Michelle Terry’s first season as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe has shown a deep engagement with the Globe’s history in its combination of old and new, and nowhere was that more evident that in Hamlet. The introduction of a Globe ensemble, an actor-led rehearsal process (with Federay Holmes and Elle While taking nominal director credits), and the Artistic Director herself in the lead, all recall some of the exploratory, experimental practices of the Globe’s earliest years under Mark Rylance; and in Hamlet, at least, the auditorium and stage themselves had no additions, sticking to their most foundational elements. But the commitment to diverse casts and the freedom with periodisation that underpinned much of Emma Rice’s tenure remained, and that the ensemble included stalwarts drawn from all eras of the Globe was especially pleasing to see. Hamlet offered an exciting statement of intent for the new state of play at the Globe, as well as being one of the most purely enjoyable productions of the play I’ve seen in some time.
On an entirely bare stage, with only twelve actors, in many respects this was a back-to-basics production. Yet even from the start, as Jack Laskey’s Francisco swigged from a thermos while in full Elizabethan soldier costume, the quirks showed themselves. According to the programme, the rehearsals (which had been open to members of the public) started with nothing and encouraged actors to use their own clothes, to play games and to approach the play ‘as if for the first time’. What emerged was a production that felt more than usually alive in the Globe space, particularly in the small moments of background figures responding in character to what was happening around them, in the interruptions and breakings-off that privileged the emotional relationships between characters over scrupulous recitation of the text, and in the sheer pace and energy of a cast creating the play rather than waiting for their own moments.
Much has already been made of the gender-swapping in the production, with many critics struggling to find purpose in it. I think it’s important to note that the casting was not ‘gender-blind’, at least not in its results. The older generation of Denmark (Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude) matched actor gender to character; the younger generation (Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio) were all reversed, and those liminal characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were 50/50. Whether this was the intention or no, it foregrounded the identity struggles that underpin the latter group’s actions in a way that reminded me of Michael Lesslie’s Prince of Denmark. Rarely, for instance, have I seen a Laertes (Bettrys Jones) so desperate to prove himself. Much shorter than his sister, which allowed for a very even interplay between them in their taking-leave scene as Ophelia turned Laertes’ advice back on him, Laertes wanted to be taken seriously. In his first scene, James Garnon’s Claudius repeatedly spoke over him, reducing him to embarrassed silence; his vengeance-driven return to Denmark saw his rage boil over as he finally fully asserted his presence, only to be then marshaled into treachery by Claudius.
Terry’s Hamlet was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a highlight. In direct contrast to Andrew Scott’s interminably ponderous version, Terry’s Hamlet was light of foot and of speech, his tongue barely able to keep up with his thought process as his words tumbled out. There was little calculation and much emotion; Hamlet was overwhelmed from the start by the loss of his father, and his first soliloquy saw him marching in a figure-eight loop around the stage, channelling that emotional distress into raw movement. The heart-on-sleeve approach led to some of the production’s most moving moments – a ‘to be or not to be’ that included a rare, long pause before ‘Ay, there’s the rub’; a full collapse into tears before first meeting Horatio; and, in one of the most heartbreaking touches, a vulnerable and full-bodied embrace of Ophelia at the start of the nunnery scene, as if grabbing onto the one person he could still trust. Ophelia’s awkward attempt to return Hamlet’s letters then played out as a grand betrayal, with Hamlet openly disbelieving of Ophelia’s rejection.
The meeting with the Ghost was another highly emotional scene, and the connection between father and son strong. Colin Hurley’s Ghost appeared at first staggering around the stage, eyes wide; when alone with Hamlet, he took off his helmet and spoke to his son sadly, wistfully, humanly. The quietness of the Ghost erupted into urgent action when impressing on Hamlet what Claudius had done, and he lunged for his son, but for the most part the Ghost offered an emotional plea. When the Ghost later appeared during the closet scene, it was to stand between Hamlet and Gertrude at the point of his son’s highest rage, calming Hamlet and reorienting his focus.
The emotional emphasis didn’t remove Hamlet’s humour. Much of Terry’s skill as an actor comes from her way with a withering putdown, and Hamlet’s WTF shake of his head on ‘in my mind’s eye, Horatio’ was an early highlight. In his ‘madness’, Hamlet switched from black to a full white Joker/Harlequin get-up, complete with smeared lipstick smile, and played the sad clown with angrily delivered barbs. But what struck me most about the performance was the level of anger, marked especially in the reactions of Catrin Aaron’s Horatio. While Horatio slipped into the background for much of the production, Horatio particularly responded with disapproval to Hamlet’s treatment of Nadia Nadarajah’s Guildenstern. In Hamlet’s earlier scenes with Guildenstern and Pearce Quigley’s Rosencrantz, the three had spoken collaboratively in BSL and spoken English; when Hamlet broke from Guildenstern, however, he showed unusual cruelty in both asking his Deaf friend to hear the music of a recorder and in refusing to sign; a series of slights that Guildenstern responded to with rage. Horatio’s reaction, storming away from Hamlet, was an additional marker of disapproval, backed up later by his angry reaction to the news that the two had been sent to their execution; by this stage, Hamlet was colder and collected.
Ophelia was another victim of Hamlet, in a quietly brilliant performance by Shubham Saraf. Appearing at first in full dress and corset, Ophelia was the model of poise and restraint, precisely exact in everything she said, though enjoying the occasional break from decorum as when wagging a finger at her brother. Saraf (the only man playing a woman in the production) subtly modulated his performance throughout; Ophelia at first spoke softly, using the higher register; but as she became more distressed across the course of the production, began using a greater range including the lower notes. For the mad scenes, she changed into a simple black shift, and turned fiercely on Gertrude, roaring about her loss and beating her chest with shocking force. The shedding of all of the earlier poise and collapse into something uncontrolled was powerful, and Laertes’ reactions in particular gave weight to these scenes in fueling his vengeance against Hamlet. Helen Schlesinger did her best work as Gertrude in response to Ophelia, too; as the Queen she was a centred presence against the more uncertain Claudius, but once confronted with Ophelia’s madness she began unravelling herself, and her report of Ophelia’s death was a horror she could barely speak through her tears.
The production’s comedy – of which there was a great deal – was primariliy carried by the older men. Quigley is, as I’ve argued before, one of the finest modern clowns, and his Barnardo offered several withering asides (especially as he insisted on his own name, which Hamlet forgot). Richard Katz as Polonius was another highlight, dithering between his two pairs of glasses and losing himself in reverie. But a surprising amount of comedy came from Garnon’s Claudius. This Claudius was unusually insecure, even going so far as to kneel to Hamlet in the second scene as he asked him to stay in Denmark. Claudius regularly forgot himself, dithered over words (to most hilarious effect as Polonius asked ‘What do you think of me?’, at which Claudius could barely get out an answer and looked pleadingly to Gertrude), and hesitated at length before delivering bathetic insights (‘I like him not’, starting the second half, brought the house down). In the second half, this sometimes meant that lines that weren’t played so much for laughs continued to get them, but the subtle undermining of Claudius continued to work in the final scene as the character found himself woefully out of his depth as events spiralled, before he reclaimed some dignity in downing the cup of poison himself.
The ensemble ethos, for this company, meant that there was always something happening at the sidelines – I’m always relieved not to see a lot of spear-carriers standing around waiting for their next exit – and the interest in reactions extended to an innovative treatment of ‘The Mousetrap’. The Players, led by Laskey, first offered a full dumbshow to a seedy jazz-blues brass score, and then disappeared from the stage. Drums in one of the upper galleries suggested a performance happening offstage, while the onstage audience remained looking out into the Globe auditorium and commenting on what they saw and heard. The lack of distraction allowed for full concentration on the reactions of the spectators, with Claudius and Helen Schlesinger’s Gertrude at the centre; watching Garnon in particular slowly cotton on to what he was watching was a joy.
My main frustration with the production was the lack of invention with the playing space, and the simply abysmal blocking for much of it. Given that I was right at the front of the stage, a shocking amount of the performance was invisible to me, because the cast seemed so reluctant to come forward of the pillars; there was a particular loss here in relation to Guildenstern; Nadarajah was too often concealed by other actors or the pillars when the ensemble bunched up too tightly towards the back of the stage, and I wish that the directors had been better employed to open up the cluster of bodies, orient the action outwards more, and ensure that the BSL (which was beautifully integrated throughout) was more visible. That the signing was such an organic and unremarkable part of the production was a particular pleasure, though I would have loved to know what was being said during the final jig.
This review has gone on for a long time, and I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of some of the small highlights: Hurley’s Gravedigger responding with joy to meeting someone who had known Yorick, and nodding along vigorously to Hamlet’s recollections; Gertrude’s broken ‘How is’t with you?’ to her son; Horatio and Hamlet tussling over the goblet as Horatio tried to kill himself. The production was packed, and in some ways the sheer pace of it (2 hours 45 minutes flat, with interval) meant that there was barely time to process everything. The extensive cutting, especially in the last two acts, left the play barreling towards a conclusion that it might productively have spent a little more time on (the duel, in particular, ended in a flurry of simultaneous chaos). But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a fast and energetic Hamlet with so much invention, individual interest, and emotional impact. Let’s hope this is an indication of what to expect from the Globe Ensemble.