I’ve recently been reading Marvin Carlson’s The Haunted Stage (2001), which deals with a phenomenon in watching and making theatre that Carlson calls “ghosting”. This is, effectively, the outer frame which shapes what an audience experiences in the process of attending a theatrical event, the collective resonances carried by actors, buildings, texts, scenery, everything that is reused, recycled and re-experienced. He concentrates particularly on Hamlet as the most haunted play in the Western canon, partly because of the play’s own treatment of ghosts but more because of the long stage history that inevitably acts on every new production.
If Hamlet is already a haunted play, this production by the newly-formed Ketterer’s Men was more haunted than most. For not only did we experience the “haunting” familiar to all productions of Hamlet: the pregnant pauses before the famous soliloquies, the pre-emptive laughter at the appearance of the already-familiar Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Osric, the collective watchfulness of Claudius’s face as he himself watched “The Mousetrap”; but we also experienced the more visceral haunting of an old friend. Ketterer’s Men were got up in honour of Lizz Ketterer, who died earlier this year and had always spoken of doing a production of Hamlet with her friend Will Sharpe, with the two as Ophelia and Hamlet. This production thus ghosted a version that never was but was infused with Lizz’s life and spirit, and the collage of photographs dominating the programme ensured that her presence was felt by all. I’ve spoken briefly about Lizz before and don’t need to do so again, except to admit that I can’t be anything approaching impartial coming to an event that was so emotional for so many people I care about.
Happily, this was one of the best Hamlets I’ve ever had the fortune to attend, and certainly the fullest. Clocking in at just under four hours with two intervals, a conflated text and few really substantive cuts (the Rynaldo scene was skipped), this bare and intimate production put Shakespeare’s play front and foremost, allowing this reviewer at least to really “hear” Hamlet for the first time in a long time. A mix of modern and period dress emphasised the relative formality of characters (Claudius in smoking jacket, Hamlet in hoodie, Gertrude in long gown etc.) and simple props (pikes, letters, daggers) supplemented the visual where necessary, and a low rostrum provided a level at the upstage end of the thrust, but this was an actor’s production.
Sharpe’s brooding Hamlet was intense and withdrawn, given to the occasional joke but mostly committed to his anger. Soliloquies were delivered slumped against walls or sitting on the stage, and he frequently turned lines in on himself, particularly his third repetition of “except my life”. Softly spoken and natural in most of his dialogue, the moments where he lost control had particular impact in their relative volume: whether screaming against Laertes of his love for Ophelia or finally rejecting the nervous Guildenstern. A genuine affection for Ophelia and for his friends softened the character, but this Hamlet stood alone.
Elizabeth Sharrett’s Ophelia was heartbreaking. Plainly dressed, she was tender towards her brother (even repacking his bag for him) and mildly irritated by her father. She played the nunnery scene with reluctance and thinly-veiled pain as she returned the letters, and then with tremulous shock as Hamlet began his tirade and screwed up the letters. While the force of this scene came from Sharpe, the emotional impact was in Sharrett’s courage as she continued standing despite her world clearly falling apart. In her madness, she entered wearing a hoodie and thick mascara, which ran down her cheeks as the tears fell. The image of Laertes cradling her, the two weeping, as she sang “He is dead and gone” in broken lines spoke to the loss better than anything I’ve seen before on stage.
Beyond these two outstanding performances, the work of the entire ensemble was excellent, bringing out resonances and stories that are perhaps sometimes lost under the trappings of large-scale productions. Peter Malin (who also directed) was a sorrowful Ghost, pleading with Hamlet for his love and action, and delivered a fine showpiece speech as the Player King. The scene in Gertrude’s bedchamber, with Stephanie Surrey vulnerable in pyjamas and Sharpe in particularly kinetic mode as trapped her on the stage, eventually grew into another intimate portrait as the Ghost stood over Gertrude and looked at her in love, while Hamlet sat between. The intimacy of this scene contrasted with Steve Quick’s portrayal of Claudius throughout. This sickly politician clapped the entire audience for their support in his first scene and relied on a winning grin and the presentation of benign power throughout, a facade which was slowly dismantled as events got out of hand.
The play’s humour was strong throughout, giving relief to the intensity of the main action. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (a game José A. Pérez Díez and Matt Kubus) wore flat caps, multi-coloured scarves and vacant grins as they toddled around the stage; and the scarves reappeared in the hands of the English Ambassador in the play’s closing moments. David Waterman’s Polonius rambled on relentlessly and muttered to the audience; the Player King offered protest at Hamlet’s incessant demands; John Curtis’s Osric was flamboyant and extravagant, and Helen Osborne’s faux-gormless laughter as the Second Gravedigger brought the house down.
Even in the small space, the play never strayed too far from its roots as a fast-paced revenge tragedy. In another standout performance, Gareth Bernard posed a vivid threat as Laertes, taking command of the stage whenever he was on it and needing both Gertrude and Cecilia Kendall White’s loyalist Voltemand to restrain him from the steady Claudius. The final duel, fought with large swords, was a surprisingly sophisticated piece of fight choreography and brought the play to a nailbiting conclusion (even despite the ghosting of a well-trodden plot; always a sign of a good production).
The near-full text allowed for some unexpected treats, including a highly amusing dumbshow version of “The Mousetrap” performed in high camp before the main event and a full showing of Matt Stead’s imposing Fortinbras. One thing I noticed, in the context of a full production, is how far Horatio (played suitably nervous yet steady by John Conod) is overwhelmed by events. Here, behind Conod’s big glasses, he was clearly a spectator rather than a participant, reminding me of Young Lucius in the BBC Titus Andronicus. Standing for the audience, seen through Horatio’s eyes the production became a relentless and painfully confused series of movements and betrayals, leaving no place for innocents or bystanders.
If I do have one complaint, it’s that there were a couple of occasions where dialogue was delivered at too brisk a clip, at the expense of emphasis and reflection (though considering the production’s running time, one was also glad the company didn’t dither). That’s a small point, though, in an evening that did both Lizz and Shakespeare proud. I’ve not been moved by Hamlet in this way before and, even without the backstory, this set a bar for how Hamlet can still “mean” even after so many iterations. Outstanding, and hopefully we’ll see far more of Ketterer’s Men.