Reviewed by Will Stackman, with addenda by Geralyn Horton
Simon Russell Beale, though he has justly received kudos for his work in the title role of the Royal National Theatre's distinctive production of "Hamlet", is not the only cast member whose physical persona and acting style plays against expectations and tradition. This stocky Shakespearean veteran seems of an age with Peter McEnery whose Claudius is a much younger brother to the old king. Which leaves Sara Kestlem a difficult task playing wife to one and mother to the other as Gertrude, and Peter Blythe's beardless Polonius should be concerned perhaps about more than the Prince's superior station where his daughter, Cathryn Bradshaw's rather down-to-earth Ophelia is concerned. However, since one of the metaphors underlying this production is the continual reenactment of this story, being reminded that these are not "real people" but very good actors playing a version of a well-known play is not a hindrance.
John Caird's basic directorial conceit becomes clear as Act V closes on a corpse littered stage. We've been watching a philosophical recounting of "how these things came to be" told once again by Simon Day's Horatio. The evening begins with lights picking out members of the cast standing in niches or doorways around the acting area, which is littered with wooden shipping trunks of various sizes. The actors move silently onstage to sit on these coffin-like trunks, with the Ghost, played in grey-face by Sylvester Morand, downstage center. Then Horatio enters quickly and freezes kneeling mid-stage, at which point everyone drifts off as the lights fade to black and the first line, the "Who's there?" challenge of the watch rings out. At the end of the evening after "Good Night, sweet prince...", the cast again takes these seated positions as Horatio slowly exits upstage center, then return to their doorway/sepulchres.
The simple formal style of the set and the long-coated Germanic/medieval period costumes, designed by Tim Hatley, combined with Paul Pyant's theatrical and generally low-level lighting adds to the sense of ritual reenactment, taking a cue perhaps from "The Mousetrap", and catching attention by leaving Elsinore much more to the imagination. Scenes are differentiated by moving and manipulating the collection of trunks onstage, by raising and lowering a flotilla of chandeliers overhead, by opening a narrow view to the cyc in the high back wall or creating a cross by opening a slit across its center as well, and by using decidedly nonrealistic side and foot lighting. Actors intentionally walk-in and out of lighting patterns as scenes progress.
One thing missing in this inspired production is the political unrest which balances the melancholy Dane's inner turmoil. All references to such externals have been excised, including the English ambassadors, and, more boldly, Fortinbras. Perhaps the deacon-like Horatio just wasn't interested in such mundane reality. Even more than usual, attention is focused on the title character's distress. Rapier wit is used to stave off even deeper depression. The result is domestic tragedy with a decidedly Romantic tinge, the sorrows of a not-so-young Hamlet, who heretofore has existed mostly in critical analysis. Beale makes it work, however, and the rest of the company does their best, which at their worst is damn fine-- if somewhat eccentric, like Bradshaw's "music hall" Ophelia. It would be interesting to see the same cast with some of the First Folio expansiveness removed and the politics put back, doing essential the same production but with the implied external threat worked in. It would probably still come off.
One might want to make Christopher Staines & Paul Bazely's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern a little less weedy, while Guy Lankster's Laertes can keep on sounding like his father as he warns Ophelia against the Prince. But Morand needs to be more like his father, to his own fatal end, when serving Claudius. McEnery might be more convincing if we saw his public political side as well as his family politics. And as funny as Blythe's Gravedigger is - there's a lot of sly doubling in this show - he'd do better playing the scene with a grave digger partner rather than playing off Michael Wildman's Osric, who of course can't stick around when Hamlet and Horatio show up. The most inspired doubling is having Morand made up to resemble the Bard when playing both the Ghost and the Player King-- even if he is a better Player than Ghost. Trimmed of its politics, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is still a long script, but even minor amendations can substantially change both characterization, and the actions which define them.
Some personal remarks, occasioned by some small but remarkable cuts -- by Geralyn Horton
I am certainly glad to have seen this celebrated "Hamlet", which overflows with intelligence and sensitivity. Line by line, Beale's readings and those of the rest of the cast -- except for Ophelia's mad scene, where the urge to do something different gets a bit out of hand-- are solidly within the mainstream of traditional interpretation and yet as fresh sounding as if the actors were improvising verse and making them up on the spot.
I count myself most fortunate, in that the first "Hamlet" I ever saw was a nearly five hour full text Hamlet in the early fifties -- I was a mere babe, of course-- brilliantly acted by Michael Higgins and the Yellow Springs Shakespeare Company, under the direction of Arthur Lithgow (John's father). That production, which I saw twice and re-played in my mind for years afterwards, was so beautifully shaped that I've always felt that I understand how the various pieces of the play fit together. As long as a production cuts in a way that doesn't brutalize the flow of the verse, I am happy to see whatever portion of "Hamlet" the director and cast want to show me, and to get a new angle on it. If a company, like this one, wants to cast women as the strolling tragedians, I applaud the anachronism and am content that they fiddle with Will's lines a bit to do it. Unlike my colleague Stackman, I didn't miss Fortinbras, or the paragraphs of London theatre gossip, or even Hamlet's "How all Occasions..." soliloquy: But "Hamlet" is a play much memorized. It gets under the skin. We want to own it, have it by heart. Actors sail into those great speeches accompanied by a low murmur from the audience, as Hamlet lovers mouth the words right along with them. I forget which of the actors of the Great Generation told of performing a wartime Hamlet and hearing Winston Churchill intoning his own version from the third row--- perhaps they all did! This means that a small cut in one of these so famous speeches does not go unremarked.
In Beale's "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" soliloquy, the lines cussing out Claudius "....: bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!" do not go on to climax with "O, vengeance!" In Beale's Closet Scene, the exchange wherein Hamlet, having stabbed Polonius, accuses the Queen of a worse murder with "Almost as bad, good mother/ As kill a king, and marry with his brother!" and Gertrude reacts with innocent shock: "As kill a king?", as if the thought that her husband had been murdered had never crossed her mind before, is cut. Now, in the First Quarto, the "bad' quarto, the Queen protests her innocence at length. The Folio revision is leaner, deeper, and keeps alive the ambiguity of the Ghost's revelation that Claudius ".won to his shameful lust/ The will of my most seeming virtuous queen." Other lines in which Hamlet implies that he believes that Gertrude is guilty of his father's murder, and where Beale struggles with the thought of killing her, remain in the scene. Kesselman's Queen still has good reason for her terror when she cries: "What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me! " So why is the brief, direct, and very dramatic exchange cut? It can't have been trimmed to save time-- the scene opens with Gertrude brooding over Old Hamlet's picture, and pottering in one of the ubiquitous trunks for some dried posies and a white veil that might be a relic of her first wedding. So why this cut? What is it intended to accomplish?
Beale said in an interview with the New York times that Ciard's directorial idea for the play is that Hamlet has a huge reluctance to kill Claudius-- and that everything that happens in the play is necessary to bring the prince to the point where, dying himself, he is able to overcome his reluctance and do his duty. Well, why not? If Claudius' crime is horrible, Hamlet's vengeance is no less so, involving as it does a member of his own family who has claimed a father's role, and to whom he owes filial love and a subject's allegiance. Love and allegiance are proven false: Hamlet cuts his ties to Ophelia and his school friends, warning them away. But here these are lightweights, decades younger and easy victims of a royal prince's cruel wit. Puritanical Horatio is the only just man, the one who is not passion's slave and may be trusted. A last verbal extravagance at Ophelia's grave and, all passion spent, Beale's Hamlet enters the last scene ready to die. His internal struggle with his grief and rage has indeed, as he promised the Ghost, "wiped away all trivial fond records", and for this exhausted wreck of a man it is easy to wish no more than that he get past the killing and rest in peace, leaving Horatio behind to declare him a hero. It's just that, unlike in that long ago four and a half hour Higgins/Lithgow Hamlet, I can't see how all the pieces, trimmed and turned and re-examined as they have been, fit. Back then, and whenever a "Hamlet" production moves me, it is with the sense that Hamlet's "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason; how infinite in faculties..." describes himself as he might have been; as he would be if "this goodly frame, the earth" had no treacherous loved ones, and no soul deadening duties. When I weep-- copiously and inconsolably-- at Hamlet's death, it is for the loss of that nobility, that infinity: for myself and my own losses, as well as for the particular instance of the fictional prince. I liked Beale's Hamlet, I am glad to have spent three and a half hours in his company. But sweet as he was, I did not weep for him.