerful and also unconventional performance, and we were trying to work it out in the interval, and it’s Hamlet as a Geek, not a romantic tragic hero. He’s approaching forty, back from uni, still living upstairs in his old bedroom, and resenting his mum’s new life. Intelligent, but hard to have a relationship with, so that Claudius and Gertrude have to dredge up his only two pals from Wittenberg Uni, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to try and get him out and about a bit; trouble is, Rosencrantz and Guidenstern didn’t like him that much. He shares a spliff with them hilariously, which makes three spliffs in three productions at the RSC. You can see that they would have been three geeky lads at Wittenberg, hanging out together by default. Once he rids himself of the geeky black suit of his first appearance, Hamlet is in a dirty, torn fencing costume, which is hanging half off, giving it the appearance of a straitjacket (echoing the Young Vic’s mental hospital concept. Again).
Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet
Slinger gives a massive range of emotions in his performance, which is mesmerizing, and very different. Pippa Nixon is Ophelia, doubling in repertory with Rosalind in As You Like It which is a hefty workload, though she has cemented her major status with these two back to back roles. Ophelia is a weedy part, and extremely hard to do, so she is commended for playing one of the best recent ones. When she first appears laden with schoolbooks, with chunky sweater, plain skirt and grey tights, she looks as geeky as Hamlet. This is why they’re together. Their first encounter with a passionate kiss before a word is said was good. Later, in the Get thee to a nunnery scene, Hamlet strips her to her underwear which is a striking event.
Pippa Nixon as Ophelia
We thought it cruel to leave her lying on stage right through from her burial to the very end. Twenty minutes? Thirty? It’s a bit much given a stage covered with traps and lifts that could have lowered her of of sight. She was flat out in that nasty black stage gravel that seems so popular now. The real oddity in the production was turning on the sprinklers onto the stage for the last ten seconds or so wih a fire alarm noise. Why? Neither of us could think of any rationale, and it inconveniently damped the costumes.
Claudius and the ghost of Old Hamlet are doubled … well, they’re brothers, and it’s a slim, handsome and conniving Claudius from Greg Hicks and a stately and queenly Gertrude from Charlotte Cornwall. The generation gap between them and the Hamlet generation is marked. They and Polonius are impeccably dressed. I’m not sure I like the ghost being quite so real and overt in appearance as it was here, with fencing costume being its oft-mentioned armour.
Claudius, headmaster with crown?
The trouble is, and it affects all the parts in the play except Hamlet & Ophelia, is that they have no “concept” to hang on to. Put them in a court and regal costume, and you don’t question that nor do you seek one. But recent modern dress Claudiuses had a definite rationale: the chief psychiatrist in the mental hospital, the wily president in the West Wing. In both he moved with the apparatus of power behind him. Orderlies in the mental hospital, CIA agents in the West Wing. Here it was just a couple of blokes in the ubiquitous 21st century Shakespeare military costumes, and that really diminishes the “threat” of Claudius. You don’t get the feeling that Claudius is consumed with lust for Gertude either, and because he lacks any true kingly role in this assembly hall/ gym, the motivation is missing from his role: he looks great, the acting is brilliant, but there’s a lack of focus, almost backstory, which extends to Gertrude, Polonius and Laertes. One of my favourite lines of music criticism, about a rock band soldiering on after its songwriter / creative force has left was “It’s Hamlet without the prince” (said of The Band after Robbie Robertson had departed). This production is Hamlet with a full-on prince, but with greatly diminished surrounding characters.
The ending dropped the Fortinbras arrival, which you don’t need with electric lights which you can switch off. A blackout was not available in 1600. His entry at the end was only ever to clear the bodies, though the political “West Wing” version made sense of having him there to take over the political lead. In this assembly hall it would be hard to think of a reason for Fortinbras: the Secretary for Education turning it into academy status, perhaps. Even with that dropped scene and other cuts it was a long version at three hours thirty-five minutes (including the interval). The Norwegian army had appeared earlier too in large numbers, to clear the boards from the stage before the gravediggers scene.
The players scene was particularly good, framed up on the inner stage with great musical accompaniment. It was Japanese in style for the mime scene, and the bawdy business with a baguette and round loaf of bread was brilliant, as was the singer in skull T-shirt suddenly leaping off the stage. The players being pulled away and arrested was in the West wing version too and works.
Excellent use of blood when Ophelia cut her hand deliberately and when the bated foil pierced Hamlet and blood appeared. Polonius was murdered sitting in a chair behind the curtain which was convenient for the actor.
There were weaknesses. The set choice didn’t really make much sense nor was it followed through and justified. The mental hospital version at the Young Vic also used a gym to justify the fencing foils, as you have to as soon as you take the setting past about 1820. Polonius wasn’t as funny as he normally is, not having a particular concept either, though Jonathan Slinger got more humour out of Hamlet than normal. Having him enter before the To Be or Not To Be speech singing Ken Dodd’s Happiness was bizarre as much as funny (though we laughed in shock), and it wasn’t the best To Be or Not to Be either … starting with the song didn’t help the mood, and he was sitting which never helps power. My companion was influenced by having seen David Warner’s Hamlet in her first ever RSC visit, which is bound to overshadow most others.
So Hamlet the Geek was a lopsided production, and suffers from the less interesting other characters. Jonathan Slinger and Pippa Nixon both benefit from that in that their portrayals have no competition for interest. We saw Slinger’s Macbeth and Prospero from high up in the theatre, and here we were right upfront in the second row stalls, so far more able to appreciate just how good he is. His performance will stay with me. So many lines were taken differently, and every line was particularly sharp and clear in interpretation, even if the interpretation was so unusual.
Hamlet, RSC 2016 Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet, Stratford