Hamlet ~ theatre notes

Friday, December 10, 2004


Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Directed by Oscar Redding, with Richard Pyros, Adrian Mulraney, Nicki Paull, John Francis Howard, Thomas Wright and Ben Packer. DDT Studio, 515 High Street, Northcote. La Tragedie d'Hamlet, directed by Peter Brook, with Adrian Lester, Jeffery Kissoon, Natasha Parry, Bruce Meyers, Scott Handy, Shantala Shivalingappa, Rohan Siva, Asil Rais, Yoshi Oida, Akram Khan, Nicolas Gaster, Antonin Stahly, Jerome Grillon. DVD, Agat Films 2001.

On the face of it, it may seem very unfair to compare these two versions of Hamlet. One is a filmed production by one of the greatest theatre directors of the past century, created in Brook's gorgeous Paris base, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord; the other an exemplary example of poor theatre, put on by a young Melbourne director in a shop front in High Street, Northcote.

As it happens, it is not unfair; theatre is a great leveller. Perhaps for similar reasons - a certain straightforwardness in approaching Shakespeare - both are notable for their clarity, and they share a great text and remarkable actors. Where Redding's production lacks Brook's exquisite aesthetic polish, it gains in robust irreverence and visceral power. But what strikes me most is how both these productions spin the focus on this most protean of texts, to reveal a Hamlet in whose body itself turns the sword of politics.

The great Shakespearean critic Jan Kott says of Hamlet that it is a play that absorbs its times. So there are, among many others, the Romantic Hamlet of the 19th century, wanly melancholic; the mid-Century Hamlet, which Kott particularly documented, in which interpretation leans on the pitiless wheel of power; and now this 21st century Hamlet, at once sensuous and full of loathing, raging against the mortal trappings of his flesh.

Part of the reason for these many Hamlets is that the six hour text is seldom performed entirely as written. It means that each production is cut according to the cloth of its interpretation. Both Brook and Redding take a broadly similar approach, removing the cumbersome opening scene with the ghost, and cutting out entirely the complicated narrations of battles and politics. They fillet out a claustrophobic family tragedy of individuals trapped in remorseless passions. In these productions, the personal is most assuredly political.

This approach rejects most modern interpretations of Hamlet, in which the character of Fortinbras is brought to the foreground. Fortinbras - who claims the throne of Denmark after all the corpses stop twitching on the floor - is in some versions an alter ego of Hamlet, in others, the legitimate heir to the throne, the man who restores order to the broken kingdom. "If one wishes to places Hamlet's moral conflicts into a historical context," says Kott, "one cannot ignore the role played by Fortinbras".

Well, in these versions Fortinbras has disappeared entirely. But I think this is not so much a symptom of ahistorical consciousness, as a lack of belief in the possibility of the restoration of order, or even in the possibility of order itself. No king now comes to make it all right: the plays ends with the slaughter. Today's Hamlet is considerably darker than previous versions: it contains no illusion of consolation.

The brooding sense of claustrophobia is reinforced by the doubling, some of which is repeated in both productions: in both, Polonius and the gravedigger (Bruce Meyers in Brook's, and John Francis Howard in Redding's), and Claudius and the Ghost (Jeffrey Kissoon and Adrian Mulraney respectively) are played by the same actor. The doubling of Claudius in particular throws Hamlet's revulsion against his uncle into ironic relief: we are reminded that he is importuned to kill his own kin, outraging familial ties just as his uncle did in murdering Hamlet's father.

Redding goes much further, doubling the roles of Gertrude and Ophelia (Nicki Paull), which makes the play's incestuous sexual drama even more knotted. His most audacious move is to double the roles of Hamlet and his friend Horatio: Horatio is played as a handpuppet. That you accept this without question is a considerable tribute to the intensity and skill of Richard Pyros' performance. What is fascinating is its theatrical ambiguity: part of the time, it is quite possible to imagine seriously that a ridiculous pair of pink eyes is Horatio, Hamlet's only friend; at other times, the hand puppet seems another aspect of his madness and loneliness, a crazed aspect of Hamlet's splintered self.

Adrian Lester's Hamlet is gentler than Richard Pyros', whose wit is crueller and violence more dangerous (especially when he is holding a huge kitchen knife to Gertrude's throat). Lester's performance is framed by lush, rich sensuousness: the rust-red walls of the theatre, the naked flames of lamps, luxurious crimson fabrics, the melancholy scrape of a cello. Pyros, on the other hand, is working in a bare, scruffy space lit by fluorescent tubes, with the sound of high street traffic as background accompaniment.

But again I was struck by similarities as much as differences: these Hamlets are mercurial, impelled by savage laughter rather than by dark melancholia. They describe an intelligence tormented by circumstance: that circumstance being primarily mortality, the fate of all flesh, but also its sullying, a fatal disgust at moral and fleshly corruption.

Of course, there is more to Hamlet than Hamlet; and these productions feature ensemble casts of great depth. One would expect that of Brook; but Redding has gathered together some very fine actors, who have created a subtlety and depth of performance which rivals, and in the case of Ophelia surpasses, that Brook elicited from his. All deserve mention, but Adrian Mulraney's authoritative and subtle performance as Claudius - both unrepentant usurper and repentant brother - never falters.

In Redding's production, the women's roles are strong and disturbing. Nicki Paul plays Gertrude as an alcoholic, constantly sipping from a jam jar, who imperceptibly becomes more and more drunk as the play progresses, until by the final scene she can barely stand. Her announcement of Ophelia's death - told through uncontrollable fits of laughter - brings home the terror of the girl's suicide in a way that no sober rendition could. And Ophelia's mad scene is shaming and pitiable, in the way that real madness is.

It is very clear in this drama how the women are destroyed, both morally and physically, by their entrapment within male power. The single power Gertrude and Ophelia possess is their sexuality: it is their "virtue", a commodity which belongs to the family, not to themselves, and it is not theirs to bestow freely. Laetres (Thomas Wright) and Polonius lecture Ophelia at length about how she ought to be behave, and Hamlet likewise has no hesitation in censuring his mother for outraging the legitimate bonds of marriage. The fear of women's anarchic sexual desire lurks uneasily beneath the surface of the action, erupting in male disgust ("Frailty, thy name is woman!") or in female madness and despair.

But it is not the women who are treacherous, but the men: most notably, Claudius's murder of his brother to gain the crown, the betrayal which unravels all the rest. And there is also Hamlet's feigned detestation of Ophelia, which drives her to suicide; Rosencrantz and Guildernstern's deceptive spying on Hamlet, betraying the bonds of friendship; Laertes' betrayal of honourable combat, by poisoning his sword.

Hamlet is, more than almost any other Shakespearean play except perhaps The Tempest, deeply concerned with the provenance of theatre itself. Almost no one in the play is who he or she seems to be: all are playing roles, whether self-imposed or not, and this is underlain by our knowledge that the "real" characters are played by actors, who are also not who they seem to be. Is this merely deception and betrayal? Hamlet's pretended madness is, rather, an attempt to find the truth: as he says, "the play's the thing/ In which to catch the conscience of a King". These potent ambiguities, the mask as a revealer of truth and as a lie, drive the fascination of the action as much as the repressed sexual passions.

There is a vital difference between these two productions: one was performed four years ago, and was watched on a screen; the other occurred live, feet away from me. No recorded performance beats the living experience, no matter how artfully filmed it might be. But they both gave me a new Hamlet, and reminded me that it is, as Kott says, "the strangest play ever written".

Both productions tear away the cultural barnacles that so often weigh down this most monumental of English icons - the deadening reverence, the fear of poetry, the stereotypical expectations - and deliver it into the present, with all the complexities and contradictions of a living thing. It's a rare experience that always leaves me elated. And such experiences are why I persist in going to the theatre.


Michael Peverett said...

So I suppose you don't subscribe to C.S. Lewis's view that Hamlet is a play about a man who sees a ghost!

I don't think 6 hours is quite right for an uncut Hamlet. General view seems to be that 3732 lines could be acted (or at least declaimed) in 4 hours (1,000 lines per hour), though 4 hours 30 mins would be more the pace I'd aim for.

Shk's texts were cut early on (e.g. for touring), but the young actor who in 1590 envisaged and delivered a sweeping, unexampled four-part drama of Hall's chronicle (like... all of it...) was as gigantesque in his conceptions as Wagner. After all, he had the immediate examples of Tamburlaine, Arcadia and the Faerie Queene to reckon with. Hamlet was intended to be astoundingly spacious.

Michael Peverett said...

I take it you wouldn't have much fellow feeling for C.S. Lewis' remark that Hamlet is a play about a man who sees a ghost!

I don't think six hours is quite right. 3732 lines would take about 4 hours (as per Branagh's film), or perhaps 4:30 in the theatre with elaborate scene-changes and business.

Shakespeare's texts were cut for provincial and other performance from the start - however, he persisted in producing texts that later centuries have deemed impractical. In 1590, though almost a beginner, he produced a gigantic, unexampled tetralogy with a huge cast. So there's every reason to think that he was lucky enough to have the backers, the company and above all the audience for luxuriantly spacious drama.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Michael

Somebody else queried that same point. I took the six hour estimate from Jan Kott, who claims it is so; and who am I to argue with him? Maybe it's longer in Polish...and when you think about the Brannagh version, he sure does speak very fast...