Saturday, 1 January 2011

William Shakespeare's Hamlet


In his latest book 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know, John Sutherland says this about Hamlet: "Every age interprets the play's enigmas differently, sometimes wildly so (is Hamlet mad, enquired Oscar Wilde; or merely the critics of Hamlet?). The nineteenth century saw the Prince of Denmark as a noble philosopher. Coleridge hazarded, proudly, that he had a 'smack of Hamlet' in himself. In the twentieth century, it's not unusual for Hamlet to be seen by feminist critics as a homicidal, sexually predatory brute, spouting stale truisms and obnoxious self-pity. Has anyone, over the centuries, got Hamlet (or Hamlet) right, or has everyone? Can anyone?" (pp. 8-9)

While writing about other plays, I often spend time recounting the story. This is, I think, unnecessary for Shakespeare's Hamlet, as everybody seems or claims to know it. Even if you are unfamiliar with the plot, it is possible that you can recognise some of the lines from it: "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (Act 1, Scene 2), "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." (Act 2, Scene 2), "To be or not to be: That is the question." (Act 3, Scene 1), "Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind." (Act 3, Scene 1), "I will speak daggers to her, but use none." (Act 3, Scene 2), "When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions." (Act 4, Scene 5), "The rest is silence." (Act 5, Scene 2), etc. etc. etc.

To be honest, this is the first time I have seen a live performance of Hamlet so I have no precedents to compare it with. However, I did read raving reviews of Rory Kinnear's turn as Hamlet and was very curious to find out first-hand if he is really that good playing one of the most challenging roles in theatre. As Hamlet, Kinnear has to recite long soliloquies and show a basketful of conflicting emotions: fear, anger, sadness, dismay, guilt…. Kinnear turns out to be absolutely brilliant and convincing (despite the fact that he looks perhaps slightly older than the bard intended the Danish Prince to be) and I can understand why he has been so lauded by critics and theatre-goers (he got the loudest cheers I have ever heard at a curtain call). Kinnear's delivery engages you with his emotions and better still, makes you empathise with them. At times, his quick fiery dialogue with other characters almost seems Sorkinesque.

In Nicholas Hytner's production at the National Theatre, we see a modern-day Denmark, which is run like a surveillance state. CCTV cameras hang on the top of the stage visibly and security guards with earpieces are never too far away from Hamlet, observing his moves. (The play even features a bugged Bible.) One wonders if the guards are really 'away' when Hamlet is soliloquising. And the paranoia infuses new meaning into Hamlet's speeches. Paranoia certainly got into this audience member. I thought the presentation of Denmark as a police state was a nice touch, as it draws out the scheming of Claudius and adds a modern twist to Polonius's constant spying and eavesdropping within the play. Here, he is as much the head of state security as he is Claudius's councillor.

Within this state of heightened paranoia, Hytner introduces an interesting interpretation of Ophelia's death, which is ambiguously described in the original text:

There is a willow grows askant the brook…
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress… (Act 4, Scene 7)

'[A]n envious silver broke' – that suggests that Ophelia did not initiate her own drowning. (Perhaps we are too influenced by Millais's painting?) In Hytner's rendition, the maiden is taken away by two secret agents and shortly afterwards, her death is recounted by Gertrude, therefore associating her death with deliberate scheming rather than natural cause or suicide.

Talking about Ophelia, I do not feel that there is much passion between her and Hamlet, partly because even though their relationship is alluded to frequently enough, the two characters are only present together on stage for two scenes. In one of these occasions, Hamlet shows profound disgust with her, thinking that she is sent by her father, Polonius. Hemlet memorably says to Ophelia: 'God / has given you one face, and you make yourselves / another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and / nick-name God's creatures, and make your wantonness / your ignorance […] To a / nunnery, go' (Act 3, Scene 1).1 Poor Ophelia – I should feel for her but I don't, for although I can feel Hamlet's (Kinnear's) vehemence, the actress who plays Ophelia (Ruth Negga) is sadly inferior.

Negga is not the only disappointment, however. Clare Higgins's portrayal of Gertrude is even less convincing. Annoying instead of beguiling, her exchange with Hamlet is particularly unpersuasive to watch, ruining a highly emotionally-charged (and possibly sexually-charged) scene, although Kinnear's performance remains strong here. Still, Hytner's decision to portray Gertrude as an alcoholic throughout the play gives her drinking out of the poisoned cup a new angle. Patrick Malahide's Claudius is not much better. His projection was not good enough to reach us at the top of the circle and his acting too effortful.

But these weaknesses do not mar the production much. I particularly love James Laurenson's superb portrayal of both the Ghost and the Player King. In the opening scenes, his apparition blends with the greyish background, making him really ghostly. His comportment, despite his slightly hunched posture, announces that This was the King. The Gravedigger (combing two clowns in the original play), played by David Calder (who also plays Polonius), is also my favourite. Although the Gravedigger only appears briefly, he delivers some very funny lines. I thought Giles Terera as Horatio is also great; his final exchange with Hamlet is very affecting: 'Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince; / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest'. 

Earlier this week, we went to Stratford to see the house in which Shakespeare was born and the church in which he was laid to rest. Although it was nice, I felt a little lost among all the tourist tack and it was perhaps easy to overlook why we were there. Seeing such a magnificent Hamlet reminded me exactly why we remember Shakespeare.

1'Nunnery' was also a street slang meaning brothel.
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This is a review of the performance on New Year's Eve.
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