Tagged: Mark Holgate

All’s Well at the RSC

All’s Well That Ends Well, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 27 July 2013

An asymmetrical solid arch dominated the back of the set, divided down the middle into two different textures. A doorway was placed high up on the stage left side.

The play title was projected in capital letters on the right side of the back wall. This was a nod to the fact that the title is included in the play text: a rarity in Shakespeare.

The stage itself was bare apart from a small podium whose purpose soon became apparent.

A series of dumbshows set the scene. At first Bertram (Alex Waldmann) appeared in spotlight on the right of the stage while Helena (Joanna Horton) appeared in the upper left doorway looking down at him wistfully. This physical height difference introduced a reversal of the disparity of social levels that posed an obstacle to their romance. But this perhaps also hinted at Helena’s elevated character compared to the compromised nature of Bertram’s personality.

Next Bertram and his friends were partying wildly in a nightclub. He stood on the podium and was joined in his revels by Parolles (Jonathan Slinger). Someone brought him bad news (of his father’s death) and he fell back in shock.

The Countess (Charlotte Cornwell) was seen walking across the back of the stage accompanied by a procession of mourners. Wind-driven snow falling diagonally added to the chilly atmosphere of mourning.

Bertram was comforted by his mother. The action froze at certain points and photo flashes indicated that these moments were being recorded. Helena stood among them in a black armband.

The first scene began as Bertram entered with his luggage ready to depart to the French court (1.1).

His mother the Countess was dressed in black and had a formal gentility slightly at odds with the modern setting. She was full of praise for Helena, but her essay on the relationship between Helena’s innate and acquired qualities (ll. 35-42) was slightly truncated.

Helena wore an elegant pastel dress together with her black armband. She had an air of dowdiness and insecurity that reflected her lowly position and the impossibility of her ambitions. She was not a standard feisty heroine in waiting.

Bertram knelt before his mother, who put the family’s ancestral ring on his finger as she exhorted him to “succeed thy father”.

He said goodbye to Helena, who adjusted his tie. He noticed her interest in this accessory and slipped off from around his neck and gave it to her. This indicated Bertram’s underlying affection for Helena.

Bertram finally departed but struggled to lift his suitcases, abandoning them as the maid (Kiza Deen) came forward and lifted them effortlessly. This was perhaps Bertram’s idea of a joke.

Helena addressed us directly, telling of her sorrow at being in love with Bertram, who was as inaccessible as a star in the sky. She was wistful and dreamy in her longing and seemed to have resigned herself to Bertram being out of reach.

Jonathan Slinger’s Parolles was a sneering, leering inadequate. His long, thin moustache marked him out as affected. His comic conversation with Helena about protecting her virginity saw him offer a useful basic tip: he pointed down at this crotch and said “Keep him out”.

But he insisted that resistance was futile. He cupped his hand as if cradling a baby bump reminding Helena that a man might “blow you up”. This moment in the first scene of the play was mirrored elegantly in its final scene.

Parolles could have accompanied the discourse about blowing up/down with additional gestures, but did not. The focus was on the language. Parolles’ long discourse on the illogicality and paradoxical nature of virginity concluded, to some audience amusement, that it was like “a withered pear”.

Helena was concerned that Bertram would succumb to the temptations of the French court. Her meek acceptance of her social inferiority meant that her fears about him finding love among his equals were very real.

Parolles was summoned to attend Bertram and retrieved a long black jacket from his travelling wardrobe. Helena teased him for his cowardice and her mild taunts struck home, bringing out Parolles’ own insecurities, interestingly also related to his social standing.

Helena admitted to her own insecurities and was honest with herself, while Parolles tried to deny his failings and pretended that they did not exist, covering them over with bluster.

Thus his response to Helena was a hurried “I am so full of businesses I cannot answer thee acutely”. He affected a courtly accent and manners to proclaim “I will return perfect courtier”. This Parolles was singled out as more a social climber than a warrior.

Helena turned optimistic as she hit upon “the King’s disease” as an element in “my project”.

The scene changed to Paris as Greg Hick’s King, his hair long and straggly, appeared in a wheelchair, attached to a drip and a big medical monitor with lots of flashing lights (1.2). Bright fluorescent tubes hung above creating a clinical atmosphere. Soldiers and medical staff stood in attendance.

He briefly outlined the diplomatic situation: Florence had called on him for assistance with their conflict with Sienna but Austria had advised him not to take part. However, young soldiers who wished to fight with the Florentines were free to do so.

Bertram entered down the stage right walkway. The King got out of his chair with the residue of his strength to greet Bertram. The King remembered his father and reminisced about things he used to say. These were obviously very familiar to Bertram, because as the King repeated one of his father’s maxims, Bertram joined in so that the two spoke in chorus to describe youths whose “constancies expire their fashions”.

The exertion proved too much for the King. He faltered and fell back, pleading “Lend me an arm”. His sickness was foregrounded, which suggested his underlying desperation when he referred to Helena’s father and how he would try his aid, having given up on his own doctors.

Back in Roussillon the box room was now lined with plants growing behind glass (1.3). Lavatch (Nicolas Tennant) joked with the Countess about his need to get married, casting lascivious glances at the maid as he spoke of how his “poor body” required it.

He pulled his handkerchief out into a taut quasi-phallic shape saying he was “driven by the flesh”, but then placed the handkerchief on his head like a veil to add that he also had “holy reasons”.

Lavatch’s curious logic, which led him to conclude that “He that kisses my wife is my friend”, gave way to his comically urgent parting gesture that “the business is for Helena to come hither”.

Rynaldo (Cliff Burnett), a picture of formality in his buttoned uniform jacket, informed the Countess that he had overheard Helena saying that she loved Bertram.

The Countess excitedly recognised that “Even so it was with me when I was young”, which prepared us for her positive reception of Helena’s ambitions.

The Countess told Helena that she considered herself “a mother to her”, countering her surprise at this intimacy by pointing out that “choice breeds a native slip to us from foreign seeds”. This plant breeding metaphor possibly derived from her practical interest in the subject, witnessed by the plants growing under glass in the box room representing her house.

As she already knew of Helena’s love for her son, the Countess seemed to relish Helena’s confusion when confronted with the idea that she was her mother and the dire implications if this meant that Bertram was consequently her brother.

Under the Countess’s firm but insistent questioning, Helena admitted to loving Bertram. Her manner showed that she had already discounted the impossibility of this love and the Countess’s presumed disapproval of it.

She also admitted that Bertram was her true motive for her journey to Paris. Helena delighted in her candour in these matters in way that made her sympathetic.

Helena was convinced that her father’s “receipt” would be able to help the King. The Countess warmly embraced her, offering her help and support.

Sandbags

The troops conducted some training exercises, carrying sandbags above their heads and making warlike preparations accompanied by the persistent beat of Parolles’ drum (2.1).

The King watched, reclining inside a transparent open-fronted plastic box. This was like an oversized incubator that had been adapted for palliative care.

The soldiers finished their exercises and knelt before the King who advised them to retain “these warlike principles”, in context referring back to the display he had just watched.

He beckoned them closer and, with a glint in his eye, cautioned them about the wiles of “Those girls of Italy”. He gestured lasciviously when warning them “beware of being captives before you serve”.

The soldiers began to depart leaving Bertram and Parolles behind. Parolles boasted of giving a scar to Captain Spurio concluding “Say to him I live , and observe his reports of me”.

He pointed after the departing soldiers and exhorted Bertram to follow them and to ignore their insistence that he was too young.

The King had transferred back into his wheelchair and found Lafeu (David Fielder) kneeling before him to impart some news. He insisted firmly that Lafeu stand up. This small gesture showed that the King had not abandoned all authority and could still enforce his command.

Lafeu spoke of Helena’s amazing abilities derived from “medicine that’s able to breathe life into a stone” and the King reluctantly agreed to meet her.

Helena entered wearing a red coat and carrying a small doctor’s bag which she placed on the ground in front of her as if it were some kind of device in itself, drawing attention to its curative contents.

She mentioned that Gerard de Narbon was her father, at which point the King leaned forward and pointed saying “I knew him” in a way that indicated he was already on the hook.

Helena explained about her father’s “receipts he gave me; chiefly one”. She stood and raised her hands at her side in an open expressive gesture that spoke of her harmlessness and her desire to help. But at the same time she was drawing attention to herself and underscoring her miraculous abilities, in an uncharacteristically confident way.

After the King’s initial refusal, Helena apologised and made to leave. But his questioning of her integrity by claiming that she knew “no art” drew her back. She pleaded that trying her skill would lose him nothing and that assistance often came from unexpected quarters.

The King turned his wheelchair away from her and started to move off, bidding her farewell. Not giving up, Helena grabbed the chair and turned it back to face her, insisting that “My art is not past power, nor you past cure”.

The King was impressed by her insistence and her forceful reorientation of his chair. This was precisely the kind of firm mastery with which he liked to take control of a situation. He exclaimed a mighty “Oh!” before continuing “Art thou so confident?”

He was even more impressed when she promised a speedy cure and staked her life on its success. He made a deal with her that if she restored him she could have a husband of her choosing.

Helena’s confidence here was understated and was driven by her belief in the efficacy of her father’s medicine.

The newly-formed bond of trust between Helena and the King could be seen by the way she placed her doctor’s bag in his lap and wheeled him away to begin her work.

The maid was dusting the plants at the Countess’s residence, as Lavatch told his mistress that he was leaving for the court (2.2).

He introduced his all-purpose rebuttal by describing it as a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks, listing several types before concluding that it fitted any buttock, casting a lascivious glance at the maid’s rear as she leant forward to dust an awkward spot.

Lavatch’s saucy mood continued when he assured the Countess that his answer would fit any question “from below your duke to beneath your [cunt]stable” making an obscene gesture with his cupped fingers as he did so.

His repeated use of “O Lord, sir!” was said in a strained attempt at sounding elevated, which was inherently comic in view of the ribaldry that he had used in the build-up to its unveiling.

The Countess sent him away with a letter to take to Helena at court.

Bertram discussed the King’s miraculous cure with Lafeu, while Parolles stood slightly apart constantly trying to join in the conversation (2.3). Frustrated by his failure to engage their attention, Parolles prodded Lafeu with his stick.

The box room came forward with the King and Helena appearing in silhouette against a bright red background. They faced each other and danced back and forth. Although they did not touch, the dance was characterised by a surprising degree of intimacy. The King emerged and performed capoeira (a Greg Hick’s speciality) making sweeping kicks at the soldiers.

The King was now restored to health, and his hair was shorter and darker than before.

The bachelors (Daniel Easton, Michael Grady-Hall, Chris Jared & Samuel Taylor) gathered in front of Helena. She approached each in turn and rejected them. Lafeu’s comments were cut, which focused attention on Helena’s scheme to work through them and get to Bertram, who observed nonchalantly on the stage left side of the box room.

Helena turned and offered herself to Bertram but he did not realise he was being addressed. Noticing the attention fixed on him by Helena and the others, he looked round comically to see if there was another bachelor somewhere behind him.

When the King prompted him to take Helena as his wife, Bertram’s disdain was extreme. He contemptuously mocked the idea of “A poor physician’s daughter my wife!”

The King’s assurances that he would enrich and ennoble Helena so that she had “honour and wealth from me” did nothing to change Bertram’s mind.

The King was visibly affronted by this impudence. Feeling that his honour was at stake, he barked out a firm command “Here, take her hand” ordering him to obey. The force of the King’s insistence cowed Bertram and also shocked Helena, who looked more surprised at the King than Bertram did.

Bertram obediently took Helena’s hand. The King continued to organise their lives, pausing before declaring that their wedding would be performed “tonight”. This caused another ripple of shock to pass over Helena, who perhaps now was beginning to realise the full significance of what she had done.

Parolles took real offence at Lafeu’s barbs as their bitchy argument blew up. But Parolles bit his tongue rather than act on the revengeful impulses that played across his face rather. He could only issue a conditional threat “Hadst thou not the privilege of antiquity upon thee, -”

Parolles vented his anger once Lafeu had left, promising to beat him if he met him again. He was cowed, however, when Lafeu returned with news that Bertram had married.

Lafeu disdainfully tweaked at the various rosettes that adorned Parolles bright yellow uniform jacket, before leaving him once again.

Bertram was disconsolate at being married. The audience found humour in Parolles’ repeated use of the word “sweet-heart” as he tried to console him.

Parolles encouraged him to leave his wife and go “to the wars”. Bertram agreed and said he would send Helena to his house and depart for Italy. Parolles hugged Bertram ecstatically. He held him close and looked into his eyes moving to kiss him, before checking himself and pulling away in embarrassment. This confirmed the audience’s suspicions about the true intent behind his recent use of the word “sweet-heart”.

Lavatch exchanged witticisms with Helena and then Parolles, who took no uncertain pleasure in informing Helena that Bertram had to leave that night, putting off married life “to a compelled restraint” (2.4). Helena meekly asked what else Bertram required.

Clog

Lafeu tried to convince Bertram that Parolles was just a braggart, continuing to insult him when he came to tell Bertram that Helena was leaving that night (2.5). The audience very much disapproved of Bertram’s “Here comes my clog” when Helena entered.

Bertram gave her letters to take home. She summoned up the courage to ask him for a parting kiss, which he willingly gave her. He kissed her passionately, and she became quite dizzily excited afterwards.

This was possibly her first ever kiss from him and for her the moment was charged with that excitement. She was still quite agitated some time afterwards. However, Bertram’s immediate emotional disengagement from the kiss made it obvious that for him it was simply a tactical move to keep her quiet.

Parolles departed with Bertram, delighted that they were going off to the war together.

After some battle sequences involving soldiers in modern uniform fighting hand to hand, the Duke of Florence (Dave Fishley) spoke to the French troops and expressed his puzzlement that the King of France would not help directly (3.1).

Back in Roussillon the Countess read Bertram’s letter, explaining that he had wedded not bedded Helena and had run off (3.2).

After a brief comic moment in which Lavatch said that Bertram would “not be killed so soon as I thought he would”, two soldiers brought in a serious looking Helena. She read out the letter Bertram had given her in which he vowed that she would have to obtain his ring and become pregnant by him before she could call him husband.

The Countess comforted her, disclaiming Bertram and proclaiming “thou art all my child”.

Helena stood alone and poured her heart out, blaming herself for driving Bertram into the war and wishing that the bullets would “fly with false aim”. She broke down in tears and wished herself dead.

She vowed to leave hoping that this might draw Bertram back again. The interval came on that sad note.

The second half began with Bertram standing centre stage and being sequentially kitted out with military uniform, equipment and finally a gun before running around in the midst of battle.

In a brief scene, the Duke of Florence presented him with a helmet making him “The general of our horse” (3.3). Bertram rejected the helmet but soon changed his mind, declaring himself a soldier rather than a lover. By now he had acquired a facial scar, echoing Helena’s warning in her speech at the end of 3.2 that “honour but of danger wins a scar, as oft it loses all”.

Helena had sneaked away in the night, and Rynaldo read Helena’s letter to the Countess, which explained that she had gone on a pilgrimage (3.4). The Countess instructed Rynaldo to write to Bertram telling him that Helena had left, hoping that he would come back and that Helena would hear of this and return herself.

The box room extended out to show soldiers drinking in the Widow’s tavern (3.5). The Widow (Karen Archer) and her daughters gathered in front to watch the returning army march past. Mariana (Rosie Hilal) got angry at the mention of Parolles, whom Bertram had been using as a go-between with Diana.

Helena appeared in her white pilgrim’s robe and was detained by the Widow to watch the troops together with them. Helena confirmed that she had come from France, prompting the Widow to mention that she might see a countryman of hers. Helena asked his name, causing Diana (Natalie Klamar) to mention excitedly “the Count Rousillon” as Mariana rolled her eyes in disbelief at her sister’s enthusiasm.

Helena was self-deprecating in agreeing with Parolles’ critical reports of her, in a way that indicated she was still full of self-reproach.

They watched the march past, which was not staged, as if it were happening out in the audience. The only one to appear was Parolles, who was heard to mutter “Lose our drum! Well.” and then appeared on the stage left walkway as the women repulsed him with insults and threw things at him, causing him to flee.

The Widow invited Helena to stay with her.

Two of Bertram’s comrades tried to convince him that Parolles was all talk. Eventually they settled on a plan to kidnap him disguised as enemy troops and to get him to betray them (3.6). Parolles was obsessed about the loss of his drum and the others deliberated downplayed its significance as a ruse to encourage him to attempt its recovery.

Bertram bid Parolles “farewell”. His friend placed his finger tenderly on Bertram’s lips to quieten him before saying “I love not many words”. In view of his previous dalliance with Bertram, there was something camp about this physical contact.

As Parolles departed, one of the soldiers loudly riposted “No more than a fish loves water” before they all agreed that Parolles would probably lie about his exploits.

Bertram took one of the soldiers to show him the girl he was after.

The hostel was invaded by troops who made free with the women and revelled in a debauched manner until the Widow strode confidently onto the scene, cocked her sawn off shotgun and fired it into the air to restore order (3.7).

In the ensuing calm, Helena assured the Widow that she was in fact the wife of the count. Helena offered her a purse of gold and explained that Diana should agree to the count’s “wanton siege”, ask him for his ancestral ring, and then let Helena take her place at their assignation.

The Widow’s agreement following Helena’s offer of an additional three thousand crowns was a fine comic moment.

The box room had camouflage netting strung across its front by a soldier as Parolles’ ambush was prepared (4.1). When the use of invented language was suggested, the soldiers practised a few phrases so that we had an idea of how this would work.

The soldiers hid behind the netting and watched as Parolles ruminated on how to account for his fruitless return from his mission to recover the lost drum.

Parolles turned slowly about as he spoke. The soldiers ducked below the top of the netting to avoid being seen when he faced them, apart from one instance where they remained in clear view as he looked right at them until they suddenly realised their mistake and hid.

Parolles took his dagger and poised it above his hand wondering if he should inflict wounds on himself to make his story more credible. But his plaintive yelp when the point merely touched his skin, indicated that this was unlikely.

The soldiers commented on what he said, but although Parolles appeared to hear the question “How deep?” and answer “Thirty fathom” he did not turn around in surprise to look for the voice that had prompted his answer. This suggested he lacked the awareness to realise that he was responding to a real voice.

The trap was sprung and Parolles was blindfolded. The text was altered so that he spoke the names of the languages he could understand in the relevant language, which was an intelligent revision. This is what someone would do when testing for the presence of speakers of those languages.

The soldiers tried to convince Parolles that “seventeen poniards are at thy bosom” as each of them placed two hands and a foot onto his chest to make him think he was being assailed by a large troop.

Parolles whined like a baby as he pleaded for his life. He was taken away and the soldiers went to fetch Bertram.

Bertram turned up at the inn and played the harmonica, singing to Diana “They told me that your name was Fontibell” as if it were a song.

Diana resisted his advances and mocked his promises. She asked him for the ring. He protested that giving it away would be “the greatest obloquy i’ the world” for him to lose. Diana countered that her honour meant the same to her family and proceeded to writhe up and down, rubbing herself seductively against Bertram, who, in some agitation and expectation, blurted out “Here, take my ring”. His mind was changed not by the force of her argument but by something earthier.

She instructed him in the particulars of the clandestine meeting, telling him that she would then put another ring on his finger.

As Bertram left, a messenger caught up with him. Although we did not hear or see any indication of the news, it was possibly the message about Helena’s death.

At the end of the scene there was a brief dumbshow in which Diana handed over Bertram’s ring to Helena outside the box room and then Helena entered the box room which was now the bedchamber.

She sat on the bed and waited for Bertram, who entered the room and felt his way in the dark. He was visibly distressed by the recent news about Helena. He held out his hand and Helena took it. They sat for a while as Helena comforted Bertram, who assumed he was with Diana. They embraced as the box room moved upstage. Its doors closed just as they reclined on the bed.

This touching spectacle showed us Bertram’s true feelings for Helena emerging in the wake of the shock (but untrue) news of her death. The couple consummated their marriage, with each thinking of the other so that they were unified by sentiment, if not by mutual recognition. Bertram made love to his wife without recognising her but paradoxically allowed her to witness his true feelings about her for the first time.

Sadness

The start of the next scene saw two soldiers describing how the letter delivered to Bertram contained sad news: “on the reading it he changed almost into another man” (4.3). But as this was the letter from his mother and that news of his wife’s death was already known to him from the rector, this letter could not have been the one that had triggered his sadness at Helena’s death.

Whatever the order or timing of the letters and news, the staging created the distinct impression that the letter Bertram received was the one that delivered the shock news of Helena’s death.

Bertram explained how he had that night “buried a wife, mourned for her”, suggesting that the news was fresh and perhaps that brought by the letter we saw delivered to him after he spoke with Diana.

Before he returned to see his mother, there remained the unfinished business of Parolles. He was brought forth and forced to stand on a makeshift podium to make a pathetic spectacle of his abject treachery.

One of the soldiers tapped on a portable typewriter to record the intelligence on the Florentine army that he willingly surrendered. To highlight the comedy of this, the typing was random and sometimes involved keys being struck at random only to create the sound of typing.

He was asked about the character and reputation of Captain Dumaine (Mark Holgate) and traduced him soundly with the angry Captain having to be restrained from running at him.

In a wonderful sequence, Parolles insulted the other Captain Dumaine (Chris Jared again), his brother by saying “he excels his brother for a coward…” who ran at Parolles and was restrained by the first. But within the same breath Parolles insulted the first Captain “…yet his brother is reputed one of the best that is…”, so that the struggling pair instantly flipped round. The guardian of Parolles became the aggressor with the previous assailant ,who seconds before had been the attacker, now holding his brother back.

Parolles panicked when he was told that he would die for his treachery. He was even more scared when the blindfold was removed and he saw he had been tricked by his own comrades.

After taunts from the soldiers, Parolles sat on the podium and lamented, removing his false moustache and holding it in his hands to avow “simply the thing I am shall make me live”. The removal of this false disguise marked the first step towards a more authentic way of life.

Helena, the Widow and Diana were on their way to see the King at Marseilles (4.4). She told Diana that she would still have further tasks to perform but assured that “All’s well that ends well”.

Lafeu commiserated with the Countess on the death of Helena (4.5). Lavatch was examining some cacti, so that when he got into his witty exchange with Lafeu he held up a small knoblike cactus to say “I would give his wife my bauble, sir, to do her service”.

But not even the great acting in this production could hide the strained nature of some of the exchanges, particularly the one that ended lamely with a reference to “jades’ tricks”. It felt like filler.

Lafeu got back onto the track of his conversation with the Countess to propose his daughter’s hand in marriage to the supposed widower Bertram.

Lavatch brought news of Bertram’s return and that he had a patch of velvet covering a possible scar on his face.

Helena arrived at Marseilles but was told that the King was no longer there (5.1). This gave Helena another opportunity to quote the play title at the Widow and Diana. She gave the Gentleman (John Stahl) her petition assuming he could reach the King before she could.

Parolles was besmirched with dirt both on his clothes and face making him a wretched spectacle as he pleaded with Lavatch to give a letter to Lafeu (5.2). The stains suggested the strong smell that Lavatch insisted Parolles keep upwind of him.

Lafeu finally took pity and promised Parolles “you shall eat”.

The King and Countess sat on chairs in Roussillon and bemoaned the loss of Helena (5.3). The King called firmly for Bertram to be brought before him. His restored health seemed to underscore the positive mood behind his forgiving attitude when he said that “The nature of his great offence is dead”.

Bertram entered and knelt before the King very abjectly in full recognition of his “high-repented blames”. The renewed power of the King was a reminder of his enhanced ability to punish if he so chose.

The King encouraged everyone to move on and “take the instant by the forward top”. He described himself as old, but his determination had a young man’s optimistic vigour.

He asked Bertram if he remembered Lafeu’s daughter. Bertram looked offstage towards her and indicated that “at first I stuck my choice upon her” referred to Maudlin and not Helena. This reading of the speech meant that he told the King that he had first taken a fancy to Maudlin, which made him cast a “scornful perspective” on Helena “she whom all men praised”. But he also admitted that he had loved her once he had lost her.

The King praised Bertram “that thou didst love her”, meaning that he was happy that the young man had loved Helena, but he emphasised that this should be “sweet Helen’s knell”.

It was proposed that Maudlin marry Bertram. At Lafeu’s suggestion, Bertram took a ring from his finger to be given as a love token to Maudlin. But Lafeu noticed that this ring was like one that had been worn by Helena. The King chimed in saying he had also spotted the similarity.

Bertram maintained that the ring had never been Helena’s. Once again the King insisted very strongly that it had been his and that he had given it to Helena. She had told the King that she would either give it to Bertram in bed or return it to the King as a sign she needed his help.

Bertram once again said that Helena had never seen the ring, and that it had been thrown at him from a window. The King ordered him to be taken away.

The Gentleman delivered to the King the mysterious petition signed by Diana Capilet. Bertram was brought back under guard as Diana introduced herself.

She claimed that she was Bertram’s wife and that he had taken her virginity. Bertram dismissed her as “a common gamester to the camp”. Diana countered, showing the ancestral ring Bertram had given her, proving that she was special. The Countess of course recognised it.

Bertram admitted that he had given it to her, but that he had been beguiled into handing it over by her “infinite cunning”.

In full riddle mode, Diana bade Bertram ask for his ring again and to return her ring to her. When questioned by the King, Diana said she meant the one on Bertram’s finger, which was Helena’s via the King.

She insisted that she had given it to Bertram in bed, contradicting his story about it being thrown from a window.

A very nervous and confused Parolles confirmed that he had acted as go-between and that Bertram had slept with Diana and promised her marriage.

The King questioned Diana about the ring but she denied having been given it, having bought it, being lent it or finding it. Confusingly, she denied having given it to Bertram. The King grew frustrated and ordered Diana to be taken away, ordering her execution if she did not tell him how she had come to possess it.

Diana asked her mother to “fetch my bail”, saying of Bertram “my bed he hath defiled; and at that time he got his wife with child”, before heralding the arrival of “one that’s dead is quick”.

Helena loomed out of the box room in semi-silhouette before appearing fully lit in a white maternity dress clutching at a pronounced baby bump. Her grasp here was directly reminiscent of Parolles’ gesture at the start when referring to how a man might “blow you up”. This connected the first scene in the play with the last.

Bertram fell to the ground and scrambled backwards as if trying in vain to escape from this vision.

She came forward and pointed at Bertram’s ring on Diana’s finger and produced his letter showing that all the conditions he had set had been fulfilled, concluding “This is done: will you be mine, now you are doubly won?”

Even at this point Helena had a hint of vulnerability to her as if her triumph was not something of which she felt boastfully proud. This made her sympathetic.

There was a dichotomy between the dramatic impact of her entry, and the modesty of her character that she had retained from the beginning of the play. This adventure had not been a personal journey in which her character had altered: she was still the same person she had been at the start.

It was perhaps this non-triumphant reclaim of him that helped Bertram to love her.

Lafeu cried “mine eyes smell onions” quite pathetically.

The King took charge and delighted in telling Diana that she could pick any husband she wanted.

Despite the King saying that “All yet seems well”, Bertram and Helena stood hand in hand at the end, showing that they were truly reconciled. This meant that the resolution was romantic rather than edged with pessimism.

Conclusions

This perfectly entertaining production added to a list of recent outings of All’s Well that cumulatively pose the question: why is this play performed so little?

The production was chiefly memorable for the performances of Jonathan Slinger and Greg Hicks, which is ironic given that it is supposed to be about the triumph of female wit and ingenuity in the person of Helena. But this was the result of the underplaying of Helena’s heroism so that her victory was a quiet, not a boastful nor an attention-seeking one.

The Festival of Arden

As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 24 May 2013

A dark stage was strewn with very dead leaves. Looming at the back was a dense set of upright wooden beams reminiscent of a foreboding forest. Two sombrely-clad figures appeared. Orlando (Alex Waldmann), in dark trousers and a hoodie, began sweeping the leaves with a wide-headed broom, while Adam (David Fielder) wheeled the barrow into which the plant detritus was collected.

As the last of the leaves was deposited into the barrow, Orlando sat, lit a cigarette and launched into his opening speech, complaining about his brother’s neglect of his upbringing (1.1).

Oliver (Luke Norris) appeared behind them in a smart dark suit. Despite his haughtiness, he was neither cruel nor excessively arrogant. He came across like someone who had merely taken advantage of an opportunity to enrich himself at his brother’s expense. This made his subsequent conversion to goodness more believable and allowed Duke Frederick to assume the mantle of the principal, unrivalled villain.

In his anger Orlando punched Oliver, who cried “What, boy!” in surprise. The fight escalated until Orlando straddled Oliver with his hand round his throat.

After this tense beginning a note of humour was struck when Oliver called for Dennis (Daniel Easton), and his comically obsequious servant announced that Charles was waiting to speak with him.

Charles (Mark Holgate) exposited the news about Duke Senior fleeing to the Forest of Arden and Oliver encouraged him not to spare Orlando in the forthcoming wrestling tournament.

A group of women dressed in formal evening gowns assembled in a corner upstage and stood in a rigid formation. They began a series of slow, synchronised moves under the intimidating gaze of male overseers. This was dancing, but with all the joy sucked out. They occasionally clicked their fingers and tossed their heads, but the stiffness and formality of their movements made them robotic rather than exotic.

This joyless dance showed how the new Duke’s court was a place of emotional as well as physical grimness. Touchstone (Nicholas Tennant), in his vest, clown’s makeup and red nose, attempted briefly to mock the dancers, but he soon gave up his fitful rebellion.

Rosalind (Pippa Nixon) and Celia (Joanna Horton) broke out of the formation and came forward (1.2). Celia asked Rosalind to be merry and when Rosalind replied that she showed “more mirth than I am mistress of”, she pointed at the sad women behind them. Rosalind’s suggestion that they should make sport by falling in love looked like desperate escapism and an unlikely outcome given their circumstances.

Touchstone made his first proper appearance. His joke about honour and pancakes showed him to be a rebel against the new dour order at court because he did not take its formality seriously.

Celia’s “For since the little wit that fools have was silenced” hinted at another sinister aspect of the new order imposed by Duke Frederick, the debilitating effects of which had already been visualised.

Madame La Belle (Karen Archer) told the two friends about the wrestling. The sparky, witty exchange that ensued between them provided a foretaste of the glee that would subsequently flourish once Rosalind and Celia had been exiled from the court.

As a crowd gathered to watch the match, boards were taken up from the stage platform to reveal a wrestling pit beneath.

Our first look at Duke Frederick (John Stahl) showed him to be burly and sinister, with a deep voice and unsmiling demeanour: just the person to drain all the joy out of the entire dukedom.

Orlando stood on the other side of the pit from Rosalind and Celia, facing upstage in his hoodie until called by La Belle. He spoke with Rosalind in front of the pit and they seemed charmed with each other, but not overly so.

Orlando knelt in the pit as Touchstone blindfolded and poured water over his head. Charles then began his assault and repeatedly overwhelmed him. Orlando seemed on the verge of total defeat by his much stronger opponent until Rosalind crouched at the edge of the pit and enthused “O excellent young man!” Orlando replied disbelievingly with an extra-textual “Really?”

But Rosalind’s encouragement had a transforming effect on Orlando’s performance. Energised by her words, Orlando charged at Charles, punching and beating him into submission to the point that others had to prevent him from slamming the defeated wrestler’s head against the ground.

Duke Frederick exuded brooding menace when expressing his displeasure at victor Orlando’s parentage.

After lingering upstage right for a while, Rosalind and Celia returned to thank Orlando. Rosalind put her pendant necklace around Orlando’s neck. As they conversed, Duke Frederick appeared upstage and observed their complicit chat from a distance. The dark duke now had proof of Rosalind’s disloyalty.

Orlando held the pendant at the end of the necklace towards Rosalind as he tried to utter a meaningful reply, but his tongue had weights on it.

La Belle, acting in response to the duke’s newly-stoked fury, warned Orlando to leave the court. She also informed him that the “smaller” of the two women was the Duke’s daughter. Orlando’s departing “But heavenly Rosalind!” was said looking at his beloved as Rosalind’s entry for the next scene overlapped with his exit.

In keeping with the sombreness of the court atmosphere, Rosalind’s admission that her lack of words was “for my child’s father” did not come as a joyous outburst about Orlando but as a complaint about being unattached.

Their ensuing lively and jovial wordplay was comprehensively crushed by the Duke’s scornful ultimatum to Rosalind to leave the court on pain of death. The threat was very believable, particularly when the Duke gave vent to his fury, throwing Rosalind into the pit as he told Celia that she was a fool for standing by her cousin. Although Rosalind had defended herself with spirit, the Duke’s violence showed him intractable to logic and decency.

They decided to flee. Rosalind plumped for a male disguise and the name Ganymede, and when Celia half-heartedly suggested the alias Aliena, Rosalind backed her up with an extra-textual “No, it’s good!”

In another scene overlap, Rosalind stopped and stared at her estranged father Duke Senior (Cliff Burnett) as he appeared (2.1). A subtle lighting change made the tight array of beams appear like dense forest.

Duke Senior had long grey hair, but his skinny jeans and relaxed, casual demeanour pointed to a youthful spirit. He and his fellows carried hunting rifles with which they intended to “kill us venison”.

Having seen the depressing nature of the usurping Duke Frederick’s “envious court”, it was understandable that these refugees considered suffering “the icy fang” of the winter wind less problematic.

The 1st Lord (Samuel Taylor) launched into an energetic impression of Jaques, including his Welsh accent.

Displeasure

The stage became dark again as Duke Frederick bellowed his displeasure at Rosalind and Celia’s flight (2.2). A very nervous Hisperia (Rosie Hilal) stood by as the Duke was told how she had overheard the cousins’ praise of Orlando. The Duke angrily ordered that Oliver be brought to him.

Still in the darkness of the court, Adam warned Orlando that his brother planned to burn down his lodging (2.3). Adam showed a small tin in which he had saved money for his old age, but which he now wanted to use to fund their flight. The rattle of coins in the meagre container evoked paradoxically the grandeur of Adam’s gesture.

Adam’s description of his sensible, non-profligate youth was very moving. It now enabled him to enjoy a “lusty winter, frosty but kindly”, which he demonstrated by carrying Orlando’s rucksack.

The main shift to the world of the forest was marked by a transformative ceremony.

Corin (Robin Soans) entered the downstage pit and, Prospero-like, drew a circle around himself in the dirt with his shepherd’s staff. The creation of this magic circle made the beam forest fold to one side as the upstage revolve on which some of the beams stood began to turn. The effect was to create an open space where before had stood an impenetrable wall.

We saw Rosalind in her man’s disguise of trousers, short hair and rucksack, together with Touchstone (2.4). Celia lagged far behind offstage with the sound of clanging cooking pots announcing her approach. Rosalind said she should “comfort the weaker vessel” at which point Celia finally appeared, completely overloaded with equipment on her back, and collapsed.

Rosalind stood in the pit to announce they were in the Forest of Arden. Touchstone was actually happy to be there and his delivery of “the more fool I” transformed his gripe into a positive vote in favour of the new location.

Rosalind’s response to seeing Silvius (Michael Grady-Hall) complain to Corin about his unrequited love for Phoebe was slightly too enthusiastic. Instead of pining like Silvius, her “Alas, poor shepherd…” verged on the pantomimic. This abrupt change of style might have been intended to distinguish the forest from the court, but the difference felt too pronounced.

Touchstone provided a note of earthy humour, pausing before saying he had broke “… my sword…” to introduce a bawdy connotation into the description of his wooing of Jane Smile.

Celia was starving hungry and Rosalind prepared to seek help from Corin. She pushed some socks down her trousers to plump out her groin, while the others placed Touchstone’s hat on her head, which being too big, came right down over her eyes.

Striking a mannish pose and adopting a strained style of speech without deepening her tone, she struck up a conversation with the shepherd. She repeated her reference to Celia “…and faints for succour” until Celia took the hint and swooned dramatically to conform with Rosalind’s description of her.

Celia, like Rosalind, was convinced that a rustic mode of speech was required to get on Corin’s side, so her “I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it” was a strangulated approximation of the local dialect. Not wanting to let the side down, Touchstone also jabbered incoherently.

They left to buy the sheepcote as the exiles entered (2.5). Amiens (Chris Jared) played guitar and sang Laura Marling’s adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree, accompanied by another guitarist.

Jaques (Oliver Ryan) teased Amiens about his singing, in an accent less obviously Welsh than that of his imitator in 2.1. Rather than exude melancholy, this Jaques was more otherworldly, to the extent that his occasional skyward glances made it seem he was on the lookout for the ship that would return him to his home planet.

After another Amiens song, Jaques handed him the words to one of his own composing. Amiens took the paper and sat in a circle with his fellow musicians upstage as they concentrated on rendering this new tune correctly.

Jaques pointed with his finger in a wide sweep taking in the audience when explaining that “Ducdame” was “a Greek invocation to call fools into a circle”.

Adam and Orlando had found their way to the forest (2.6). Adam collapsed in the pit, fainting with hunger. Cradling his loyal manservant, Orlando discovered that his water bottle was empty, which heightened his resolve to seek out food, carrying Adam along rather than leaving him behind.

Jaques was enthused after his meeting with Touchstone, relishing his memory of the experience by lying on his back in the pit (2.7).

Oliver Ryan’s Jaques was very distinctive but not show-stoppingly magnetic as Forbes Masson’s Jaques had been in the RSC’s 2009 production. This helped to keep the production’s focus on Pippa Nixon’s Rosalind.

Orlando surprised the foresters at sword-point and demanded food. This wish granted, he went to fetch Adam while Jaques spoke of the seven ages of man.

Jaques took his hat and cradled it when referring to the infant, then imitated the “whining schoolboy”, before pointing at two of his fellow foresters as the lover and the soldier. He used his hat to represent the “fair round belly” of the justice “with good capon lined” and gestured at his trousers for the pantaloon, trailing off into his gloomy conclusion about “second childishness and mere oblivion”.

Orlando returned with Adam, and Amiens launched into a Laura Marling update of “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” accompanied by a band wheeled in on a cart far upstage left.

Orlando sat motionless as the song played, but must have spoken about his situation and been overheard by the Duke in order for the latter to comment on Orlando being Sir Rowland’s son.

The action returned briefly to the court where Duke Frederick loomed threateningly over Oliver, who had been brought to his knees in the pit, finally banishing him and ordering the seizure of all his property (3.1).

Orlando appeared in a knitted hat with earflaps, and carrying an accordion as he attempted to compose a song (3.2). “Rosaline… if I could make you mine… I’d walk the line… no…”, he concluded as his composition went astray.

After another go, rhyming “high tower” and “power”, he launched into the text’s “Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love” sticking sheets of writing onto the few beams that remained to represent the forest.

He urged himself to “Run, run” and carve Rosalind’s name on every tree, and left the stage just as a figure we would later discover was Hymen, appeared in the shadows with a stag’s head atop his own. At this point the interval came.

Interval

At the start of the second half the raised area and sunken pit in front of the revolve had been removed and ash spread over the entire stage.

Corin and Touchstone sat in silence for some time, before Touchstone held forth on the tediousness of a shepherd’s life.

Rosalind, now in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, read the verse she had found. Touchstone’s mockery extended to kneeling in front of the cross-dressed woman and staring at her crotch to emphasise “must find love’s prick…”

Rosalind’s retort referenced the “medlar”, a fruit whose bawdy connotations she brought out by placing two fingers in front of her mouth in a V-shape and licking with her tongue. She also described the medlar as “the earliest fruit in the cunt-try [country]”.

Celia, whose forest attire included a skirt/leggings combination and Zooey Deschanel glasses, read out the verse she had found, prompting the band to strike up. She launched into a slightly histrionic rendition running about the stage and standing on the drinks fridge.

At various points during these forest scenes, people would go to this drinks fridge and retrieve cans.

When Celia told Rosalind that Orlando was the author of the verses, she panicked at her disguise and began to strip, slipping off her braces and dropping her trousers to reveal the sock padding in her pants, as Celia hastily tried to hoist the trousers back up again.

Rosalind wanted to know more, so Celia asked her to take note “with good observance”, pointed with the two fingers of one hand at her own eyes and then extended them towards Rosalind, accompanying this gesture with an extra-textual “watch!” Celia then stood next to Rosalind and pointed at the downstage beam representing the tree under which she had found Orlando.

As with almost all performances of this play, Rosalind’s “…I am a woman. When I think, I must speak” amused the audience greatly.

The pair hid from Orlando and Jaques behind a stage left beam when the two men entered. But they could not help but react to what Orlando said.

Orlando confirmed that Rosalind was his love’s name, causing the two women to squee out loud. Rosalind reached out with her hand when Orlando defended her name, and had to be pulled back by Celia. Finally, when Orlando said that Rosalind was “Just as high as my heart” they both aww-ed at the cuteness of his expression.

Jaques placed his thumb and forefinger together and spied through the circle they formed when suggesting Orlando conned goldsmiths’ wives out of rings.

Once Jaques had left, Rosalind became determined to speak to Orlando. She adjusted her crotch and took a can from the fridge before addressing him “like a saucy lackey”.

Orlando appreciated her ready wit, shared a joint with her and fixed her with a contented smile. They hit it off instantly despite Rosalind’s disguise, which demonstrated that Orlando found her personality intrinsically attractive.

Orlando mentioned Rosalind’s overly-refined accent. This perturbed Rosalind, who had to hastily devise the story about her uncle teaching her to speak. But its delivery was strained.

Her insecurity in her disguise became noticeable when she took Orlando downstage, her hand on his shoulder, and pointed back at Celia, saying “I thank God I am not a woman” in a clumsy attempt at male bonding.

Rosalind said that Orlando had none of the marks of a man in love and bobbed around him pointing out his deficiencies, plucking his hat off complaining that he was “point-device” in his “accoutrements”.

She took another opportunity to bond with Orlando, pointing at Celia to comment on “one of the points in which women still give the lie to their consciences.”

Rosalind asked Orlando if he was responsible for the love verses strewn about the forest. He confessed that he was, and unpacked yet more pieces of paper from several pockets. Sheet followed sheet in a comical moment showing the excess of verse he still had about him.

Rosalind moved away from him, casting a doubtful glance back as she asked “But are you so much in love as your rhymes speak?” It was a beautiful moment, showing the concern and insecurity behind Rosalind’s brave ‘performance’ as Ganymede.

Proclaiming love to be “merely a madness”, Rosalind said she would cure Orlando of this sickness by her impetuous response to his wooing. This, of course, required him to address ‘Ganymede’ as Rosalind. Orlando willingly agreed to do so, much to Rosalind’s delight.

Audrey the goatherd (Rosie Hilal again) wore sheepskin boots, a short skirt and a midriff-baring top. A utility belt hung from her waist in which she stored the tools of her trade (3.3).

Her conversation with Touchstone was spied on by Jaques, who hid behind a series of beams, effecting a token disguise by holding up two fronds.

Touchstone took a can from the fridge before telling Audrey that he hoped she was feigning like a poet when she said she was honest. He then knelt before her and attempted unsuccessfully to prize off her top and skirt.

Realising that he would have to go the honourable route, he got down on one knee and tried to utter the words “I will marry thee”. But this was so against his nature that it took an age before he could pronounce the words comprehensibly, mouthing a series of approximations to the key phrase before spitting it out properly.

Audrey was jubilant and ran off, leaving Touchstone to start on his speech about cuckolds. The actor broke out of character for a while and asked a man in the audience how long he had been married. Graham, for it was he, replied that he could not remember, but his wife would know. This caused great amusement, more perhaps than the adlibbing actor had planned. He said that he would now get back on text “for my own safety”. Touchstone then included Graham’s name in his speech, using it to replace the references or allusions in the text to a married man.

Audrey returned in a bridal veil and carrying a bouquet in time for the entry of Sir Oliver Martext (Dave Fishley), a magnificent spliff-toting Rastafarian, who insisted that someone should give Audrey away.

Jaques came forward but immediately set about dissuading Touchstone from marrying in this fashion. Sir Oliver concluded that none of them would “flout me out of my calling”, with the word “calling” clearly referring to the huge spliff that he bent backwards to draw on sending clouds of smoke into the air.

Orlando had not turned up at the promised time, so Celia sat and commiserated by holding hands with Rosalind, who was now wearing a waistcoat over a white vest (3.4).

An excited Corin told them of the approach of Silvius and Phoebe. Phoebe (Natalie Klamar) lambasted Silvius in an odd rural accent (3.5). Natalie Klamar delivered a focused and well-paced performance of Phoebe’s lengthy demolition of Silvius’s accusation that she was his executioner.

Rosalind came forward to castigate Phoebe, a chiding that the shepherdess willingly received. She ran her hands through her hair behind her head as she tangled with Ganymede’s eyes, making her attraction very plain.

Rosalind and Celia made a quick exit after telling Silvius where to find them.

Phoebe declared how much she was in love and told Silvius she needed him for an errand.

Describing Ganymede as “a peevish boy”, Phoebe launched into a lengthy conversation with herself, tussling back and forth between his good and bad points. She sat on the fridge and proceeded to bounce up and down, screwing up her eyes as she lingered over Ganymede’s physicality. Her rhythmic gyrations on the fridge became increasingly orgasmic as she inwardly fantasised. She concluded by asking Silvius to take a letter to the youth.

Object

After Rosalind’s mockery of Jaques, comparing him to a post, we soon saw that Rosalind was anything but a motionless object (4.1).

Jaques flounced off when Orlando approached, drawing full attention to the young man’s changed appearance. Rosalind must have had a profound effect on him when she had described the marks of a true lover, because Orlando had returned having reworked his appearance to conform in every detail to what a true lover should look like.

He had grown a straggly beard, his shoes were untied and his clothes characterised by the “careless desolation” of Rosalind’s idealised description. He also had half of Rosalind’s name written up each arm and had brought her a bouquet of flowers.

But Rosalind was annoyed at his tardiness and prowled around him with an agile dexterity. Overly excited as she described herself as “your Rosalind”, she sat behind Celia who corrected her enthusiasm by referring to the ‘real’ Rosalind “of a better leer than you”.

Rosalind bounded to her feet again, taking off her waistcoat to stand in just trousers and vest, leaning forward in a semi-crouch with her hands on her thighs and her rear sticking out. This was a combative posture, suggesting that Orlando was now engaged in another wrestling bout of a different nature. She continued to lean forward, jigging up and down as she challenged Orlando “Come, woo me, woo me…”

Orlando rushed forward aggressively, exclaiming “I would kiss before I spoke”. Rosalind immediately saw the problem of his enthusiastic response to her in her male disguise. She turned away from his advances saying “Nay…” and moved aside from Orlando before pulling at her fake crotch bulge to ensure it was visible and prominent. This restatement of her masculine disguise spoke of her puzzlement as to why Orlando was so forward with another male, something that perhaps gave her momentary doubts about his masculinity.

Notwithstanding these uncertainties, from that moment on Rosalind was more tactile towards Orlando as if acceding to his desire for greater physical intimacy.

Rosalind said she would not have Orlando, eliciting his dramatic “I die”. She lectured him about Troilus and Leander and how they had not died for love, and Orlando obediently sat leaning against the downstage beam to take notes.

Reverting to “a more coming-on disposition”, Rosalind got Celia to preside over a mock wedding. The bouquet that Orlando had brought became Rosalind’s bridal bouquet as the pair knelt and faced each other with Celia standing over them.

Rosalind asked Orlando how long he would have her. Answer came as he climbed on top of her saying “for ever and a day”. Once again Rosalind was uncomfortable with his readiness to be so physical with ‘Ganymede’. As he pinned her to the ground, his body between her thighs, she cried “No, no Orlando…” and extricated herself from his clutches. This time Orlando realised he had gone too far. He stood up and in deep embarrassment tried to conceal his arousal.

Rosalind bounced around in front of Orlando acting out the various ways that she would torment him once they were married.

Orlando left to dine with the Duke, allowing Rosalind to profess to Celia how much she was in love. Celia said she would sleep and exited, leaving Rosalind on stage to sing a song by torchlight. This sequence replaced scene 4.2. As she sang, female torch bearers entered and circled her, creating a very magical setting that foreshadowed the play’s conclusion.

Having Rosalind on stage at this point worked well, because when Celia reappeared, Rosalind was the first to speak in 4.3. It was as if the song had marked her dreaming the intervening two hours.

Orlando had not returned, but they were soon occupied by the letter from Phoebe that Silvius had brought to Rosalind. Silvius discovered to his chagrin that the letter was not a caustic chiding.

Oliver appeared through the forest wearing yellow waterproofs, and with a map and compass round his neck. He cheerily introduced himself, which was entirely credible, given that he had not been initially characterised as a cruel monster. This facilitated his present transformation into a good guy.

Celia approached Oliver and gave him directions to the sheepcote, pointing to its location on his map. He recognised the pair, reading out the description of them he had been given, presumably by Orlando, from a scrap of paper.

Oliver showed Rosalind the bloody napkin sent to her by Orlando, which he had stored behind the clear plastic of his map case. He recounted the story of how Orlando had found and rescued his brother in the forest, leaving to the end the great reveal that he was that brother.

Oliver explained how Orlando had used the napkin to bind the wound caused by the lioness’ bite, extracting it from the case and presenting it to Rosalind, who promptly fainted backwards.

Rosalind recovered consciousness, but was groggy and pleaded plaintively “I would I were at home”. She was helped to her feet by Oliver, but there was no indication that he had felt anything womanly about her body.

Rosalind flipped between confident assertion of her disguise and fatigued whining, as if giving up on the pretence. Oliver said she lacked a man’s heart, to which she replied by pleading “I do so, I confess it”, reaching out to him as if this admission would bring an end to her troubles.

But she then began overcompensating for her frailty by claiming to have counterfeited. She maintained this until Oliver said she should counterfeit to be a man, at which point she almost collapsed again, saying “So I do… I should have been a woman by right”, until Celia pulled her upright once more.

Audrey was very unhappy about the failed wedding (5.1). William (Mark Holgate again), a big man with a simple soul, arrived clutching a small, long-stemmed flower which he hoped to present to her. Touchstone dispatched him, telling him not to bother Audrey and issued a sequence of threats accompanied by drum beats. Far from being annoyed with Touchstone, Audrey had stood and watched all this admiringly and was now very impressed with him.

Orlando was surprised that his brother had fallen in love so quickly with Aliena. Oliver continued to cement his nice-guy persona by exclaiming “I love Aliena” with a joyous flourish. Orlando had his arm in a real bandage, indicating that Oliver’s story was correct and not a poetic subterfuge to impress Rosalind.

Rosalind asked Orlando if his brother had told him how she had counterfeited. Because Oliver had not seen through Rosalind’s disguise when helping her to her feet, Orlando’s “Ay, and greater wonders than that” clearly referred to Oliver’s love for Aliena and was not played as a winking hint to Rosalind that she had been rumbled.

Rosalind picked up on this and developed the theme, describing how the couple were in “the very wrath of love”. His brother’s joy was clearly making Orlando suffer, as he said how bitter it was to “look into happiness through another man’s eyes”.

Substitute

Rosalind asked him if she would no longer be an acceptable substitute for his Rosalind.

Orlando said “I can live no longer by thinking” and slowly offered his hand for her to shake. The shake done, Orlando turned and walked away from Rosalind, presumably never to return.

Orlando’s intended departure after his sad farewell to Rosalind became a very tense moment, as the entire future of their relationship hung in the balance. Instead of rushing towards an inevitable happy end, the play entered into a moment of crisis, reaching a crucial turning point in what was now an edgy drama. Rosalind had to draw something out of the bag to win Orlando back.

Rosalind’s next speech was received in pin-drop silence. She called to Orlando just as he disappeared, promising to “weary you then no longer with idle talking”. The nervous tension of the moment expressed itself in the way she rambled confusedly, desperately thinking on her feet in the face of the potential catastrophe of losing Orlando.

All this could be seen in the disconnectedness of her speech: “I speak not this that you should bear a good opinion of my knowledge… Neither do I labour for a greater esteem than may in some little measure draw a belief from you, to do yourself good and not to grace me.”

Orlando turned and approached Rosalind as she explained that she was a magician and could arrange for him to marry Rosalind the next day.

Phoebe, with Silvius trailing behind her, complained that Rosalind had read out the letter she had sent. This led into Silvius’s description of “what ‘tis to love”.

Rosalind’s repeated “And I for no woman” was addressed first to Phoebe and then to Orlando, expressing discouragement and encouragement in equal measure. Silvius and Phoebe ended up lying on the ground facing each other, continuing to tattle while Rosalind asked Orlando “Who do you speak to ‘why blame you me to love you?’” Orlando referred to the absent Rosalind, holding up the pendant he was still wearing, which as Rosalind’s gift, was the nearest thing he had to her.

Rosalind gave her instructions to the lovers to meet her again tomorrow, promising them various sorts of contentment.

Touchstone and Audrey met two of the Duke’s pages (Samuel Taylor & Karen Archer again), which turned into a song and dance centred on a new version of It Was a Lover and His Lass (5.3). The band played and the pair danced round each other while the revolve was decked out with strings of lights and other paraphernalia in preparation for the wedding. Paper lanterns descended to provide illumination.

Duke Senior and Orlando remarked how Rosalind was strangely familiar (5.4). Lines 5-25, the reappearance of Rosalind with her renewed promises to the lovers, were cut. Thus the initial conversation between the Duke and Orlando continued uninterrupted with Senior saying that the “shepherd boy” reminded him of his daughter while Orlando thought he was her brother.

Touchstone carried Audrey onstage on his back via the stage left walkway. In a nice touch, Audrey was now wearing a clown’s nose like Touchstone’s, symbolising her affinity with him.

The extended sequence about the seven degrees of the lie was cut. This has always looked like filler to allow the actor playing Rosalind to change into her wedding dress. But because this production included scene 5.3 and cut Rosalind’s re-entry at the start of this scene, there was plenty of time for Pippa Nixon to change and Touchstone’s quirky discourse was omitted.

However, when Touchstone gestured at Audrey and remarked on this “poor humour of mine, sir, to take that that no man else will”, William, who was definitely willing to take Audrey, lunged forward aggressively and had to be restrained. This demonstration of the unhappy consequences of William’s rejection introduced a dark undercurrent that would later be developed by Jaques.

Rosalind and Celia, now wearing simple white dresses, walked slowly together hand in hand accompanied by Hymen (Robin Soams again)  in his stag’s head costume. They parted hands as they approached a central beam and passed either side of it, possibly symbolising the downgrading of their childhood friendship in the face of their impending marriages.

Hymen reunited the Duke with his daughter. Rosalind embraced Orlando, who kissed her as he declared “… you are my Rosalind”. He took the pendant necklace from his neck and replaced it around Rosalind’s neck from whence it had originally come.

Phoebe realised she was not going to marry Ganymede. Hymen reined in the confusion and handed out four sets of his eponymous blue bands that the kneeling couples then used to bind their hands together. He addressed each couple in turn, the pair in question rising from their crouched position when mentioned.

Once the brief ceremony was finished there was general whooping and celebration, which was interrupted by the arrival of Jaques de Boys (Chris Jared again) with news of Duke Frederick’s conversion to goodness.

The Duke’s intention that everyone should fall into “rustic revelry” was delayed by Jaques departing to seek out Frederick. Not a fan of “dancing measures”, he breezed off the downstage left walkway. Rosalind offered him her bridal bouquet, which he paused to take with him. Thus was Jaques’ undercutting of the marriage festivities itself undercut by his own acceptance of Rosalind’s gift – perhaps signifying that he would be the next to be married?

A jig was danced at the end with all the couples joining in. Eventually, though, the central couple of Rosalind and Orlando were left by themselves. He held her aloft; they smooched and collapsed into the earthy ground as water rained down on them as if at a festival. They kissed and got themselves muddy in the joyous abandon of young love fulfilled.

The wrestling pit of the court where once Orlando had fought for his life was now supplanted by a muddy field of festival fun in which Orlando and Rosalind celebrated life.

Rosalind rose from the mire to deliver the epilogue, at the end of which the audience bade her farewell with great applause.

Unusually for a production of this play, Pippa Nixon received a solo curtain call in recognition of her portrayal of Rosalind.

Conclusions

Under Maria Åberg’s capable direction, the imagining of the Forest of Arden as a contemporary music festival worked very well. An association was made between the escapist freedom enjoyed by urban dwellers camping in fields, leaving their cares behind them to frolic in mud and listen to music, and the forest within the play that serves as a refuge from the crushing conformity of Duke Frederick’s court.

But the principal reason for the success of the production was Pippa Nixon’s outstanding performance as Rosalind. The abiding memory of her stage presence was its mixture of tenderness and freneticism. Her last minute rescue of her relationship with Orlando made her almost a heroic figure. All of which meant that her solo curtain call was thoroughly deserved.

Hamlet the Dane

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 corpore 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 his dark mourning suit and glasses. He leant forward with his head in his hands, clearly distressed. After composing himself, he picked up a lath sword and moved to the piste where he began a fencing manoeuvre.

He fought his way down the piste against an imaginary opponent. As he reached the end, the sound of clashing foils was briefly heard. Hamlet turned back and uttered the play’s first line “Who’s there?”

The sound of swords was an echo returning back in time from the final fencing bout. The answer to Hamlet’s question was that his future, his fate and his destiny were calling him.

The watch appeared via side entrances and, becoming aware of their presence, Hamlet slipped 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 stage left 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. Hamlet 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’s 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.

Ophelia countered Laertes’ conditional statement “Then if he says he loves you…” with an emphatic extra-textual “He does, he does”.

Polonius lectured Laertes and again proved 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’s 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.

Grief

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 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 pulled Horatio back and directed his “time is out of joint” lines directly at him, not at 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 and stood silently staring at her father. This interruption became the cause of Polonius’s forgetfulness and the reason he had to pick up the thread of the conversation.

Ophelia sat quietly until Reynaldo had been dispatched, after which Polonius was free to listen to her. She spoke impulsively fired by the urgency that had driven her to 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 and carrying suitcases as if they had just arrived at the king’s behest (2.2). Drinks were brought for them.

At first the king was not sure which of them was which and did not address them individually. But on bidding them farewell he made an effort and got them the right way round, much to Gertrude’s satisfaction.

Polonius hurried to see the king and told him that he had found the cause of Hamlet’s madness, then ushered in the ambassadors who brought the good news of Fortinbras’ arrest. The king spoke with the ambassadors upstage, leaving Gertrude alone downstage sat on a chair looking neglected.

Ophelia was kept outside by her father and then ushered in and ordered to stand on a particular spot, receiving her 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”. Without the final part, Hamlet seemed not be commenting on an increase in height but an increase in age and proximity to death.

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 had 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.

Antic

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”. Screwing one of the papers into a ball he threw it at her face.

His mood flipped into aggression, telling her to get to a nunnery while ringing a large hand bell. 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 taken from beyond the stage blocks, complaining of women’s “paintings”. He completed her humiliation by stripping off her pullover and skirt, leaving her vulnerably semi-clad. He also cut off some of her hair with a small knife.

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 and began collecting up the scattered contents of the box.

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.

When Claudius entered he was wearing a fencing mask, possibly that belonging to Hamlet’s father. It was removed from his face just before he and Gertrude reached the bench that had been set aside in front of the raised stage. 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, with the King wearing an oversized paper crown that towered upwards.

The poisoner appeared with a large phallic baguette dangling from his waist and gestured his covetousness of the queen and also of the castle on the painted backdrop. The gentle music of this scene changed to heavy metal 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 symbolising her heart, at which point the poisoner raised the 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.

The poisoner wore a suit identical to that of Claudius. He killed the Player King in imitation of Claudius’s crime, causing the king to rise from the bench 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” as Horatio snapped him with the camera. 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 when Horatio brought the recorders, Hamlet became vitriolic in his denunciation of Guildenstern, standing close and speaking “though you fret me you cannot play upon me” directly into his face.

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.

The king instructed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet to England, and they received a wad of notes in payment for their work (3.3). Polonius announced his intention to listen in on Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude, after which Claudius had a few moments alone.

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’s 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). Hamlet appeared with a bouquet of flowers. His mother sat on the sofa (brought down from the Mousetrap stage during the post-performance chaos) 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. Responding to Gertrude’s threat “I’ll set those to you that can speak”, 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 upstage left, which perhaps helped him to be kinder to his mother, hugging her as he tried 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.

Threat

Gertrude was still crouched face down and sobbing when Claudius entered, giving real meaning to his “There’s matter in these sighs, these profound heaves” (4.1). Claudius again interpreted news of Hamlet’s rash actions as a direct threat to him. 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 the steps to the sofa 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’s location. In the darkness it was difficult to see Polonius’s blood on his fencing suit.

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. But she had enough time to see Hamlet’s now fully-illuminated, blood-stained clothes. Her look of horror evidenced her realisation that Hamlet was responsible for her father’s death.

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’s 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. The “two thousand souls” line was given to the Captain.

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?”

This could be interpreted two ways. The wedding dress and her previously avowed love for Hamlet meant she could have been referring to the prince. But it was also possible that, as a bride waiting to be escorted to the altar, she was expecting to see her father perform that honour.

But the overriding impression was that this 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. She handed her bouquet to Horatio and set out small bunches of flowers on the benches as if they were wedding guests, before reclaiming the bouquet once more. Looking up at the imagined altar, she crossed herself.

Claudius appeared and Ophelia hugged him warmly. She set off down the piste, her arm bowed out for her father to accompany her, as she sang ‘Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day’. Once at the end, she knelt 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, throwing her bouquet over her shoulder. A sad-looking Gertrude picked up the bouquet and kept it.

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. Ophelia hugged her brother saying “Fare you well my dove”.

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’s 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’s 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. Claudius exclaimed “From Hamlet!” with utter incredulity.

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’s “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’s 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 appeared in silhouette at 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 sitting cosy by the Gravedigger, engaging him 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.

Favour

Hamlet took Yorick’s skull and its jawbone fell to the ground, prompting his remark that it was “quite chapfallen”. He 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”, placing on Ophelia’s grave the bouquet that she had discarded in her madness. This symbolically linked the marriage Gertrude had hoped to see between Ophelia and her son with the present funeral.

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, mocking his actions by tossing soil over himself, 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’s 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.

The stage was swept in preparation 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 and pronounced it too light. Claudius took the poisoned and unbated one from the wall, which was then passed to Laertes.

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’s protestations.

After the third pass Laertes charged at Hamlet cutting him under the right arm with the envenomed blade, causing Hamlet to drop his own foil. Osric wrestled Laertes’ sword from him, which Hamlet then snatched from Osric. Laertes and Hamlet wrestled over the sword and Laertes eventually cut his hand on the blade, thereby poisoning himself.

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. Claudius, discovering the doors locked, backed himself against the stage right side wall in terror. Hamlet approached Claudius and cut him behind the ear with the poisoned sword.

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. This was a direct echo of Claudius’s initial bullying of Hamlet to accept a drink and join in the wedding festivities. 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, which he had taken from the table.

Horatio saw 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 “He has my dying voice. The rest is silence”.

He staggered down the piste. When he reached the end, he glimpsed Ophelia and a brief flash of joy traced across his face before he buckled and 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.

Alarm bells rang and the sprinkler system dousing the entire stage in water as Fortinbras (Chris Jared) appeared dramatically in semi-silhouette on the raised stage after which the stage went dark and the performance ended.

Conclusions

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.

As well as 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…