Not Quite To Be
Hamlet is many different things to many people but you can be sure it is seldom used to refer to "a small village". Over the years since Shakespeare's famed tragedy first appeared on stage, Hamlet has been interpreted and reinterpreted in a variety of ways. "If all the plays ever written suddenly disappeared and only Hamlet miraculously survived, all the theatres in the world would be saved. They could all put on Hamlet and be successful," Russian producer, director and actor Vsevolod Meyerhold once proclaimed. His statement rings true as we see hybrids of Hamlet in Kabuki and Noh theatre style, Stanislavski and Edward Gordon Craig's symbolist drama through Hamlet's eyes, and Hamlet reinvented as a political protest to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Director Paul Stebbings writes in the programme that he is not trying to create "a definitive version (of Hamlet)" but simply attempting an "exploration of the original" and, indeed, this is a straightforward production rather than an experimental one. Even so, there is still the challenge of injecting new life to revive Hamlet in the face of countless past and future productions of the play but I felt the play succeeded admirably nonetheless: based on the shorter First Folio, this performance lasted two hours and felt no longer; it was an accessible production with the focus back on Hamlet (as some of the politics had been trimmed in the First Folio).
In particular, I liked the way music was used. Raw female vocals, a slow, steady drum beat and shy tambourine chimes opened the performance as a hidden figure writhed and reached from behind a cloak of melancholy blue cloth. The simplicity of voice and rhythm intensified mood and tension many a time in the play because the music was always beautifully woven in to complement the scene and not dominate it. Instead of just delivering her monologue, for example, Ophelia sang songs of love, loss and madness at her father's funeral. Her melodies rose and fell with every sob and scream as she was overcome with grief. During Hamlet's most famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, I did not realise a low drumming had crept along his pondering speech until it crescendoed to a climax in time with his outburst. This immaculate tapestry of sound and action must be credited to the skill of composer Thomas Johnson and Stebbings' efforts to marry music and theatre.
Another delight was the exciting performances by the actors, powered by the high energy of the obviously talented cast. They sung, or rather created music, all the while shifting seamlessly from one character to the next. I daresay no one could tell that the ghost of the Hamlet's father had the same face as Horatio, for example. It was difficult to reconcile the ghastly image and guttural voice of the Ghost with Hamlet's ever-loyal and steadfast companion, both played by Richard Ede.
This production of Hamlet drew most of its strength from the unity of its cast, as each actor gave his best performance in exchanges with others. The best were usually the comic ones, in particular the ones between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Their hugely exaggerated Charlie Chaplin style was most entertaining: from the identical black suits and glasses to the pats and sniggers behind the backs of others.
Beyond slapstick, comedy also came in the form of play on words and by bringing out the nuances of Shakespeare's writing. I keep going around telling everyone how Hamlet replied sneeringly to Polonius, "I'll go to my mother, by and ... bye!" Little surprises such as these were vital to keeping this performance alive and invigorating. The appearance of Hamlet's father genuinely startled me. I have always seen appearances of the Ghost in ways that have made me want to laugh, for example, by projecting a green man on the wall. This Ghost, however, was truly horrific. He materialised from the blackness onstage, nearly naked, his flesh seemingly shredded flesh, and his face caught in the rictus of death with an open mouth and deadened eyes. When he spoke, every person onstage but Hamlet, stood stiff and straight as if possessed and spoke in one voice as the Ghost did. This strong rendering was a small but significant touch that stimulated old material. I also felt pleasantly surprised when the theatre group used a puppet show to tell the story of The Murder of Gonzago, and surprise turned to delight as the puppets were well-synchronised and a joy to watch. For the scene where Hamlet described ageing backwards to poke fun at the long-suffering Polonius, the actor Richard Keightley played with a piece of cloth, transforming it by turns into an adult diaper, a cloak and then into a baby in one continuous motion while acting out the entire change with his body. It was a cleverly choreographed move smoothly delivered to keep the audience's interest. These small moments of brilliance came together to make it feel like an almost entirely new experience when watching this classic play.
The one thing I actually did not completely enjoy was the performance
of Hamlet himself. Many an actor who wants to be taken seriously covets
the role: from Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Peter
O' Toole, Ralph Fiennes, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh all the
way to the likes of Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke and even Keanu Reeves. There
have been great Hamlets and Hamlets that have been less. It is difficult
not to walk into a performance of Hamlet without expectations
of its eponymous lead but I tried my best. To be honest, when Keightley
first sulked his way onstage, I accepted him, even with his likeness
to Josh Groban. His first soliloquy was angry and painful and I felt
it. When transiting from grief to revenge, he traded angst for a fast
and biting vituperative spouting of sarcasm and enlightenment. I still
liked him - he was devilishly funny - but gaps were slowly
showing in his performance. After the confrontation with the Ghost,
Hamlet looked shaken to the core but was somehow still in a sound enough
state of mind to ask friends to swear to silence. In the next scene,
he entered prancing around on all fours with a bloodied mouth, a vision
of madness. When Rosencrantz and Guilderstern arrived later, he behaved
as normally as you or I would. These complexities of the character are
difficult to pull off but it is necessary to do so, otherwise the character
simply confuses. However, Keightley was not able to convince me nor
earn my sympathy. He had commendable vocal and physical skills and his
timing, both comic and dramatic was quite impeccable but I felt this
Hamlet was only adept at producing singular emotions such as anger for
the opening monologue ["that this too too sullied flesh"]
or plodding sorrow for the "To be or not to be" soliloquy.
When he delivered monologues, he rushed through the lines with one feeling
and one goal in mind: get to the next exciting bit where he would not
be alone onstage delivering empty lines to air.
This production thrives on the strength of the excellent ensemble, the sensitive weaving in of music, and the comedic sensibilities of director Paul Stebbings. Comedy overshadows tragedy in this straightforward, sometimes literal yet strangely fresh version of Shakespeare's tragic play. The college frat-boy take on Hamlet's relationship with Ros and Guil, in particular, will entertain in this production of the shorted First Quarto. This feels like Hamlet: The Best Of with a running time of just slightly over two hours.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /