Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 6 April 2013
The play was set within a fencing hall with the piste marked down the centre of the thrust stage. A raised platform at the rear contained a large Danish flag in one corner and a desk in the other. Foils hung from the wall of this office. A pitched roof with its skylights and fluorescent tubes hung above, and to the stage right side was a door with glass panels in its top half. A Latin inscription “mens sana in corpora sano” overlooked the whole.
A figure loitered briefly behind the door, removing a securing chain before entering and revealing himself to be Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet in suit and glasses. He picked up a lath sword and moved to the piste where he began a fencing manoeuvre. Others appeared via side entrances and, becoming aware of their presence, Hamlet uttered the play’s first line “Who’s there?” before slipping away to sit in darkness at the front of the stage writing in a notebook. Behind him the first scene played out beginning with Barnardo (Dave Fishley) and Francisco (Mark Holgate) on the Elsinore battlements (1.1).
The Ghost (Greg Hicks) appeared on the stage right walkway dressed in fencing whites, which made little sense of Horatio’s (Alex Waldmann) comment that it was wearing the same armour in which the king had fought the Norwegians. At this point the production’s conceit clashed with the text.
Some men in welders’ outfits came through the door and out the stage left exit, prompting Marcellus’ (Samuel Taylor) question about Denmark’s war preparations. Horatio’s answer, in which he referred to “landless resolutes”, was interrupted by the reappearance of the Ghost on the other side. Marcellus took a sword hanging from the wall, but the Ghost withdrew and reappeared at various entrances before finally disappearing.
Hamlet rose from his seated position as the court entered for 1.2. The others all wore black fencing masks and moved in slow, formal dance steps as they collected around the besuited Claudius (Greg Hicks again).
The king looked lean and wiry, a physical condition that gave his insistent firm manner a kind of low-level hectoring aggression. This undercurrent of potential violence was pacified by the obedience that his manner engendered in those around him.
His new wife Gertrude (Charlotte Cornwell) had something fusty and matronly about her, which suggested that Claudius was more interested in the throne than in her.
Claudius dispatched the ambassadors, Voltemand (David Fielder) and Cornelia (Natalie Klamar), to Norway.
Our first sight of Polonius (Robin Soans) hinted that, either by accident or design, he was similar in demeanour and tone to Claudius.
Hamlet stood and watched from downstage left so that his first line “A little more than kin, and less than kind” was spoken upstage to a distant Claudius. He was mildly dismissive but not wracked by anger or melancholy.
Hamlet’s deliberations on “seems” were slow and methodical. In fact he paused before saying “seems” a second time as if loathed to utter the word, but there was also a hint of suppressed rage and passion lurking just below the surface.
Claudius’ extended response seemed intent on wearing down Hamlet’s resistance and culminated in offering him a drink, holding the glass as if beckoning Hamlet to take it. When Hamlet consented to obey his mother, Claudius gave him the glass. He chanted “Be as ourself in Denmark” like a drinking song, with the rest of the court joining in, to jolly Hamlet along as he drank. A loud bang caused party streamers to fill the air as confetti scattered on the ground.
It was noticeable at this point that with the fencing piste already visible from the very start and with Claudius offering Hamlet a drink, the opening scenes of the play contained echoes of its fatal conclusion. The fencing piste on which Hamlet would be injured and a drink, indistinguishable from the one with which Claudius would try to poison him, had already been presented to us.
Hamlet soliloquised about his “too too solid flesh” as the tension within him spilled out. He seemed to have reached a point of resignation in which, beyond fury, he was scoffing at his mother’s infidelity.
Hamlet was extremely happy to see Horatio and hugged him warmly. But the fervent emotion of Hamlet’s welcome showed him to be deriving solace rather than unalloyed joy from the reunion. He was like a man stranded on a desert island spying the smoke trail of a passing ship.
After the hug, they both crouched on the ground as Hamlet clasped Horatio’s hands in his, not wanting to let go even as the conversation continued.
Horatio broached the subject of the Ghost, and Hamlet’s questions in response flashed out rapidly and instantly as if he had turned his laser-sharp intellect onto a matter which had now fully gripped his attention. Within milliseconds of new data about his father’s ghost becoming available, he had formulated and delivered a fresh question designed to elucidate the next vital detail.
After the others had left, Hamlet vowed to see the Ghost for himself. Immediately afterwards, Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) appeared through the side door. She had short dark hair, wore a sensible skirt and an Icelandic pattern pullover, and was carrying a large pile of books.
On seeing Hamlet she let the book pile fall to the ground with a crash at her feet and ran over to him. They embraced and kissed warmly. Hamlet saw Laertes approach from the stage left side and quickly left so that the action of 1.3 could commence.
Laertes (Luke Norris) said that his “necessaries” were all stowed away, which suggested that the pile of books carried by the sensibly dressed Ophelia were her own.
A number of Icelandic pullovers, Horatio wore one two occasionally, introduced an element of localised naturalism into the production. This implied though that the Danish court had a preference for Icelandic rather than Faroese knitwear.
Laertes had just witnessed the ending of his sister’s tryst with Hamlet, which proved excellent grounds for his warnings to her about him.
Polonius lectured Laertes and again showed himself to be nimble-witted rather than sluggish and buffoonish. When he turned his attention to Ophelia, she meekly accepted his counsel.
Hamlet and friends encroached upon Ophelia and Polonius as they entered for 1.4. The sound of Claudius’ partying filtered through the door, prompting Hamlet’s sarcasm about this custom.
The Ghost appeared and walked across the front of the stage from stage left to right. Hamlet addressed it quizzically. The Ghost began to leave via the stage right walkway and beckoned Hamlet to follow. Horatio and Marcellus’ attempts at restraint caused Hamlet to take a foil from the wall and threaten them with it before he followed the Ghost off.
Hamlet appeared shortly afterwards from the stage right upstage entrance and the Ghost began to speak to him. The Ghost had taken off his mask, so that Hamlet could see it was his father. When the mysterious figure confirmed his identity, Hamlet reached out his hand to touch his father. His line “O God!” was replaced by a gut-wrenching moan, an inarticulate outpouring of grief and deep emotion that seemed more appropriate to this passionate and emotional Hamlet than a well-articulated phrase.
When Hamlet made contact with his father’s body it was as if an electric shock had passed between them. The touch became a grasp as Hamlet was consumed by the desire to know more. While reports about the Ghost had been intellectually analysed, this actual contact produced upheavals in Hamlet’s heart that drove his outward behaviour.
The stage brightened as the Ghost said he could scent the morning air, which hurried him to his concluding story about his murder by Claudius. He asked Hamlet to remember him by offering him his fencing mask, which Hamlet accepted in astonishment.
Hamlet followed the Ghost to the stage left exit, so that when Hamlet was left alone he fell back onto a bench at the side from which he had to raise himself, requesting that his sinews “bear me stiffly up”.
He seized his notebook to record his father’s words. His reference “At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark” saw him point to the ground, thereby emphasising the naturalistic location of the play suggested by the flag, and partly by the knitwear.
Horatio and Marcellus caught up with Hamlet, who began to be cheerily sarcastic with them. This being a fencing salon, Hamlet easily found a foil on which to make the others swear not to divulge what they had seen. The Ghost’s voice echoed encouragement, also causing wind to scatter papers on the upstage desk.
In line with the RSC’s edition of the text, Hamlet referred to there being “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy”.
This led into a quite camp imitation of the ways in which he did not want his friends to discuss his “antic disposition”.
Hamlet directed his “time is out of joint” lines directly at Horatio and not to the audience as an aside.
Polonius briefed Reynaldo (Daniel Easton) on how to spy on Laertes (2.1). As Polonius rambled on through his unnecessarily punctilious instructions, Ophelia burst in on them and stood silently staring at her father. This interruption became the cause of Polonius’ forgetfulness and the reason he had to pick up the thread of the conversation.
With Reynaldo dispatched, Polonius listened to the impulsive Ophelia, whose urgency explained why she had burst in on him. She acted out Hamlet’s pained gestures when he had confronted her and Polonius decided to inform the king.
Rosencrantz (Oliver Ryan) and Guildenstern (Nicolas Tennant) wandered across the stage in their coats carrying suitcases as if they had just arrived at the king’s behest (2.2).
Did the king get them the wrong way round when he first spoke to them and then got them the right way round on departure, a correctness confirmed by the queen?
Polonius hurried to see the king and told him he had found the cause of Hamlet’s madness, then ushered in the ambassadors who brought the good news of Fortinbras’ arrest.
He carefully placed Ophelia on a particular spot and gave her a cue to read from the letter Hamlet had sent. She snapped obediently into position and did as she was told.
Ophelia’s unquestioning deference meant that when Polonius told the king about his instructions to Ophelia to shun Hamlet, we understood that she had obeyed him.
As Polonius broached the outline of their further plot to “loose” Ophelia to Hamlet, the man himself entered wearing an untied fencing outfit and mask. He sat down reading a sheet of paper and Polonius was left to deal with him alone.
Hamlet’s comical appearance made his response “words, words, words” even more funny. Further questioning prompted him to screw the paper up and throw it at Polonius when describing the slanders it contained.
Hamlet was jovially sarcastic, particularly when he walked backwards like a crab.
Polonius left in disgust clearing the way for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet greeted them and engaged in some bawdy play, simulating sex with Guildenstern who had spread his legs to indicate how he was one of Fortune’s “privates”.
Hamlet’s initial jollity soon gave way to suspicious questioning of their motives for visiting him. He referred to the “rights of our fellowship” and bared his forearm, as did the others, to reveal tattoos that witnessed some kind of pact between them.
Talking of having lost all his mirth, Hamlet’s reference to “this most excellent canopy” took on a comical note when he gestured upwards at the suspended roof. The drollery of his earlier appearance in the fencing suit indicated that he was not completely consumed by melancholy.
Hamlet’s philosophical observations did not hang like dense clouds of thought in the air, but seemed more to be exercises in rhetoric designed to convince others of his profundity. This was the conundrum: he had reason to be sad, but we also knew he was trying to affect sadness, so which was his real self?
Hamlet was genuinely interested in the news that the players had arrived and the production kept in his question as to why they were travelling, but without the boys’ company references.
Hamlet and companions sat on a bench and pretended to be engaged in conversation so they could make fun of mock Polonius. They formed a tight-knit little gang reminiscent of what must have been their previous closeness.
Hamlet stood to mock Polonius with his remarks about Roscius and Jephthah and then greeted the players. He congratulated a female player on being “nearer to heaven”, but without the final “by the altitude of a chopine”.
Hamlet launched into the Aeneas speech until it was picked up expertly by the First Player (Cliff Burnet).
Left alone after the impromptu performance, Hamlet half-laughed at himself, drawing out a long guttural moan of self accusation as he described himself as a rogue and peasant slave.
His admiring description of the player’s skill displayed much of the passion that he claimed he was unable to transform into action.
He spoke “John-a-dreams” slowly and affected a shambling gait with the self-deprecating implication that he was stupid.
His question to the audience “Am I coward?” did not provoke any response, though his subsequent lines were delivered as if he had in fact been directly accused. He foamed with growing anger at his supposed critics, descending into an overwrought display, the stupidity of which he suddenly became aware of, declaring himself to be “an ass”.
He hit upon his plan, but one he must have formulated earlier as he previously told the players about the lines he wanted inserting into Gonzago.
Claudius and his court entered and gathered round Hamlet as he explained how he would use the play to trap the king, so that when he said “the play’s the thing” the cast were stood around like actors waiting for their cue, Hamlet’s final line in the scene.
As Hamlet departed, the king spoke with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had been unable to fathom Hamlet’s troubles (3.1). Ophelia sat behind them on the raised stage staring at the ground beneath her dangling feet, obviously unhappy at the part she was expected to play in the plan.
The king and Polonius hid behind the glass panel door, while Ophelia sat on the stage right bench with her box of reminiscences and the book given to her by Polonius.
As he approached, Hamlet could be heard offstage singing Happiness by Ken Dodd, a completely incongruous song in terms of the speech that followed, but one that perhaps fitted his desire to appear antic to others.
After the first few lines of the song, he caught sight of Ophelia and sat down at the edge of the platform and launched into the iconic soliloquy. This lurch into seriousness caught Ophelia’s attention, but even here Hamlet applied a lightness of touch. He lay on his side when expressing his desire for sleep, as if he found the concept of the “sleep of death” somehow amusing.
His sudden shift from a song of joy into a melancholic disquisition did not ring true and undermined the sentiments of his soliloquy. This was a good way of subverting what has become an all-too familiar speech.
He was sat on what would later become the stage for the players, and this was very much a conscious performance for the benefit of Ophelia, who was present throughout. His only genuinely heartfelt sentiment was his reference to her right at the end when he approached Ophelia, talking of her “orizons”.
Ophelia rose and thrust her box of remembrances at Hamlet. He took a letter from the box and made blah-blah noises as he contemptuously pretended to read its soppy contents. He ditched the box on the ground, informing her “I never gave you aught”.
His mood flipped into aggression, telling her to get to a nunnery. He moved upstage to ask where her father was, but without there being any real indication that Polonius was spying on them. This was perhaps Hamlet’s instincts informing him.
He smeared Ophelia’s face with dirt, complaining of women’s “paintings”, a humiliation he completed by stripping off her pullover and skirt, leaving her vulnerably semi-clad as Polonius and later the king re-entered. Ophelia borrowed her father’s jacket and told him (not in soliloquy) about Hamlet’s great overthrown mind.
Claudius was clearly ruffled by the threat to himself posed by this aggression, and had already decided to send Hamlet to England.
At first the players ignored Hamlet as tried to begin his talk on acting (3.2). He repeated “Speak the speech…” several times to no avail before finally ringing a bell to secure their attention. He stood on a bench by the stage left doorway to give his lesson, illustratively sawing his hands.
Referring disparagingly to the groundlings “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise”, he looked to the people in the RST stalls immediately in front of him on the stage left side of the thrust, a joke which the whole audience seemed to appreciate.
As the court gathered for the performance, Hamlet instructed Horatio to observe Claudius and handed him a Polaroid camera with which to capture the hoped-for guilty look.
The bench was placed in front of the raised stage and the king and queen sat on it alone. The others sat at the sides to watch, while Hamlet remained downstage.
Confident that events were under his control, Hamlet was boldly sarcastic and disrespectful to Claudius and Polonius.
In a great piece of realistic staging, Hamlet’s approaches to Ophelia and joking attempt to sit by her were indignantly rebuffed. After all, at their last encounter he had insulted and humiliated her. Reconciliation at this point would have seemed bizarre.
The dumb show was played out on the stage, from which the desk had now been removed, with a red curtain at its sides. The Player King and Queen (Cliff Burnett & Karen Archer) embraced in period costume. The gentle music of this scene changed to something harsh and modern as a figure in black modern dress with a skull pattern on her top entered to represent ‘poison’. She sat on the Player King’s chest to symbolise his murder.
After the poisoning the Player Queen tore apart a cob loaf, which she had thus far clasped to her bosom, at which point the poisoner raised a phallic baguette in front of him and moved to embrace her.
The prologue was spoken in a vaguely Japanese style before the curtain opened to reveal the Player King and Queen sat on a sofa. Hamlet became ever more excited in his comments as the play reached the key theme of remarriage.
The flirtatious exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia with its references to “groaning” was cut.
When the poisoner appeared and killed the Player King in imitation of Claudius’ crime, Claudius rose in anger. He called for some light, to which Horatio responded by flashing the Polaroid camera in his face to capture his expression.
As Claudius stormed away and the guards arrested and led away the players, Hamlet and Horatio took to the stage. Hamlet, illuminating his face from below with a table lamp, sang the ditty about the “stricken deer”. The interval came as the lights went out on the scene.
The second half began with Hamlet and Horatio continuing their conversation until they were interrupted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who told Hamlet that his mother had sent for him. Hamlet stood on the bench and twisted his feet from side to side creeping up and down it in a muted victory dance.
Hamlet was now effusive and jokingly reassured Rosencrantz that he still loved him “by these pickers and stealers”, talking to him as if he were a baby. But with the arrival of the recorders, he became vitriolic in his denunciation of Guildenstern’s attempt to play on him.
He turned instantly on Polonius, switching his full attention to him and completely forgetting Guildenstern, in order to play his cloud-watching game with the old man.
However, that done, he had calmed down enough to talk in soliloquy about how he would not harm his mother.
After briefly dispatching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius announced his intention to listen in on Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude, after which Claudius had a few moments alone (3.3).
Greg Hicks clasped his hands in front of him and physically wilted from the strident, confident man he had so far presented, as his Claudius bemoaned the rankness of his offence.
Hamlet walked across the back and glanced sideways when he spied the king. He took a foil and approached the kneeling figure. Pointing the foil directly at Claudius’ head, Hamlet considered striking him before realising that this would be “hire and salary, not revenge”. He brought the foil close to his chest before vowing to kill Claudius at a more opportune time.
Polonius hid behind the half-drawn curtain on the raised stage as Gertrude prepared to receive her son (3.4). With his mother sat on a sofa roughly stage left, Hamlet positioned himself on the bench stage right to ask “what’s the matter?”
Their bitter exchange riled Hamlet into something approaching anger. Again Hamlet took a sword from the wall and pointed it at Gertrude, prompting her fearful cries. This caused Polonius to shout for help and Hamlet responded rapidly by dashing towards him. Hamlet tore the curtain down on top of the unseen figure and stuck his sword straight through his bulk. The curtain was unwrapped to show the dead Polonius sat in a chair.
Approaching his mother again, Hamlet took the recently snapped Polaroid of Claudius and a photo of his father from his pocket to show her this “counterfeit presentment of two brothers”.
Hamlet tore off the sheet covering the sofa when complaining of Gertrude living “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed”, the item serving as a convenient approximation to bed sheets.
Hamlet was transformed and transfixed when his father’s Ghost appeared again, which perhaps helped him to be kinder to his mother as he knelt beside her, trying to convince her to cool her affection for Claudius.
When he was finished with Gertrude, Hamlet dragged Polonius out of the chair and sideways off the raised stage.
Claudius again interpreted news of Hamlet’s rash actions as a direct threat to him (4.1). He sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find his son.
There followed a brilliantly inventive, exceedingly funny and wonderfully intuitive piece of staging.
Hamlet entered through the raised stage and descended to the sofa (chair?) carrying a mug of tea with the bag string draped over the lip. He sat and played with the teabag string before announcing “Safely stowed” with a self-satisfied exhalation (4.2).
Looking back at this sequence, it seemed perfectly logical that after carrying a heavy lifeless body a considerable distance around the castle, Hamlet would have needed a cuppa to unwind.
This state of relaxation informed his sarcastic answers to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s frantic questions about Polonius’ location.
He was particularly indignant at being “demanded of a sponge!” His semi-answer to their questions indicated that Polonius was “with the king”, as Hamlet indicated the King of heaven by pointing skyward. He insulted Claudius by describing him as a thing of nothing and then made his escape.
Hamlet was brought before Claudius, marching obediently but mockingly behind Guildenstern, all this still in the white fencing suit he had worn since his encounter with his father’s ghost.
He described the “convocation of worms” that were eating Polonius and outlined the fish/worm anecdote. However many times it is staged, Hamlet’s “He will stay till you come” never fails to be amusing, and this time was no exception.
At the very moment Claudius began to tell Hamlet that he was to be sent to England, Ophelia rushed silently into the room but was restrained and escorted out. This moment was key to understanding her subsequent actions and behaviour.
Hamlet’s response “For England!” saw him skip and twist the loose ends of his fencing suit in an imitation of Morris dancing.
Hamlet taunted Claudius by addressing him as his mother. He completed the explanation of his logic by kissing Claudius on the cheek, as he would his mother.
Claudius’ malevolent pronouncement of “the present death of Hamlet” was followed by the removal of the back wall of the raised stage to reveal a white backdrop with a single, distant tree in front of which the Norwegian army appeared (4.4).
The soldiers moved through this new upstage opening and began taking up the boards of the main stage platform to reveal dark soil underneath. Eventually a rough T shape remained with the fencing piste running the length of the stage still in place, but surrounded on all sides by dirt.
Hamlet appeared wearing a light-coloured suit for his journey and questioned the Norwegian Captain (Dave Fishley again) about his army’s mission.
Pondering this afterwards, Hamlet was inspired to act decisively after seeing such extensive preparations for a fight over nothing. But at the same time he displayed a hint of the quiet resignation that would characterise some of his subsequent statements.
Ophelia burst in on Gertrude and Horatio wearing a white wedding dress with a veil and clutching a bridal bouquet in front of her (4.5). She rushed excitedly to the top of the piste to ask “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?”
All this, in the context of her previous frustrated desire to see Hamlet just before he was sent away, made it was plain that she was referring to him. A sequence normally about Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death was here transformed into an expression of her thwarted but unabated passion for Hamlet.
She muttered “they’re not ready” as she looked at the overturned benches at the sides of the piste and set them upright before taking apart her bouquet and setting out small bunches of flowers on the benches as if they were wedding guests.
Claudius appeared and Ophelia hugged him warmly before setting off down the piste to the front and kneeling as if before the altar. She held out her hand as if holding that of her groom and started the ‘By Gis and by Saint Charity’ song, speaking the girl’s part, then shuffled sideways and put her opposite hand out to sing the boy’s part. This was slightly incongruous as the song recounted how a lad had not fulfilled his promise to marry a maid he had bedded.
As the others commented in wonderment, Ophelia continued in a world of her own. She stood up straight and looked out into the audience as if still waiting for Hamlet to turn up, pronouncing a hopeful “We must be patient” before departing with more distracted remarks.
Claudius told of the imminent arrival of Laertes from France. Just then a violent commotion could be heard outside, prompting Claudius to call for his guards. A loud noise of an outer door being broken open brought real tension, so that when Laertes and his soldiers burst in, a sense of danger existed that was not diminished by the men with guns being told to wait outside.
Laertes himself was not armed and did not direct any weapon against Claudius, but the presence of his supporters outside the door was a constant reminder that he was capable of forcing compliance with his angry demands.
Ophelia’s second appearance saw her still wearing her wedding dress and her obvious madness appalled Laertes.
After encouraging everyone to sing “a-down a-down”, she took a foil from the wall and pointed it at Claudius, causing him some momentary fear until she dropped the sword’s point to the ground and walked in a circle trailing it behind her.
Returning to where she had started, she briefly held the sword upright close in front of her as if beginning a fencing bout. She then removed the guard from the blade tip and clasped her other hand round its now bare point, cutting into her palm until it was smeared with her blood.
She took her bloodied hand and began to daub lines of blood on people’s foreheads, proclaiming each daub to be a flower.
This staging really tore up the rule book on how to portray Ophelia. The complete reimagining of the character at this point was exhilarating to behold.
She smeared Claudius’ face, describing the mark as rue. He had to wear his with a difference, so she made an additional red mark that differentiated him from the others.
Ophelia spoke her final song rather than singing it and left the assembled company stunned, an opportunity that Claudius seized on to further assuage Laertes.
A woman messenger brought a letter from Hamlet to Horatio, which he read aloud before setting off to prepare for Hamlet’s unexpected arrival (4.6).
Claudius showed himself to be a practised liar when he told Laertes that Hamlet’s popularity was the reason he had not put him on trial for Polonius’ murder (4.7).
The calm that the success of this lie produced in Claudius was short-lived as a letter arrived from Hamlet in which he informed the king he was returning.
Working together and thinking quickly, the pair hit upon their twin-track plan to murder Hamlet. Claudius walked up and down as he fretted about a backup plan should the envenomed sword not work, eventually hitting on the poisoned chalice.
Gertrude interrupted them, obliging Claudius to stow Hamlet’s letter hastily away in his inside jacket pocket. Claudius’ “How now, sweet queen!” was said with hasty embarrassment and fear that their plan might be discovered.
Gertrude’s poetic description of Ophelia’s death, which realistically no one could have witnessed in such lengthy detail without coming to assistance, enraged Laertes further to Claudius’ benefit.
After discussing the forthcoming burial and joking around, the two gravediggers, the younger a female (Rosie Hilal), set about their work (5.1). The older one (David Fielder again) used a spade to shift earth at the downstage foot of the piste, uncovering skulls as Hamlet and Horatio arrived through the back of the stage as if coming from a great distance.
Hamlet saw the first skull and commented briefly on it (lawyerly references omitted) before engaging the gravedigger in conversation and a battle of wits. He seemed impressed by the man’s punctilious precision. The joke about Hamlet’s madness not being noticed in England was well-received.
The production was taking a well-earned comic breather before the final onslaught.
Hamlet took Yorick’s skull and handed it to an audience member at the front of the stalls, telling them to take it to “my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”. This had the effect of underscoring the humour in his remark, rather than its tragic bite.
Hamlet’s mind wandered onto his consideration of how Alexander might have been turned into a bung in a beer barrel, after which the funeral procession appeared in silhouette through the rear entrance, causing Hamlet and Horatio to move to the stage right side to observe.
Laertes bitterness showed in his scorn of the Priest (John Stahl) who had not given Ophelia the full ceremony. His reference to his sister told Hamlet that the funeral was that of Ophelia.
Ophelia, still in her white gown, was laid in a shallow recess in the soil at the foot of the piste, but remained visible to the audience. Gertrude stood over her to spread “sweets to the sweet”. Laertes stepped down and lifted Ophelia up to embrace her lifeless form, barking out his instructions to bury him beside her under mountains of soil.
Hamlet came forward and tussled with Laertes on the piste before storming off.
Ophelia remained in full view laid out in her grave throughout the remainder of the performance.
Hamlet recounted the full story of his escape to Horatio (5.2). He was quite relaxed and enjoyed discussing Claudius’ failed attempt to have him killed, which could be seen from his nonchalant description of the overblown language in the commission given to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and in his dismissal of his former friends “They are not near my conscience”.
Osric (Michael Grady-Hall) was a picture in his schoolboyish cap and blazer, which bore a miniature Danish flag on the breast pocket. Hamlet enjoyed making him take his cap off and then put it on again.
All was jollity until Osric mentioned that Hamlet had to “vouchsafe the answer” to the king’s wager. Hamlet’s mood seemed to change. He replied “How if I answer ‘no’?” with a muted earnestness that was completely unlike his previous quips at Osric’s expense.
Hamlet agreed to the wager and the seriousness he had lurched into with his question to Osric now informed his quiet resignation in the face of his fate.
After the stage was prepared for the fencing bout, Hamlet and Laertes met and were reconciled.
Hamlet had to change into a proper fencing suit, which he did in full view of everyone. The king brought a fencing mask for Hamlet. When he clapped eyes on it, the movements of everyone else on stage slowed down to emphasise the specialness of the moment: Hamlet realised that the mask was the one that his father had given to him. Once he had taken the mask, the action speeded up again to normal pace.
Laertes took one sword, pronounced it too light and was then handed the unbated one.
Claudius stood to their left with the wine, while Gertrude was positioned to the right. They fenced up and down the piste, which had been visible since the start of the performance.
Hamlet scored his first point prompting Claudius to put the pearl into the glass, which he had to set aside when Hamlet refused it. Gertrude approached Hamlet to wipe his brow and then took the poisoned glass and drank from it despite Claudius’ protestations.
After the third pass Laertes charged at Hamlet cutting him with the envenomed blade. Osric wrestled the sword from Laertes, but Hamlet then snatched it from Osric and swung it at Laertes.
The queen fell to the ground and announced she had been poisoned, upon which the guards secured the doors.
The stricken Laertes collapsed in agony, blaming everything on the king, who backed himself against the stage right side wall in terror. Hamlet approached Claudius with the sword and stuck it through him.
Hamlet dragged Claudius up onto the raised stage and, handing him the poisoned cup, demanded that he drink it off. Claudius paused, looked down at Hamlet, who had squatted on the ground in front of the stage, and complied.
Hamlet began to clap Claudius slowly as if this were some kind of grotesque performance. Claudius collapsed in pain and died too. He was soon followed by Laertes.
The presence of the dead Ophelia at the foot of the piste meant that each successive dead body was effectively adding to a formation of onstage bodies that had begun with her.
Hamlet took the royal crown from Claudius and placed it on his own head. He began to convulse as the potent poison gripped him. He slumped to the ground, but still had some strength left to prevent Horatio for drinking from the cup.
Osric explained that the far-off sound was the approach of Fortinbras, which prompted Hamlet to rise, remove the crown from his head and give his support to the Norwegian. He stood as he exclaimed “The rest is silence” after which he staggered down the piste. When he reached the end, he glimpsed Ophelia and a brief flash of joy traced across his face as he fell dead.
This raised the interesting possibility that he might have died before he set off down the piste and saw Ophelia. His final walk was one after death in which he had the privilege of glimpsing his love, who would have been theatrically absent to everyone else as the fencing piste and Ophelia’s grave were naturalistically two distant locations. Or alternatively, his glimpse of Ophelia could have been a fevered vision in his mind that occurred as he was dying. Either way, in performance it was incredibly powerful.
Horatio’s final tribute was followed by alarm bells ringing and the sprinkler system dousing the entire stage in water as Fortinbras (Chris Jared) appeared dramatically in semi-silhouette on the raised stage to ask “Where is this sight?” at which point the stage went dark and the performance ended.
The production focused on the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia rather than foregrounding the play’s treatment of philosophical issues. Nor was this a production aching with relevance to contemporary society.
This was evidenced by the fact that “2B” became a performance that Hamlet staged for Ophelia rather than a genuine expression of his sentiment. It thereby mockingly subverted that soliloquy’s iconic status.
Some Hamlets examine the here and now. This one looked modern, very much in the “now”, but its ostensible Danish setting prevented it from commenting on the “here”. The costumes referenced the current fashion for Nordic Noir television, cleverly avoiding obvious and very specific Faroese pullovers in favour of “lopapeysa” garments with an Icelandic yoke pattern.
With nothing much to say about the human condition, the production became a portrait of one man’s condition, Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet.
His sheer emotionality was astonishing, making him much more than a simple vehicle for philosophical or political debate. He demonstrated a remarkable degree of passion, an appealing trait evidenced by his tactility and tone of voice.
But the production also deliberately rewrote the rulebook on how to present Ophelia, gleefully rejuvenating her character and breaching the dull limits of her standard depiction.
She popped up where not expected: having a visible tryst with her lover Hamlet, causing her father to lose train of thought and trying to speak to Hamlet before he was sent to England.
Our current understanding of insanity is different to that which framed the conception of Ophelia’s specifically female madness in the original text. With astounding boldness, the production completely updated the concept to include cutting and self harm.
Instead of mourning her father, this Ophelia was insane with the desire to be married to Hamlet. The flowers she had gathered were carefully positioned like wedding guests. Instead of handing them out, as in the standard staging, she cut herself with a large blade and then smeared her own blood on people’s faces while talking of floral symbolism.
All in all, this was a production that generated lots of happiness…
The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 19 September 2012
The Tiger Lillies did not perform Hamlet. Hamlet was performed principally by members of Republique Theatre of Copenhagen with The Tiger Lillies providing musical accompaniment. Only occasionally was the musical element integrated into the action of the play. The Danes’ contribution could have existed independently.
The headlining of The Tiger Lillies meant that this production took place in Queen Elizabeth Hall, a venue that exists principally for performances of music and does not normally function as a theatre.
With The Tiger Lillies visible on either side, the performance began with a large dark screen in place across the stage. Voices whispered the opening line “Who’s there?” in cacophonous repetition.
As the accordion began to play, the heads of the principle characters appeared through the cloth looking dead. They revived in turn to speak a few of their lines. Martyn Jacques intoned a commentary, singing of ambition and sin.
Hamlet (Morten Burian) made an early appearance in a black outfit. He stood in front of the cloth for his “too, too solid flesh” soliloquy.
The curtain rose to reveal a dinner table pitched on a steep slant. Claudius (Zlatko Burić) and Gertrude (Andrea Vagn Jensen) sat on the highest side hanging down; Ophelia (Nanna Finding Koppel) in a bonnet was at the short stage right end of the table, while Laertes (Caspar Phillipson) was at the bottom looking upwards. Hamlet sat at the other end placing his head down on the table.
A song entitled “The King is Dead” explained the backstory about the death of Hamlet’s father and his mother’s marriage to his uncle. In a neat touch, glasses were stuck to the table angled properly as if the table were upright. The extreme slant of the table conveyed the idea that the world was out of joint.
They descended from the table and Claudius and Gertrude danced together.
This led into the ghost scene. The others stood behind Hamlet as a projection of the dead King’s face illuminated them. The men had taken off their shirts and they all rocked from side to side as if asleep. When the Ghost reached the point in his story about the murder, the beam of light narrowed so that the Ghost’s face was projected solely onto Hamlet’s face.
Ophelia was brought in sleeping on a bed. Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes were also slumbering but departed, leaving her alone. She awoke and tapped her finger on the ground causing a ripple of water to appear projected onto the back wall. This foreshadowed the water in which she drowned.
Adopting a balletic pose, Ophelia walked along the edge of the metal rail at the end of the bedstead. She lay on her back on the rail and then backflipped onto the stage. Hamlet was hoisted out on wires, appearing to be asleep on his side. This combination had a dreamlike quality. Ophelia attached herself to a wire and joined him in a similar pose as the two spun round near ground level in a pretty dance that exemplified their intimacy.
All this time Martyn Jacques sang a plaintive song “Alone” whose bitter-sweet meditation on loneliness undercut the beauty of the dance.
Hamlet detached himself from the wire and spun Ophelia around, depositing her back on the bed asleep.
Ophelia was visited by Laertes who lifted her limp limbs and rearranged them as he told her that he was departing.
Polonius (Caspar Phillipson again) appeared as a puppet with huge grasping hands and a cloth face. He warned Ophelia in a comical puppet voice to keep away from Hamlet, accompanied by a song “Stay Away From Him”. Ophelia moved and danced as if still asleep and was eventually taken up and cradled against the wall in the grasp of Polonius’ huge hands.
Hamlet appeared sticking his head through an opening in the wall as a voiceover and a song “Murder” reminded him that his father had been murdered. He looked suitably distraught as Martyn Jacques played the accordion and taunted him with the details of his father’s killing.
Polonius’ head peered through the stage left opening and told Claudius and Gertrude that he had discovered the cause of Hamlet’s madness and read Ophelia’s letter. Ophelia herself sat below listening. Polonius suggest loosing daughter to Hamlet.
Hamlet brought out the bed and stood centre stage to deliver his “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Just as he drew his bare bodkin, Ophelia rushed in and snatched it out of his hand, effectively preventing him from killing himself.
They hugged each other on the bed, but this conciliatory mood did not last. They sat up on the bed as Hamlet announced that he had loved her once. Grasping her angrily, Hamlet ordered her to get to a nunnery. His attention was attracted to a brief appearance of the others above looking down at them, and which prompted him to ask Ophelia where her father was. He shouted that Ophelia would not escape calumny, but this warning was clearly directed at the offstage spies. Hamlet exited and the sobbing Ophelia was wheeled away on the bed by Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius.
Martyn Jacques tortured the distraught Hamlet with a song telling him that nothing was pure and that he was going mad. Hamlet writhed in mental agony. A song commented that Hamlet was a dangerous man because he was mad. His family danced behind him, with Gertrude on sousaphone, shadowing him sinisterly but then when he turned round to face them they looked about and whistled innocently.
The production did not cast Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but at this point the rest of the cast became mouthpieces for them at their first meeting with Hamlet. Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia and Laertes stood close round him and Hamlet toyed with moving their mouths and making them appear to utter sounds. Hamlet spoke both his own lines and those of his friends. First he used Laertes and Ophelia kneeling next to him, comically giving Ophelia a deep man’s voice and Laertes a high-pitched woman’s voice, and then Claudius and Gertrude standing either side of him.
The first half ended with the “to be or not to be” song with the whole cast standing downstage.
After the interval the second half began with Hamlet in front of the safety curtain delivering his Hecuba speech. He indicated himself as “this player” even though this did not make sense. He used the line “Am I a coward?” but none of the immediate follow-up, concluding with “the play’s the thing…”.
The Mousetrap was presented by the rest of cast dangling like puppets on strings. Hamlet squawked as he donned a commedia dell’arte bird mask. Claudius in the role of the Player King puppet put poison in the ear of Old Hamlet and pulled out a red handkerchief representing the dead King’s blood. Claudius and Gertrude broke out of their player roles to be themselves as the queen commented on the lady’s excess of protest and Claudius called for lights.
In the aftermath of the play, Claudius knelt praying as Hamlet stood apart with a dagger, eventually deciding to wait for a more opportune moment to take vengeance. Hamlet exited slowly through the centre doors to another dour song.
For the closet scene, a thin cloth descended behind which Gertrude hid Polonius. At first, Hamlet and Gertrude stood at a distance as a silent Hamlet mirrored his mother’s succession of nervous movements. This was neat because it foreshadowed the mirrored language of their first exchanges. The wordplay was made to look like an extension of this initial mirroring of posture.
Hamlet grasped Gertrude in an arm lock and she cried for help. Polonius shuffled behind the curtain, attracting Hamlet’s murderous attention. As Hamlet stabbed Polonius the cloth collapsed.
The entire world of the play started to come apart, represented by the back wall of the set slowly folding forward with a creaking sound, as Hamlet pursued Gertrude in slow motion.
Polonius lay underneath the descending wall, while Hamlet and Gertrude clung together under a flap in the wall through which they protruded as it reached the ground. They continued their argument. The Ghost was heard in voiceover. Hamlet dragged Polonius out via another door in the flat wall and moved his body like the flapping limbs of the puppet version of Polonius seen previously.
The wall returned to its upright position as Martyn Jacques sang a song entitled “Worms” intermixed with Hamlet’s worm anecdote before he was to England. He jokingly grabbed Claudius’ crotch when claiming his uncle was his mother.
An interpolated scene showed Hamlet and Ophelia lying together on the bed with a gentle musical accompaniment. They woke up next to each other and caressed. Ophelia walked in heeled shoes along the rail of the bedstead.
They looked at each other through one end of bedstead. Then shortly afterwards went to opposite ends of the bed and looked through opposite sets of bars. As Hamlet withdrew and left, Ophelia grasped desperately at him through the bars at her end.
This looked good, but how likely was it that she would have slept with Hamlet right after he had killed her father?
Gertrude and Claudius appeared at a window in the back wall, both in towels with Gertrude massaging her husband’s neck. Martyn Jacques sang “Bordello” about their relationship commenting that she was better to have whored herself to two kings rather than 10,000 strangers. Quality not quantity was what counted.
Laertes interrupted them, holding Polonius’ mask, demanding to know how his father had died. Claudius came out from behind the window and took Laertes away to speak with him.
Hamlet appeared at a window and described how he had escaped from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He jumped down from the window and showed the new letter he had written. A sheet billowed like water over which Hamlet swung on a wire. The sheet sea was suddenly pulled away leaving Hamlet swinging over nothing with Martyn Jacques telling him it was just a dream.
Ophelia’s madness began with her wandering holding a bunch of flowers accompanied by a jolly song “Sweet Suicide”. She leant against the back wall which sloped slightly back. Hands bearing other flowers appeared through holes in the wall. She gathered these into a huge bunch before moving downstage to cradle them like a baby. She howled and began offering the flowers to invisible people.
In a truly inspired moment Ophelia thought she saw another flower and came downstage to grasp at it. But there was nothing but empty space. This was a direct echo of Macbeth’s dagger of the mind.
Gertrude found her and took pity. She wrapped the train of her dress around Ophelia and escorted her away. This made Gertrude seem a compassionate and positive character.
Claudius asked Laertes what he would do to really prove his father’s son. This introduced the idea of killing Hamlet, and led into a discussion of the duel and the double poisoning.
Ophelia’s drowning was staged. Ophelia walked slowly across the dark stage, a large image of the moon projected onto the back wall. She turned to face the wall and when she reached its foot she walked up it supported on a wire as the projection changed to a roaring sea. When she reached the top, she fell a short distance and hung suspended while the projection changed to beneath the waves so that she appeared to sink.
Her funeral procession entered beneath her. Ophelia descended from her drowning position into their hands, while Hamlet stood downstage looking out at the audience. Ophelia revived and went to embrace Hamlet and hung around his neck. But after each of their embraces she fell limp and dead. The implication was that this vision of Ophelia was Hamlet’s fantasy into which the reality of Ophelia’s death occasionally intruded. He picked her up and carried her across his shoulders back to the funeral party.
Her family took Ophelia and laid her on a shelf in the wall to bury her. This first indication of the grave site prompted the start of the fight between Laertes and Hamlet. A scuffle broke out in slow motion with Laertes hanging off Hamlet. Claudius interrupted them and the motion sped up again into a furious verbal argument.
The back wall folded forward again and Gertrude positioned herself so that she appeared through a hole as the scene behind her was revealed.
Hamlet and Laertes stood ready brandishing foils, with Claudius positioned between them holding a glass ready to be poisoned. Gertrude joined them. The two combatants swiped their foils, the strokes enhanced by a swishing sound effect.
They faced forward and struck at thin air, scoring points without actually touching their opponent. Gertrude took the poisoned drink and refused to put it down. Laertes swiped at Hamlet without touching him, but as this represented a hit, Hamlet clutched himself and felt the moisture of his own blood. Without swapping blades, Hamlet drove his own sword into Laertes who fell. As Gertrude succumbed to the poison, the others upstage all fell to the ground.
Hamlet collapsed from his own injury while the others, including also Ophelia, moved towards him. Gertrude warned that she had been poisoned and Laertes explained why Hamlet was soon to die. As the others stripped off Hamlet’s shirt and grasped with their fingers at his face, Hamlet spoke his final lines, ordering Claudius to drink off the poison. This was not actually acted out, but tied up a loose end. He died centre stage alone to “Dissolution Song”.
Hamlet’s final words were edited so that he concluded:
“And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story. The rest is silence.”
Hamlet was deprived of Horatio, his companion and confidant, and also shadowed in his darkest moments of despair by Martyn Jacques who pursued him like a tormenting demon.
The role of Ophelia was enhanced, particularly her mad sequence which was much more effective for being acted out alone. An Ophelia who borrows from Macbeth certainly has depth.
The Tiger Lillies did not fit exactly with the feel of play but provided an interesting context for the retelling of the story.
If Martyn Jacques’ narrator was a cynical voice undermining Hamlet, then the mere existence of the play, told by those who drew their breaths in pain to tell his semi-heroic story, proves that cynicism wrong.
The Rest is Silence, Studio 2 Riverside Studios, 16 June 2012
We queued in a dingy alley behind Riverside Studios to be admitted via the Studio 2 back door into a square space that appeared to have mirrored walls. For what seemed like ages the audience had no other object of attention but itself.
Then dreamthinkspeak’s take on Hamlet began.
For the next ninety minutes (with no interval) we were subjected to an intelligent rearrangement of the text that was played out behind the plastic walls integrating live action with video projection.
What appeared to be mirrored surfaces were illuminated to reveal a series of rooms around the central space. As the action moved from room to room, the best tactic was to go to the centre of the space and turn on the spot.
This review references the walls in this production in clockwise order starting with wall 1, which occupied one side of the square and was one large room (1).
The performance began with a projection onto the front wall of room 1. It showed Hamlet’s father walking in his orchard. He approached in close-up and we saw blood running out of his ear, which was obviously the aftermath of his aural poisoning.
Over behind wall 4, Claudius woke up in his bedroom with a start as if the projection had been his bad dream. He wandered naked into the bathroom next door and rehearsed a speech beginning “Though yet of Hamlet…”
In this production, many other characters rehearsed in private before making statements, thereby emphasising the false nature of public discourse and the performance pressure felt by in the world of the these speakers.
With our attention still focused on Claudius, other walls were lit up to reveal the space behind in which the other characters were preparing themselves. All the rooms looked like they belonging in either modern offices or stylish luxury homes. The inference was that this family was one of considerable wealth and commercial power.
Back in room 1 Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes and Hamlet appeared for the court scene. The court looked like a modern office reception area. The main characters, with the exception of Hamlet, dressed in business wear.
With Gertrude sat at his side, Claudius spoke “Though yet…” to a handheld video camera, with the images projected onto the front of walls 2 and 4. Having previously seen his rehearsal, this felt like a performance within a performance.
The speech done, Claudius and Gertrude directed their attention to Hamlet and sat either side of him on a sofa. Unlike the other power dressers, Hamlet wore a black pullover, part of a casual black outfit several degrees of smart below the ubiquitous corporate look.
After asking him about his melancholy, Claudius and Gertrude froze. Hamlet got up from the sofa and stood just in front of them to deliver “O that this too, too solid flesh…”. Once finished, he reinserted himself between them.
This manner of delivery further emphasised his isolation. What is normally a soliloquy was here delivered by Hamlet lonely among the crowd of his immediate family.
There was no Horatio in the production, which further increased the sense of Hamlet’s loneliness.
After Laertes was given leave to return to France, the action moved clockwise through the rooms. Ophelia and Laertes talked in her room about his impending departure and then Ophelia spoke with her father Polonius in his office about Hamlet’s advances to her.
Claudius and Gertrude enlisted the aid of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a room in the corner of wall 3. At this point the action was mixed up and reversed. Skipping over Hamlet’s meeting with the pair, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sat around with notebooks reading back Hamlet’s words and laughing at what he had said to them. This emphasised their role as spies and the total insincerity of their friendship with him.
As they laughed, Hamlet sat in the room opposite (1) with his head in his hands. Other characters joined in the repetition of Hamlet’s worlds, so that eventually everyone was talking at once.
Hamlet rose to his feet when he saw his father in a room directly opposite (wall 3). His father beckoned to him with his handgun. The entire space went dark as Hamlet’s father explained how he had been killed. When the lights went up again, Hamlet was in the room with him holding onto the handgun.
The appearance of Hamlet’s father at this moment pointed to the possibility that it was some form of fantasy brought on by the extreme stress of his situation, surrounded as he was by a confused tumult of his own words being thrust back at him.
The room containing Hamlet and his father went dark as room 1 lit up to reveal Claudius and Gertrude cavorting together. Projections on the adjacent walls showed other people enjoying the high life. As he watched his family, Hamlet sat in semidarkness and put the gun to his head as if threatening suicide.
A projection of Hamlet’s father appeared on the back wall of room 1 as Claudius launched into “My offence is rank…” Hamlet’s father then walked in on them both, but invisible to the clearly disturbed couple.
Hamlet entered the room with the handgun, looked at the praying Claudius and spoke his “hire and salary” speech after refusing to shoot him.
Ophelia was in Polonius’ room playing with the objects on his desk, mockingly impersonating of his homilies on good behaviour. Meanwhile Polonius was in the long room (1) trying to hide behind the sofa before finally secreting himself behind an end door.
Ophelia went back into her room where she met Hamlet, who held her up against wall.
Hamlet went into the long room (1) and was confronted by both Gertrude and Ophelia. He launched into a conflation of his separate diatribes against them. This was a brilliant piece of reordering. Hamlet rejected Ophelia’s remembrances, and then, after being accused of offending his father, he ended up ordering Gertrude “Get thee to a nunnery”.
Ophelia left the room, allowing Hamlet to turn fully on Gertrude. Projected images of the two brothers allowed Hamlet’s father to be compared with the “mildewed ear” of his uncle.
He pointed the gun at Gertrude when accusing her of preferring a “King of shreds and patches”. At this point Polonius entered. Hamlet swung round to face him and pulled the trigger.
The rooms on wall 3 were searched through by Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern looking for clues to Hamlet’s madness. They found diaries and writings.
While this was going on, Hamlet stood in Gertrude’s closet (wall 4) and pointed the gun at a photo in a table-top frame, before sitting in Gertrude and Claudius’ bedroom.
The people in the rooms began to read out “To be or not to be” from the disparate papers they had discovered. This became a round, with one character beginning the speech after another had started. With all of them speaking at once, their words became a cacophony of sound.
Hamlet stared out at us and eventually joined in, speaking the words slowly and deliberately, as if truly discerning their meaning, unlike the garbled, uncomprehending confusion of the others.
This was one of moments where it was rewarding to concentrate ones gaze on Hamlet and merely listen to the other voices. At other times it was possible to listen to dialogue and view the speakers reflected on the opposite wall, allowing interesting effects to be created by the spectator.
Laertes returned to confront Claudius and Gertrude in their room with his gun, demanding to know how his father had died.
Over on wall 3, Hamlet appeared in a sea cabin on a ship bound for England. Further along the wall in a separate room, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sat at the stern of the ship, once again comparing notes on Hamlet’s utterances.
They repeated comically mixed up versions of “To be or not to be” constantly getting the words either wrong or out of order. This was funny and also a sideways glance at dreamthinkspeak’s own technique applied in this production. But mostly it showed how lesser mortals like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could not follow or accurately reproduce Hamlet’s train of thought.
The story of how Hamlet rewrote the execution order from Claudius was told in voiceover. We saw Hamlet take it from a bag belonging to his supposed friends and later replace it. A screen in the ceiling of the space was used to show wax dripping on to the rewritten commission to create a new seal.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appeared in a projection on the centre of wall 3. They were sitting in the same position as before, and as the camera pulled back we saw them looking out from the stern of a motor yacht, which slowly disappeared into the distance.
Back in long room, Claudius received letters from Hamlet, which he read out to Laertes. They now knew to expect his return at any moment.
In a tragic replay of her previous playful foolery in Polonius’ office, Ophelia reacted to her father’s death by going mad in the same room, crying and singing as her distraction mounted.
Over in the long room, Gertrude announced to Claudius and Laertes that Ophelia had drowned.
We saw the evidence of this in a video projection on the front of wall 1 in which Ophelia, suspended in water, floated gently upwards. The overhead screen was used to show her drifting gently across the ceiling. This overhead projection then merged seamlessly into her funeral as we looked up at soil being dropped towards us as if into her grave.
The production came to a close in the long room. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes was fought in complete silence. Foils were provided and poisoned drink was prepared, which Gertrude drank accidentally after wiping Hamlet’s sweaty face.
After the two stabbings, Hamlet forced poisoned drink down Claudius’ throat and all lay dying. Hamlet’s father entered the room and observed the scene.
At the back of the room, screens rolled up out of the way to reveal the projectors, while the orchard and ear sequence was played again on small monitors.
Billed as a meditative, dreamlike reconstruction of the play, this felt more like an innovative adaptation than an oblique comment.
Acting inside plastic boxes did not really bring out the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Danish court as might have been expected. Instead it worked to bring the action of the play closer to the audience: safe behind the plastic panels, the cast were more approachable.
At one point Hamlet banged his fist very forcefully against the plastic wall separating us from him. He struck against a barrier that divided cast from audience, but the loudness of the noise had the effect of emphasising our mutual proximity.
Hamlet, The Globe, 3 June 2012
The last Globe to Globe production was by no means the least of Shakespeare’s plays. The honour of closing the festival fell to Meno Fortas who brought us their Lithuanian Hamlet.
First performed in 1997, the original was four hours long. So this truncated two-hour version perhaps did not show the production at its best. But even the long version did not include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who were also absent here.
The stage was littered with rusting ironwork and suspended above was the large blade of a circular saw.
In the first scene, Barnardo and Marcellus saw an invisible ghost and looked up towards the saw, striking at the thin air around it.
The Danish court had Claudius (Vytautas Rumšas) and Gertrude (Dalia Zykuvienė-Storyk) sat on chairs either side of the stage, each with a servant crouched next to them like a dog. Hamlet (Andrius Mamontovas) and Laertes (Kęstutis Jakštas) stood in the middle, watching the grotesque Claudius, an odd man who laughed coarsely through gold teeth.
Laertes sat on his case, which looked like the keel of an upturned boat to lecture his sister Ophelia (Viktorija Kyodytė). She smoked a pipe and clapped vigorously with her hands when saying farewell to him.
The use of stage properties shifted to another level during Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost of his father.
The Ghost (Vidas Petkevičius) sat behind a screen and took his coat off. Hamlet was blindfolded while the Ghost placed his coat on top of the saw blade suspended above the stage. Hamlet peeped through and then removed his blindfold to catch sight of his father’s ghost for the first time.
The Ghost prompted his son to revenge his murder by clasping Hamlet’s hands into fists and kissed them in blessing.
A large block of ice was produced on which Hamlet tentatively stepped with his bare feet. But the real coup de théâtre came when the block of ice was smashed into pieces to reveal a dagger inside. As if to demonstrate his desire to use the weapon, Hamlet drew the dagger along the tip of his tongue with relish.
Hamlet’s dalliance with Ophelia saw them rolling around on the ground. She began to flap like a fish out of water, at which point Hamlet tried to revive her. But he was overkeen in his affections, causing Ophelia to tell Polonius (Povilas Budrys) what had happened.
The Players (Margarita Žiemelytė, Algirda Dainavičius & Vaidas Vilius) entered rolling on logs like they were a circus act. They chattered like birds as if they were tame caged creatures. Hamlet placed some black dust on a sheet of paper and blew the dust into their faces, symbolising the lines he wrote to amend their play into The Mousetrap. His inspiration became in this instance an exhalation.
When the dumbshow was acted out, the entire court joined in. Their faces were smeared with black dust marking their inclusion in the cast and by extension their absorption of Hamlet’s inspiring exhalation. The Player King was swapped at the last minute so that the Ghost took his place, underlining the subterfuge.
The pressure on Hamlet caused by the king’s anger against him was symbolised by Hamlet crouching sideways inside a metal box in which a pressure plate bore down on him.
This looked like a clumsy and heavy-handed way of conveying the character’s situation. Original stagings can sometimes be enlightening, but this was lacking in subtlety.
The production’s unfortunately tendency towards ponderous, unsubtle symbolism was taken up a gear at the start of the second half.
Hamlet was reminded of his father and his need to revenge his death, not by a visitation during his confrontation with Gertrude, but by the arrival of his father standing upright on a wheeled platform, from which height he attached an candelabra made of ice to the saw blade still hanging above the stage.
Vidas Petkevičius visibly shuddered as the tall trolley lurched across the boards of the Globe stage. Far from looking ghostly and meaningful, this moment seemed more like an impromptu piece of repair work.
Hamlet delivered his “To be or not to be” speech looking up at the ice chandelier, which at least meant that his words were focused on an object that had a direction connection with the revenge he was contemplating.
Claudius sat a table with a very large glass of liquid and ice as he contemplated his crimes. In his anger he smashed the ice chandelier. This gesture decoded: an object intended to focus Hamlet’s thoughts on his father was attacked by the usurper because it was somehow also perceptible to him as a reminder of his murderous rise to power.
Hamlet crept up behind Claudius with a large glass of liquid, and began to pour its contents onto his back. But after this slight trickle, he decided not to press home his attack and withdrew.
Instead he took the liquid and poured some of it onto a cloth to use like chloroform to abduct and interrogate Gertrude.
Polonius’ killing was a truly bizarre sequence in which he hid inside a trunk from which he extended a breathing tube. Hamlet then dunked the end of the tube in a glass containing poison, similar to that he had almost used against Claudius. Polonius breathed through the tube producing bubbles in the liquid. After the stream of bubbles had stopped, Hamlet turned the trunk upside down and then opened it to reveal Polonius dead.
After Hamlet was dispatched to England, Laertes returned to Denmark, and was soon recruited by Claudius to murder the swiftly returning prince. Claudius strapped foils to Laertes’ arms so that they became extensions of his limbs.
Ophelia descended into madness, again clapping her hands, and was applauded for so doing by the entire court who gathered to watch her.
Hamlet and Horatio (Simonas Dovidauskas) appeared just before Ophelia’s burial. Hamlet was shocked to discover Yorick’s skull, which was represented by a coconut. The coconut ended up in Gertrude’s lap. Hamlet addressed it in that location: a psychologically suggestive piece of staging.
The fight between Laertes and Hamlet saw the pair initially behind a small black sheet. They then climbed over the top and slid down the front as if descending into the black innards of the grave.
The final duel had Hamlet and Laertes holding foils while a flute played a tune. Both faced the audience and swished their foils back and forth in the air as if accompanying the tune. When Hamlet fell, he rapped on a drum. After Hamlet declared that the rest was silence, the Ghost appeared as Fortinbras to close Hamlet’s eyes.
This particular performance was the last of the run of the production and consequently the last performance of Globe to Globe. After taking several curtain calls, Andrius Mamontovas held his hand into a loose fist and flexed his fingers to make it resemble a beating heart, which he then kissed and threw at the audience. This was a touching image on which to end the festival.
While the production managed to tell the story of Hamlet, the use of visual imagery to convey meaning tended to spell things out with too little subtlety. The characters tended to take second place to the metalwork.
But looked at another way, this feature worked to the advantage of non-Lithuanian speakers because it made apparent what would normally only be suggested by the language, which for many in the audience was opaque.
Niels Brunse, Nancy W Knowles Lecture Theatre, The Globe, 18 April 2012
The second in the Globe’s series of talks on Shakespeare in translation took the form of a conversation between Danish translator and writer Niels Brunse and the Globe’s director of education, Patrick Spottiswoode. The talks are the educational backdrop to the Globe to Globe multi-language complete works festival.
Niels Brunse is on the way to becoming the first person to translate the complete works of Shakespeare into Danish.
He grew up in Elsinore, the famous location of Hamlet, and was first introduced to Shakespeare by a comic book version of Romeo and Juliet. Along with the rest of the population of the town, Niels became enraptured aged 14 by the 1964 BBC/DR co-production of Hamlet that was filmed on location in the castle at Elsinore. This television version, with Christopher Plummer as Hamlet and Michael Caine as Horatio, formed Niels’ primary experience of seeing Shakespeare acted.
He dropped out of university, but succeeded in forging a career as a translator and writer.
A commission from a Danish theatre company to produce a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream led to a chain of similar commissions from other companies.
After translating several of Shakespeare’s plays, he realised that not all of them would be translated as a result of theatre commissions. So to fulfil his ambition of translating the complete works, he approached the Bikuben Foundation and received financial support to translate the entire canon of plays and sonnets.
Niels outlined a brief history of the translation of Shakespeare into Danish, starting from the early translation of Hamlet by Johannes Boye in 1777, through to the first translation of the (then) complete canon by Edvard Lembcke between 1861-73.
Most of these translations were for the page not the stage, whereas Niels Brunse, starting as he did with theatrical commissions, has always had a practical approach to translation.
He normally translates an entire play and leaves cutting to directors, but for a translation of Richard III he was given the parts required for translation and produced a Danish version that was in effect pre-cut.
The Danish language lends itself to the translation of Shakespeare because it has the same pattern of stresses as English so that iambic pentameter and blank verse can be rendered.
However, Niels found that the preponderance of monosyllabic words in English created a problem, as these would often have to be translated by longer Danish words. This caused difficulties in rendering the complete sense of verse lines, as omissions were necessary to maintain form.
He tries wherever possible to respect the division between prose and verse and also to retain rhyme in his translations. The prose/verse division was especially important, he thought, because Shakespeare’s theatre was not a theatre of scenic effects and sets, but of language. The prose/verse distinctions between characters were in effect part of their costume. The rhyming couplets at the ends of scenes were important signifiers of exits.
Niels begins the task of translating a play by consulting the Arden or New Cambridge annotated versions together with secondary reading. He also owns a facsimile edition of the First Folio. A read through results in him staging the play in his mind.
Obviously, plays not translated for stage commissions can be completed with less time pressure.
Niels courted controversy with his translation of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech, which he rendered:
“At være eller ikke, sådan er det -”
Translated back into Engish this becomes roughly:
“To be, or not, that’s the way it is – ”
He said that he received angry phone calls for having translated this most famous of speeches in this particular manner, but he was prepared to defend his version. His translation uses the first sentence as an introduction to the rest of Hamlet’s ideas, so that the remainder of the speech is an amplification of what Hamlet means by “the way it is”.
It was pointed out that his translation resembles the Q1 version “Ay, there’s the point”, but he said that this similarity was not intentional.
To date, Niels has translated a third of the plays and two thirds of the sonnets, the latter proving particularly difficult with their multiple layers of language. He is encountering similar problems in his current project, a translation of Love’s Labour Lost for the Bikuben edition.
He rounded off the talk with an anecdote that demonstrated how Shakespeare can be improved by translation, or at least given a new twist.
In King Lear the disguised Kent finds himself in conversation with a Gentleman at the end of 4.3, saying to him “When I am known aright, you shall not grieve lending me this acquaintance.”
The Danish for “known” is “kendt”, which is pronounced the same way as the character’s name. This enabled Niels to translate this phrase so that the first part of it read both as a faithful version of the original English but also as a cryptic statement of the disguised man’s true identity “When I am Kent again”.
The subtlety and cleverness of this effect, made possible by the characteristics of the Danish language, is undoubtedly something Shakespeare himself would have appreciated and possibly envied.
Shakespeare found in translation indeed.
It is the East study session, The Globe, 11 February 2012
The first of them looked at Shakespeare and the Middle East. It included a talk by director Sulayman al-Bassam and a practical workshop with Khayaal Theatre Company.
An introduction on the history of Shakespeare performance in the region highlighted that Shakespeare had arrived in the Middle East relatively late, with performances only dating back to the late nineteenth century. Besides the usual Hamlets and Romeo & Juliets, it appears that Othello was a popular text.
But despite coming late to this part of the world, Shakespeare’s plays have proved to be an extremely useful resource.
Translation of foreign works, particularly Shakespeare, was traditionally used as way of getting round censorship.
And as Sulayman al-Bassam outlined in his contribution, Shakespeare performance in the Middle East still serves agendas other than the purely artistic.
The Arab trilogy
His Sabab theatre company has produced a trilogy of Arab Shakespeare plays: The Al-Hamlet Summit, which sees the action taking place within a ruling family in crisis; Richard III, An Arab Tragedy, which transfers the action to the Middle East, and The Speaker’s Progress, which uses a production of Twelfth Night in a fictional dictatorship to investigate the relationship between creativity and oppression.
This obviously involved a considerable amount of rewriting and adaptation to the extent that the plays constitute new texts and are published as such.
Some adjustments to an Islamic context were also made. For instance, the murder of Clarence in Richard III involved him being drowned in ablution water rather than wine.
Sulayman had some fascinating stories to tell about the company’s experiences of working in the region. But he also regretted that the majority of the performances took place outside the Arab world.
It was strange to hear someone talking about recent dealings with government censors. One red-pen-wielding bureaucrat questioned why in a particular scene Hamlet was not centre stage – an anecdote that suggests that some censors are in fact frustrated theatre directors.
Audience reactions can also be extreme. Sabab’s Richard III was performed in the Emirates to an audience consisting of 200 princesses. Their visceral responses to the drama (clapping at odd moments, leaving the auditorium to discuss the action and then returning) were prompted by onstage events that reflected their own recent family histories.
Actors are familiar with stage fright. But when in 2008 the Sabab company heard at the last moment that their performance in Damascus was going to be attended by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife, first night nerves transformed into genuine terror at displeasing the country’s autocrat.
There was relief when Bashar al-Assad responded to some of the political comment in the play by leading the applause. However, a forgotten detail in the production proved problematic.
Towards the end of Richard III a list of battle dead is read out. This adaptation replaced this with a list of recent assassination victims, which unfortunately included the name of a Lebanese journalist widely thought to have been killed by the Syrian secret service.
Bashar al-Assad’s face turned to thunder when the name was read out. He rose from his seat and left – a sequence of events familiar to anyone who has seen another of Shakespeare’s plays.
What was ostensibly a production of Richard III had turned weirdly into a real-life enactment of a key scene from Hamlet, with the Syrian president in the role of Claudius being “frighted with false fire”.
All this raises some interesting points.
Subversive political Shakespeare is an upside of bardolatory
Sulayman described Shakespeare as a ‘Trojan horse’ and a ‘mask’. The process of bardolatory transformed Shakespeare in the UK from writer to state-sanctioned demi-god. This in turn made Shakespeare into a high-status global brand, just like the Mont Blanc pens and Maybach cars with which autocratic elites like to surround themselves.
Royal endorsement in the UK is taken to indicate the brand’s innate conservatism, so that Shakespeare is avidly consumed by the world’s 1% as sign of their cultivation. For instance, the RSC theatre season is listed by Debretts as part of the ‘social season’ of high society.
But little do these elites realise that Shakespeare can, in the right hands and with a little tweaking, be rendered incredibly subversive, as Bashar al-Assad discovered to his dismay.
While bardolatory is rightly criticised for warping our perception of Shakespeare, the unassailable brand status it has afforded to the plays provides useful cover for theatre-makers with something subversive to say.
Can adaptations like this be described as appropriations?
The responses to Sulayman’s work have been intense and the envy of western theatre-makers who struggle to engage with their secure and comfortable audiences.
Shakespeare lived in an autocratic police state and had to deal with government censors.
Therefore, the cultural distance the works have to travel from 16th/17th century England to modern Britain is in some ways greater than the distance they travel to the contemporary Middle East.
Looked at another way, western productions and adaptations that try to shoehorn political meaning into the plays, for example the recent NT Hamlet that had surveillance cameras looking down onto the stage, are appropriating the plays from their original setting every bit as much as Middle Eastern productions. The latter perhaps represent continuity of setting rather than radical translocation.
The term ‘appropriation’ implies that Shakespeare is the property of our culture and that he is merely loaned out to other cultures. We should either credit all productions as being equally valid or describe all contemporary Shakespeare as appropriations of one sort or another.
The Globe to Globe festival reminds us that the violent world Shakespeare portrayed is immediately recognisable by many people as their own modern world. UK audiences today look on the history plays as quaint historical works about a long-forgotten past, with the occasional faint echo of relevance to events in far-flung places. Now Shakespeare is coming back at us from those far-flung places.
The afternoon was taken up with a series of practical exercises in which we playfully explored the many ways in which Shakespeare neatly dovetails into Arabic culture.
Very much a storytelling culture, the Arab world also values rhythm and metre in language, which made Shakespeare prized.
However, given that Shakespeare drew on existing stories for his plays, it is difficult to say whether Arabic responses have been to Shakespeare’s individuality as a dramatist or to the sources on which he drew.
Arabic storytelling has stock characters such as Fools and djinns that parallel such characters as Feste and Puck, as well as the standard characters of romantic stories such as Romeo & Juliet.
The practical exercises and games introduced us to these themes and culminated in the group recreating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with one side using Shakespeare quotes to protest and another to assert state authority. This assumed a detailed and accessible knowledge of Shakespeare, which was a bit thin on the ground, but was fun nonetheless.
By the end of the day, we understood why many in the Arab world, like the Germans and Klingons, regard Shaikh al-Zubair as one of their own.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 16 July 2011
The temptation was too much. Waiting in the foyer, I took a pound coin and flipped it into the air, caught it and slapped it down onto the back of my hand.
It came up heads. But I did not dare test the Stoppard Effect any further, remaining convinced on the scantest of evidence that the absurd world of this play could affect the wider area of the theatre where it was being staged.
The play is contrived so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are part of the play Hamlet yet also stand outside it. This duality in their nature was expressed in this production through their costumes, which consisted of doublet-style jacket tops combined with modern jeans.
The world of this play is an artificial one, but then so is that of any play.
This artificiality was established right at the start through the repeated coin tossing, with each flip turning up heads. This seeded the idea that events were proceeding along predestined tramlines. A Godot-style tree loomed over the two characters helping to establish the bleak territory into which the story would eventually move.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s “offstage” moments were interwoven with the world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to create their own particular story.
It was like opening a copy of the play and seeing the pair spring out from the paper and tap dance on the pages.
But in fact, the play does not really show us characters from Hamlet stepping out from their play into a jocular fourth dimension created by Stoppard. The pair are more like fans of Shakespeare transported into the world of the play. They can be understood as a realisation of the fantasy in which admiration of plays like Hamlet extends into wanting to be a part of them.
The characters exhibit knowledge of the text and its cultural significance, for example by mentioning “That is the question” in their own lines. The modernity of their speech is also reflected in their contemporary references. These are not people from either Shakespeare’s era or the age of the Hamlet story.
They represent us being projected into the play Hamlet, rather than characters within the play being extracted from it, something which the jeans element in their costume also hinted at.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s relationship with the play Hamlet looked very similar to the way comedians Morecambe and Wise acted in the plays wot Ernie wrote, spending much time bantering about the absurdity of the exercise.
A very disorienting effect was created by the layers of theatricality at the heart of the piece. A debate between Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the Player about the lack of realism in stage murders was followed by the Player being stabbed. This created the expectation that the murder was real, but the dagger was then shown to be a prop.
The combination of these different degrees of representation somehow made the stabbing of the Player more real than a straightforward stage killing, to the point that it almost felt like a real-life attack.
But the main effect of the play was to generate comedy. Nothing more so than seeing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern thinking of themselves as important figures and wondering why events had turned out so bad for them.
The play also provided the sheer subversive joy of having the pair talking over the top of the big soliloquy, effectively rendering it meaningless chatter not worthy of taking seriously.
Hamlet stood facing upstage and as he said the famous opening words, the pair could only comment that he was talking to himself. Guildenstern approached Hamlet from behind, who, lost in his musings, suddenly thrust his dagger over his back, forcing Guildenstern into retreat.
And so the two of them meandered on, finding their fates predicted for them in the full version of the Murder of Gonzago, shipped to England, discovering the letter amended by Hamlet ordering their execution and then disappearing offstage before the English ambassador brought the Danish court the news of their deaths.
Some in the audience found the whole experience disappointing. Those who came expecting uncomplicated farce ended up contesting the reality of the play’s subversive bleakness by laughing at anything they considered a sufficient trigger for mirth. This resulted in loud guffaws being produced in reaction to lines that were not particularly humorous. With this play, the more people laughed, the less likely it was that they understood what was happening.
At the interval a party of six in the seats directly in front of me left and did not return. This was their reaction to the play and was oddly also a neat demonstration of the freedom to exit the world of the play that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on their inescapable path towards destruction, lacked and wished they possessed.
Hamlet, Rose Kingston, 24 May 2011
Northern Broadsides brings something distinct to the table. Its productions are not necessarily game-changers, but they always leave you feeling that you’ve seen something different.
The set for this production of Hamlet consisted of two wedge shaped blocks: one sloping down towards the audience, the second slanting across from stage left. The second block had a piano built in at the thick end and a shallow pool of water at the thin end where it met the other block in the middle of the stage.
The performance began with bagpipes playing on the upper gallery. The guards entered the dark battlements holding torches, one of them coming through the audience. They used their torches to illuminate their own and other’s faces. The Ghost appeared on the upper gallery wearing a white smock and a fencing mask. This looked quite odd, given that the Ghost of old Hamlet is supposed to appear exactly as he did when making war. This Ghost looked more like a children’s dressing-up box version of a warrior.
The Ghost’s second appearance was equally unimpressive. Two marionette figures appeared in quick succession at opposite ends of the stage, causing Barnardo and Horatio to direct their “’Tis here” shouts to different locations. This really did not work and during the post-show discussion, director Conrad Nelson mentioned that the initial puppetry concept for the Ghost had been scaled down. Given the end result it would have been better to have scrapped it completely.
The second scene of act one was superb. The cast formed a 40s band with Ophelia in front of a mic in a white dress singing a song composed of her own St. Valentine’s Day tune from later in the play and the “Doubt that the stars are fire” letter.
Claudius played the piano hidden in the thick edge of the wedge stage left. Laertes stood with a rose, while Gertrude sashayed down the centre walkway dancing to the music. This was the wedding celebration.
The King rose from the piano and delivered his opening speech down stage. He was very affable and likeable with open body language and a disarmingly frank demeanour. So relaxed was he in his new position that he momentarily reclined on the walkway when talking. He did not look like a murderer burdened by conscience.
So much for her
Claudius threw away one of Fortinbras’ letters, with which he had been pestered, with the remark “So much for her” confirming what had been inferred by previous references to the young Norwegian: the troublesome youth was female.
The production also featured an ambassador called Cornelia, which was a slightly more standard gender role swap: this also occurred in the recent NT production.
Laertes was physically quite small, which would later diminish the potency of his threatening behaviour. Polonius was a standard old man with a beard.
Hamlet sat on the stage left end of the walkway wedge facing away from the celebrations. Still dressed for the funeral in a grey shirt and black trousers, looking a little like Ian Curtis, he took a piece of chalk and wrote with it on the walkway (a quick inspection at the interval revealed that he had written “strumpet”, perhaps a comment on his mother).
His exchanges with his uncle and mother were characterised by barely concealed anger. He looked quite wound up and dangerous. Conceding to his mother’s entreaties, he bit his lip in suppressed rage.
The rage came flooding out during his “solid flesh” soliloquy. Collapsing on his knees, Hamlet sobbed and his voice broke up at “O God, God”. His mood lightened when he saw his friend Horatio and the others, but something of his torment returned when Horatio specified that he had seen “the King your father”. Hamlet grabbed Horatio quite forcefully and shook him when requesting confirmation of this unbelievable news. He looked grimly determined when deciding to confront the Ghost himself.
Laertes said goodbye to his sister Ophelia, who had now changed out of her white party dress into a dowdier green outfit. Laertes gestured at the bottom of her skirt when requesting her not to open her “chaste treasure”.
Polonius started his precepts lecture to his son from memory, but soon resorted to reading his bons mots from a small notebook he had with him. Laertes and Ophelia mocked him behind his back. Polonius’ only notable gesture was to make a lunge with an invisible sword when telling Laertes that any opponent should “beware of thee”.
The rest of the scene 1.3 with Polonius extracting the truth about Hamlet’s attentions from Ophelia was fairly standard stuff.
The stage went dark for the return to the battlements. A band played offstage to create the sound of the King’s party. The Ghost entered on the gallery again and beckoned Hamlet away. Hamlet went up the central walkway, but did not need a weapon to fend off the others who were trying to stop him.
Hamlet met the Ghost who was standing on the central walkway with his smock and fencing mask. These were then removed by someone behind him to reveal Hamlet’s father in full dress uniform and sword. The old King’s bearing was regal, authoritative and military. As he explained his situation, his son Hamlet stood and listened with tears in his eyes.
The Ghost drew his sword and formally presented it to Hamlet, who accepted it in wonderment. As they parted, the Ghost raised his arm as he said “Adieu, adieu, adieu…” to Hamlet. Their finger tips almost met.
Hamlet collapsed to the ground crying “Hold, hold, my heart” and as he vowed to “set it down” he again chalked on the walkway which became his “tables”. He became very energised for his “wild and whirling words”. Hamlet got his companions to swear on his father’s sword, but this was not seen again. His request that his friends should not divulge what they had seen was fairly amusing.
Act two began with Polonius talking to Osric who took over the lines normally spoken by Montano. Osric was camp and sat cross-legged in a suit with a yellow waistcoat. Ophelia’s entry and description of Hamlet’s madness was unremarkable except for the fact that she hugged her father when saying that she was “so affrighted”.
The scene in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are recruited (2.2) began with the King greeting the pair individually by name, but as we later discovered he mistook one for the other. This was understandable as they were played by near-identical brothers and appeared rather like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee with their tweed suits and coordinated body language. At the end of their conversation, the King spoke to them again, but this time the Queen contradicted him by addressing each by the correct name.
The return of the ambassadors from Norway saw more references to a female Fortinbras. Polonius’s explanation of the Hamlet/Ophelia situation to the King and Queen was routine.
Hamlet, however, was anything but unremarkable. His antic disposition saw him enter wearing a yellow sou’wester and carrying a fishing rod. He sat on the walkway and pretended to fish. When not fishing he took up a hardback edition of 1984 and read.
His response to Polonius’ question about his reading matter was “Words, words, wur oh ur ds zer”. As he said “except my life” he drew a large knife from a fishing bag and stared at it in mock terror.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern even confused Hamlet. As he was talking to them he chalked R and G on separate miniature blackboards and gave them one each. Predictably, he got them the wrong way round, obliging the twins to swap boards.
The “what a piece of work” speech was a standard run through, but surprisingly this production kept the references to the child acting companies that so many contemporary productions of Hamlet cut without question. With Polonius back, Hamlet performed his “Jephthah” speech on his knees.
The players entered singing a 1940s ditty. The 1st Player was doubled with the Ghost. After the speeches, Hamlet’s “Am I a coward” soliloquy was mostly directed at those in the pit cushions area. In the post-show discussion it was noted that from the stage those crouched just in front of the stage are clearly visible to the actors, while the rest of the auditorium is a dark blur.
Ophelia was made ready with a tied parcel of books as bait for Hamlet at the start of act three. She stood to one side just offstage. The King and Polonius went fully offstage to listen and observe. Hamlet entered down the centre walkway and began chalking on it.
His first chalk marks read “To be ? Not to be”. After he had written this out, he spoke the words and then continued with the soliloquy, making more chalk marks as he went. He drew a downwards arrow and wrote “die” beneath. Another downwards arrow was followed by “sleep”. Concluding that the sleep of death was a consummation devoutly to be wished, he chalked a large tick next to “sleep”. A final arrow connected “sleep” to “death” at which point this diagrammatic representation of his philosophy was complete and he continued without adding to it.
In the post-show talk, Conrad Nelson assured that he had arrived at this idea before seeing the recent National Theatre production in which Rory Kinnear had also made use of chalk in a slightly different way.
Hamlet was very rough with Ophelia when confronting her. He was consistently thus when dealing with close associates in an agitated state. She was so shaken that she remained on stage crying for some time after her father and the King had left.
The prince was in a very different, happy mood soon afterwards giving his advice to the players at the start of 3.2.
The royal party entered to see the play. Ophelia sat on a suitcase stage right while the King and Queen sat on chairs of state at the top of the centre walkway. Hamlet asked Polonius what role he acted, but did not make the follow-up quip provided in the text. The effect was just to leave him hanging in mid-air as if Polonius’ anecdote was boring.
Hamlet accompanied his “metal more attractive” remark with a lewd gesture directed at Ophelia and was similarly very jokey with her when referring to “country matters”.
The dumb show saw a wheelbarrow brought onto to the side walkway by the Player Queen. The Player King then poured buckets of fake water (silver sprinkles) onto the barrow causing rows of small wooden flowers and finally one large flower to pop up. The Player Queen took this flower, but it immediately wilted when the Player King fell asleep. Possibly a sexual metaphor was being hinted at here.
The real King was brought up onto the walkway to enact the role of the dumb show poisoner, Lucianus. He thought that he was going to be pouring water on the sleeping Player King, but instead his water bucket was swapped for one marked “weedkiller”. As he died, the Player King literally kicked the bucket, tipping it over with a swift tap of his foot. This was incredibly funny to watch because the gregarious and up-for-it King was very happy to join in with the dumb show, blissfully unaware that he was being subtly mocked.
The play proper began with the Prologue making a noise with a train whistle ushering in a Brief Encounter style piece with the Player King and Queen carrying luggage and shaking rain off their umbrellas.
Musical accompaniment was provided by, among others, Polonius on cello and Hamlet on double bass. Hamlet took the double bass bow and stuck it between his legs in a rude gesture to Ophelia when telling her about the groaning needed to take of his “edge”.
Lucianus poured poison in the sleeping Player King’s ear causing the real King to storm out. Hamlet was triumphant.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tried to talk to Hamlet in the aftermath of the play, but the prince picked up his fishing rod again and ignored them. This prompted Guildenstern to tell him to “start not so wildly from my affair”. Suitably chastened, Hamlet put down the rod saying “I am tame, sir, pronounce”.
Hamlet accompanied his “pickers and stealers” remark by waggling his fingers, almost groping after Rosencrantz. Instead of a recorder, Hamlet used the train whistle to explain how he would not be played upon.
Scene 3.3 saw quite a good-humoured King sit by the edge of the stage and deliver his “O, my offence is rank” speech. This was less of a contrite and anguished prayer and more of a matter-of-fact consideration of the options open to him. Hamlet described killing the King there and then as “base and silly” as he came up behind him.
In the closet scene, Polonius hid behind a thin piece of cloth at the base of one of the upright installations at the back of the set. Hamlet entered down the centre walkway and confronted his mother. He was very rough with her, making her so afraid that she cried out, prompting Polonius to react and reveal his hiding place. Hamlet killed the rat.
Gertrude looked really traumatised. But her ordeal was far from over. Hamlet produced a picture from his pocket. He snatched a miniature of Claudius from around his mother’s neck. Pieces of link from the chain bobbled around on the ground.
Just as his rough treatment of Gertrude was reaching its peak, the Ghost of his father appeared down the centre walkway, again in full dress uniform. His commanding presence produced instant obedience from his son. The scene ended with Hamlet pulling Polonius out on the sheet he had been hiding behind.
Gertrude was still very distraught when telling her husband what had happened. This traumatic state was slightly overplayed as it prompted some of the less reverent members of the audience to titter at her excessive discomfort.
Having been located by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet was excessively confident in his dealings with Claudius, telling him the tale of the worm and the fish. The King was unbowed and was equally confident in pronouncing “the present death of Hamlet”.
The female Fortinbras appeared in the upper gallery and gave her orders to the Captain. Hamlet entered with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. His conversation with the Captain omitted the lines referring to Fortinbras so that the text was not too distorted by a reference to her as Old Norway’s “niece”.
Ophelia was back in her white party dress again for 4.5. She sang her songs and when the King entered, she forced him to accompany her on the piano as she sang “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day”. She exited scattering piles of paper around her.
Laertes burst in, but with no followers and with no weapon. A slight figure, this Laertes did not look like much of a threat to the King, making the latter’s reactions seem overblown.
The return of Ophelia saw her strike out feebly at the King half-sobbing “Guilty, guilty”. She handed out rosemary to Laertes, curtly thrust fennel and columbines at the King, then gave some rue to the Queen.
The set’s water feature came into its own as Ophelia sang “And will ‘a not come again”. She crouched down into the water, soaking the bottom of the dress. She stood up, dripping wet and exited. This prefigured her offstage drowning.
Horatio appeared in the upper gallery to read the letter, which he realised could only be from Hamlet. In the next scene (4.7) the King also received a letter from Hamlet. He hatched the plan to kill Hamlet with Laertes, who produced the bottle of unction. The Queen entered down the centre walkway looking even more distraught than before to bring the news of Ophelia’s drowning.
A section of the centre walkway was opened up to form a grave at the start of act five. The gravediggers were portrayed as two music hall comedians. This comic interlude was a very entertaining breather amid all the drama.
The Gravedigger threw skulls over his shoulder as he excavated them. Fortunately, Hamlet was able to catch them and then comment on them. His exchanges with the Gravedigger saw the comedian give a well-timed, confident performance. The audience responded warmly with laughter, particularly at the joke at the expense of the English.
An inch thick
Hamlet held Yorick’s skull level with his own head and brought it close to his face when telling it “Now get you to my lady’s table”.
The funeral procession came down the central walkway and Ophelia was placed into the trap door grave. The Priest gave a silent blessing, prompting Laertes’ question “What ceremony else?” During this time Hamlet and Horatio stood offstage left.
Laertes, overcome with grief, jumped into the trapdoor grave and hugged the shrouded body close to him. Hamlet came out of hiding and grappled with Laertes outside the grave. His ranting ended with him jumping into the grave to comfort the dead Ophelia himself.
After explaining his escape to Horatio, Hamlet toyed with Osric, continuing the game of hot and cold beyond the limits of the text by way of gesture. Osric eventually got fed up with this and threw his hat, which he had been donning and doffing, to the ground.
Osric’s campness was again signalled by his excitement in describing the fencing prowess of Laertes. When he had finished explaining the bout to Hamlet, the prince took Osric’s hat from the ground and stuck it firmly but awkwardly back on his head. He made a thrusting motion to demonstrate to Horatio that he had been in continual practice.
The fencing match itself saw the stage furnished with a pedestal to hold the poisoned wine cup. The foils were presented to each fencer in a cloth wrap. The fighting was very energetic with the pair ending up lying on their backs on the side walkway exhausted as Osric pronounced “Nothing neither way”.
As Hamlet stood up to continue, Laertes cut him on the back of the leg, shouting “Have at you now!” The fight continued with Hamlet taking Laertes’ sword and cutting him with it. The Queen fell to the ground, having drunk the poisoned wine, which the King tried to cover up by saying she had swooned.
Laertes told Hamlet that the King was to blame, prompting the prince to cut the King on the back of the neck. As his uncle fell to the ground, Hamlet made him drink the poisoned wine too.
Hamlet’s death was followed by the sound of military music and the arrival of the female Fortinbras.
This Hamlet was lively, fast-paced and entertaining with some good ideas but also a few dud ones.
Nicholas Shaw’s Hamlet provided a central energy to the production and the direction from Conrad Nelson ensured that the story was told efficiently while also providing enough novelty to keep seasoned Hamleteers engaged.
The production exuded the kind of unpretentious honesty that characterises much of Northern Broadsides’ work. And with a pit cushion ticket costing just £8, the whole evening was excellent value for money.
Hamlet: The Clown Prince, Hackney Empire, 26 March 2011
It was almost inevitable that a seemingly silly idea, Hamlet performed by a company of clowns, would turn out to be more intricate and complex than the average adaptation of the play.
The Company Theatre Mumbai’s production of Hamlet: The Clown Prince, directed by Rajat Kapoor, lasted just under two hours and excised many of the subplots.
The complexity derived partly from the way that the production created different levels of character, with the audience introduced initially to some clowns who then assumed characters within Hamlet.
At many points they seemed to break out of the play and revert to their clown characters, which amused and relaxed the audience as they thought they were watching something diverting and light-hearted.
But this ‘break’ from the world of the play was illusory: while apparently out of character the clowns continued to behave within the temperament of their Hamlet personas.
The production also established different registers of language, and then shifted effortlessly between them to surprise us with poetry when we were not expecting it.
This was throughout an exercise in creating a comfort zone for the audience and then spiking it right through with something daring and thought-provoking.
Something of the seriousness of the enterprise was signalled right at the start. To a background of sombre music, a solitary figure with hat and suitcase stood in a spotlight on a raised platform at the centre of the stage, while clowns rushed past adorning him with clothing and props.
The figure addressed us in a form of gibberish and seemed to relate the story of human civilisation from its earliest beginnings to the present day with a topical allusion to Libya.
The ‘gibberish’ that was a signature feature of the production was, of course, entirely understandable. Far from being meaningless, it was composed of a mixture of French, Italian and approximations of English words, peppered with standardised nonsense words such as ‘prochita’. This created a stream of intelligible language backed by helpful mime.
The purpose of this prologue seemed to be to acclimatise us to the lexical mix that was going to be used in the rest of the performance: a kind of fast-track induction into the language of the production. When it was finished the figure bowed respectfully to us and said “All this and much more can I truly deliver”.
After this prologue, the company of clowns entered and introduced themselves as their clown characters: Fido (Neil Bhoopalam), who played Claudius and the Ghost; Nemo (Namit Das), played Horatio and Polonius; Popo (Sujay Saple), who was the MC and Laertes; Buzo (Puja Sarup), as Gertrude and Fifi (Rachel D’Souza) who was Ophelia.
They pondered what show to put on and decided on drama, then specifically Hamlet by Shakespeare. Some of the clowns were dismissive, but Popo, the company manager, talked them into it.
The clowns launched into the first scene on the Elsinore battlements. We were told that Horatio was an educated man who was one of the original ghost busters. As one of the clowns asked “Who you gonna call?”
The clowns then broke out of their Hamlet characters back into their ‘real’ clown personas as bickering and disagreements within the group came to the fore.
Fido decided that instead of Shakespeare he wanted to do something involving dirty dancing and threw himself into the appropriate dance moves for that genre before being goaded back into the play. This was a consistent part of his clown character, which seemed to reflect Claudius’ role as usurper.
The story of the play was conveyed by a mixture of paraphrase, the original text and gibberish. After the visitation by the Ghost, Horatio said in plain terms that he would tell Hamlet about what had happened as it would surely interest him.
For the next scene we were introduced to the King and Queen. Buzo waved and said hello. She spoke with a French accent, used a lot of French and had a red love heart painted on each cheek to emphasise her coquettishness. The King referred to her as the ‘jointress, looking like a fortress’ playfully reworking the text to create a new joke.
Hamlet arrived. Or did he? Soso (Atul Kumar), the clown in the prologue, entered and apologised for his lateness, explaining in his clown persona that he had been delayed at Heathrow. He joked about England and London in particular, saying how disappointed he had been to find himself in the centre of the capital with its many fine theatres only to find that he had to travel further east to Hackney to find the venue they were playing.
He was none too happy to hear that he was supposed to be Hamlet and immediately began giving away the ending of the play. He told the audience that by the end of the play Hamlet died, the King died, the Queen died etc. as the other clowns rushed to cover his mouth and stop his flow of spoilers.
Forced to backtrack by the others, Soso began furiously asserting with deep irony that all those characters definitely did not die at the end of the play, which of course was further confirmation that he had originally been telling the truth.
We thought that we had been watching some light-hearted comedy with the clowns breaking out of their Hamlet characters to be ‘themselves’. Yet what did we see? We saw the clown Soso who was about to act the part of Hamlet get into trouble with the other clowns because of his rigorous devotion to the truth, descending into mordant sarcasm when forced to adopt the convenient lie imposed by those around him.
That, in a nutshell, is Hamlet. The core of his character had been imprinted on us while we thought we were taking a break and stepping outside the play, whereas the play had merely continued on another level. This was clever stuff indeed and a technique that recurred in the production.
Buzo/Gertrude commented that Soso would be the ideal clown to play Hamlet because he talked all the time but never did anything, which made the point in a more explicit way.
Back in their Hamlet characters, the King reminded Hamlet that his father had lost a father and so on before singing “It’s the circle of life!” in full Lion King mode, reminding the audience that it was basically the same story.
Rather like Patrick Stewart’s Claudius, this one had to be reminded by Gertrude of the name of Hamlet’s university at Wittenberg. Gertrude resorted to emotional blackmail to get Hamlet to stay at Elsinore rather than return, with loud sobbing and wailing.
The production suddenly shifted tone and we were right in the middle of the “too too solid flesh” soliloquy delivered as per the text with all the feeling of a “proper” performance.
Having teased us with paraphrase and gibberish, the production now delivered the raw, unadulterated Shakespeare. It sounded beautiful. The impact would have been felt even more keenly by anyone unfamiliar with Shakespeare or this particular play.
The arrival of Horatio prompted a paraphrased conversation with Hamlet about the way the funeral had given way swiftly to the marriage, and Horatio told Hamlet about the Ghost.
After a brief introduction to the character of Ophelia, who we learnt had been forbid access to Hamlet, we were back on the battlement with Hamlet and Horatio waiting for the Ghost.
As with almost all the scenes of the play, the rest of the clown company were present on stage and joined in to provide comment and encouragement.
There were more jokes about how the plot of The Lion King resembled that of Hamlet. But the appearance of the Ghost and attempts by the others to stop him following prompted an impassioned and textually accurate rendering of Hamlet’s “I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me”.
Hamlet gave chase with both he and the Ghost running on the spot at opposite sides of the stage as in a cheesy film effect. This was interrupted by a long rambling story of how Hamlet pursued the Ghost over mountains, cliffs and stretches of water.
The Ghost was mute and had to explain himself in mime. This led to some hilarious misunderstandings as Hamlet guessed wrongly at the meaning of the charades. Frustrated by his enforced silence, the Ghost spoke through gritted teeth while miming the “serpent” that had stung him.
Once told the truth, Hamlet said he would think of nothing else and Ghost put his finger to his head as if to say “Remember me”.
Ophelia told Polonius how Hamlet had come to her in a mad fit and had walked away from her without looking where he was going. This gave Fido to another chance to demonstrate his dance skills by moonwalking backwards across the stage.
Instead of just one love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia, several large sheets of paper were produced that purported to be love letters among the cast. Buzo relished reading out one letter’s reference to another clown’s “small pee-pee”.
Polonius was long-winded and appeared to break out of character to digress at great length prompting Soso to wrap a large amount of masking tape around his mouth, obliging him to mumble for the rest of the sequence.
This led into a discussion of Hamlet’s character, broaching such matters as whether he loved his mother too much (the Freudian interpretation) or whether with all his feminine dithering and weakness he was in fact a woman, at which point the Asta Nielsen fan in me sat up and starting paying attention.
The players were represented by the clown company itself and the players’ speech was performed as a song. The mention of the Murder of Gonzago caused Fido to lumber round doing a Godzilla impression and talk in mock Japanese.
This mood of levity was swiftly undercut as Hamlet began an excellent rendition of his “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy. This was done as paraphrase but kept the references to him being pigeon-livered and lacking gall.
The sequence of events at the start of act three was reversed so that we first saw Hamlet’s anger at Ophelia, ordering her to get to a nunnery. He looked out at the audience and asked us why we bothered to “breed this”, pointing at us in disgust.
Ophelia dithered about leaving, causing Hamlet to remark that she could not make up her mind. He took this as an opportunity to paraphrase the “to be or not to be” speech, but make it about her ambivalence.
The Mousetrap was performed as a mime with Fido representing both Claudius and the murderer. The text was respected in places with the inclusion of phrases like “metal more attractive”, “country matters” and “frighted with false fire”. This was part of a gradual introduction of authentic Shakespearean language within a more accessible context of paraphrase.
Hamlet was informed that his mother wanted to speak with him whereupon he stood in a spotlight and swore to speak daggers but use none. Having given us a dose of authentic poetry, he broke off from it to swear at her for being a “bitch”.
Up on the central platform, Gertrude became progressively drunker as she sat taking swigs from a hip flask. Polonius secreted himself behind some thin side curtains brought on for the sequence and acted as an unwelcome prompt for Hamlet, constantly feeding him lines he already knew.
This was hilarious to watch and looked like another instance in which the clowns had broken out of character to give us laughs beyond the world of the play. But as Hamlet took his wooden sword and drove it under Polonius’ arm “killing” him we soon realised that we were firmly back within the story and that the comic pause had again been the play pursued by alternative means.
Meanwhile Gertrude was showing herself to be a flirt. She waved and toyed with a man on the front row of the audience, throwing him her garter. This in turn prompted a discussion among the clowns about the nature of love during which Gertrude berated men for their unwillingness to commit. They did not have a problem “making pom-pom” when it suited them but afterwards they suddenly needed their space.
The reappearance of the Ghost saw him blowing ‘ghost powder’ from the palm of his hand to create a spooky atmosphere. But Fido eventually ran out of powder and had to go off to fetch more. Returning with a large, fresh batch, he accidentally blew it all from his hand in one go.
Hamlet carried Polonius from the stage on his back. When questioned about the location of the body he sat down to relate a witty paraphrase of the worm-beggar-king paradox.
The action moved straight to Ophelia’s madness. She entered and immediately enquired “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” The line was striking in its effect coming after some extended clowning.
The other characters reacted to Ophelia’s condition. The King was deeply moved and launched into a version of his “my offence is rank” speech, pondering his guilt. Hamlet looked at Ophelia and said “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered”. The Queen, still on the platform, paraphrased Hamlet’s Yorick’s skull speech, noting that all human life was mortal.
Laertes, who had not appeared earlier in this edited performance, appeared in a spotlight to tell the King that he would be prepared to cut Hamlet’s throat in the church. The pair discussed their plot in paraphrase with the King saying he would need a back-up plan in case the poisoned sword failed.
Proceeding directly into the final duel scene, Hamlet danced with his mother before getting down to the fight with Laertes. In a medley of deaths, the queen was poisoned, the king stabbed by accident and Laertes killed when he and Hamlet dropped and then swapped lath swords.
Repeating the phrase that ended the prologue Hamlet stood in spotlight and said “This and much more can I truly deliver. The rest is silence”.
A production consisting of different levels could also be appreciated on different levels. Shakespeareans could relish the reworking of the play and relate it to standard performances. Children brought by their parents to see a clown show could also laugh at the comedy. And anyone unsure as to whether they could understand Shakespeare’s language would have found themselves warmed by the approachable nature of the production into appreciating some of its finest offerings.
This kind of innovative production is a perfect candidate for inclusion in the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival. It is to be hoped that we in the UK will get another chance to see it then.
Hamlet (1921), NFT1, 27 January 2011
Asta Nielsen’s silent film version of Hamlet was based on a theory expounded by an American railway engineer called Edward P. Vining in a book published in 1881 entitled The Mystery of Hamlet.
The railway engineer turned Shakespeare-Truther had decided on the basis of the available evidence that Hamlet was in fact a woman, or at least that the author had come to think of him in those terms when writing the play. After all, Hamlet doesn’t like fighting much, he’s bitchy to (other) women and only has kind words for Horatio. It all made perfect sense, thought Vining:
The question may be asked, whether Shakespeare, having been compelled by the course and exigencies of the drama to gradually modify his original hero into a man with more and more of the feminine element, may not at last have had the thought dawn upon him that this womanly man might be in very deed a woman, desperately striving to fill a place for which she was by nature unfitted, and, in her failure to do that which it was impossible for her to do, earning an admiration and a pity which no mere weakling, dawdling about his proper task and meanly failing to achieve it, could inspire.
It is not claimed that any such thought was in our immortal poet’s mind when first he conceived and put the drama into shape: the evidence is strongly to the contrary. It is not even claimed that Shakespeare ever fully intended to represent Hamlet as indeed a woman. It is claimed that in the gradual evolution of the feminine element in Hamlet’s character the time arrived when it occurred to the dramatist that so might a woman act and feel, if educated from infancy to play a prince’s part, and that thereafter the changes in the character and in the play were all in the direction of a development of this idea. Very possibly the poet half juggled with himself in the matter.
Edward P. Vining. 1881. The Mystery of Hamlet, p.59. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
So far, so barmy.
Asta seized on this idea to create a re-imagined version of the story with herself in the lead role. She set up her own production company, Art Film, and enlisted Erwin Gepard to write the script as well as Svend Gade and Heinz Schall as directors.
The BFI screening of a recently restored colourised print of the film took place on the 90th anniversary of the original’s premiere in Berlin in 1921. A piano accompaniment by Neil Brand replaced the advertised musical arrangement by Claire Van Kampen.
Despite the flakiness of the original premise, the resulting product is a fascinating reinvention of the play that delivers a powerful dramatic payload. The novel twist to the story effectively counterbalances the loss of character depth that results from a silent film having no dialogue and, more importantly, no soliloquy.
The film’s German intertitles make no reference to Shakespeare’s text. Hamlet’s only ventures into verbal lyricism come in scenes with Gertrude, when she expresses her loathing at having to live disguised as a man. But this relates to the reworked plot of the story, not the original character of Hamlet.
Whereas the play feeds us with verbal clues to Hamlet’s character, his intelligence and wit both in dialogue and concept-laden soliloquy, a silent film can only lay out the basic story and show us gesture, posture and facial expression. None of these can really convey the same information as “To be or not to be” or “What a rogue and peasant slave am I”.
But this film hits upon a way of supplying depth of character. Hamlet’s inner conflict, the social pressures upon her and the cruelty of her family are constantly kept in mind through the simple device of seeing her female form dressed in male clothes and being compelled to act like a man. A prologue, set before main action of play, shows the origins of the deception and the beginnings of Hamlet’s discontent.
Her physical presence, a slight black-clad feminine figure from which emerges a pale white face, is a constant reminder that all is not well. This permanent visual metaphor of Hamlet’s divided self acts as an underlay to the murdered father storyline and saves this silent version of Hamlet from being a one-dimensional revenge drama featuring a moody brat with issues.
In short, Shakespeare had taken standard revenge tragedy and given it depth by making the protagonist multi-dimensional, with his character revealed by dialogue and soliloquy. A silent film version would tend to strip this out. Having Hamlet as a woman forced to live as a man reintroduces this complexity of character.
The great irony is that whereas Shakespeare’s Hamlet laments that like a very drab he must unpack his heart with words, this newly imagined female Hamlet does the very opposite of relying on verbal expression.
The other genuinely inspired feature of the reworking is that its girl-as-boy plot device is an eminently Shakespearean one. It is as if the literary DNA of Hamlet has been spliced with genetic material from Twelfth Night and As You Like It to create a hybrid.
But whereas Viola and Rosalind only have to endure their cross-dressing and frustrated desire for a comparatively short space of time, Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet carries the burden of an entire lifetime spent looking in the mirror and thinking “I am not what I am.”
The film consists of a prologue and six acts.
A battle between the Danish and Norwegian armies results in Fortinbras’ death and King Hamlet is seriously wounded. In Elsinore, the Queen gives birth to a baby girl. A messenger arrives from the battlefield with the grave news of the King’s mortal injuries.
The Queen worries about the succession. One of her ladies suggests that she pass off her daughter as a prince. The proclamation of the “prince’s” birth is duly made. Back on the battlefield, the Danish victory gives the King renewed strength. On his return, he is told of the deception and hopes that it all works out for the best.
Entitled “Prince Hamlet’s Youth”, the first act begins with the King and Queen in the garden of their palace (exterior shots were filmed at the Kaiserpfalz palace in Goslar, Lower Saxony). The look concerned at the young Hamlet sitting all alone.
We get our first view of Asta Nielsen: with her short but still feminine hair and short leg-revealing tunic, she does not immediately appear that androgynous. However, her disguise is assisted by the fact that all the men in the film have hair of similar length to hers.
She casually swats and kills a fly, which struck me as a possible King Lear reference: Gloucester’s “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, they kill us for their sport.”
The King decides to send Hamlet to university at Wittenberg as a way of cheering her up. She stands next to her father and talks to him.
Claudius arrives and Hamlet throws him a nervous glance. He sidles up to Gertrude and kisses her lasciviously on the hand. Hamlet sees this and decides to escort the King away. As she takes her father up the stairs, she casts several long suspicious looks down towards Claudius. Her suspicions are well-grounded, because as soon as Claudius and Gertrude are alone they canoodle.
The action moves directly to a lecture room at Wittenberg where Hamlet ends up sitting next to Horatio. She drops her pencil and they bang their heads together when both go to pick it up. They laugh it off and introduce themselves. Horatio says he is from Provence. Hamlet looks longingly at him and says how wonderful Provence must be.
Laertes occupies the room above Hamlet, as she discovers when she investigates the noise produced by him shouting at his servant. Realising they are both Danes, they shake hands and become friends. Some girls outside in the street call up to Laertes and he suggests to Hamlet that they both go out. Hamlet waves her hand dismissively at the idea but gives Laertes some money so that he can enjoy himself. She looks longingly out the window as the others go off to have fun. An intertitle provides a simple description of Hamlet: “Clipped wings”.
As part of her all-round education, young Hamlet attends a fencing class with Horatio and is introduced to Young Fortinbras. The Norwegian prince goes to shake Hamlet’s hand, but withdraws and pauses. He then changes his mind saying: “My father was killed by a Danish sword, but we want to be free from our father’s hatred”. They shake hands vigorously and toast each other. This sequence was filmed shortly after the end of the First World War and it is likely that this is a statement about international relations.
Back in Elsinore, Claudius is determined to seize the throne. In a tryst with Gertrude, he vows to destroy what stands between them. He ventures down into the murky castle dungeon and retrieves a snake from a pit.
We next see Hamlet engaged in merry pranks in the Wittenberg lecture hall. A scene of general uproar, with books scattered over the floor, is interrupted by a messenger who asks to see Prince Hamlet and gravely hands over a letter. Hamlet reads it and exclaims: “My father, dead!” and begins to faint. She clutches at her head, then her heart, and is supported by others including Horatio. She grasps the messenger by the hand and asks how it happened. The messenger tells Hamlet that the King died from a poisonous snake bite.
Unlike the King in the play, this King Hamlet is actually killed by a snake rather than the snake being a cover story for an aural poisoning.
An intertitle tells us that Claudius married Gertrude shortly after the King’s funeral. A big, riotous banquet is in progress with Claudius leading the drunken carousing. Polonius is supposed to crown him, but he snatches the crown from him and triumphantly crowns himself with all the grace of Frankenstein’s monster.
Horatio has followed Hamlet back to Elsinore out of friendship, and when they both arrive outside the castle dressed in funeral black they are told of the combined funeral wake/wedding reception underway inside.
A fantastic shot shows Hamlet sweeping into the hall with her long cape billowing behind her.
Claudius dispenses with the last vestiges of mourning as Gertrude throws off her black widow’s veil. When Hamlet sees this she is overcome with emotion. She confronts the pair and makes a large dismissive gesture with both arms. She runs out of the hall into the small room containing her father’s sarcophagus. Full of grief, Hamlet hugs it saying that she is the last person left in Denmark to mourn him.
In the banqueting hall Gertrude and Claudius continue to feast. One of the revellers has wine poured over his head: this is reminiscent of the gravedigger’s account of Yorick pouring a flagon of Rhenish over his head.
Horatio finds Hamlet. She tries to wave him away and collapses on the ground still clinging to her father’s final resting place.
Outside on a bright day, Hamlet meets the old man who found her father’s dead body. He tells her that he also found the snake and it looked to him like one of the poisonous snakes from the castle dungeon. Hamlet becomes very suspicious. She gives the old man some money and wanders off pensively.
She goes down into the dungeon and finds her uncle’s dagger on the lid of the snake pit. This shock revelation serves the same function here as the ghost visitation does in Shakespeare’s play. Taking the dagger outside, she sits down to mull things over. She hits upon the idea of pretending to be mad in order to follow up this clue.
Horatio comes up behind her and takes her by surprise. She tries to hide the dagger, but he questions her about it. Hamlet tells Horatio that he is to be the only person to know that her madness is a pretence.
The intertitles do not confirm her telling Horatio about her uncle and the dagger. However, Horatio does appear to ask more questions to which she responds by stopping his mouth, thus preventing further enquiries about the reason for her change in behaviour.
This is possibly because at this stage she does not have proof positive of her uncle’s guilt, only a suspicion that requires further testing. This exactly parallels Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s doubts as to the veracity of the ghost’s story. Both Hamlets are cautious enough to require additional proof before they proceed.
The next intertitle reads simply: “The ruse”. Hamlet sits at the top of some steps with a collection of objects laid out on a cloth, furiously whittling with a dagger. She seems to be absorbed in play like a child. People pass by and look on mockingly, but she greets them normally. She spies Claudius and raises an eyebrow as her ruse is put into effect.
At this and other moments in the film the effect of a single, sardonic eyebrow raise is achieved by having her hair strategically combed over her right eyebrow so that when both are raised it appears to the camera as if only her left eyebrow is arched.
She attracts the King’s attention and shows him a paper crown. “With skilful fingers a crown can easily disappear in Denmark,” she says cryptically. She covers it with her hand as if performing a conjuring trick and crushes the paper crown before discarding it. She gives Claudius a penetrating, knowing look.
Claudius tries to leave, but Hamlet reaches out and takes hold of his hand, pulling him back. She takes the dagger and begins whittling again. With one eye on Claudius, she brings the dagger ever closer to his gaze so that he can recognise it. An intertitle makes it clear that he has seen his dagger in Hamlet’s hand. The King withdraws in shock and Hamlet realises her hunch was correct.
Claudius finds Gertrude and tells her about the dagger. However, he says that because Hamlet is mad he does not have to fear her. Polonius is told of Hamlet’s condition. The chamberlain ponders for a moment and says that Hamlet should be made to think of other things. He asks whether he should give his beautiful daughter Ophelia a hint (presumably that Hamlet might be interested in her). The Queen shakes her head disapprovingly but the King nods heavily in agreement.
Ophelia sits at a window embroidering. She looks pretty in her white dress and plaited hair. Ophelia finds Hamlet on the steps and moves close. Hamlet reluctantly nuzzles her head on Ophelia’s shoulder but then slopes away dejectedly. Ophelia persists and touches the top of Hamlet’s head and runs her hand down the prince’s back. Hamlet grabs hold of Ophelia’s other hand and becomes angry, telling her to go away because she is “false like all the others”. This excuse appears to be Hamlet’s standard get-out for being single.
Ophelia sits alone and cries. Hamlet is alone too: she looks down from her room into the hall when the feasting continues. She clenches her fist in resolution and takes Claudius’ dagger. She runs to her father’s sarcophagus and holding the dagger aloft cries out to him to give her a sign that she should avenge him.
Polonius makes another attempt to see if Hamlet is interested in his daughter. Spying the prince walking towards them reading, the chamberlain gives instructions to a very reluctant Ophelia. Polonius hides just out of sight, but Hamlet spies him and decides to pretend to be interested in Ophelia. She leans nonchalantly against the balustrade and calls Ophelia’s name. Hamlet bites her bottom lip seductively and plays with Ophelia’s hair. Polonius nods approvingly as his plan seems to be working.
But then Hamlet just yawns and returns to her book. She holds it in front of her and walks slowly past Ophelia as if she is not there. Ophelia again looks dejected.
An intertitle tells us that the King distrusts Hamlet’s madness and calls in a doctor to examine her mental condition. The doctor and Polonius visit Hamlet in her room as she studies. The doctor feels her head in what looks like an attempt at phrenology. Her behaviour is scatty and distracted. When asked to show the things she has made, Hamlet beckons them with two crooked fingers. She proceeds to stick an object on the end of Polonius’ nose and one on top of his head. The doctor points at his own head as if to say “nutter”.
Hamlet says something to them which fails to make sense: “What the one lacks, the other has too much. Being clever has made his head too small”. This is an attempt at a version of Shakespeare’s hawk and handsaw line.
Hamlet puts a sharp needle on the seat and forces Polonius down onto it. He narrowly avoids injury. The pair withdraw hurriedly convinced of Hamlet’s madness.
We move from feigned madness to real torment in the next sequence as Hamlet and Horatio go for a walk and lie down on a grassy bank. Positioned just behind him, Hamlet is overcome with the desire to touch him but forces herself not to. The pain of her situation plays across her face.
She sees Polonius and Claudius and nudges Horatio to get up. Hamlet lies face down on the ground to convince the arrivals that she is still insane. She creeps along the ground to Claudius’ feet and clambers up the front of his cloak until she is eye to eye with him. She tells him: “Your good appearance, uncle, gives me hope that the heavy crown is not oppressing you at all”. Claudius pushes her to the ground and withdraws in fear. Hamlet and Horatio sit close together and discuss what they have just witnessed.
As Horatio and Hamlet are walking in the castle grounds they meet Ophelia. Horatio points at her excitedly. He is obviously smitten with Ophelia and asks Hamlet what she thinks, but she waves dismissively. An intertitle announces that Hamlet is “Entangled in a web of deceit”.
Hamlet stands alone and closes her eyes in emotional pain. She wants Horatio but cannot have him and now she risks losing him completely to Ophelia. She has a spark of inspiration and announces that she knows how to separate Ophelia from him.
Hamlet stands under Ophelia’s window and calls to her. Polonius brings his daughter down the steps and Hamlet’s mad act continues as she slaps the chamberlain’s face. She takes Ophelia by the hand and leads her away. Hamlet is very tactile towards her and kisses her fingers and arm.
Polonius tells Claudius that as ever has given the King good advice, because Hamlet is now ardently in love with his daughter. This remark has echoes of the play’s Polonius who makes a similar assurance of his wise counsel in 2.2. He points to Hamlet canoodling with Ophelia in the shrubs.
Ophelia listens to Hamlet’s wooing, but when she tries to take things further Hamlet backs away and leaves her wanting more. As Ophelia sighs for her lover, Hamlet spies on her and looks satisfied at a job well done. By making Ophelia love her, she has now got Horatio all to herself. Once indoors, Hamlet grabs her chest to indicate the desire that burns within her and stretches her arms out in triumph saying: “Now, Horatio, you belong to me”.
An intertitle tells us that the thought of avenging her father is giving Hamlet no rest. She lies in bed having a restless dream. Her movements indicate that she is engaged in a confrontation. When she awakes she says that she has seen her father admonishing her, and asks for the strength to avenge him. There is a possible echo here of Shakespeare’s Hamlet when he says that he could be bounded in a nutshell and call himself a king of infinite space were it not that he has bad dreams.
She takes the dagger and goes to the royal apartments. The guards do not stop her; they jokingly refer to her as “the mad prince”. She enters with dagger drawn and spies inside a scene of debauchery that she finds shocking. She despairs, puts the dagger away, and departs.
She sits outside and tries to cut her wrist with the dagger, but cannot. She bewails the fact that she is too weak to kill and too weak to die herself. She throws the dagger on the ground in disgust and collapses.
The next sequence is a fairly accurate visualisation of the encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia that she recounts in 2.1 of the play. Hamlet walks despondently through the grounds. On meeting Ophelia she takes her by the hand, grabs her face and stares at it intently. Hamlet then curtly waves her away. Ophelia goes off and Hamlet remains, swaying slightly on her feet as if in great distress.
Ophelia finds Polonius and Horatio in the garden and tells her father how Hamlet hardly recognised her. Horatio comforts Ophelia. Hamlet catches up and sees Horatio and Ophelia together, and realises that her plot to separate them has failed.
Polonius finds Hamlet sitting at her desk writing a letter. Having finished it, she folds the paper into three and uses Polonius’ tongue to moisten the seal. Polonius takes the letter and bows obsequiously. Hamlet bows in return, but impatiently chases him away when he insists on repeatedly bowing.
Once outside Hamlet’s chamber, Polonius opens and reads the letter. But to his chagrin, it is full of mad ramblings and insults Ophelia by referring to her as a blockhead and as “beloved fat little worm”. The mention of a fat worm here could be an echo of Hamlet’s speech about worms being your only emperor for diet.
Polonius takes the letter to the King and Queen. The Queen looks particularly worried and goes to confront Hamlet, saying that her shenanigans risk divulging the secret of her true identity.
On hearing this criticism Hamlet goes into a fury and clutches at her breasts in passion. An intertitle gives us one of her only two self-revelatory speeches in the film: “I am not a man and am not allowed to be a woman! I’m a toy that hasn’t been given a heart!”
The Queen tells Hamlet that she did all this to save her father’s throne for her. Hamlet realises for apparently the first time that the scheme was her mother’s idea. In one of the moments where an ability to lip read German is an advantage, she says furiously: “So it was you who did this?” and chases her out of the room. Hamlet staggers around in confusion and despair.
The scriptwriter Erwin Gepard was familiar enough with Shakespeare to realise that moments of great passion and emotion are often followed with light-hearted comedy. We next see Hamlet walking in the castle cloisters. She spies Polonius coming and begins staring intently at the stonework as if reading from it. Shivering with cold, she insists that Polonius put on his hat, then seconds later demands the exact opposite indicating that she is feeling hot. This scene therefore transposes the Osric sequence from late in Shakespeare’s play and gives the Osric role to Polonius.
Hamlet goes into a fit of ecstasy when she sees a troupe of players arriving, but Polonius is very disparaging. He gives the guards instructions to bring in the “actor rabble”. Hamlet meets the players and seems to know them. Polonius shows the King and Queen the stage being built in the castle grounds for the performance. The Queen looks happy that something has finally lifted her daughter’s mood.
From this point forward the sequence of events in the film more closely resembles that of the play, as the key constituent elements are all in place for the denouement.
In one of the funniest sequences in the film, Hamlet offers her Advice to the Players. She invites one of them to demonstrate some acting. The player begins sawing the air and emoting. She points with her thumb, looks at Horatio and then mocks the player by mimicking his exaggerated gestures and hamming.
She points at her head and then at her heart. This seems to be the silent rendering of Shakespeare’s advice that actors should use temperance to give smoothness to the torrent, tempest and whirlwind of their passion. The player has another go at the speech following Hamlet’s tips and she nods approvingly.
Hamlet notices the large prop crown and is suddenly struck with an idea. She asks if the actors could stage a play if she told them what to do. When they agree, she whispers conspiratorially with Horatio.
On the day of the performance trumpets sound and the King and Queen enter in grand style to sit on their chairs of state in front of the stage. Hamlet makes sure to tell Horatio to watch the King to see how he reacts. Hamlet sits by Ophelia and nuzzles her head in her lap, which is something that the text alludes to without actually staging it.
Hamlet’s play shows a murderer killing the sleeping king with a snake. Horatio watches the real King intently while Hamlet slowly crawls over to him (one of the features or ‘points’ of many older stagings of Hamlet).
The King is disturbed by what he sees, but when the player queen is seen cavorting with the newly crowned murderer, both King and Queen look shocked. The King angrily calls a halt to the performance. Hamlet tells Horatio that she is now sure of the King’s guilt.
Wracked with guilt, the King retires to his chapel to pray. Outside Hamlet decides to pursue him, taking Horatio’s sword and running inside to find him. When she finds the King deep in prayer she holds the sword above him. However, she has second thoughts and decides not to kill him. Hamlet says that her revenge should strike him “more deeply”: this is a brave attempt at summarising in a compact intertitle the reasoning given by Shakespeare’s Hamlet for his hesitancy at this point. She slinks away.
Gertrude talks with Polonius in her chamber. Hearing Hamlet coming, she gets the chamberlain to hide behind an arras. Her daughter enters quite slowly and stands next the seated Queen. An intertitle provides the second of Hamlet’s self-revelatory comments, again in relation to her disguise: “Mother, you gave me life! But never before has a gift turned into such bitter pain!” Her mood here is one of quiet resignation rather than fury.
This soon changes when she notices movement behind the arras. She stabs at it with the sword, which she then notices is bloodied. Peering behind the arras she sees that she has killed Polonius. She shrugs apathetically and wanders away, leaving the Queen looking very agitated and fearful.
The King leaves the chapel and encounters Gertrude who tells him about the slaying of Polonius. He realises that it could have been him. The body is carried out by attendants. Ophelia comes running to see her dead father and hugs him. Horatio turns up and comforts Ophelia.
The King sits at his desk and tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take Hamlet to Norway safe and sound and return alone. He thereby drops a big, unsubtle hint about what will happen to the Hamlet when she arrives.
Horatio finds Hamlet in her room and she returns his sword to him. But then he starts crying and explains that he loves Ophelia and her mourning aggrieves him. This causes Hamlet to despair at losing Horatio again.
Claudius dispatches a messenger to fetch Hamlet. When she receives the King’s command to attend, Horatio tells her that whatever happens he will remain a friend.
The King tells Hamlet that she must take a message to Fortinbras. However, he does not give the letter to her but rather to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet looks at this very suspiciously. Once alone, the King sits back looking smug. Hamlet leaves Denmark the same day on horseback.
Grief over the death of her father has caused Ophelia to become deranged. She gathers wild flowers in the castle grounds and gives some to Gertrude.
An intertitle tells us that Claudius’ bad governance has made the people angry. A mob of peasants forms outside the castle. Laertes arrives and asks them what happened to his father. On hearing the reply, he draws his sword and enters the castle with the mob to depose the King. This supplies a neat representation of the implied offstage action in the play before Laertes’ arrival.
The guards repel most of the mob, but enough of them remain to help Laertes break down the door to the King’s offices. The aggrieved son tells the mob to stay behind as he confronts the King. An intertitle shows us Laertes’ question “Who slew my father?” But no title is shown (or needed by any audience) to spell out the King’s two-syllable reply, which is filmed in close-up: “Ham-let”.
Laertes swears vengeance and rushes out, soon finding Ophelia in the grounds. She seems not to recognise him and withdraws in fear. Clenching his fist in anger, Laertes curses Hamlet, blaming her for his sister’s condition.
Hamlet and his companions stop for the night taking their first rest on Norwegian soil. She looks suspiciously at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and feels at her neck as if sensing a danger to her life. She sleeps on a simple straw bed in a room next to that occupied by the other two. She overhears their conversation through the timber wall, but they quieten down when they realise she can hear them.
Hamlet sneaks into their room when they are asleep. She takes the letter from the satchel hanging above their beds and returns to her room. As she strikes two stones together to light a candle there is a sudden jump cut and the candle instantly becomes fully lit.
Hamlet sees the seal on the letter, but realises that the dagger bears the same crest, which emboldens her to break it open. The letter is presented on screen in two intertitles. The first shows the verbose opening, which is just as Hamlet describes to Horatio in the play; the second shows the bottom of the letter with the brief instruction for Hamlet’s execution. She clenches her fist and seems both shocked and steeled with resolution.
We briefly see Claudius back in Denmark, drinking a toast to dear Hamlet’s health.
Hamlet is struck by an idea. She uses the dagger to scratch off her name in the letter and rewrites it to refer to her two companions. She seals up the letter using the dagger’s crest and returns it to the satchel in the other room.
The next day they arrive at the Norwegian royal castle. Hamlet makes another impressive entrance in her sweeping cape. King Fortinbras recognises his old student friend, saying her name which we read from his lips without an intertitle. After Hamlet has offered her formal greeting, they embrace warmly.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern kneel before the Norwegian King and deliver the letter. He reads it (bottom half shown again as intertitle) and looks at Hamlet in puzzlement. Hamlet shrugs her shoulders as if none the wiser. This gets the biggest laugh of the evening and deserves praise as a great moment of comedy. The King then orders that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be taken to the executioner’s block.
Hamlet bows smilingly at the terrified pair as they are led away. Fortinbras puts his arm around Hamlet as if to console her about the imminent death of her companions, but she indicates her lack of concern with a dismissive wave of the hand. This detail seems to convey the same disdain that Hamlet expresses to Horatio in the play when he tells him: “They are not near my conscience”.
An intertitle informs us that King Fortinbras has decided to help his friend and free Denmark from the criminal king. The army is assembled and they all set off for Denmark.
After a brief glimpse of the Norwegian forces heading for Norway, we see Ophelia gathering flowers by a willow growing aslant a brook. She cries out: “Are you calling me dearest? I’m coming, Hamlet, I’m coming!” and walks straight into the water. Horatio is sitting by the stream with his dog and notices something amiss. He finds Ophelia dead at the water’s edge. We see another brief glimpse of the Norwegian army, after which Horatio goes to fetch Laertes, who cries over his sister.
Hamlet goes on ahead of the Norwegian forces. This enables Fortinbras to arrive after the decisive final action of the story. Claudius is still partying with his followers, and when Hamlet arrives she soon finds his drinking den. She walks in on the festivities and the King cannot believe his eyes. He goes to leave but Hamlet threatens him with her sword. However, the mood soon changes when she says to him: “Don’t worry, uncle. Let’s have a funeral drink together.”
As the carousing continues, Hamlet throws most of her drink over her shoulder and only pretends to indulge. But she makes sure to ply Claudius with as much drink as possible.
This debauchery is followed by a very touching scene in which Laertes mourns over Ophelia’s dead body, drawing back her veil and giving her a tender kiss before covering her up again.
The next morning Hamlet awakes amid the sleeping revellers. She takes a torch and uses it to set light to the room. Claudius wakes up and tries to stop her, but she fights him off. She leaves and bars the door behind her. The King gradually chokes to death inside the smoke-filled room.
Horatio gloomily clutches a piece of Ophelia’s clothing. As Hamlet rushes past, he grabs her and explains that Ophelia is to be buried that night. Hamlet looks upset. When she sees the fuss Horatio is making of Ophelia’s garment she snatches it away and throws it to ground in a fit of jealousy. Horatio grabs at her and in pulling on her clothes almost exposes her chest. She hastily pulls her top together and they make up.
Hamlet and Horatio get to the graveyard before the funeral procession arrives. Horatio wants to remain at the graveside, but Hamlet drags him away and they observe at a distance. The coffin is lowered into the ground and the priest tells his attendants not to kneel as the church does not offer prayers for suicides. On hearing this Laertes rushes forward and harangues the priest. Horatio looks on and want to intervene, but Hamlet holds him back. This neatly reverses the play’s graveyard scene to have an entirely different character tackle Laertes.
Laertes strews flowers into the grave and overcome with emotion jumps in on top of the coffin. Unable to take anymore, Horatio breaks free from his companion’s grip. Hamlet catches up with him at the graveside, but when Laertes looks up at the pair it is naturally Hamlet he seizes. He drags her down into the grave to fight with his mortal enemy. Horatio manages to separate them, but Laertes demands satisfaction for the deaths of his father and sister by challenging Hamlet to a duel the next morning.
Claudius and his drinking mates are found dead. Gertrude mourns over his body and is discovered by Laertes who asks who has died. When he learns of the King’s death, he tells Gertrude about the duel. She tells Laertes that the duel should avenge them both and that she can help him to win.
This sequence of events makes Gertrude into Hamlet’s final nemesis and not Claudius. It is an interesting choice as it is not required by any of the other alterations to the story so far introduced. Making Gertrude into an avenging villainess creates an interesting symmetry between her and Hamlet.
The Norwegian army has now reached the outskirts of the city. We see Gertrude at prayer in her chamber when Laertes enters. He produces his sword and she pours poison onto its blade.
The duel takes place in the throne room. Once again shrouded in mourning black for a dead husband, Gertrude tells Laertes that if he does not manage to strike Hamlet, their foe will drink death at the Queen’s hands.
With Horatio acting as her second, Hamlet tries out various swords for weight. She appears nervous but fatalistic when he asks her how she feels. She says: “I’m not a coward, but dark premonitions oppress my heart”. This contrasts with the play’s emphasis on Hamlet’s trust in providence.
The duel begins at a sedate pace, while outside the Norwegian army enters the castle grounds.
Gertrude spikes a cup with poison and places it on a platter behind her. Hamlet dominates Laertes in the duel, which makes the Queen nervous. Resting after her partial victory, Hamlet is offered drink by Gertrude, but she declines and seems keen to get started again.
The duel resumes and a servant refills the two cups on the platter, managing to swap them round. Gertrude inadvertently takes a drink from the poisoned cup and realising her mistake cries out that she has poisoned herself. Distracted by her mother’s cry, Hamlet turns away from Laertes, who seizes his chance and delivers a fatal blow to Hamlet’s chest.
Horatio tries to help his friend by unbuttoning her top, but she pulls it back together, as even at this late stage Horatio has no idea that Hamlet is a woman. Tension mounts as we see more of the Norwegian army arriving at the castle.
Hamlet is laid down on the steps of the throne and dies in Horatio’s embrace. He closes her eyes, and this smoothing motion continues down her cheek and onto her chest, whereupon Horatio makes the remarkable discovery that Hamlet is a woman!
An intertitle shows us his reaction: “Only death betrayed your secret to me. Your heart of gold was that of a woman. Too late, my darling, too late!” He then kisses her and sobs over her dead body before covering her respectfully with her cape.
This remark is interesting for what it tells us of Horatio’s previous opinion of Hamlet. He was obviously touched by her virtue and clearly felt something for her, even in disguise, as he is now making an avowal of love to her.
Fortinbras enters with the Norwegian army and reacts in shock on seeing a dead body. The Norwegian King asks Horatio where to find Hamlet. He points mournfully at the body on the ground. Fortinbras kneels by her and says: “I wanted to help you to the throne, but your wings were broken on its very steps.”
He orders his men to carry Hamlet away. They bear her on their shoulders and she is carried out under an archway of spears.
The final shot is a close-up of her face. The rest is silence.
It is worth noting that Laertes seems to disappear from the story as soon as he has killed Hamlet and nothing is said about the succession of the crown. As this question is left open, there is the intriguing possibility that Laertes becomes King.
The film provides a startling demonstration of Asta Nielsen’s mastery of silent film acting. She could move an audience with her passionate portrayal of a tormented mind and then flip into an equally convincing display of quirky, physically agile comedy. At one moment she was a tragic heroine, the next a clown.
She deserves to rank among the all-time great Hamlets.
The film is remarkable not just for her performance but also for the intelligence and audacity of the reworking of the story.