Hamlet (2)

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Young Vic Theatre

My first real COVID-19* theatrical experience was a chewy number with a lot to remind me why live theatre was so great but maybe also a sense that there’s a bit more to come.

Image by Helen Murray

We had what felt like an unusually complicated route into the theatre – a timed entrance slot (which I was late for – work having decided quite early on in the pandemic that any time I was no longer spending in leisure activities was its for the taking) and then a march through the backstage, up hill and down dale, which almost left me unable to work out how to get to the bar. The bar, you understand, being necessary for a celebratory drink, and something to do to fill the gap between the timed entrance slot and the start of the play other than tweeting and admiring Anna Fleischle’s set. Which I really liked – the main feature being a set of blocky columns that looked vaguely like a palace or an old castle, sometimes stone, sometimes gold, sometimes providing a dim reflection, turning and twisting and surprisingly labyrinthine – an excellent backdrop for the disturbed mind of the Prince of Denmark.

The setting and the costuming was mostly modern but with no real uniting theme. Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude wandered in from the 50s with satin, drapey trousers, and turbans, all in mainly pastel colours. Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius was in possibly the world most boring navy suit (not that this was out of character); Joseph Marcell had a little more colour and flair as Polonius, but nothing in Elsinore was really bright – it felt a muted, drab palette all round. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were a pair of young trendy influencers both in look and in selfie-taking (and you can imagine Claudius sliding into their DMs to contact them – I have always wondered else how he knew enough about Hamlet’s Wittenberg friends to persuade them to turn up). Ophelia had the 70s/80s outfits the young ‘uns nowadays seem to favour, and some very short shorts (although nothing to the writhing gold delight of the Player Queen in one of the cringiest Mousetraps I’ve seen**). Hamlet was studiedly neutral from his first appearance in a black suit and black t-shirt – although always masculine, always loose fitting, and always, as far as I recall, covering everything from the neck down.

There was great use of modern music – the odd pop of reggae and rap (but don’t ask me what because it just does not stick in my mind). Norah Lopez Holden’s Ophelia was listening to music when she first appeared*** and showed in her madness that she had an incredible set of pipes. Her wild singing was loud and unrestrained and painful in the best possible way. Otherwise the sound and the lighting did not obtrude – providing a neutral backdrop except when being used to indicate the supernatural presence of the ghost.

The running time for the show was just over three hours – short for Hamlet, long enough for those of us who are out of practice at theatre-going, and I think the most major cut was to take out all the external threat/action. Fortinbras was not mentioned and was certainly not pressing.  This made the tragedy fell much more like a family affair – a father killed, and an uncle threatened, not two kings.

The bits which stood out for me really reflected this intimate grief. Jonathan Ajayi’s Laertes trying to console his mad sister – getting on the floor with her in her grief. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as rubbernecking selfie-takers were great – and Hamlet’s great delight when they first arrived turned so quickly and so heart-breakingly to betrayal and swift, complete suspicion when he realised they had been sent for. Gertrude and Hamlet together in her chamber had a stillness you could believe Hamlet found comforting and a real, palpable affection  (even if it does sit a bit weirdly after the stabbing of Polonius). Even Hamlet’s initial reluctance to take Yorick’s skull and then the fascination for it was sheer mundane humanity.

I think the cutting also made Polonius less painfully prolix than usual, although this may just have been down to Joseph Marcell, a standout in a great cast for treading the line between the ridiculous and the respected. I was struck again by the way Shakespeare will undercut his own lines by giving some of the best and brightest out in scenes which carry little weight or to characters who do not command our respect. John of Gaunt delivers the Sceptered Isle speech as an embittered dying man ranting about the state of England; Richard III sneers his way through his bombastic opening speech, Richard II becomes more regal and wise the closer he gets to destitution. And so Polonius, giving truly sound advice to his son.  But then this isn’t so for Hamlet himself who arrives on the stage quipping lines that we still use today, and never really lets up the pace through all his interactions and soliloquies.

Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet was an undoubted star turn.  One thing which struck me as very well done was the nerve-jangling, closed-off body language – she never appeared on stage without a hand in pocket, a slumped shoulder, a crossed leg, a bent head or something which left you feeling he was out of sorts in his own skin and with a sympathetic ache of your own. The fight with Laertes was probably the most at ease he seemed in the whole play. I was less sure what to make of Hamlet’s madness****. There was intelligence, and there was grief, and there was slyness, and there was humour, but whether there was real derangement or whether there was a working mind behind it all was hard to say. I also couldn’t quite fathom the relationship with Ophelia, or at least not how Hamlet stood in relation to it. Their initial dance I found white-knuckle awkward and I didn’t feel any real chemistry coming off them. “Get thee to a nunnery” seemed to be coming from real kindness about the state of the world, and how that was meant to come from the same person who so coolly made jokes about her father’s corpse smelling after he had killed him was more than I could say. And there was no change in Hamlet – no progression in his disposition as he laid traps for his uncle, stabbed old men, schemed to have his best friends murdered. It left his death almost a relief – the only possible ending to an incessant clamouring dissonance with the world – but left the audience perhaps as stagnated as he himself came across.  

Adrian Dunbar and Tara Fitzgerald felt a little underused (and their characters perhaps a little underdeveloped?). As a murderer, Claudius felt underwhelming – his walking out of the Mousetrap did not scream guilt or menace, and his scheming with Laertes to murder Hamlet – you’ll duel! And there’ll be poison on the weapon! And I’ll poison his drink! – felt like the over-planning of an anxious motorway driver rather than the calculating plan of a fratricide. Also, if Claudius plays the ghost (and when you have Adrian Dunbar this is obviously the choice you would make) it does make all of Hamlet’s disparaging comparisons between the two a little unintentionally funny. I was sure Gertrude loved her son but I didn’t really have a clue how she felt about her husband(s). In a play where most of the characters (except Hamlet) really don’t have a lot of lines, it felt like vital unspoken interaction and reaction was a lacking to tell us more of everyone’s story.

It was a joy to be back in a theatre, to be part of engaged audience sharing a story. A thrill to see a highly accomplished actress get to grips with a challenging role in a non-gimmicky production. But just as I, over the last eighteen or so months, seem to have lost the finer details of being at a show – the quickest route to the toilets, where to put my glass so I don’t spill it when the show starts, how to sit comfortably next to strangers – I did wonder, just slightly, if the cast and crew needed a little more time themselves to blow off the rust and polish this up to a shine…


* With cases numbers the way they are, I can’t exactly call it a post-COVID experience…

** Deliberately cringy! This was bold directorial choices, not a failing. And Hamlet only made it worse with blurting out his asides on a reverbing mike…

*** A trick she may have learnt from Mariana.

**** I think I know what I want, though – which means it joins a vanishingly small list of plays I wouldn’t mind having a crack at directing because it’s the only way I’ll get the version I want. If I could direct. Which I can’t. So I’m doomed to eternal frustration and hoping the list doesn’t grow much longer.

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