Sunday 16 September 2012

HAMLET finished in London, possibly on tour somewhere

For my third visit to the theatre dedicated to Shakespeare, I figured it might be time to take in something actually by the bloke. Also, having seen the left-field reworking 'The Rest Is Silence' earlier this year I thought to take in a 'straight' version of 'Hamlet', as a kind of control to measure against the experiment.

I can be as partial as the next man to the sexed-up, cinematic Shakespeare we often see on screen. But there is still something appealingly rootsy about seeing a bare-boards production, in which planks of wood can represent the ramparts of a castle or the bow of a boat, all under an open night sky. (Albeit one more beset by police helicopters than 'twould have been in the Bard's day.) Typically, and almost certainly traditionally, the company make most use of their limited numbers by multi-assigning roles. But they also use these editorially. For example, in a nice touch both the Ghost and Claudius (who murders him and usurps his Kingship) are played by Dickon Tyrrell. (Meat and drink to my theory the play is partly about the child's split view of the parent.)

Similarly, when the Players turn up their King and Queen are played by the same actors as Claudius and Gertrude. An on-stage curtain closes and opens, portraying their shocked reaction and underlining the reflection. It's a neat device, but overall this scene epitomises all that's wrong with this production.

After an opening where the company take to the stage, playing instruments and addressing us directly, it's less that the Players are cast within the play and more they're producing the whole thing. The play-within-the-play should not just be reflective but recursive, smaller. It should be like a 2D construct within a 3D world, or a sketch inside a portrait. As it is, there seems very little difference between the two. The stock characters grate against any suggestion of a psychological study.

We talk of “Hamlet without the Prince” as a definition of pointlessness. And it has to be said Michael Benz's Hamlet is lacking. He can give us the mad Hamlet, but less the bad or dangerous-to-know one. He seems more like a boisterous teen, playing pranks, making smart-arse remarks, getting crushes on girls then going off them. (Which interestingly isn't entirely unlike the sulky emo Hamlet of 'Rest Is Silence.') The mad seems to leech through when it shouldn't, and the crowd laughs at inopportune moments. (Including his hesitation over killing Claudius, a dramatic moment if ever there was.) However other actors are stronger, particularly the afore-mentioned Dickon Tyrrell, so that's not the whole of the problem. We must widen our gaze.

For all of this being a dedicated theatre, it's quite possible the setting is wrong. I've enjoyed plays at this very spot on two occasions, the Mystery Plays and Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus'. But, perhaps significantly, these were both performances as much as they were dramas, works which came out at the audience.

A production of 'Hamlet' needs to do precisely the opposite - draw us all in. The recent version of 'Macbeth' by Platform 4 was in a dark and confined box, which might have worked better than this open-air space. Here, even after darkness falls, you're still aware of the rest of the crowd, that we are all here watching this. Most likely the play was written for an indoor theatre. (One opened in 1599, replacing the Globe. There's no mention of 'Hamlet' until three years later, though of course records of the time are scant.)

But most likely, what we have is a deliberate choice. In the programme Dominic Dromgoole's 'Note on the Text' bases the performance on the First Quarto (often dubbed 'the Bad Quarto'), “which has a robust energy and a winning ability to get on with it.” Later, Michael Dobson's 'More Matter, With Less Art' expands upon the point:

“While some actors and directors have preferred this play to be a lengthy as possible, the most central part of its action occurring within the brooding consciousness of it's protagonist as he thinks slowly and meditatively aloud, many have instead wanted their 'Hamlet' practicably short, the pith of the play lying in the action-packed and political struggle.”

Talk ye of politics, sir? Any politician knows the trick of pushing people towards one bad alternative by contrasting it to another, while steering the flock from all other options. Of course we don't want a 'Hamlet' that's three hours of a luvvie bedecked in tights, orating endless soliloquies to a patient skull until it's not just the Ghost who feels stuck in purgatory. This is a play by a popular writer of the day. It has ghosts, wars, plots and duels - so many of them it's a wonder Elsinore isn't rent asunder. It should be exciting and animated.

But there's a crucial difference between thrilling the audience and being a thriller. There are a thousand revenger tales from the era, all forgotten save by the most dedicated academics. Shakespeare was using these as a base, but had other designs. As said over 'The Rest Is Silence', “the play exists first to precipitate Hamlet's conflicted state of mind.” Any other method leads to madness.

Much of the appeal of cutting down, reducing and simplifying the play comes from pruning back at the ambiguity which suffuses it. But the ambiguity isn't some obstacle, to be chopped away until the true play is revealed – it is the essence of the play. It's true that at least some of this may have been unintentional on Shakespeare's part. It seems unlikely for example he would have plotted to leave us with three text sources which can contradict each other, even if he'd been able to. But he did write a play where Barnardo and Horatio sight the Ghost before Hamlet even shows up, yet Gertrude can't see him at the very moment he lectures Hamlet. The net result is that all the ambiguity becomes beneficial, whatever its source. It's there to be embraced, not thrown away. The obstacles become the signposts.

But to assign the production a motive of 'fixing' the play, of making it serviceable, may be to assume too highly of it. Something is more rotten still upon the South Bank. Things finish, I kid not, on a song and dance number. The aim is crowd-pleasing, to give the punters a good supply of yuks, a smattering of angst and nothing too likely to confuse.

The play's the thing?

The tourists are the thing.

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