All is not well in the state of Denmark. Hamlet’s lost his marbles, and people keep dying. What a to do.
Staged at London’s Barbican, and live-screened internationally, Hamlet begins with Mr H listening to his father’s gramaphone records alone and not with the ghostly appearance upon the battlements. Nicking, fiddling and giving Bernardo and Franciso’s lines to Hamlet and Horatio – “Who’s there? …answer me: stand, and unfold yourself!” “Long live the king!” – this night starts as it means to go on. That is, a thoroughly tinkered-with adaptation. (Johann Persson photography throughout).
Before I start, I have no intention of discussing the tinkering hoo-ha, and seeing as I never witnessed the “To be or not to be” fiasco, I can’t talk about it. As for the remaining tinkering, it didn’t jar or feel incoherent. I also have to point out I watched this last Thursday, so yes, it really has taken this long to articulate my
Overall, it was a rollicking production, and my first staged Hamlet (via a screen). Sian Brooke‘s Ophelia was poignantly harrowing; Jim Norton‘s Polonius adorably pernickity (even if I can’t shake Bishop Brennan when I see him); and if I could, I’d buy Cumberbatch a well-earned pint. Something also must be said for the accessibility of the language with this production, due to the ease with which it is spoken by (most of) the cast – you can usually tell who hasn’t had much experience, because their lines sound like someone reading autocue. As for the outstanding set…
Imagine being in a room where opposing sides have met, blood-lust is in the air – KKK vs Black Panthers, Bloods vs Crips, Catholics vs Protestants. The tension is unbearable and ready to break. Then, imagine, Godzilla crashlands between the two and starts eating everyone. The original fight goes on, but if you were watching all of that, what are you more likely to focus on?
Here we have this outstanding set, not based in any particular period, well utilised to depict all locations – primarily thanks to an impressive lighting design, altering and distorting the actors’ surroundings. It screams of a budget no artist has any hope in hell of achieving until getting that foot in the door, which is both a good thing and bad. Good because you can let loose; bad because too loose tips you into unnecessary and irrelevant trickery, e.g. the rubble. The fall of Elsinore? Let’s symbolise the shit out of this with some rubble, rather than leaving it to the actors to portray.
And this really is the rub. The majority of this piece feels like it has been left to the set, Ophelia and Hamlet to run the show. Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) partnered with Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) is so underwhelming, I have to air someone else’s description: “a frigidly elegant pair used to giving cocktail parties in the Surrey hinterland“. This play’s Claudius was so one-dimensional, his attempts at appearing more cunning and treacherous were verging on panto-villain as he closed the first half – perhaps not aided by the growing “dundundunnn” music, forcing him to shout louder than his own capability, and punctuated with a gust of rubble and white light shooting towards him like a bat out of (heavenly) hell.
Gertrude was an unusually weak force, incapable of consoling and chastising her son. Instead, we have a normally explosive scene reduced to literally crawling around on the floor wailing at each other until Hamlet stabs Polonius. Rosencrantz, Guildernstern, even the grave digger scene – ordinarily enjoyable moments are given lack-lustre treatment by the performers, with a few directorial inconsistencies. Why is the grave digger also Hamlet’s dad? Why, when he was the ghost, was his accent more rural, and as the grave digger RP? And why, more importantly, was I allowed to notice that?
Age and madness
I didn’t want to be bothered by it. And I wasn’t until the unshowy showdown between Hamlet and Gertrude. Hamlet is seventeen. Cumberbatch is thirty-nine. He is not the first to play the role well outside the teen-bracket nor the last, but it is annoyingly important for the plot to work. With the question of madness, how old Hamlet is and how he is portrayed will determine the diagnosis.
In youth, belittling those around him, self-perceived entitlement over his mother’s conduct, encompassed by grief over his father – his actions almost feel justified by his age. He doesn’t want to be prince, he wants his dad back, and he’d rather be anywhere than home.
But at thirty-nine, with a voice that gives his age away, that kind of behaviour doesn’t scream madness but infantile, caged. A thirty-nine year old not so much forced but obligated to stay home and bear witness to a remarriage, particularly when he is now old enough to know how adult minds work…
I didn’t find Hamlet mad, I found him immature and a brat, and I truly believe it is because the age was not one with the play. A man that age mourning the death of his father in this way, playing dress up and army with nutcrackers, poking his nose into his mother’s affairs, and an edge to his dimissal of Ophelia that is frankly dangerous… He is most definitely not mad, but a prick. A prick with connections.
Perhaps the most moving scene of the night was Ophelia’s final entrance, and what I’d like to end this entry on. She dots about the stage presenting flowers, twitching and muttering the names of each, before clearing a space in the rubble for a trunk. Her dissociative state is mesmerising and uncomfortable, attentive to the placement of the trunk and herself to it. Alone, bar Gertrude, Ophelia exits upstage through the hall. She turns to face the gust of rubble and white light, and goes to greet it. Gertrude examines the trunk, full of photographs Ophelia has taken throughout the play as well as her camera, before realising the inevitable and runs after her.
Explaining the first usage of the white light – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death at sea – made this moment undeniably beautiful to watch. I’ve never seen Ophelia’s death dealt with that much grace, and probably never will again. If anyone was truly mad in this production, I know who I’d name.
‘Hamlet‘ at Barbican, London