In many ways, this was my ideal Hamlet. Performed on the RSC’s main stage by the current ensemble, yet only costing a tenner and lasting an hour and ten minutes flat, there’s something wonderful about seeing a Hamlet after lunch and still being able to get home in time for a full afternoon’s work afterwards. All Hamlets should be like this….
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s production was part of the RSC “Young People’s Shakespeare” strand, along with last year’s Comedy of Errors (currently being revived alongside this production), which goes into schools around the region as well as being performed in the Courtyard as part of Young People’s Shakespeare Week in September. In a rather austere year for Shakespeare at the RSC, this offered an irreverent, funny and fresh way into Shakespeare that, once again, eclipsed the “adult” productions for accessibility and interest.
One of the great pleasures of this production was in finally bringing to the fore some members of the long-term ensemble who have been sorely neglected in the Shakespeare productions – so, actors too often playing supernumeries finally got to take on the big roles.* This is what the ensemble should be about, although it’s a shame we have to wait until the “yoof” productions to see an actor as good as, for example, Kirsty Woodward get a decent role.
McCraney and Bijan Sheibani’s edited text trod a fine balance between streamlining and clarifying with tremendous skill. With only a couple of pop-culture concessions to the kids (a comic flirtation at the start between Ophelia and Hamlet was performed to a sung version of “Anyone Else But You“, the theme from Juno), the editors worked simply to let the text be understood. This led to some surprising and brave decisions: Fortinbras and nice but complex moments such as the flute passage were deleted, but Laertes’s dispute with the Priest over the burial rites afforded to suicides was played. The production understood that young people can cope with serious business, and Ophelia’s madness and suicide in particular was quite disturbing. With dishevelled hair and an hysterical oscillation between screams and sing-song happiness, Debbie Korley was heartbreaking in Ophelia’s final scenes, strewing red petals into the audience and breaking down in her brother’s arms as she realised her father was dead. As Woodward’s Gertrude narrated the story of her death, Korley entered upstage while a long blue drape was rippled before her. Reaching out, she grabbed the drape and pulled it around her, wearing it as an ankle-length dress for the funeral scene, at the end of which she was welcomed into the afterlife by the Ghost.
The seriousness accorded to moments such as these was all the more powerful for its stark juxtaposition with the comic moments. Gruffudd Glyn and Dyfan Dwyfor stole the show as a Stoppardian Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, dressed identically in straw boater and blazer. These two not only had identity issues; they actively mimicked each other, delivering lines as one and mirroring gestures even as they mugged at the audience or wolf-whistled after Ophelia. With most of their lines cut, the two became easy comic relief, notably ushering the hidden court members out of the arras while Polonius distracted Hamlet with conversation. Glyn returned for an encore as a deliciously camp Osric, and he and Dharmesh Patel’s Hamlet ended up attempting to outdo each other in petulant mimickry.
Even better was a fully-acted pirate sequence, imagined by Horatio as she (Simone Saunders playing the role as female, though sensibly not allowing this to change the dynamic between her and Hamlet, however interesting that may have been) read Hamlet’s letter downstage. Patel spoke the words of the letter himself, while the rest of the cast dressed up as sailors and pirates for the re-enactment. Hamlet’s delivery allowed him to enact complete authorial control over the scene, putting Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the imagined English executioner to sleep while he switched letters. The arrival of R&G at the English court was acted, and the two men placed their heads on a block even as Horatio noted that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead”, at which the two looked at each other, shrieked, and dived, leaving their hats on the block. This intermixture of playful metatheatricality, self-reference and wilful disregard of the internal “rules” of the play characterised both this and Errors, and is perhaps a more “authentic” approach to Elizabethan drama that more serious productions could learn a great deal from. A subsequent pirate battle was ended as Hamlet threw money to the brigands, who incidentally switched from snarling cliches to polite geniality (“such a good boy”).
Patel had the mixed pleasure of getting to play Hamlet in a much abbreviated form, but managed the role splendidly. This Hamlet bordered on the comic, most obviously as he sat on the lap of a man in the front row so they could read a book together, but it was his youthful confusion that most stood out. Whether reacting to the improbable news of his father’s appearance (Patrick Romer in a mask) or delivering “To be or not to be” as a clearly worked out set of practical questions, Hamlet was fast-thinking and keen to act. This aspect was most apparent when played opposite Dwyfor’s Laertes; the two impetuous young men came to blows over Ophelia’s body, both having to be restrained, and were violently aggressive in their final fight, with rapiers flailing. The carefully-managed fights kept up a good pace (apart from an odd moment where David Rubin’s Claudius disappeared offstage for far too long to get the cup for the pearl – one can only assume a prop had been forgotten) and organised the multiple schemes in a clear way, especially as a slow-motion finale allowed the audience to see Laertes apply the poison to the rapier and then swipe Hamlet across the leg. The violent final tussle even took down Osric, though I missed who dealt him his death blow. Hamlet’s reaction to his stabbing was to revenge himself aggressively first on Laertes, then on Claudius, though it was Gertrude who he reached out for as he died in Horatio’s arms to the final words “The rest is silence”.
A visual motif throughout used umbrellas as objects of concealment (Polonius hid behind one, only to be stabbed by Hamlet), weapons (the guards’ rifles) and signifiers of social status (Ophelia coyly twirling one for Hamlet’s benefit; R&G carrying theirs in synchronisation), but of course they acted throughout most powerfully as evocative of funerals. The play itself began with a dumbshow of Old Hamlet’s funeral, Romer exhaling deeply as he fell back into the arms of his attendants. As Hamlet knelt beside his father, Gertrude put her hand on her son’s shoulder then walked away. Claudius, attended by umbrellas, then came to the body, took the old King’s hat, and shortly after a sideways glance to a blushing Gertrude was enough to indicate their marriage. This pattern was followed in the players’ performance (with a young audience member playing the dead body) and at the end of the play was evoked again as the entire cast exhaled as one before the lights went out. This eerie noise, the passing of spirits, resonated long after the curtain calls.
Peter Peverley was an unusual but effective Polonius, his Geordie accent and curled hair making me think of a washed up 60s record producer who wants his kids to think he’s still cool. Self-conscious attempts to be funny were greeted with impatience by Gertrude in particular. Woodward’s young Gertrude wore her heart on her sleeve, particularly with her son, and her open fear in the bedroom scene was particularly good. She and Claudius suffered most in cutting, however (the praying scene was completely gone), in favour of the story of the young people, and it was here that Horatio became most important as an audience surrogate, looking out to the crowd as the only survivor of the final carnage.
Reimagining Shakespeare’s longest tragedy for a school-age audience can’t have been easy, but the RSC pulled it off with style and wit in a production that seemed to appeal to all members of the families that packed out the Courtyard. Fascinatingly, despite being only 70 minutes long, the play felt in no ways compromised; rather than giving a cut version, this was simply a different Hamlet, complete and coherent in itself.
* The most significant appearances of this cast in the ensemble’s “adult” Shakespeare productions include: Young Shepherd in Winter’s Tale; Amiens in As You Like It; Cinna the Poet in Julius Caesar; and Montague and Lady Montague in Romeo and Juliet. A lot of the time, they’ve literally played “Lady” or “Servant”. What a waste.