Othello, Olivier Theatre, 12 May 2013
The dark exterior of a three-storey London house loomed over the stage. A door opened and the forbidding structure, at least its ground floor, was revealed to house a cheerful bar. Off-duty squaddies stood by the doorway through which Roderigo pursued Iago into the street outside (1.1).
Rory Kinnear drew surlily on his cigarette, lager in hand, as he told of being passed over for promotion. In his portrayal of Iago, Kinnear just managed to skirt the right side of faux blokeishness, but it was clear that he was affecting a working class accent imperfectly.
Roderigo (Tom Robertson), played as an upper class buffoon, was more credible for being comical.
The visual, aural and social references located the production unmistakably in contemporary Britain.
The two men moved along the building to knock at the door of Brabantio (William Chubb), who appeared at an upper window. Roused by the news of Desdemona’s flight, he descended to ground level just after Iago slipped away into the darkness.
The outside of the building was transformed by an illuminated sign and an elegant rope barrier into the classy Sagittary (1.2). Othello (Adrian Lester) walked into the street accompanied by Iago who warned his superior officer about the angry Brabantio.
Othello looked dapper in his well-fitting suit, which together with his refined “well spoken” voice, clearly positioned him as Iago’s social superior. The production addressed in passing the class system of multi-racial Britain.
Iago asked Othello if he was married and the general replied by kissing his new wedding ring, proudly holding his hand aloft to show off its gold lustre.
Othello was summoned to attend the Duke, but the furious Brabantio caught up with him before he could depart. No swords or weapons were drawn.
The elderly Brabantio stood close, almost offering a physical challenge to Othello when he referred to his “sooty bosom”. This was overt, disparaging racism and not a dispassionate comment.
However, one of the other officers was also black and this significant detail demonstrated that Othello was not the only upwardly-mobile “Moor” in this “Venice”. His position as a black officer was therefore neither an unusual nor a tenuous one.
Brabantio’s final comment about “bond-slaves and pagans” was also directed venomously at Othello. But the headshaking disbelief of the others showed that Brabantio was the only one using these terms and that wider society had moved on from such attitudes.
The production made plain that Brabantio was isolated in his racism and his subsequent brooding showed that he knew full well that he was the last of the bigoted dinosaurs. Contemporary British society, we were being told, for all its faults aspires to be post-racist.
The stage left front of the house was removed and the “Venetian” council chamber rolled forward to show the Duke (Robert Demeger) and senators in conference at a large table (1.3). The character of the Sailor was represented as a woman in a business suit bringing a report.
Othello stood and received his orders while Iago stood on guard by the door just behind him. Brabantio sat in his privileged position at the table and recounted his daughter’s ‘theft’ in a sulky, defeated mood.
Othello spoke eloquently in his own defence while Brabantio cast his eyes down and looked away. Brabantio’s claim that Desdemona would not willingly fall in love “with what she feared to look on” again highlighted his prejudice. But his depressive sullenness indicated that he knew he was in a minority, essentially on a losing path. The Duke’s rebuke “To vouch this, is no proof” also demonstrated that Brabantio was not taken at his word.
Brabantio again stared downcast at the ground during Othello’s lengthy account of how he and Desdemona had fallen in love. Othello paused after “sold to slavery” before picking up “and my redemption thence” in a more upbeat tone to emphasise the emotive significance of that part of his life. His remarkable tale, with its charming description of Desdemona’s hint, again convinced the Duke.
Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) was brought in. She was pretty, slim, young and blonde, and the only incongruity in her relationship with Othello was the age gap. She looked like a very young adult while Othello was greying.
Desdemona sat next to her father Brabantio at the table, while Othello stood behind him. She held her father’s hands, consoling him as she explained the duty she now owed to her husband.
Othello agreed that Desdemona should accompany him to Cyprus but did not want the senate to think this wish was simply the product of his desires, which he downplayed as “the young affects in me defunct”, again hinting at his age.
The location changed to the street for the continuation of the scene, with Roderigo complaining that he would drown himself out of frustrated love for Desdemona. Iago recommended instead that he should put money in his purse. Roderigo’s claim that he would “sell all my land” was followed by a quizzical look as if he glimpsed the absurdity of his intention.
Iago borrowed some money from Roderigo so that his first soliloquy speech began with him holding a wad of Roderigo’s notes as he said “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse”.
He told us that he suspected Othello of sleeping with his wife, but given his recent duping of Roderigo, what credibility could be given to that claim. Were we his friends?
Iago devised his plan to trick Othello into thinking Cassio was carrying on with his wife. His habitual smoking, nowadays very much an indicator of low social status, added to Iago’s nefarious aura.
The stage opened out to show a military base on Cyprus, complete with blast walls, a gate, and tall wall-illuminating lights beyond (2.1). Soldiers entered and discussed the news of the Turkish fleet disaster, against the backdrop of a constant stream of new arrivals and equipment being carried in. A ship’s horn sounded and was described as the arriving vessel’s “shot of courtesy”.
Desdemona wore a large tag round her neck, identifying her as civilian. She wore a camouflage vest over her civilian clothing and bore a blue rucksack, which made her look semi-military. She had possibly chosen this to make her more soldierly to show sympathy with her husband, but the playfulness behind the approximation hinted at an immature lack of seriousness.
Iago’s wife Emilia (Lynsey Marshal) was also a soldier in this equal opportunity army. Roderigo was in civilian clothes and sported a large tag like Desdemona’s.
Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) beamed a smile and looked like a likely ladies man. He was already familiar with Desdemona and when they spoke together they did make a believable, similarly aged couple.
Iago was chippily jocular when Cassio kissed Emilia. He went into his mildly sexist routine, some of the more obscure bits of which were cut.
Cassio and Desdemona went upstage to wait for the imminent arrival of Othello. He high-fived her and this led into a more prolonged holding of hands. Iago turned towards us, delighted that they were providing him with fuel for his plot.
A helicopter sound heralded the entry of Othello. He threw his helmet to the ground before embracing Desdemona and called her “Honey” as Iago stood at the side watching.
Othello turned to Iago, who seemed to gesture at him, at which point Othello put on his beret and adopted a more military bearing. Othello’s subsequent stiff pronouncement, beginning “I prattle out of fashion, and I dot in mine own comforts”, attempted to correct the unprofessionalism of his overt display of affection for his wife. The production thus added an extra instance of honest Iago doing his master a favour.
Iago assured Roderigo that Desdemona was in love with Cassio and would grow tired of Othello. He urged Roderigo to pick a quarrel with Cassio in order to provoke a fight that would ruin Cassio’s reputation.
To conclude, Iago engaged in another charmingly villainous soliloquy outlining his plan. Like the others, it lacked any overt display of anger, apart from a slight snarl when he said he would take revenge on Othello “wife for wife”.
This was realistic, because Iago’s plot required a great deal of poker-faced lying that boiling anger would render difficult. His plot was being conducted like a military operation, which can be full of violence without actual overt hatred for the target. It was possible to imagine him rationalising his actions in such terms.
The brief scene with the herald (2.2) was cut so that the play continued with 2.3 in the courtyard of base.
Othello’s comment to Cassio that Iago was “most honest” was exceedingly ironic.
Iago met Cassio after the others left. In their ensuing conversation everything that Iago said in praise of Desdemona with his nudges and winks seemed intended to engender a real desire in Cassio for Desdemona, possibly with the intention of making Iago’s plot superfluous.
Iago persuaded Cassio to join in the drinking. The front of mess room opened up to reveal its sparsely furnished interior decorated with girly pictures and full of revelling soldiers.
The drinking song culminated in a can of Efes pilsen being punctured in its side and given to Cassio to drink down as its pressurised contents sprayed out. This was a clever trick because it obliged Cassio to drink the whole lot.
Iago boasted about the drinking habits of the English, reinforcing the mood of debauchery. Cassio proposed a health to Othello, which Montano (Chook Sibtain) backed by producing a bottle of vodka saying “I’ll do you justice”. Cassio was now on spirits as well.
The rowdiness continued until drunken Cassio suddenly had an attack of conscience. He spoke slowly and deliberated about souls to be saved and not saved, while the others looked at him half smirking at his inebriated speech.
He collapsed backwards demanding that the others not think him drunk. Cassio’s lines about his left and right hand were changed slightly so that he held out his right hand and drunkenly referred to it as his left before correcting himself.
Iago took the opportunity to imply to Montano that Cassio was often drunk, and then instructed Roderigo to pursue Cassio and pick a fight.
Not long after, Cassio chased Roderigo back into the mess. Montano held Cassio back to which Cassio responded by beating Montano on the ground in a corner.
The alarm rang and Othello entered to see Cassio still on top of Montano attacking him. Cassio was pulled away and stood rigidly to attention as if the full implications of his actions had suddenly struck him. Montano was now bleeding profusely from his head.
Iago managed to report an accurate account of how the brawl had started, but obviously omitted his role in inciting Roderigo to begin it. His half-hearted defence of Cassio was wonderfully even-handed, causing Othello to think Iago was sticking up for the lieutenant. Othello dismissed Cassio by ripping his rank insignia from his epaulettes.
Desdemona briefly appeared and looked with concern at Cassio before being escorted away. Her solicitous look would help Iago’s plan.
Iago put on the kettle and made Cassio some instant coffee while affecting concern at his predicament. He made light of Cassio moans that he had lost his reputation. Moving his scheme forward, Iago suggested that Cassio get Desdemona to speak on his behalf.
Iago made himself a coffee, sat back and looked as us to ask “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?” Given that most of his statements contained a kernel of truth, his defence of himself had some validity, despite the fact that the villainy of his dealings could be seen once the full picture was in view.
Roderigo whined that he had been hit, that he had run out of money, and that Desdemona was still not his. Iago pointed out that patience was required and that Cassio’s dismissal had been a step forward.
Iago stepped out of the room to the side to outline to us the next stage in his plan, which involved Othello seeing Cassio and Desdemona together.
The musicians were cut, so that the next scene began with Cassio asking a female soldier (Clown) to tell Emilia that he wanted a word (3.1). Iago soon appeared and said he would send his wife out. Emilia assured Cassio that he would soon be restored to his former position.
Othello’s office rolled out from the stage right side. Two desks stood under fluorescent lights. A map of the Arabian peninsula hung on the wall. While Emilia stood on guard by the door, Desdemona assured Cassio that she would put in a word for him (3.3).
Emilia warned of Othello’s approach and both Cassio and Desdemona scurried out a side door just as Othello and Iago entered. Iago sat at his desk which faced away from Othello’s at right angles to it, so that his “Ha, I like not that” was said almost as an aside that Othello overheard.
Desdemona creeped back in through the side door, an entry that added to the furtiveness of the assignation with Cassio that she described. She approached Othello as he sat at his desk and leant over it, pestering him to call Cassio back. She eventually sat on the desk, almost in Othello’s lap, and donned his reading glasses in a playful attempt at persuasion.
Othello relented and looked at his paperwork requesting that she “leave me but a little to myself”.
Iago, who had faced away from the pair all the while concentrating on his laptop screen, set about sowing the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind, asking questions and then denying their significance, echoing Othello to such an extent that it angered the general.
Othello stood and boasted of his immunity to petty, unfounded jealousy, but conceded that he would doubt Desdemona’s honesty if he saw proof.
Already the game had moved onto Iago’s territory, an advantage he capitalised on when he asked Othello to keep watching her when she was with Cassio. He pointed out the way Desdemona had deceived her father.
Iago even apologised for unnecessarily troubling Othello, which again reinforced the idea in Othello’s mind that he was troubled.
Othello’s former confidence was now replaced with a downcast expression.
In another turn of the screw, Iago pointed out that Desdemona had not married someone of the same rank and race as herself.
Iago again apologised for speaking out of turn but encouraged Othello not to reinstate Cassio and then watch how his wife pleaded the disgraced lieutenant’s case.
Othello’s soliloquy saw some self-hatred emerging when he sarcastically stressed the “black” in “Haply, for I am black…”
Emilia and Desdemona returned. Emilia resumed her guard at the door and Desdemona called Othello to dinner. Her husband complained of having a headache, prompting the solicitous Desdemona to draw her handkerchief, wet it and apply it to his head. Othello fussed and cast the handkerchief aside so that it fell to the ground directly in Emilia’s line of vision.
In view of its immense sentimental value, it seemed improbable that Othello would cast away this handkerchief and that Desdemona would not immediately pick it up. She had it with her as a treasured love token, but did not react when Othello threw it away. The only satisfying explanation was that she had been more concerned for her husband than for the token he had given her and had prioritised the one over the other.
Emilia picked up the handkerchief just before Iago entered and playfully held it aloft, teasing him with it until he took it from her. This was the only time that Iago displayed any desperation or weakness. That his desperation originated from Emilia was prescient in view of her role in his ultimate undoing.
But safe in possession of the token, Iago punched the air in victory and told us that he would leave it in Cassio’s room.
Othello returned to his office in some distress, but he was more eloquent and self-pitying than angry. This changed abruptly when he grabbed Iago by the throat and pressed him against the wall, threatening him with dire consequences if he “slander her and torture me”.
Perhaps feeling this powerful grip was what subsequently gave Iago the idea that Othello should strangle Desdemona.
Iago was shocked at this violence and had to compose himself and adjust his uniform before complaining that his “honesty” was not appreciated.
Othello’s doubt was supremely well expressed as Desdemona and Iago became in his mind like Schrödinger’s cat, existing as both honest and dishonest at the same time.
Iago taunted Othello with the impossibility of seeing the pair together, and described such a union in four different lurid ways, before inventing a story about Cassio making love to Desdemona in his sleep.
Having so far only wounded Othello with his insinuations and taunts, Iago now dropped a bombshell by mentioning that Cassio was in possession of Desdemona’s handkerchief.
Othello threw over his desk screaming that Cassio ought to have “forty thousand lives” because “one is too poor, too weak for my revenge”. This was the same desk that he had asked Desdemona to vacate earlier because of his pressing work. Now that work lay scattered on the floor.
But even at this moment of extreme anger, there was something noble and poetic in the way Othello clasped at his heart and squeezed its love into his shirt, which he then blew on to waft the extracted love upwards into the sky to mark its loss. “’Tis gone”, he sighed, as he watched his love symbolically depart from him.
Iago joined Othello to kneel on the ground to swear service in his revenge. Othello wanted Cassio dead within three days. Iago cleverly positioned himself as the merciful one, wanting Desdemona to be spared. This was probably a genuine wish, perhaps motivated by his previous admission that he found her attractive; this sentiment would also make sense of his devastation at Desdemona’s death at the end.
The first half ended with Othello swearing hatred against his wife, and Iago slinking off with a chilling “I am your own for ever.”
Soldiers gathered in the camp courtyard with a football and began a kick-about before the start of the second half. Desdemona entered and picked up the stray ball and scored a goal against the camp gate before asking one of the soldiers to fetch Cassio (3.4).
Othello was cold and abrupt when Desdemona greeted him. Seizing and examining her palm, he manically described its moist, hot fruitfulness. He asked her for her handkerchief and she produced a different one.
In his account of the history of the token, Othello bitterly accented each reference to it being given away “Or made gift of it… or give’t away”, the crime of which he suspected Desdemona. He turned away and could not look at her.
Cassio and Iago arrived after Othello left. Desdemona continued to assure Cassio, but said she was out of favour. Iago pointed out how odd that was.
Bianca (Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi) was let through the gate and met Cassio. He gave her Desdemona’s handkerchief, which he had found. Bianca was tartly indignant at being asked to copy it.
A washroom and toilets rolled out on the right side, which became the location of Iago’s continued provocation of Othello with lurid lies about Cassio and Desdemona kissing in private (4.1).
Iago hinted that Cassio had admitted to something, and manoeuvred Othello into making him divulge that Cassio had confessed to sleeping with her.
Othello banged his fists against the washroom mirrors, became sick and threw up into the bowl in one of the toilet cubicles. He recovered, but fell back against the wall and then collapsed in a full fit.
Iago delighted in seeing his “medicine” at work. Cassio briefly appeared but Iago sent him away.
As Othello lay on the ground, Iago got a glass and filled it with water from the washroom tap, despite a sign indicating that it was not drinking water.
Othello recovered but at first he did not take the proffered water, so Iago sipped from it instead. Eventually Othello stood up and did take the glass.
Iago told Othello that Cassio had passed by and that he would return. He asked Othello if he would hide in one of the cubicles to spy on their conversation.
As Othello hid, Iago told us how he would speak with Cassio about the “hussy” Bianca, but make the conversation seem to relate to Cassio’s dalliance with Desdemona.
The scheme worked as Cassio’s jolly, bawdy talk was wrongly interpreted by Othello, whose running commentary constituted a bad case of confirmation bias.
Bianca breezed in with the handkerchief and, describing it as “some minx’s token”, threw it aside so that it landed right in Othello’s line of sight. Cassio picked up the handkerchief, confirming its value to him, and followed Bianca out.
Having seen the “ocular proof”, Othello again bashed the mirrors as he angrily wished Cassio “nine years a-killing”. He beat his fist against his chest saying that his heart had turned to stone.
He swayed between anger and sadness before vowing to poison Desdemona. But Iago recommended strangling her and promised to kill Cassio himself.
The washroom drew back and the scene changed to the base courtyard. Othello and Iago met Lodovico (Nick Sampson) and Desdemona. Othello became annoyed at being ordered to leave Cyprus and coolly struck Desdemona when she spoke to him. She fell to the ground amid general consternation.
The false dawn of Othello calling Desdemona back in an apparent reconciliation, then revealing that he had only called her at Lodovico’s request, was quite chilling. This callous behaviour gave Iago more grounds to undermine him. Interestingly, this false dawn was echoed in the final scene.
The left side room rolled out to present Othello and Desdemona’s bedroom (4.2). This was bare basic accommodation: a smallish room with cheap looking furniture.
Othello was in the process of searching through Desdemona’s belongings, turning out all the drawers and cupboards looking for signs of infidelity. He tore at the bed clothes, sniffing the pillows for traces of Cassio’s scent. This made perfect sense of his opening question to Emilia “You have seen nothing then?”
Othello’s paranoid questioning of Emilia, who stood stiff and nervous, was paralleled by his fevered ransacking of the room.
Emilia fetched in Desdemona and was then sent away by Othello.
Desdemona crouched on the bed to plead her innocence in the face of Othello’s persistent accusations.
We could see that Othello’s feelings were still mixed between adoration and hatred. He smelt her and found her “so sweet that the sense aches at thee”, but then turned bitter and wished she had never been born.
A second false dawn occurred when, in face of Desdemona’s claims to innocence, Othello paused and said “I cry you mercy then”. The tension eased, but a moment later he turned to her and continued bitterly “I took you for that cunning whore…”
Othello called for Emilia and, as he left, threw money contemptuously at her as if she were Desdemona’s bawd.
Emilia fetched Iago whose studied ignorance of the cause of Desdemona’s troubles was a bravura display of his art. Emilia’s abusive description of the supposed slanderer was enjoyable for it being delivered almost in Iago’s face.
After Emilia and Desdemona had left, Roderigo also turned up in the bedroom and his comical complaints to Iago about his sufferings were a palette cleanser after the heaviness of the preceding tense encounters. But on a serious note, it provided Iago with an opportunity to tell Roderigo that killing Cassio would keep Othello, and thus Desdemona, in Cyprus. They agreed on their plan to attack Cassio later that night.
The scene changed to the base courtyard, where Emilia set out a chair and a can of beer, but then noticed the arrival of Othello, Lodovico and Desdemona (4.3).
Othello ordered Desdemona to get to bed. Emilia saw her approach and fetched another chair and a second can so that the women could have a chat.
Instead of being unpinned, Desdemona just took off her top to reveal a modest slip.
Desdemona sang the willow song, which struck a note of fragile calm in a dark world about to turn even more turbulent.
Emilia’s assertion that she would cuckold her husband “for all the world” exemplified her boldness, a trait that would be so crucial in the final scene.
Iago and Roderigo lay in wait for Cassio with the set reconfigured to show a different corner of the camp enclosed by blast walls (5.1). Iago spoke to us briefly to explain the tactical advantages of either Cassio’s or Roderigo’s death. Roderigo shot at Cassio with a handgun, but missed. Cassio returned fire hitting Roderigo before Iago fired and hit Cassio in the leg.
Iago pointed his gun at Cassio whom he realised was still alive and then fled, leaving the two wounded men on the ground. Alarms began to ring and Othello, to his great satisfaction, discovered Cassio injured.
Iago returned and spoke to Cassio, who pointed at Roderigo as his assailant. Iago took advantage of the accusation to shoot Roderigo. Stretchers were brought for the dead and injured.
Bianca found Cassio and commiserated at his suffering. Iago held her back and pointed her out to the others as the root cause of the quarrel.
Desdemona was presented to us asleep in her bed, newly covered in the wedding sheets, with a single candle burning like a child’s night light on a low cupboard (5.2).
Othello crept into the room and gently closed the door, whispering “It is the cause, it is the cause”. His tenderness over her sleeping form was touching, but was undercut by his “Yet she must die”.
His speech over the candle was moving and he carried it with him as he crouched at the side of the bed to smell her “balmy breath”. Desdemona awoke and we saw that she was wearing blue panties and a t-shirt.
Othello’s casual mention of killing shocked Desdemona into a frightened defence of herself, as she expressed her disbelief at Othello’s stated intention.
Othello questioned her about the handkerchief, pulling and pushing her on the bed as she recoiled looking very vulnerable. He forced her down onto the bed and used two pillows to smother her until she stopped moving.
Emilia called from outside causing Othello a momentary distraction. Desdemona moaned as she revived. Othello quite casually clasped his hands around her neck and strangled her. Emilia called again and Othello debated aloud what to do about her, his hands still in place around Desdemona’s neck as he glanced backwards at the door.
There was something quite gruesome about Othello’s ability to multitask the murder in parallel with his considerations about the impatient Emilia.
He let Emilia in and she told him about Cassio killing Roderigo. But Emilia’s attention was soon drawn to Desdemona, stirring into life once more, who said she had been “falsely murdered”.
Desdemona stated cryptically that “Nobody. I myself” had killed her and then finally died. Othello sadly contradicted her assurance, but seemingly only to prove that Desdemona had yet again been dishonest.
Othello informed Emilia that her husband Iago had assured him of Desdemona’s infidelity, she responded in disbelief, eventually shouting for help and accusing Othello of the murder.
Montano, Gratiano (Jonathan Dryden Taylor) and Iago arrived rendering the small, cramped room very overcrowded. Othello simply stood stiffly in front of the bed with his hands behind his back.
Emilia’s angry questioning of Iago seemed to unnerve him slightly because he became increasingly insistent that she go home.
Seemingly without cause, Othello broke down and cried kneeling at the edge of the bed to speak of how “this act shows horrible and grim”. This abrupt transition from passivity to emotion looked odd.
Othello told of Cassio’s ‘confession’ and that his suspicions had been proved by seeing Cassio with Desdemona’s handkerchief. Emilia immediately knew that Othello was wrong and not even Iago’s desperate pleas could stop her telling the truth.
Emilia explained how she had found the handkerchief and given it to her husband, upon which the desperate Iago swore at her and shot her before fleeing. As she clutched at her bleeding stomach, Emilia asked to be laid by Desdemona’s side.
Montano pursued Iago and ordered Gratiano to stand guard outside with Othello’s gun.
After Emilia died, Othello searched his wardrobe, found his Spanish sword and called Gratiano back inside. Othello proudly displayed the blade, but his mind wandered from the lost glory represented by this sword, back to Desdemona’s cold body.
Cassio appeared wearing a leg brace along with the now handcuffed prisoner Iago. Othello struck Iago in the leg with his sword, which was then taken from him.
At this point, the poky budget hotel room began to look really crowded. The sequence should have been presented on a bigger scale at centre stage. The climactic grandeur of a scene written with a spacious chamber in mind was diminished by being crammed into a corner of the stage.
Iago refused to speak when Othello demanded an explanation. The letters found in Roderigo’s pockets proved the plot between him and Iago.
Lodovico stripped Othello of his duties and Othello’s long speech concluded with him drawing a small dagger from a pocket and stabbing himself.
Othello staggered towards Desdemona, kissing her before collapsing dead on top of her. Lodovico enjoined Iago to look upon “the tragic loading of this bed”.
After everyone else had departed, Iago rushed back into the room and looked agape in disbelief at the bodies of Othello, Emilia and Desdemona. The lights went down on this tableau.
The deliberate highlighting of Iago’s incredulity at the outcome of his plot, suggested he possessed a glimmer of conscience, which contradicted his earlier hard-line refusal to respond to questioning.
The production was almost flawless. Two minor quibbles only: the puzzling loss of the handkerchief, which was not dropped accidentally, but deliberately cast aside; and Othello’s strange behaviour right at the end, which was either a bizarre characterisation or something forced on the actor by the cramped confines of the space.
But perhaps the most memorable aspect of the production was the confident and assured manner in which it presented Brabantio, not as an exemplum of commonplace prejudice, but rather as an isolated and outmoded bigot.
Rather than hint at racial tension, the production deliberately accented differences of accent, comportment and dress between Iago and Othello.
Timon of Athens, Olivier Theatre, 14 August 2012
Demonstrators huddled among a city of tents that loomed out of the darkness. It seemed for all the world that the Occupy protestors had decided to continue the fight against global capitalism from the stage of the Olivier.
Timon (Simon Russell Beale) and his guests swept through the scattered tents (1.1). As they arrived downstage a wall was flown in dominated by a large painting showing Christ expelling the money changers from the Temple. This was a touch doubtless appreciated by production sponsors Travelex.
The wall had two doorways left and right and a revolving circular track looped round the front of the stage connecting them.
The guests mingled at what turned out to be the opening of the Timon Room at a prestigious art gallery. The Poet (Nick Sampson) and the Painter (Penny Layden) had a strained conversation in which their rivalry for Timon’s attention was submerged beneath layers of gentility. As if to remind us of the general atmosphere of sycophancy, their discussion was punctuated by the other’s cries of “Timon!” as he circulated the room as its peripatetic centre of attention.
The Painter was a cockney and given the modern UK setting was probably supposed to remind us of Tracey Emin and her YBA ilk. The Merchant became here an American actor (Ciarán McMenamin), whose “O, ‘tis a worthy lord” emerged from the background noise.
The Poet’s description of the work he was offering to Timon as “A thing slipped idly from me” was grotesquely insincere and very funny. He started quoting from it again, but the Painter looked over his shoulder and implied patronisingly that the visual imagery relating to Timon in his poem would be better expressed in painting.
The Poet’s book was entitled “The Ivory Hand” and the cover revealed his name to be Horace Nashe. The play contains a line from the Roman poet Horace, and perhaps Nashe was a reference to the writer Thomas Nashe.
The jovial, affable Timon was presented with a series of requests to which he gladly acceded. He arranged to bail Ventidius (Tom Robertson). This generosity seemed to be integral to his character and not something wrung from him as a result of the attention he was receiving.
The Old Athenian here became Lucullus (Paul Bentall) who protested about his daughter being frequented by Lucilius (Stavros Demetraki). When he asked Timon to join him in forbidding this, Timon fixed him with a stare and blankly asked him about the love between the couple. His short brief statements and questions “The man is honest” and “Does she love him?” demonstrated Timon’s insistence that these matters of the heart were more important than money.
But as Lucullus and his soon-to-be son-in-law exited, Lucullus slapped him on the back and said “Well done!” This completely new line made the entire sequence into a plot cooked up between them to trick the naïve Timon.
The realisation that Timon was easily duped and in some ways the victim of other’s conniving made him immediately more sympathetic.
The Jeweller (Jo Dockery) clearly implied that her gift of a jewel to Timon was a simple ploy to make her products more valuable through his endorsement. She was purring in anticipation of the sales boost, providing another example of the self-interested slyness of his entourage.
Apemantus (Hilton McRae) in his long dark coat was immediately a fascinating figure. He was roughly the same age as Timon, unlike most of the hangers-on. It was interesting to speculate on the history of the friendship in this modern UK context. Apemantus had clearly been a confidant and advisor to Timon; perhaps they had been at university together and Timon had become wealthy while Apemantus had not?
After a battle of wits with the Painter, the focus remained on Apemantus because the character of Alcibiades, an outsider associated with the protesters, was cut from the scene.
A dinner table arrived on the revolving circular track and the diners took their places (1.2).
The poshmo Ventidius thanked Timon for his release and offered to return the bail money, but Timon thrust it back at him. The portrayal of Ventidius skimmed the edges of caricature without becoming overly ridiculous.
Apemantus was beckoned to sit at the opposite end of the table to Timon. At first he refused, disgusted that Timon could not see how the others ravenously exploited him . He eventually took his place but Apemantus’ grace before the meal was cut.
Timon showed his emotional nature, speaking with a tear in the corner of his eye about the wealth he found in his closest friends. The audience laughed when Timon wished he was poorer to be closer to them, but this comedy was always undercut by the knowledge, as Apemantus consistently pointed out, that these people were his enemies.
The masque took the form of dancers (Pietra Mello-Pitman and Karis Scarlette) performing balletic moves within a space set into the wall. Once their brief dance was over, Apemantus insulted them, prompting genteel hushed admonishment from the others. The dancers joined in the feast and Timon showered everyone with gifts.
The female Flavia (Deborah Findlay) expressed concern at Timon’s unabated generosity. The four horses “trapped in silver” became a painting of horses in a silver frame, which was handed to a grateful Timon.
Flavia spoke downstage about Timon’s profligacy, a flaw aptly demonstrated when he gave away a horse. His explanation “’Tis yours because you liked it” was childish in its simplicity.
As the table revolved out the stage right door, Timon became angry at Apemantus for his sullenness. Timon paused between Apemantus, his true friend and counsellor, on one side and beckoning flatterers on the other; in a symbolic moment he went over to join the flatterers.
The revolve brought in a transparent office desk as Canary Wharf’s HSBC tower appeared in the window to show that the action had moved the capital’s centre of moneyed power (2.1). The text’s Senator became a banker totting up Timon’s wastage and dispatching Caphis (Craige Els) to collect a debt from him. A line from Coriolanus about the “rabble” was interpolated here as the sound of Alcibiades’ army was heard down in the street.
A clutch of debt collectors gathered inside Timon’s house each slapping a brown envelope against him as they demanded repayment (2.2).
Alcibiades, Apemantus and the Fool were cut from the scene so that it continued with Flavia explaining to Timon why he had no funds. It was touching to see Timon think he could count on his friends, but we had already been prepared to see them as duplicitous.
Flavia pre-empted Timon’s suggestion by telling him she had already asked the senators to assist but they had refused. There was a note of humour in this collision of Timon’s naivety, Flavia’s efficiency and the senators’ slyness.
Timon dispatched his people to recover funds from his friends.
At the scene changeover, Alcibiades (Ciarán McMenamin again) and his army marched across stage shouting “Down with Athens!”
The scene changed to an office reception with a sofa and coffee table strewn with magazines and a copy of the FT (3.1). A sign projected onto the wall proclaimed this to be the HQ of Lucullus Capital. The female Flaminia (Olivia Llewellyn) waited to meet Lucullus who was ushered in by his son-in-law Lucilius, the servant whom Timon had previously been tricked into enriching.
The presence of the word “pretty” in Lucullus’ lines in the original text was an absolute gift because it allowed the original’s schmoozing to become overt sexual harassment. The old man described the young female lasciviously as “pretty Flaminia” and started sliding up the sofa towards her.
Wine was brought and Lucilius was instructed to leave them alone, so that this really looked like an attempted seduction. As Lucullus asked her to “Draw nearer” her hands clasped together in an ungainly knot signalling her extreme discomfort. His proffer of money looked like he was trying to buy her. She threw the notes back at him and left in disgust.
The action moved to a club with modern art on the wall and comfortable chairs and sofas (3.2). The role of Lucius in the text was transferred to the already familiar character of Ventidius while the Painter and Poet were the Strangers.
Ventidius brayed in his upper class accent about being Timon’s friend. The Poet and Painter sat on the sofa commenting on Timon’s penury.
Timon’s servant Servilius (Tim Samuels) tried to ask Ventidius for money. He was met initially with some insincere joshing, an outward facsimile of cordiality, then Ventidius launched into a long, rambling and patently contrived excuse beginning “What a wicked beast was I” in which he claimed to have just spent what little spare cash he had. This was transparently a lie. Ventidius’ cold shoulder was particularly callous because Timon had secured his freedom.
The more extensive lines of the First Stranger were split between the Poet and the Painter so that the Poet claimed insincerely that he would have helped Timon.
Another gender swap gave us the character of Sempronia (Lynette Edwards), a female politician whom we met at the House of Commons, the side of the Palace of Westminster clearly visible through the window, although her ID badge identified the location as the Senate of Athens (3.3).
Her response to Timon’s embassage was clipped and insincere, almost but not quite like Mrs Thatcher, but with definite echoes of her haughtiness.
Like a consummate politician, she seized upon the fact that she had been asked last, using it as a pretext to engage in fake, self-righteous outrage. When she asked “Must I take the cure upon me?” the name-badged lackeys behind her cried “No senator!”
Debt collectors and paparazzi gathered in the street outside Timon’s house (3.4).
A shabbily dressed Flavia returned carrying an Iceland bag, a shopping destination that reflected the poor state of the household finances. She made her way through the throng of debt collectors and photographers.
Servilius appeared from inside the residence to send them away, but we soon heard the sound of Timon’s angry voice as he approached. He stormed out and railed at them, smashing a paparazzo’s camera to the ground.
Despite thrusting their brown envelopes at him, the debt collectors realised they were on a hiding to nothing and withdrew in disgust.
Timon looked both determined and profoundly agitated as he instructed his staff to prepare another feast for his friends (3.5).
The banishment of Alcibiades (3.6) was cut because in this production his character was a belligerent outsider right from the start.
Timon’s ‘friends’ displayed yet more insincerity as they gathered for his final banquet (3.7). But this time Timon matched their insincerity: a clear indication of his changed character.
An anxious guest asked if Timon had been put out by his refusal to send money. The reply “O sir, let it not trouble you” showed that Timon had been watching and learning from his fork-tongued acquaintances. The Second Lord was Ventidius, who had just recently said that he had run out of money.
The revolve brought in the same dinner table as before and the guests were delighted as the covered dishes were set before them.
Timon bade them sit down and began a grace. His sentiments gradually became weirder and more accusatory, and the guests started to exchange worried glances. Timon burst out of his chair, poured water over himself and ordered them to uncover their dishes. The guests turned away in revulsion, holding their noses at the malodorous excrement adorning the plates.
The angry Timon delivered a shower of invective. He smeared something even less pleasant on the head of one his guests. Not surprisingly, the diners fled in panic.
Timon spoke downstage as the table disappeared on the revolve. He then retired to make way for the guests who ran on again, as if coming from house.
Exposed and unprotected on the dangerous streets, the guests were soon surrounded by the ragtag army of demonstrators who emerged from the background to mob them and spray them with mace.
The melee dispersed and Timon came downstage to stare out at the auditorium and address the walls of the city he had just abandoned (4.1). In what was almost a show-stopping moment, Simon Russell Beale’s moving monologue conveyed the disappointment and frustration behind Timon’s railing. Timon threw away his jacket and credit cards saying “Take thou that too”. This was a suitably eventful moment at which to pause for the interval.
The second half began in an atmosphere of subdued domesticity in contrast to the frenetic activity that had closed the first half.
A stack of boxes stood forlorn in the hallway of Timon’s house (4.2). Flavia had gathered the rest of the staff and paid them a meagre amount from her savings.
Flavia’s speech questioning who would want to be rich was odd to hear on the day that the winners of the most recent Euromillions lottery draw had gone public to announce their newly-acquired wealth to the world.
Flavia mentioned that Timon had been “brought low by his own heart”: this was a key phrase describing exactly what had happened.
The house wall was flown up to reveal a scene of urban decay. Dark, wet concrete pillars, steel reinforcement rods jutting from them, stood amid a desolate wasteland strewn with rubbish bags (4.3).
Timon emerged from the darkness. His self-imposed exile had turned him into a unkempt, unshaven rough sleeper pushing a shopping trolley containing his meagre possessions.
There was no actual earth in this concrete landscape, so that when he called for the sun to “draw from the earth rotten humidity”, he gestured as if this would come from the scattered rubbish bags.
He fell down on the ground and ripped open the refuse sacks scavenging for food. He came across a drain cover which when opened revealed a bright, yellow light accompanied by the sound of clinking coins. He had found gold.
Descending into the hole, he brought out gold bars and also cash boxes filled with gold coins. He put some of the cash boxes into his trolley and replaced the cover.
This staging was problematic because buried treasure is believable, but the same cannot be said for a stash of gold bars and cash boxes found down a drain.
Timon hid from Alcibiades and his noisy, ragtag army of protestors when they gathered amid the concrete pillars. Alcibiades held audience and shouted slogans. Timon lurked at the back of the crowd, dancing and yelling support like a drunk.
Once he had come to the protestors’ attention, Timon insulted Phrynia (Jo Dockery again) and encouraged Timandra (Olivia Llewellyn again) to spread diseases by continuing to work as a prostitute. This raised the question of how he knew Timandra by name.
Alcibiades tossed a gold coin at Timon who rejected it. But he came alive when he heard that the soldier intended to make war against Athens. He delved in his trolley to retrieve a cash box and stood on a concrete stump to shower the protestors with gold coins.
The clamouring crowd scooped up the gold but were heedless to Timon’s lurid imagery imploring them to show no mercy to the Athenians. Although his situation had changed, Timon was still dispensing benefits to sycophantic followers under the illusion that they were paying attention.
The army left and Timon resumed his search for sustenance. He found a water bottle and a take-away in a foil tray, which in this urban environment replaced the roots of the original text’s rural setting.
Apemantus entered with a holdall and a bottle in his pocket. They engaged in a pithy exchange in which Timon claimed that his loss of status gave him more right to be miserable than the ever-lowly Apemantus. His friend countered saying that Timon was indulging in “unmanly melancholy”.
Timon said that he would like to see Apemantus hanged if his wealth were shut up inside him and enacted this imaginary situation by trying to force food into his friend’s mouth. Apemantus retrieved the water bottle from his pocket and gave it to Timon to “mend [his] feast”.
The continued dispute caused Apemantus to offer his famous analysis of Timon’s character “The middle of humanity thou never knewst, but the extremity of both ends.” The medlar/meddler wordplay was cut.
Timon sat with Apemantus and compared him unfavourably to a range of predated animals. But this congeniality soon descended into a spiteful argument that culminated in Timon throwing a rock at Apemantus. Timon looked to his gold, and Apemantus said he would tell others of his new wealth. The text’s misplaced announcement by Apemantus of the approach of the Poet and Painter was cut.
The bag of clothes that Apemantus had brought to enable Timon to return to polite society was examined and returned unwanted to its donor, after which Apemantus left Timon in peace.
Timon hid from the thieves he saw approaching. But they found him, beat him and kicked him giving Timon a bloody face. They searched his trolley and found a cash box containing gold coins. The bloodied Timon struggled forward on his hands and knees to ask “Want! Why want?” Timon’s request to the departing thieves that they “… go, break open shops” sounded eerie in the light of the previous year’s looting.
Flavia sought out Timon, but received little thanks for her pains. She managed to convince him of her loyalty and he looked heavenward to proclaim her an honest person. Timon’s mood was, however, very changeable. Flavia pressed her handkerchief to his bleeding face, a degree of solicitousness that prompted Timon’s suspicions. He pushed the handkerchief away and pointed an accusatory finger at Flavia saying “Is not thy kindness subtle, covetous…”
Timon calmed down again when Flavia reassured him of her selflessness saying “requite me by making rich yourself”. He uncovered the gold bars and offered them to her so that she could “Go, live rich and happy”. She wanted to stay with him, but he insisted that she leave.
The Poet and the Painter tracked Timon down as they discussed the rumours about his gold (5.1).
He responded to their offer to serve him by sitting them down on a concrete stump and giving them leftover takeaway and a bucket of fried chicken. They were unable to hide their disappointment. When Timon asked them if they had come because of rumours about his gold, they denied the accusation with comic insincerity.
He delighted in telling them that they had “a little fault”, moving behind them and peering through the steel reinforcements jutting out of the stump as if they were prison bars. He made them stand apart and told each one “an arch-villain keeps him company”. Timon promised them gold, but instead retrieved an axe from his trolley and used it to chase them away. This axe was not a random choice of prop, but an implement to which he would soon allude.
Flavia returned bringing with her senators from Athens (5.2). They were desperate to have Timon and his gold back to pay for the defence of the city against Alcibiades.
Timon’s disinterest in their request merged into his mournful announcement that his epitaph would be seen “tomorrow”, a word to which Flavia reacted with extreme concern. But Timon continued: “My long sickness of health and living now begins to mend”.
He appeared to change his mind and said that he loved his country, which elicited repeated praise from Sempronia. The senators gathered close round Timon, expecting further concessions. The group faced the audience as Timon pointed to a distant tree and told them to go hang themselves from it. This vicious anticlimax was very effective.
He urged potential suicides to hurry as he was soon going to cut down the tree with an axe. The recent memory of him brandishing an axe against the Poet and Painter turned the felling of the unseen tree into a realistic prospect, thereby lending an extra degree of plausibility to Timon’s lurid mass hanging scenario.
Flavia and the senators departed. The text was rearranged to make Timon’s final words a soliloquy rather a speech directed at the assembled company. It seemed absolutely correct for Timon’s farewell to be a lonely one.
He stood over the gold pit and at “Sun, hide thy beams” the yellow light from the pit went dark. This staging implied a connection in Timon’s mind between the heavenly sun and the ultimately treacherous glister of gold.
Scenes 5.3 and 5.4, with the discovery of Timon’s grave, were cut. The production shifted back to Athens with the senators lined up on one side of a large conference table (5.5). Alcibiades and his troops marched in and he presented his terms. The dialogue between the two factions was broken up with intervals of consultation among each side to suggest a lengthy period of negotiation rather than a cursory arrangement.
The Athenians offered Alcibiades a list of those to be culled, which he mulled over. Once an agreement was reached, he changed from his scruffy clothes into a suit and sat on the same side of the table as the senators, effectively joining the ruling classes.
A soldier brought news of Timon’s death and a transcript of his epitaph, which Alcibiades read out. He dictated his response as an official statement on Timon’s demise.
Alcibiades’ final words were lifted from Celia’s speech in As You Like It “Now go we to liberty”. While providing a sense of ending, for those who recognised the speech it created a renewed feeling of incompletion because this was half of an existing line.
As he spoke these words, the window lit up to show that we were in Canary Wharf. This was a significant detail because it indicated that the real seat of power and government was the City, the financial centre, and not Westminster, which could have been setting for these governmental negotiations.
The staging deliberately brought out the connection between the play and recent events. But it is worth remembering that Timon of Athens is not a play about general economic turmoil, but a study of personal betrayal and the tribulations of a newly-poor plutocrat, focusing on his individual psychology, and offering only a glancing commentary on the corrupting influence of money.
While Alcibiades and his army were glossed as the Occupy movement, the production implied that such revolutionaries were simply plutocrats in waiting. The play itself lauds the loyalty of Flavius/Flavia whose principal motivation is to restore Timon to his moneyed content.
That last point goes a long way to explaining why big City institutions had no qualms about sponsoring the production.
Was the character of the Poet an instance of Shakespeare indulging in self-loathing? This character, who earns a living sucking up to the wealthy in search of preferment, could have been an unflattering self-portrait or possibly an in-joke in which Shakespeare satirised his own quest for patronage.
NT Live: The Comedy of Errors, Greenwich Picturehouse, 1 March 2012
Taking a second look at the National Theatre’s Comedy of Errors provided some new angles on the production.
In one respect, Lenny Henry was also back on familiar territory for this NT Live broadcast, as he was playing comedy in front of an audience with television cameras capturing every moment.
The main set used for the opening scene inside a derelict building reversed and split into sections to produce other locations. Some, like Adriana’s home at the Phoenix, were quite small in relation to the overall size of the stage, concentrating the action within a restricted space.
This format contained echoes of the original ‘arcade’ setting of the play, which involved the stage being divided into three sections representing houses to enable continuous action across various locations.
The close-ups brought out the comedy in Lenny Henry’s grimacing as the increasingly perplexed Antipholus of Syracuse.
Michelle Terry’s detailed performance of Luciana also benefited from the camera’s attention.
When she was propositioned by Antipholus outside the Phoenix, Luciana requested that he try to hide his dissatisfaction with his “wife” Adriana and not flaunt his dalliances.
She developed her idea in a long speech that culminated in a wonderful visual image related to him walking through the town with his mistress at his side: “Though others have the arm, show us the sleeve”.
This speech can be spoken in a continuous confident stream, so that the complex series of images and concepts appears to trip from Luciana’s eloquent tongue with the ease and facility of an expert orator.
However, Michelle Terry’s Essex Girl characterisation of Luciana was not meant to be one of nature’s great thinkers or public speakers. This required the flow of rhetoric to have more of a stutter. Consequently, her Luciana seemed to be developing this train of thought on the hoof as if the thoughts were just occurring to her.
The slow and deliberate development of her argument, punctuated by nervous gestures and a pained, embarrassed expression turned into one of the most memorable comedy sequences of the evening.
Extracting comedic juice from a speech like that was much more rewarding than rattling through it as if it required no effort.
The ability of the camera to zoom in on the reunited family in the final scene added to the poignancy of the moment.
NT Live broadcasts offer another way of looking at theatre. The additional perspectives they provide are a good reason to revisit productions that have already been viewed in the theatre.
The Comedy of Errors, Olivier Theatre, 10 December 2011
The bleak innards of a derelict building towered gloomily above the stage. The sound of dripping water echoed around the skeleton of a structure that looked more like the location for a dark production of Macbeth or Hamlet than anything designed to contain a light-hearted farce. Thumping music pounded out a steady beat.
Finally the house lights went down and figures emerged from the shadows. Egeon, with his head in a hood, was brought on by two heavies. A woman in a tracksuit and hooped earrings stood and watched as they rifled through his pockets, taking his money and passport. The ‘Duke’ wore a camel coat and scarf, and laughed at the paucity of Egeon’s funds.
The Duke’s voice and bearing marked him out as a London gangster. It became clear that this ‘Ephesus’ was contemporary London.
Egeon’s story of how he came to be in Ephesus was acted out on the scaffold by younger versions of the main characters. Egeon’s wife gave birth to children while the “mean woman” and her husband who produced the Dromio twins stood below. The Dromio children were represented by folded cloth, which quickly disappeared to be replaced by the wad of money paid in exchange for the twins.
As Egeon got to the part about the storm, sailors appeared on the scaffold representing the doomed ship making lots of noise. Egeon’s wife and one of each set of twins were positioned at opposite ends of the structure, and then the huge scaffold structure split in two so that they were separated when the mast broke.
The fishermen of Corinth were a helicopter rescue crew, who winched Egeon’s wife, her son and his Dromio to safety.
Egeon knelt and watched his youngest son and eldest care (as his 18-year old self) walk out of a trap door. His young Dromio companion appeared at his side in an Arsenal football top.
This dramatisation of the old man’s story was very welcome as it made the back story much clearer. The text is an amazingly long-winded piece of exposition and it is certainly not dumbing down to elucidate it in this way.
A strolling band sung a modern English song in Romanian as the set rearranged itself into a street outside a London café (1.2). Traffic wardens strolled by as business people sat sipping lattes and peering at their laptops.
A man in a track suit escorted the Syracusans into town. Lenny Henry (Antipholus of Syracuse) spoke in a generic West African/Nigerian accent that was well-paced and rhythmic. His Dromio, played by Lucian Masamati, who grew up in Africa, spoke in his normal voice.
Lenny’s first reference to money gave him an opportunity to repeat the word in a distinctive pronunciation, drawing the sound out to stress its significance. His Dromio joked about absconding with the money and departed.
After the abrasiveness of his money talk, Antipholus spoke a very calm and thoughtful soliloquy downstage comparing himself to drop of water seeking another drop in the ocean.
The London Dromio (Daniel Poyser) discovered Lenny’s Nigerian Antipholus and spoke in a London accent to get him to come home to dinner. He was dressed in an identical Arsenal shirt as his Nigerian counterpart and had the same afro hairstyle, so the only obvious distinction was accent.
Dromio continued his entreaties, but did not answer the questions about the gold given to the other Dromio. Lenny sat on a café chair and pressed the tips of his fingers together in irritation as he spelled out his concern about his “mohrnay”.
The repeated mentions of his ‘wife’ drove Antipholus to distraction. Lenny grabbed a passing baguette from a waitress and began to hit the London Dromio with it. A fight broke out amid scenes of general uproar with food and drink flying everywhere. Dromio ran off, while the café customers froze staring at Lenny, who stood in spotlight to describe the people of the town as jugglers, sorcerers and witches.
Given that several of the people he was addressing were obviously city types, there was a delicious possibility that this tirade against the sorcerers of the town was a disguised comment on the financial community. This would surely have delighted production sponsor KPMG.
The set was rearranged for 2.1 so that the Phoenix apartment block appeared centre stage. Adriana (Claudie Blakley) stood on the first floor balcony accompanied by her sister Luciana (Michelle Terry), who indulged in a cocktail. Their Essex accents were so strangled that they verged on distracting parody.
The focus on dress and accent meant there was little differentiation between the two characters. This lack of contrast was one of many missed opportunities to create additional comedy.
Dromio appeared in the street below and took a drink from a whisky bottle, telling Adriana that her husband was horn mad. His remark about scarcely understanding Antipholus linked in with Dromio’s imitation of his assumed master’s Nigerian accent when he re-enacted their conversation.
Adriana and Luciana exchanged a worried look on hearing that Antipholus did not know his mistress, and their request for clarification was concerned. They had to pour water and drinks down onto Dromio to encourage him to go back.
The marvellous revolving buildings opened out to form a snooker hall (2.2) with two tables and a bar at one side. Lenny nonchalantly potted balls. The Nigerian Dromio returned and Lenny mocked the London accent of other Dromio, which he assumed his servant had adopted for some reason.
Dromio denied messing Antipholus around, causing his master to beat him with the snooker cue. This looked very unconvincing, which was surprising because the fight coordinator on this production was the famous Kombat Kate.
Antipholus explained his anger telling Dromio to read his mood and “creep in crannies” when the sun hid his beams. Lenny held up his hands in a defensive pose and stepped gingerly backwards to demonstrate how Dromio should back off when his mood was dark.
The long exchange about Time and hair was cut. This was a very good idea as that passage can feel a bit strained.
Adriana and Luciana appeared outside the hall, knocked on the window and entered. Adriana began to vamp her way back into husband’s affections. Lenny, with an increasingly aghast expression on his face, moved around the table to avoid her.
The other snooker players went ‘ahhh!’ when Adriana said that she had been treated unfairly. She continued to entice the man she had mistaken for her husband, and Lenny’s panicked response to her lengthy supplication: “Plead you to me fair dame?” had great comic impact.
She put down her bag, but her solicitous sister Luciana picked it up and looked after it. This was a neat and economical way of illustrating their relationship and set us up for Luciana’s future concern for her sister’s wellbeing.
Adriana’s account of events caused confusion. Lenny spat his anger at Dromio when she implied he had spoken to her, something Dromio vigorously denied.
Lenny concluded that the two women might have powers derived from “inspiration”, which in this Nigerian context was taken to be similar to ‘juju’. The two men backed away from the women clicking their fingers as if warding off a spell.
Adriana wrapped herself seductively around Lenny, whose horrified silence was broken only by “To me she speaks(?)” But he eventually entertained “the offered fallacy” by kissing her.
Luciana mocked Dromio’s African accent when chiding him for not responding. The word “ass” was changed to “arse” to make the jibe more contemporary.
Adriana implied that ‘dining above’ was something kinky and the snooker players jeered appreciatively, suggesting that Antipholus had struck lucky.
Act three saw the action return to the Phoenix. Adriana brought her sister and the Nigerian Antipholus and Dromio back to her flat. They went through the entrance door, locked it behind them and got into the lift. Dromio was last in and seemed to be nervous.
The London Antipholus (Chris Jarman) and Dromio turned up along with the moneylender and Asian goldsmith. Antipholus tried to get in to his apartment block, but was locked out.
Dromio called up to the servants, and was met with insults from the Nigerian Dromio through the intercom. Luce appeared on the balcony and spoke with a Spanish accent. Adriana was seen briefly on the top floor in a dressing gown with Lenny close behind also in a dressing gown, implying that they were sleeping together. This did not sit with Luciana’s subsequent complaint that he was being not a proper husband to her sister.
Antipholus’s “There is something in the wind” led to a series of fart gags involving Dromio breaking wind into the intercom, with the Dromio inside the house farting back. The London Dromio replied, but feared following through, giving a new twist (and slightly altered punctuation) to the phrase “Here’s too much. Out upon thee”.
Eventually they have up trying to get in and the London Antipholus decided to visit the wench at the Porcupine.
At the start of 3.2 Dromio went out onto the balcony whereupon Luce dragged him back in. Lenny made his way out followed by Luciana, who tottered on high heels.
Having concluded that Antipholus was having an affair, Luciana nervously overdramatised her request that Antipholus should conceal his dalliance.
Nerves turned to aghast astonishment when Lenny knelt in front of Luciana, worshipping her. She made her escape by sneaking back into the house, claiming that she was going to seek her sister’s approval for the match.
Dromio and Lenny went through the incredibly funny dissection of Luce in terms of countries. The audience laughed (as they often do) at the reference to “Belgia, the Netherlands” of which Dromio said: “O, sir, I did not look so low.”
Dromio was dispatched to look for a ship. Angelo called on Lenny, who answered nervously, wondering what was going to happen next. He took the chain offered by the goldsmith and vowed to leave town, at which point the interval came.
The set was rearranged for the start of act four with the Porcupine brothel stage left and Angelo’s goldsmiths shop stage right with a narrow alleyway between them in which lurked assorted shady characters, including a tall transvestite. As music blared out, Dromio of London sat at the bottom of the stairs to the upper floor of the Porcupine waiting for his master to emerge.
Angelo discussed his debt with the moneylender as the London Antipholus emerged from seeing the Courtesan, sending Dromio off to buy a rope’s end. The ensuing argument between Antipholus and Angelo about the non-delivery of the chain was an excellent example of people not taking onboard the meaning of words. Angelo was arrested by the officer. But soon the actual handcuffs were on Antipholus who owed money to Angelo.
Dromio of Nigeria arrived with a Boots bag full of stuff for the voyage and news of a ship. The others did not display much consternation at this apparent attempt to flee the city. Antipholus sent Dromio back to Adriana to fetch bail money.
Adriana relaxed on a massage table while Luciana sat drinking another cocktail (4.2). Luciana They discussed Antipholus’ declaration of love to Luciana. Each of Luciana’s key revelations was preceded by a ratchet of the massage table back, which visually and audibly chronicled the increasing tension.
Dromio entered to ask for the bail money. He got a massage on his leg, but tried to extract himself from the masseurs clutches before running back to Antipholus with the money.
Lenny walked past the Porcupine (4.3) and was greeted by tarts of various sexes. He was worried that people seemed to be greeting him familiarly. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Dromio returned with the bail money in a satchel.
The Courtesan leant out of her window to greet Lenny. But his “Satan avoid” reaction was excessive, especially since she was at a distance upstairs. This just looked wrong. She asked for her ring, but Antipholus and Dromio ran off down the alley, using a pepper spray to fend off the Courtesan and others who tried to follow them. The Courtesan vowed to tell Adriana what her husband was up to.
To emphasise the oppressive, cloying atmosphere of this strange town, the Nigerian pair found themselves at the centre of slow-motion sequence in which the London lowlifes surrounded and pressed close to them, causing them great anguish. The band played People Are Strange.
The London Antipholus was now under arrest (4.4). The London Dromio dramatically took the rope’s end out of his bag, much to Antipholus’s dismay. He hit Dromio with the rope, but this was another fight sequence that looked under-rehearsed and not very anarchic.
This brawl was discovered by Adriana and Luciana, each clasping the other’s hand for support and comfort, followed by the Courtesan. Pinch, a doctor with an ID badge, led the way. Adriana paid cash to Pinch before he began using a Bible to exorcise the evil from Antipholus. He recorded observations on a dictation machine.
This sequence felt under-developed and could have been wackier. But that was only because it preceded one of the most elaborate sequences in the production.
Pinch had to call for backup when Antipholus first resisted and then escaped. An ambulance drove onto the stage accompanied by a whole army of nurses brandishing torches.
The stage began to revolve and the chase ensued. The fugitive pair raced in and out of buildings to the sound of helicopters and under the glare of searchlights. Both pairs of Antipholus and Dromio sped past on kick scooters with the nurses in chase.
Pinch lay in wait round a corner with a huge syringe and stuck it into the London Antipholus, encasing him and his Dromio in straitjackets. As Antipholus succumbed to the injection, he moaned about the “unhappy strumpet”. The straitjacketed Dromio joked about being “entered in bond”.
Lenny and his Dromio burst out of a knife shop brandishing blades and scared them all away, after which Lenny did a dance of victory to celebrate this success.
The set behind changed, positioning the Abbey Clinic centre stage. Its name plate included the slogan “where talking cures”. This was a nice ironic touch given Lenny’s previous stay at the real Priory Clinic to which this must surely have been a reference.
The moneylender got into an argument about the chain with Lenny, who drew a knife (5.1). The lender delved into his briefcase and extracted a large meat cleaver, but it was still in its plastic packaging. He stripped that off, but was left brandishing a large knife in its safety cover. This unexpected funny moment was very satisfying.
Once again Adriana and Luciana entered holding hands tightly in mutual support. They tried to grab Antipholus and Dromio, but the men rang the door bell of the clinic and ran inside the door, which closed firmly behind them.
The Abbess came out and was immediately recognisable as the Nigerian woman who had been Egeon’s wife in the first scene’s dramatisation of his story.
The Abbess displayed her sound common sense in the discussion with Adriana about the cause of Antipholus’s unhappiness. Adriana tried to get the nurses into the Abbey, then offered money, asking if the Abbess’s servants could bring him out.
Adriana sat despondently on the doorstep until her sister suggested complaining to the Duke. She rose and began scrolling through the screen of her smart phone, trying to contact him. She was told he would be passing by very soon.
Egeon was brought in from stage right. Adriana knelt to the Duke and recounted her story. Sometimes this speech is delivered at frantic pace to create a comic effect, but this production had her speak slowly, part of a general slowdown in pace in the final minutes of the play that created a more emotional and dignified atmosphere.
Luce brought news that the London Antipholus and Dromio had broken free, after which they arrived and demanded justice from the Duke. Dromio looked puzzled when Antipholus said, during the course of his account of events, that he had sent Dromio home for the bail money, something which had happened to the other Dromio.
The money lender realised something was wrong when he sarcastically remarked that Antipholus had returned outside the Abbey “by miracle”.
The Duke became impatient with the “intricate impeach” while Egeon seemed disappointed that he had not been recognised by his sons.
Emilia emerged with Lenny and his Dromio, which caused an immediate frisson of recognition and wonderment. This looked very moving, and Angelo fainted with shock. Egeon pulled away from his guard to join Emilia whom he recognised.
Both the Antipholuses stood together stage right and the Duke could not tell them apart. Humour infected the poignancy of the closing moments as Adriana asked which one of them had dined with her that afternoon.
Angelo angrily identified the chain for which had not yet received payment, but he quietened down when the London Antipholus pointed out that he had been unjustly arrested because of it.
Lenny’s summary of events was rounded off with a sing-song delivery of “And thereupon these errors are arose”. He handed the chain to Adriana as if to make up for taking advantage of the previous confusion, but she slapped him. The ducats were passed to Angelo and then on to the moneylender.
The reunited family had a big group hug with the Abbess. The two Antipholuses stood side by side as they went into the Abbey. The London Antipholus put on a Nigerian accent, which fooled the Nigerian Dromio into mistaking him for his real master. Lenny had to correct the error, which the two brothers found equally amusing. They laughed in the same mad manner, further emphasising how alike they were.
There was laughter at the reference to the London Dromio’s “fat friend” which, after all that seriousness, referred back to an earlier joke. The Dromios went into the house together to great audience applause.
Lenny Henry pretending to be from Nigeria is funny. Michelle Terry pretending to be from Essex is not funny.
This goes to show that the bigger and more daring the leap in characterisation, the more amusing the result.
Twelfth Night, Cottesloe Theatre, 12 February 2011
The programme for Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night reproduced his introduction to the 1960 Folio Society edition of the play. His thoughts on the piece apparently needed no updating, so that what he wrote 51 years ago could stand for his account of the play today.
It was also back to the future with the visual look of the production. Just like Peter Hall’s 1958 staging, this Twelfth Night had an autumnal setting and Caroline era costumes.
The lack of any radical novelty in the direction indicated that Peter Hall saw this production not as an opportunity to explore the possibilities of theatre, but more as a chance to pay homage to the simply beauty of the play’s language.
Long-term saturation in Shakespeare’s texts may have convinced him that although their language is only really alive in performance, the plays should never be staged in a way that trumps the pure eloquence of their poetry.
The stage of the Cottesloe was thus bare apart from a scattering of leaves at the sides and back. A brown leaf-patterned canopy hung over it providing an extra autumnal dimension.
The verse-speaking was slow and deliberate with distinct pauses at the end of each line. The characters speaking verse, most notably those at the Duke’s court, tended to stand around in formal groups in their red Caroline era costumes. A parallel was created between the delivery of the poetry and the restrained elegance of its visual setting.
This heightened awareness of the verse was then set off against the unconstrained pace and energy of the prose, so that this aspect of the play also became a prominent feature. Some productions rush and gabble indiscriminately through verse and prose. This one paid homage to the verse and in so doing showed us the prose as a distinct stylistic choice rather than a colourless default option.
When Simon Callow’s Sir Toby was in full flow, his rough, ruddy gargoyle of a figure bowed and creeped his way around the stage, bellowing out his lines at speed to form a stark contrast with the leisurely, wistful restraint of the Duke’s court.
Here the language was the star and given utmost prominence. If the production were to have a guiding theme or motto it would have been “We Love These Words”.
As the house lights went down at the start of the performance, the shadowy figures of Orsino and his courtiers moved into position. When the stage lights went up they bowed respectfully to their Duke who languished on reddish cushions beneath the autumn brown canopy.
The orchestra played in a gallery stage left while a single flautist also performed onstage to provide a recipient for Orsino’s comments about the music. The Duke paused after “and so die” allowing the musicians to play on. His comment about ‘that strain again’ then referred to a distinct passage of music, which was repeated at his command.
Orsino’s languid appreciation of the language of the music was mirrored in our equally languid appreciation of the music of the language in which he spoke.
As the scene continued the sedate pace of the dialogue also helped to clarify the exposition. But at the same time the slowness of the delivery and the autumnal colour scheme worked together to create an air of melancholy.
Bright lights flashed behind the canopy at the start of 1.2 whereupon it lowered completely to the ground to provide us with our first glimpse of Viola. She walked across the canopy looking extremely wet and bedraggled. Rebecca Hall gave us some more slow verse speaking and an indication that her Viola was wide-eyed and innocent.
With the canopy back in position, a table and chairs were brought on for 1.3. Simon Callow’s Sir Toby slouched in the darkness before the stage lights went up on his crumpled figure. Maria entered and woke him from his drunken slumber, pulling on one of his braces.
The characters spoke in fast-paced prose creating a complete change of mood in a deliberate contrast to what had gone before.
The absolute relish which Simon Callow brought to his portrayal of the dissolute Sir Toby was a joy to watch.
His foil, Sir Andrew, dressed in blue with Cavalier hair, was inept in his accosting skills. Spurred on by Sir Toby, he made a faltering advance but soon found his hand clamped to Maria’s breast for the buttery bar sequence, in which Olivia’s maid showed herself to be Sir Andrew’s confident superior.
That strain again
Some fun was had with Sir Andrew and Sir Toby trying out various styles of dancing to comic effect. When Simon Callow said “My walk should be a very jig” he sashayed down stage as if inspired by some unheard Latin music. But it was left to Sir Andrew to provide the greatest amusement as his attempts at a caper resulted in an inelegant strain, an unscripted oath being muttered under his breath.
Back in the formal world of the court, in 1.4 we saw Rebecca Hall dressed as Cesario for the first time. She was dressed in the identical red Caroline era costume as the male courtiers, her long hair was left down to match the current male style.
Her Viola/Cesario was physically gawky and reacted to her new condition with a nonchalance bordering on flippancy. Her statement at the end of the scene “myself would be his wife” was delivered with the same awkwardness. Viola could not quite believe what was happening to her, but found it slightly funny all the same.
David Ryall’s Feste was the complete opposite to Viola. He was old and worldly-wise in a dirty coat and drooping coxcomb. This characterisation was an excellent idea, as his fooling could be seen as the wisdom of long experience instead of empty, nervous joking.
Maria enjoyed getting the punch line to his joke about the two points/falling gaskins in 1.5. Feste read the motto by “Quinapalus” from the inside of his hat as if it had been inscribed there for reference purposes.
Olivia and Malvolio both wore black outfits; the former because in mourning, the latter out of a severity of mind. Malvolio’s response to Feste’s fooling about Olivia’s brother was cold but confident.
Sir Toby’s drunken entry provided another opportunity for Simon Callow to show us his excellent turn at sottish acting.
Olivia veiled herself, Maria and one of her attendants creating a trio to greet Cesario, who got down on one knee to deliver Orsino’s message. But despite her ceremonious gesture, she spoke her part as if not quite believing in it. This seemed to prompt Olivia’s question “Are you a comedian?” Cesario broke off from her address, becoming less formal, to ask who was the lady of the house.
She enjoyed bantering nautical terminology with Maria, who was trying to get her to leave, as if playing with language was coming naturally to someone whose entire mission was to deliver a message she could not utter with any sincerity.
Olivia’s reactions to Cesario were muted during their conversation. There was no immediate sign that she had been smitten with him. Only a slight flicker of interest was visible when she invited the young man to return to her. Her subsequent avowal of her love was restrained.
Lady Gentleman in red
Sebastian appeared at the start of 2.1 in the same red outfit worn by Cesario. Totally lacking in boyishness that might have prompted confusion between the siblings, Sebastian would always be distinguishable from his sister by his five o’clock shadow and builder’s jaw. There was no visible attempt to eroticise his relationship with Antonio.
Malvolio caught up with Cesario in 2.2 and handed over Olivia’s ring with his characteristic prissy disdain. Viola seemed to see the funny side of Olivia’s fancy for her. When the realisation hit her, she shifted her weight from foot to foot in her now characteristic ungainly manner.
Viola said “I.. am the man” in bemused disbelief with the pause as indicated. Her final couplet about time untangling the knot was spoken quite calmly and not with any kind of frustration.
It was as if she was experiencing Illyria in the same dream-like terms that her brother Sebastian later makes explicit. If so, then this was a very cleverly drawn psychological bond that the separated siblings were sharing.
The stage was dark for the entry of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in 2.3, both of them drunk. As they sat round a dining table, Feste joined them and posed between them when referring to the picture of “we three”.
Sir Andrew’s description of Feste’s fooling was marred by his intoxicated mispronunciation of the names involved.
When Feste sang his love song, Sir Toby listened with a wistful mien as if recalling happy memories, while the less experienced Sir Andrew exuded an air of hopeful expectation as if relishing only a distant, future prospect of amorous fulfilment. This silent reminder of the essential difference between the two characters was particularly effective.
After Maria entered, disturbed by their singing of a catch, Sir Toby became quite angry at Olivia’s insistence on quiet. He roared with anger that they were “consanguineous”. This was quite striking as his anger came from nowhere.
Malvolio got a laugh for his ridiculous nightgown and cap. Sir Toby’s excellent cakes and ale jibe provided a comical slap-down. Sat on a chair turned away from the table, Sir Toby called for a stoup of wine. Maria was poised to pour when Malvolio, almost by the exit door at the rear of the stage, turned and warned her not to provide “means” for any more revelling. He exited, prompting Maria to shout at him to go shake his ears, upon which she poured Sir Toby his drink.
It seemed apt that the serving of drink became the symbol of these characters’ libertarian disobedience.
Maria unveiled her plot, which prompted a rather lame joke from Sir Andrew about her horse making Malvolio an ass, which fell characteristically flat.
The problem of the Fool’s absence from the gulling scene was deftly explained by Feste silently waving away Maria’s suggestion that “the Fool make a third”.
As the intimacy between them increased with the hatching of the plot, Maria came close to touching Sir Andrew, but instinctively turned from him to devote her attentions to Sir Toby, prompting his description of her after her exit as “a good wench”. Sir Andrew’s disappointment at failing to impress Maria then found expression in his touchingly sad comment “I was adored once too”.
Orsino and Cesario shared an intimate conversation in 2.4 on the comfy cushions in the Duke’s palace waiting for Feste to arrive. The hearty man-to-man mood of their woman talk soon changed when the fool’s song began. Orsino lay on his back with Cesario crouched behind his head. S/he then began touching his head and then his face, something which Orsino visibly enjoyed: his expression was one of intense joy as he clasped her hands to him.
The slow verse-speaking made this scene more languorous; it also brought out the clarity of thought behind Cesario’s complex statements about her situation. This was particularly true when she explained that she was all the daughters of her father’s house and all the brothers too. Communicated with such deliberate ease, it would have been difficult for Orsino to not have connected this with the physical familiarity the pair had just enjoyed. It was a brilliantly teasing moment, all the more enjoyable for the audience for being drawn out. But Orsino showed no sign of twigging.
After this most intimate of visual and verbal poetry, the interval came.
During the second half of the performance the set was decorated with a perspective model of a house and gardens. For the start of 2.5 there were also three elegant leaf-patterned screens. Three step ladders were placed behind the one centre stage and one step ladder behind that stage right; in front of this screen there was also a seat.
We were introduced to the Cockney Fabian and Maria placed her trick letter on the seat before the conspirators hid behind the screens.
Simon Paisley Day’s Malvolio continued to take himself very seriously without a hint of self doubt as he daydreamed about achieving higher social status, much to the fury of Sir Toby. The plotters popped up intermittently from behind the screens on the step ladders.
Once sat on the bench, Malvolio spied the letter and brushed it onto the ground. His comment about leaving Olivia sleeping carried no bawdy overtone. But when he referred to winding up his watch, he mimed this action with a repeated movement of his finger and thumb. When continued into his remark about playing with “some rich jewel”, the repeated gesture took on a bawdy connotation.
Sir Andrew crawled to Malvolio’s side in order to retrieve and reposition the letter. But when Malvolio’s speech turned to the “foolish knight” Sir Andrew spoke up quite loudly in recognition that this was a reference to him: all this just inches away from Malvolio. He was saved from discovery only by the stage convention of convenient invisibility.
Malvolio found the letter and began to walk around the garden reading it. This caused the conspirators to scatter as Olivia’s steward wandered behind the screens. At one point Sir Andrew faced into a fold in one of the screen’s panels, remaining very still and hoping to go unnoticed.
The instruction in the letter to “revolve” almost caused Malvolio to turn round, but he cut this movement short, turning the letter through 360 degrees instead.
Despite the mounting evidence that he was the subject of the letter, he only fully grasped its meaning when he came across the word “steward”. At this point the lights went on and his mood became ecstatic. His exclamation about “daylight and champaign” captured the sudden clarity of his realisation.
He moved towards the exit, but suddenly returned to read the postscript. Once Malvolio had finally gone, the others emerged and Sir Toby offered his neck for Maria to tread on.
Viola’s joking with Feste at the start of act three created a strong contrast between the wizened old fool and the young cross-dressed ingénue. She again looked as if she were playing a part and finding the entire process entertaining.
Despite his worldly wisdom and perspicacity, Feste showed no sign of seeing through Viola’s disguise when making his joke about Jove sending her a beard.
After her delightful speech about the skill of a fool, Cesario was interrupted by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, who was carrying a French phrase book which he consulted to deliver his Gallic greeting. He then had to fumble through it clumsily trying to make sense of Cesario’s reply in fluent French.
The long exchange between Cesario and Olivia was the first part of the performance where an absence was felt. There was something vague about the relationship between the two. Whether it was Olivia’s reticence or Cesario’s lack of seriousness, the sequence felt underplayed. Neither of them seemed to really engage with the other.
Two brief scenes (3.2 and 3.3) showed us Sir Toby persuading Sir Andrew to write a challenge to Cesario, with Maria’s announcement of Malvolio’s new costume, followed by Sebastian taking Antonio’s purse to go off into town. The purse was dangled in mid-air for quite some time to imprint its form on our memories.
Malvolio appeared in his yellow cross garters with yellow backing visible beneath the slits in his breeches, topped off with a yellow sash across his black jacket. He had thrown himself into his new look with the utmost seriousness. While some Malvolios descend into clowning at this point with the actor giving a nod to the audience about the ridiculousness of the character’s appearance, Simon Paisley Day was as earnest as if he were wearing a suit to an interview.
Olivia held her hand out to Malvolio at the key “Wilt thou go to bed…?” line. In spite of his professed acceptance, he never seemed genuinely intent on taking up the presumed offer.
He was equally solemn in coming forward and addressing the audience with his insight that Olivia sending Sir Toby to have “special care” of him was consistent with the content of the letter.
Fabian, Maria and Sir Toby entered dressed as priestly exorcists with crucifixes and holy water. They surrounded and literally demonised Malvolio, making spitting noises as if splatters of holy water were fizzing on contact with his demonic presence.
Cockney Fabian delivered the line about the scene being presented on the stage and being received as an improbable fiction with a knowing look to the audience. Sir Andrew’s challenge was read out by Sir Toby causing much merriment all round.
After Olivia had put a miniature portrait of herself around Cesario’s neck, Sir Toby informed the disguised Viola of the challenge, but she once again seemed more bemused than shocked. As Cesario was unarmed, Sir Toby had to sling a sword belt across her shoulder so that she would stand prepared for Sir Andrew’s onslaught.
When the two combatants confronted each other, Cesario struggled to take her sword out of its scabbard. A series of pulls and tugs were to no avail, until with one mighty stroke she drew the weapon, which yielded so easily that she ended up with it poised high above her head as if about to strike a deadly downward blow.
Seeing this, Sir Andrew tried to copy Cesario but had difficulty getting his hand through the intricate guard of his Renaissance rapier. Antonio entered and separated them before any fighting could take place. Sir Toby countered Antonio, while Cesario and Sir Andrew stood apart and watched stage left. They both agreed to put their swords up.
Antonio’s arrest saw Cesario get out her purse to offer him money, allowing us to see that it was identical to that lent to Sebastian.
Cesario came forward to tell us about Antonio’s mention of her brother Sebastian. This marked the first time that her bemusement gave way to genuine concern.
Sir Andrew’s parting gesture was to punch his fist into the palm of his hand in anticipation of what he thought he might do to his opponent later.
Feste kept touching his nose when talking to Sebastian at the start of 4.1 so that when he finally said “nor this is not my nose neither” he was referring to something to which he had already been drawing attention for some time.
Sir Andrew fought with Sebastian, and Sir Toby became embroiled too. Olivia brought the fighting to an end, discovering, then leading away, her “Cesario”.
The stage went dark for 4.2 with Malvolio crouched blindfolded in a bird cage with his hands and feet tied. Feste used a high voice when pretending to be Sir Topas.
Malvolio’s cramped and inhuman imprisonment was quite startling. The bird cage looked like a distant, albeit sickly, reference to Lear’s promise to Cordelia that they would sing together like birds in a cage.
Sebastian entered through the back door of the set for 4.3 describing his time spent with Olivia. But unlike many contemporary productions there was no overt hint of sexual activity between them (such as showing him rising from her bed).
Olivia looked stunning in her orange wedding dress, which matched the red colour scheme of the production as she invited Sebastian to the hastily arranged nuptials.
It was time to bring all the plot strands together in the marathon final act/scene 5.1.
After being entertained by Feste’s fooling and condemning the captured Antonio, Orsino found himself once again rejected by Olivia. His apparent jealous threat against Cesario was not made with any violence or attempt at harming her. He was forceful but calm.
Cesario followed Orsino (to a presumed death) but there was something unrealistic about her submission. Rebecca Hall’s portrayal of the character so far had not been passionate enough to make Cesario’s actions here seem likely. Nor was her sudden avowal of love particularly convincing. Cesario/Viola had always floated over the surface of events rather than being caught up in them.
The trigger word “husband” was said by Olivia just as Orsino reached the stage right doorway.
Sir Andrew entered with a bleeding wound on his head. Sir Toby limped on stage assisted by Fabian and Feste. Sir Toby was drunk (again) which made his criticism of the intoxicated surgeon all the more funny.
As Sir Andrew was led away, his wig came off revealing a scabby head with only tufts of hair. This pox symptom neatly referred back to Sir Andrew’s conversation in 1.3 about how “the arts” would have mended his hair. We could now see how badly it was in need of repair.
The reunion between the separated siblings was blocked to create a very pleasing series of visually poetic effects befitting a production that emphasised the poetry of the language.
Sebastian entered upstage right and moved directly towards Olivia standing stage left. Viola stood with her back to him at this point creating a mirror image of the two identically dressed characters. She then recognised her brother’s voice and turned to face his back while he was still talking to Olivia.
Orsino saw the pair and announced how similar they looked. But Sebastian did not notice this. He had caught sight of Antonio stage left near to Olivia and engaged him in conversation. His friend wondered how the apple had become “cleft in two”.
Olivia moved from stage left to the centre. Sebastian turned from Antonio and faced his sister, the two of them forming another distinct mirror image, with the centrally placed Olivia exclaiming “Most wonderful!” from a perfect vantage point.
The verse conversation between Viola and Sebastian proceeded through a slow process of verification and fact checking. Orsino finally took Viola’s hand when the full implication of it for all the characters became known.
Feste read Malvolio’s letter madly and it was given to Fabian to read. When the steward himself entered, he still seemed very much in control of himself despite his justifiable frustration. This made his threat to wreak revenge a genuine menace rather than an idle parting shot.
There was a brief moment of comedy as Orsino incorrectly tried to pair off with Sebastian before correcting himself.
Everyone departed apart from Feste who used his tabor as a prop to illustrate the various stage of his life as set out in his closing song. He tapped on it to indicate rain, held it in front of him like an apron to indicate his wife and put it by his cheek as a pillow.
This production succeeding in telling the story and also giving due respect to the poetry of the language. But there were times when the atmosphere was too mellow and could have benefited from a bit more spice. This would have made the emotional lives of many of the characters more credible.
However, there is a lot to be said for making a performance of Shakespearean verse sound like a poetry reading. Differentiating between verse and prose brings out the flavour of each style of writing so that their distinct dramatic effects can be fully felt.
NT Live: Hamlet, Greenwich Picturehouse, 9 December 2010
Despite some technical problems, the NT Live broadcast of Hamlet managed to convey much of what had caused audiences to rave about the production. Compared with the in-theatre experience it was still a poor second, but these mediated images of the stage did provide the occasional fresh perspective and elucidating beam of light.
Things got off to a confusing start. The cameras made the dark stage look even murkier than it actually was, and pointing a camera accurately in such conditions was also difficult. So for the first few minutes of the opening scene we saw some rapidly changing and indistinct close-up shots of the Elsinore guards. The effect was profoundly disorienting. Whereas the theatre audience would have seen a group of people moving into a space, the cinema audience saw individuals with no explanatory context.
Then the sound of the vision mixer’s voice began to bleed through into the audio. Besides the general irritation, it became especially annoying when Hamlet asked a question and her muted voice filled the ensuing pause with a string a numbers as if in reply.
A “No signal” error message appeared on screen after a short while, from which point onwards the picture and sound were slightly out of synch. This added to the artificiality of the cinema experience as it acted as a reminder that we were watching a composite of an audio stream and a video stream.
This problem was rectified for the start of the second half of the performance, only to recur and send us back into badly-dubbed mode.
Thankfully there was only one moment where we had an Acorn Antiques shot with the camera pointing at nothing in particular.
For anyone who had seen the original stage production, the NT Live broadcast was definitely no substitute. But it was in some ways a useful adjunct.
The stage production had only one flaw. Making Elsinore a contemporary autocracy made us feel a more lively sense of injustice than if we had been presented with the same system in an historical or non-specific setting. The modern and overtly political context of the production de-emphasised the more thoughtful, philosophical musings of the main character. This Hamlet was wrestling with Big Brother rather than with Big Questions.
But in the broadcast the close-up shots of Hamlet in soliloquy effectively abstracted him from this setting. These images of the prince alone with his thoughts allowed us to consider their general import beyond this particular staging.
This was most strikingly in evidence during the Yorick soliloquy. Instead of being a man in an anorak on his way back from England to a 21st century autocracy, Hamlet in close-up became an Everyman in his contemplation of Yorick’s and his own mortality . This could have been achieved unaided by camerawork if the existential element had not been overridden by the political context of this production.
The camera also allowed us to see some of the detail of Rory Kinnear’s performance that even a good front row seat could not have provided.
When Horatio expressed his horror at Hamlet’s account of meeting the ghost of his dead father, describing it as “wondrous strange”, the camera enabled us to see clearly the effervescent delight with which Hamlet replied “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome”. He launched into his lines about heaven and earth containing more things than are dreamt of in their philosophy in the same upbeat mood.
The broadcast also gave us a glimpse of a delightful detail that could not have been visible to the theatre audience and which could only have been a private joke within the production.
While Hamlet was sat in his trunk making fun of Polonius, the cover of the book he was reading momentarily came into clear view. It was a copy of the Penguin edition of Montaigne’s Essays. Subsequent checking revealed that the same book had been used in the publicity photos of that scene. This proved that the book was not a random choice, but a volume consistently selected to be Hamlet’s favourite reading.
Scholars have theorised that Shakespeare was familiar with Montaigne’s Essays as traces of the ideas they contain can be seen in Hamlet’s thoughts. Having the prince actually read this volume on stage was a knowing but occluded wink at this theory.
The director was able to use camera angles to group together elements on stage to suggest a connection between them that might not have occurred to an audience. Specific shots also effectively increased or decreased the apparent size of individual characters.
This could be seen when Hamlet lay dying. A camera positioned stage left gave us a shot of the bodies of Claudius, Laertes and Gertrude in a line cutting the screen diagonally in half with the small crouched figures of Hamlet and Horatio seemingly trapped beneath them on the left side of the picture.
The final shot in the broadcast looked diagonally across the stage from the opposite corner, with Hamlet and Horatio looming large at the bottom of the screen. The fencing piste stretched away into the distance with the new master of Denmark and his followers exiting as small, insignificant figures.
My third view of the production brought a few previously unremarked details to my attention. I noticed Ophelia’s reticence bordering on fear when her father told her that they would have to inform the king of Hamlet’s condition. This dread Ophelia had for Claudius nicely foreshadowed the actual harm the production heavily suggested he caused her.
In her mad scene Ophelia’s shopping trolley gave her a concrete point of reference when saying “O, how the wheel becomes it!” She presented a doll to Gertrude which she called “a daisy”. It is quite possible that in the world of the play the doll was actually a brand name “Daisy” along the lines of real-world brands Barbie and Cindy.
Whereas David Tennant’s Hamlet had exited for England drugged and strapped to a chair shouting “Weeee!” Rory Kinnear skipped away singing a hornpipe.
When asking whether a freshly exhumed skull might be that of a lawyer, Hamlet offered up a jocular prayer of supplication that his theory might be proved correct.
I was relieved to see that host Emma Freud had put on one of the Villain t-shirts over her top to deliver her final words after the performance had ended. I had got into the spirit of the event by wearing my Villain shirt in the same way. It was comforting to think that someone else had seen the potential fun in becoming part of Team Hamlet.
Season’s Greetings, Lyttelton Theatre, 8 December 2010
Season’s Greetings injects enough sorrow into the lives of its characters for its farcical component to be seen as just one of the play’s dramatic payloads. We should be able to laugh at these funny people and also feel sad for them as the mood turns.
However, this production’s decision to load the cast with a bevy of actors with mighty reputations for television comedy served to reduce the impact of this darkness. The result was a laugh-out-loud comedy with some slow, deep and meaningful bits that were underlined as Important and required us to wear Serious Faces when taking them in.
But rather like the unsmiling reports on poverty and disaster slotted between the gags on Comic Relief night, these solemn moments felt like pauses before more gags were due to be served up.
Having sketch-show Catherine, IT Crowd Katherine, that stand-up guy and the bloke from that sitcom, with Ruth Evershed from Spooks loitering around, did not exactly raise expectations of Chekhovian light and shade.
Catherine Tate seemed to be fighting the urge to slip into the personas of her sketch show characters. She accessed aspects of several of them, but these were obviously tempting, comfortable ruts that would have turned her performance into a series of caricatures rather than a coherent dramatic whole.
The central element of farce in the play was Belinda’s midnight tryst with writer Clive. Their mutual infatuation led them to attempt a quick coupling under the Christmas tree only to set off a loud musical toy and a remotely controlled music system bringing Belinda’s husband Neville, played by Neil Stuke, and the rest of the house guests downstairs to catch them in flagrante delicto.
The tryst was performed with consummate perfection by Catherine Tate and Oliver Chris, generating gales of delirious laughter at the absurdity of their attempted copulation. Their mutual attraction had been evident at their first meeting the day before, and the moment of its fulfilment had been heralded by some hilariously obvious flirting by Belinda.
But all the hints at the problems in Belinda and Neville’s marriage leading up to that moment, and its tragic aftermath for their relationship, in particular the air of coldness between them that ends the play, did not seem credible.
The farce was so singularly effective in its humour that the subsequent deflation of mood from the tragedy was quite unwelcome.
The only real shade in the production was produced by Nicola Walker as dowdy spinster Rachel and Katherine Parkinson as put-upon expectant mother Pattie. Theirs were performances that could be taken several shades darker than most of the other characters as they were not required to perform much in the way of comedy. As a result they stood out from the rest and could command real pity when their chips were down, which was most of the time.
Two characters were consistently amusing. Mark Gatiss’s Bernard and Jenna Russell’s Phyllis were performed with such attention to detail that they raised a smile of appreciation whenever they were on stage. Their characters shared a trait that saw them both soldiering on through adversity; Bernard deploying denial and Phyllis large amounts of drink to anaesthetise their pain, making them funny and likeable.
Marc Wooton’s Eddie and Neil Stuke’s Neville showed us that men, particularly those engaged in lower middle class jobs, can be quite tedious and dull. But the actors in the roles failed to make this tediousness genuinely amusing so that they were actually quite uninteresting to watch much of the time.
For a play that involves someone being shot and taken for dead, the moment the revolver was discharged did not feel like a murder scene. Harvey, played by David Troughton, the man with his finger on the trigger of the weapon that felled Clive, had up to that point been a one-note grump. So it came as no surprise that duff doctor Bernard’s pronouncement of the victim’s death turned out to be incorrect.
But it felt like a device, a way of introducing a massive full stop near the finish of the play in order to create An Ending to a story that because of its verisimilitude would trail off into Nothing In Particular.
I walked out at the end having laughed, giggled and gasped in horror, full of admiration for many of the performances, and with fond memories of some of Catherine Tate’s revealing outfits. But the cord that had been intended to pull on my heartstrings was tangled and ineffective.
A follow-up to From Mercury to Saturn
Hamlet, Olivier Theatre, 27 November 2010
Seeing a play for a second time often highlights elements in a production that did not become firmly fixed in the memory at the first view. Just as paint has to be applied in at least two coats for a perfect finish, so two views are often needed to ensure that missed bits are fully covered.
I came away from my second look at the National Theatre’s Hamlet with some interesting morsels of detail replaying in my mind’s eye.
The production had a sonic framing device. After the house lights went down the sound of low-flying aircraft roared through the theatre. The same sound assaulted us as the stage lights went down on the butchery of the final scene.
Low-flying aircraft, and we can assume they are military aircraft from the context of the play, are a signifier of alarm, crisis, a noisy and intrusive inconvenience. All was not well. The fact that this roaring occurred at both the start and end of the performance told us that essentially Denmark had not changed during the course of the play. We had ended up where we started.
This was something also implied by new ruler Fortinbras’ inability to do anything without it being captured on camera. Claudius had been shown displaying exactly the same vanity, which suggested that they were men of similar character. I noticed this time that Fortinbras also had his instructions to the Captain filmed, which meant that the Norwegian prince never appeared in the production without his personal film crew.
Some points were quite trivial: Ophelia tried to bury her head in a book when Laertes started to lecture her; Hamlet grabbed the bugged Bible and spoke directly into its concealed mic when making his veiled threat that “all but one, shall live” so that the king could not mistake hearing it; Ophelia’s mad gift to her brother was the toy elephant the two of them had been playing around with earlier. Hamlet whacked on some loud music from the stage sound desk and ran forward playing on a recorder before his confrontation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Also the king’s speech announcing “the present death of Hamlet” was delivered in spot light downstage to highlight its significance.
But the biggest surprise, the biggest “duh!” moment, came quite early on when I realised that Hamlet was still wearing his dark funeral suit with its black tie in what was obviously the immediate aftermath of his mother’s wedding to his uncle.
A more subtle point in Kinnear’s performance came at the end of the play. When staring at Horatio, who had just attacked him with the poisoned tip of a foil, he was not just gazing in disbelief at his assailant. The sharp point of Horatio’s foil was inches from Hamlet’s face. This close-up view of the instrument that had just injured him then became the trigger for his savage retaliation.
Another moment of closeness, a more convivial one, came when Hamlet was explaining the tortuous workings of his soul to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. On this second view, I was impressed by how well the sequence worked with all three of them sat around in Hamlet’s room. It seemed an obvious way to stage this discussion, which feels like the kind of conversation students typically have at 2am. Stagings that have the three meet and converse standing up cannot achieve the same degree of intimacy.
Some moments of inappropriate laughter stood out. Gertrude laughed at Hamlet’s treatment of Polonius’ corpse and Horatio laughed when telling the English ambassadors that the king had not ordered the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Osric, however, was definitely not laughing when telling Hamlet about the king’s wager. He is commonly portrayed as a fawning, weak courtier. But here he was a high-ranking officer who retained his cap firmly at his side in a stiff military fashion and responded with ironic disdain to Hamlet’s attempts to intimidate him. This departure from standard characterisation underlined the hopelessness of Hamlet’s situation: although a prince, he had no authority.
At least the gravedigger recognised who Hamlet was. David Calder’s man with the shovel saw through the anorak and inappropriate dark sunglasses. He looked quizzically at Horatio half-miming a brief “Is it him?” before continuing with a wink, addressing Hamlet as if he had still not recognised him.
The drink, the drink
A second view also brought Gertrude’s drinking to my notice. Before Hamlet’s arrival in her closet she downed nearly half a bottle of whisky. Clearly a reaction to stress, her drink habit then became the reason she subsequently snatched the poisoned glass of champagne meant for Hamlet. Unable to watch any drink pass by her without making a grab for it, Gertrude was inadvertently killed by her own alcoholism.
Some significant pauses came to my attention. Polonius paused noticeably when he reached the part of his homily about being true to one’s own self. He seemed almost caught out by his words of exhortation to his son, as if this was a lesson he had himself failed to learn. This opened up the possibility that he had suddenly become aware of the extent to which his own life was full of self-deception. This could have been an expression of his discomfort at what his new master Claudius was expecting him to do, as well as self-loathing at his subservience.
Gertrude paused when retelling the fake story about Ophelia’s alleged suicide, looking at her husband as if for approval of the fibs she was telling, while taking solace in yet another large whisky.
I noticed this time that Ophelia had really gone out of her way to taunt Claudius with his wrongdoing. Not only did she present him with the prop poison bottle from The Mousetrap, but she also gave him the Bible that had contained the bug used to spy on Hamlet. One taunting object could have been overlooked; the pair sealed her fate as Claudius dealt with her manifest defiance by ordering her murder.
A second view brought home the extent to which the text had been altered to make the play easier to follow. But there were obvious inconsistencies.
Claudius’ first speech had the line “an auspicious and a dropping eye” cut from his list of qualities. This was an obvious candidate for excision as its meaning is not immediately apparent. But there were plenty of other equally difficult lines that were left in.
Polonius talked of “*snares* to catch woodcocks”, together with an explanatory mime, his hand grasping down on the putative bird, instead of the text’s “springes”. This alteration was bizarre. Any reasonably intelligent person could work out from the context that a springe must be something like a trap, given that it is clearly something used “… to catch woodcocks”. This phrase is commonly left intact without confusing half the audience.
Similarly Polonius’ reference to “drabbing” in his conversation with Reynaldo was changed to “whoring”. This made the meaning clearer. But then again Hamlet later compares his actions to being “like a very drab”. If the one change is required, then why not mess with the soliloquy too for sake of consistency? Looked at another way, if the audience is expected to understand the meaning of “drab” in context at one point, why not leave the gerund “drabbing” intact at another?
A vile phrase?
I regretted that Polonius’s line “With windlasses and with assays of bias” was cut from before the “By indirections find directions out” line. Arguing from lack of clarity simply does not wash. The two lines taken together are great poetry and constitute a couplet whose sheer beauty speaks for itself without the concrete meaning of the metaphor necessarily being understood. In an attempt to make the text less difficult, it was made less beautiful.
A charge of inconsistency can again be made. “So shall my anticipation prevent your discovery” is a line composed of ‘false friends’ whose actual meaning is rarely understood correctly in performance. It is every bit as much a candidate for clarification as any of the other lines altered in the production, yet fortunately was left intact. If this can be left as is, then so could all the other lines that were rewritten.
Having just seen two performances of Kupenga Kwa Hamlet with the scenes in the Q1 order, it felt strange to be viewing the action of the play in the ‘correct’ sequence. Going back to the Q2/F ordering and finding it lacking made me sympathise with Greg Doran’s adoption of the Q1 sequence for his RSC Hamlet in 2008.
My final inspiration from this second view of the National Theatre’s Hamlet was a practical one. Having bought one of the “Team Hamlet” t-shirts just before seeing the performance, I was reminded that these shirts were distributed by Hamlet to the Mousetrap audience just before it began and that consequently they were worn over the top of the clothes they already had on.
This means that anyone wanting to wear one of these t-shirts in true Team Hamlet style, for instance to the NT Live screening of Hamlet on 9 December, should do the same.
Shakespeare’s Globe to present Much Ado and All’s Well in 2011
The Globe 2011 season announced today contains only two main house Shakespeare productions: the much-loved, crowd-pleasing comedy workhorse Much Ado About Nothing and the unjustly neglected rarity All’s Well That Ends Well.
Much Ado is so strong a piece it could be made out of girders. The merry war between the principal characters is robust enough a story to flourish under any conditions.
All’s Well, on the other hand, has not enjoyed the same degree of popularity and exposure. But this lack of familiarity can be turned to advantage and used to explore the play without the encumbrance of expectation.
If staging Hamlet is like treading a worn, muddy path with the footsteps of those that have gone before all too visible, then putting on All’s Well is like stepping out into crisp, fresh snow.
The 2009 National Theatre production chose to highlight the fairytale element in the play and contrast it with the adult reality of relationships. This created a very modern and cynical subversion of the fairytale format.
The precise approach of the Globe production obviously remains to be seen. But it’s to be hoped that the final moment of the NT production, with Helena and Bertram looking at each other aghast at their awkwardly contrived and ill-starred marriage, will point the director towards an exploration of the play’s hidden depths, perhaps to find other modern resonances.
Staging these two plays in the same season is also a great opportunity for comparison and contrast. Highlighting in particular how All’s Well differs from its more familiar stable mate should throw those differences into sharper relief, providing us with an even clearer view of what this neglected gem has to offer.
Hamlet, Olivier Theatre, 8 October 2010
Sticking to a familiar pattern, the opening scene of the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet looked like a rehash of many that had gone before. The set, which comprised a series of windowed walls topped by security cameras, descended into smoky darkness; the guards slowly appeared, turning and warily pointing their modern rifles as if expecting ambush at any moment; and then the first lines barked out. There seems to be little scope nowadays for novelty in the staging of the play’s initial moments and this sameness was slightly dispiriting.
The ghost appeared and offered a glimmer of hope. I was struck by how unwarlike he looked. Instead of a martial gait and military uniform, his presence was gentle and calm and exuded an air of compassion as if his mission back in the realm of the living was bountiful instead of revengeful.
The scene, like the rest of the play, was shorn of its more obscure language and classical references so that once the ghost had finally disappeared and those present decided on informing young Hamlet of the apparition, the production had shown itself to be thoroughly modern and accessible, but at the same time quite predictable.
What ensued, as we moved into 1.2, was so novel and unfamiliar that it produced in me something close to euphoria as the production’s gloriously original constellation of features collided with my soured expectations. Like the best present you’ve ever had coming wrapped in plain, brown paper.
The lights brightened and the sections of wall rearranged themselves to produce a palace interior with a large desk within an office area stage left and chairs of state stage right. Security men in suits and earpieces monitored in the background as the royal party entered and the inner world of Elsinore was opened up.
Claudius in a dark formal suit sat on his chair of state next to Gertrude who smiled gracefully as her husband’s first words were spoken as a live broadcast being captured by a small television crew in front of them. On a stand just behind them loomed the portrait of the recently deceased Old Hamlet draped in funereal black. The television address ended with “For all, our thanks” after which his words about Fortinbras were spoken only to those present.
This Claudius was a modern, media-savvy, machine politician who seemed hurried and determined but also emotionally detached even from the business of state. He could not be described as a megalomaniac as that would have been a point of interest in his character. He was unpleasant but also incredibly dull.
Gertrude seemed to exist in his shadow as a subordinate. Her dress was formal but unglamorous, which seemed to express her lack of confidence in herself.
As Claudius moved over to his desk to attend to business of state, his hurried and efficient manner, his whining monotone voice, together with the modern dress of the entire cast did more to create a sense of unease than did the trappings of modern technology and surveillance.
Period costume reduces the menace exuded by Machiavels because anchoring such characters and their deeds in the past creates for the audience a comforting dislocation from any immediate concerns. Modern dress forges an immediate connection between the action on stage and the very familiar horrors of our own age: this Claudius reminded us of people whom we have actually known and personally resented.
All this while, Hamlet had sat on a chair patiently waiting his turn to attract the new king’s attention. In this bureaucratic world the permission he needed to leave Denmark and return to Wittenberg was a form requiring the king’s signature. Nervously grasping the paper before him, Hamlet stood in front of the king’s desk and silently proffered it.
The king’s reaction was remarkable. He looked round the side of Hamlet as if he were nothing more than an unwelcome obstruction and addressed himself to Laertes. Taking this none too subtle hint, Hamlet withdrew.
Polonius was drawn into this conversation. He was bumbling but not avuncular, seemingly infected with the same virus of machine politics as his new master.
Only after signing Laertes’ pass to leave Denmark did Claudius condescend to acknowledge Hamlet’s presence. This made his use of the word ‘son’ all the more galling and Hamlet’s indignant response, its initial one line and subsequent extended speech, all the more justified. We did not have to imagine the back story to the tension at this moment: we had seen it played out before us.
As Claudius finished setting out of his reasons for refusing his stepson permission to leave and a nervous Gertrude backed him up, Hamlet stood stage right facing away from him, tore the paper to shreds and threw them out into the audience. He was bitter and angry in his avowal of obedience to his mother. Claudius’ characterisation of this concession of defeat as “a loving and a fair reply” and a “gentle and unforced accord” with the scattered pieces of paper still littering the floor of the auditorium, was breathtakingly arrogant. His effortless rewriting of the immediate past in direct contradiction of the facts underlined his absolute power.
Hamlet’s first exchanges with his family followed by his lengthy soliloquy defined the character at the heart of the production. With the initial action creating a clear political context for his character, Hamlet’s situation appeared to be not so much a personal, family drama but rather the struggle of a decent person against powerful, impersonal forces.
Saturn, not Mercury
Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet had none of the fire, agility and action hero energy of David Tennant in the 2008 RSC production. Still images of Tennant from that Hamlet captured facial expressions and poses that unmistakably conveyed the dynamism of his stage presence. But whereas Tennant had seemed like a bright spark of mercurial force cheated of victory by events, Kinnear presented a saturnine Hamlet who appeared at first only dimly aware of his potential. It was as if he was in the midst of a confused search for himself.
His absolute lack of action hero status was underlined as he thumped Claudius’ desk with his fist only to withdraw it and shake it in pain as he said how much he was unlike Hercules.
He spoke with calm dignity in clearly enunciated tones. Character was not indicated by a display of exuberant physical actions; it could only be discerned by paying close attention to his words and their precise delivery.
Instead of having a character presented to us with unmistakable force, we were instead obliged to scrutinise and investigate a subtle stage presence that proved all the more fascinating for consisting of small-scale detail. It was like monitoring the slow development of a photographic print in a darkroom, and not the sudden projection of a bold, complete image.
After hearing about the ghost from Horatio and the others, there was an intelligent cut in Hamlet’s lines so that he did not mention his father’s spirit being “in arms”.
Ophelia was to prove as interesting a personality as Hamlet. Music pounded out at the start of 1.3 as the scene changed to a domestic interior with the young woman lounging on a sofa with a portable stereo by her feet. She looked thoroughly contemporary and this helped her to appear as a real person and not the cliché of simplistic innocence that can often be evoked by flighty Ophelias in white dresses.
The realism of her character was shown again as both she and her brother Laertes giggled their way through Polonius’ dry, humourless lecture on comportment, which he delivered after conferring his blessing (a wad of cash) on his son. The fact that he continued talking while being visibly mocked made him unsympathetic as it indicated a lack of awareness of how his words were being received. Like Claudius his master, Polonius seemed to plough on regardless of the reactions of others.
Hamlet’s reunion with his dead father was preceded by a comic moment in which the ghost hunters were spooked by the sudden noise of fireworks from Claudius’ party, causing them to jump. When the ghost did eventually turn up, he appeared behind Hamlet’s back as he talked to Horatio. Hamlet sensed that his companion had seen something and he turned catching sight of his father in an instant. The shock made him cross himself and fall to his knees.
The two of them looked like kindred spirits. The good nature and intelligence of the ghost were clearly characteristics that had been passed on to his son.
Seeing the ghost of Old Hamlet and his son together underlined how effective it was not to have doubled the roles of the ghost and Claudius. Having two actors playing these roles enabled a stark contrast to be drawn between them, highlighting the damaging effects of the new order at Elsinore. It also meant that Claudius’ disdain for Hamlet could be contrasted with Old Hamlet’s compassion and gentleness.
On hearing the truth about the murder of his father, Hamlet found himself inspired. But his first action, his setting down of this recent lesson in his ‘tables’, was to chalk a smiley on the wall and write ‘VILLAIN’ in large capitals underneath. This was a surprisingly juvenile reaction which contrasted with the intelligent maturity of his deportment thus far in the play. As a gesture, it was a harbinger of things to come.
When his companions caught up with him he made them swear by his hand rather than his sword, which was consistent with the modern setting. He also talked to Horatio of ‘our philosophy’ rather than ‘your’.
After thoroughly boring Reynaldo with his tedious instructions and having heard from a frightened Ophelia about Hamlet’s odd behaviour, Polonius was soon explaining all to Claudius and Gertrude, who had Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ready to spy on their son.
Again there was nothing funny or avuncular about Polonius’ rambling speech on the source of Hamlet’s madness. Whereas some productions make him an endearing buffoon whose death feels like a loss, this Polonius was a senescent copy of Claudius for whom it was difficult to arouse fellow feeling.
There was also a sense that Polonius was embarrassed that his daughter was the root of Hamlet’s problems and that he was consequently concerned whether this would have repercussions for his position at court, which made him defensive.
Hamlet appeared outside a window making mad noises and flapping an open book as if it were a bird. There was something of Anne the psychiatric patient character from Little Britain in his utterances, which was comical.
Rather than privacy being achieved by the king and queen withdrawing, the entire scene then changed from a large court chamber to Hamlet’s own bedroom to which Polonius gained entry.
A squalid mattress lay on the ground covered in tatty sheets and a blanket next to which stood a large trunk surrounded by books. As Polonius questioned him, Hamlet gradually climbed into and curled up inside the trunk, which was too small to accommodate him. He clutched a book, gazing at it intently. The first words in his answers were often mumbled in a childish, distracted voice only to become clearer when repeated: this happened with “words, words, words” and “except my life, except my life”.
These were further examples of the juvenile behaviour first glimpsed when Hamlet chalked the smiley on the wall. When he crept into the trunk and curled up with his book he was adopting a foetal position.
This regression to childishness seemed to be a reaction to the lack of power he felt in the face of the overwhelming forces ranged against him.
Polonius left the room to be replaced by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, at which point an interesting reversal took place. When challenging his friends about whether they had been sent for, the childish regressive Hamlet suddenly found some inner steel and began for the first time to show the ability to dominate a social situation.
He smoked nonchalantly and appeared quite pleased to have won a minor victory. When describing his disaffection with the “stale promontory” of the earth he struck a dramatic pose looking out of the window. Polonius knocked and re-entered, at which point Hamlet got down on the ground and crawled resuming his previous childish behaviour.
The Only Men
Polonius read from a flyer that the newly arrived players were the best actors for ‘tragedy, comedy’ and so on, becoming more perplexed as the list went on. He made it sound as if he was quoting the name of group when he said “These are The Only Men”. Polonius’ recommendation did not sound like something arising from his own direct experience, but rather second-hand information. This in turn made him less sympathetic as a character, because modern theatre in this production was characterised as a good thing in a bad world. Making Polonius unfamiliar with the latest theatre placed him outside this realm of virtue.
The enclosed room then opened up to the full stage as the players entered with their equipment cases, lighting rigs and control desks. They appeared a very likeable group of people whose relaxed presence was a deep contrast to the besuited power mongers of the court. Hamlet seemed to come alive in the presence of these people.
The role of the ghost and the 1st player were doubled, which created the spectacle of Hamlet sharing a performance of the Pyrrhus play with his ‘father’. Having established the theatre as a locus of virtue, it became doubly significant that the ghost/1st player was a part of this world. It established a connection between the father he had lost and the world of the theatre in which he felt at home.
The friction between court power and the theatre company was indicated subtly at the end of this sequence. As Hamlet asked the 1st player to insert lines into The Murder of Gonzago, one of the omnipresent security goons stepped forward to spy on their conversation as if sensing the onset of conspiracy.
Left alone, Hamlet sat by the lighting desk and threw a switch that turned on a light that shone directly on him as he began the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy. This was a nice touch: he was literally and metaphorically turning a probing light on himself.
The start of act three saw the royal party gathered in a corridor. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exited, Polonius handed Ophelia a Bible that concealed a microphone. He indicated that she should clasp it in front of her so that her conversation with Hamlet would be picked up clearly and transmitted to the earpieces that he and the king would be wearing concealed nearby. She hid out of the way as Hamlet entered.
Hamlet shuffled in looking dishevelled with one hand in his pocket and the other clasping a cigarette to deliver the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. This was a good effort at providing some novelty at a moment that is so familiar within the play and culture generally.
But the modernity of the production’s setting and its emphasis on power meant that the personal and metaphysical aspects of this speech were de-emphasised. Rather than an iconic portrait of man pondering his place in the universe, this Hamlet was a spied upon dissident whose problems were very tangible.
As he heard the noise of Ophelia’s entry, he said “Soft…” and after a pause continued “You now!” having recognised her. In his argument with Ophelia he soon suspected he was being monitored. When he asked her where her father was, she snatched the bugged Bible from in front of her and hid it behind her back, her meek reply to his question indicating feelings of guilt. Hamlet then closed the shutters on the windows in what was a futile, token gesture: if he realised his conversation was being overheard then closing shutters would be no solution.
Players and villains
The set opened out again for the performance of the play. Chairs of state were provided for Claudius and Gertrude while cushions were scattered round the edge of the performance space for the others. Hamlet and the players were wearing t-shirts with the VILLAIN design on the front. He addressed the “speak the speech” lines to an actress who looked quite annoyed at having her technique criticised.
Hamlet reacted to Gertrude’s request to sit by her by dropping his trousers and acting disturbed. Once again he regressed into a display of juvenile behaviour, which although an act, must have derived to some extent from a grain of truth within him.
He mocked Ophelia with his “country matters” remark rather than cosying up to her. She looked angrily at him and they scuffled with each other. It was obvious that their falling out was still a live issue and that Hamlet still felt a sense of betrayal at her connivance in the bugging. Instead of sitting by her, he wandered around the edge of the space, loitering in particular near the king and queen when making pointed remarks about the plot of the play.
Seen in the light of his other juvenile behaviour, his choice of weapon against the king, disguised satire, began to look like another form of repressed aggression. His graffiti on the wall (now a fashion on t-shirts), feigned madness, trouser dropping, sarcasm and satire formed a consistent set of blunted and immature responses to a threat against which he had no response of equivalent power.
The dumb show was acted in an energetic and rhythmic style to pumping music. However, the real impact came when the 1st player assumed the role of Hamlet’s father and we effectively saw him come back to life for the re-enactment of his murder. The ghost had appeared quite artistic and intellectual, characteristics shared by the 1st player, and this prompted the idea that perhaps Hamlet had derived his love of theatre from his father.
As Lucianus poured the poison into the player king’s ear, Hamlet operated a spotlight and shone it on the scene of the murder, then tracked the light upwards so that it illuminated only Claudius. This was the same spotlight that he had turned on himself earlier for the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy and whose probing beam was now directed at his usurping uncle.
The king’s demand for “lights” made real sense because general lighting eliminated the focus of the spotlight on himself, which was another point at which lighting worked metaphorically.
The players were escorted out of the room by security goons as if under arrest, reminding us that this was very much a world where political gestures could have unpleasant consequences. But Hamlet had achieved a victory of sorts: he knelt downstage and referred to Claudius as the “stricken deer” as the first half of the performance came to an end.
The second half began with Hamlet’s conversation with Horatio. He confronted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with even greater assurance than he had shown in his previous dealings with them. Hamlet then talked to Polonius in his mannered childish voice, teasing him about the shapes of clouds.
Claudius sat behind his desk and addressed himself to the audience for his “O, my offence is rank” speech. He rattled out the words mechanically in his whining voice without any feeling being put into them. At “Try what repentance can” he moved to the other side of his desk and knelt facing the large portrait of himself hanging on the wall behind the desk. This was a neat visual encapsulation of Claudius’ self-centred nature. Hamlet considered killing his uncle at this moment with the same calm reflection that he had applied to other situations in the play. He flexed his switch blade but let Claudius live.
Another rearrangement of the walls brought us to Gertrude’s chamber, which was furnished with a sofa, not her bedroom as is often the case when this scene is staged. Polonius was hidden behind a curtain in an alcove and on hearing a noise from there, Hamlet stabbed him. The old man fell forwards clutching his neck.
Polonius’ death was a shock, but his unsympathetic nature meant that this did not feel like a great loss or injustice as can sometimes occur with a genial Polonius.
The affection Hamlet still felt for his father became apparent during his argument with Gertrude. His words were reinforced by the staging. When comparing the “counterfeit presentment” of the two brothers, he took Claudius’ portrait down from the wall and placed over it a small photo of his father which he retrieved from a fold in his wallet, the traditional location for photos of loved ones.
Despite having appeared in the first scene of the play, the ghost’s ethereal presence in Gertrude’s room looked like an anachronism from a gothic novel, somewhat at odds with the modern, hi-tech feel of the rest of the production.
True to his character, Claudius did not change his mood on taking account of Hamlet’s descent in murderousness. His armed guards pursued his nephew, finding him perched on top of a stage tower caught in the light of their torches. Hamlet’s resistance to his uncle’s interrogation about the location of Polonius’ body lasted until a case containing instruments of torture was shown to him, after which he pointed them in the direction of the lobby.
After a whirl of helicopter noises, Hamlet had his conversation with the Norwegian captain while attached with a single plastic handcuff to a drainpipe indicating his captive state before being transported to England.
Our first glimpse of Ophelia’s madness after her father’s death was touching and convincing. Some Ophelias dance around at this point striking balletic poses exuding exaggerated poetic melancholy. But Ruth Negga acted like someone genuinely disturbed. Her songs resulted from her singing along to music playing on her portable stereo. She took off her top and jigged around in her bra thrusting herself on Gertrude singing the line “By Cock they are to blame”.
Gunfire announced the return of Laertes and his followers as they mounted what was effectively an insurgent coup, confronting the king with modern weapons. No sooner was Laertes assuaged than his sister re-entered.
Ophelia wheeled in a shopping trolley full of stuff with a photo of her dead father stuck to the front. She removed it and examined it lovingly and took a number of packages from the trolley and set them out in a row on the ground. These gifts that she distributed to those in the room were referred to as various flowers. This was a neat variation: she is so mad that she imagines junk to be flowers.
The gift she handed to the king was the prop poison bottle from the Mousetrap. Was this an innocent gesture resulting from her distraction? Or had she worked out the truth and now knew of the king’s role in Old Hamlet’s death?
Whatever the reason, at the end of her mad display she was bundled away quite violently by the security men in a clear indication that the fate about to befall her was no accident. Ophelia was going to be murdered to ensure her silence.
With Horatio up to speed on Hamlet’s return, and Laertes’ captive followers marched away at gunpoint, the king and Laertes, prompted by the letter announcing his arrival, discussed and agreed on their plan to kill Hamlet.
The queen interrupted them with the news of Ophelia’s death. She had an understandably pained expression on her face. But what was the precise source of this emotional pain?
Normally this speech is a moment of poetry amid general scenes of plotting and mayhem, very much a chance for the audience to enjoy some light relief and picture the scene in their minds using Millais’ painting as a template.
But given that Ophelia had in all likelihood been murdered on Claudius’ orders, Gertrude’s long, detailed account of the girl’s drowning was cast into a completely different and more sinister light. How could anyone know that much about the precise sequence of events leading to Ophelia’s death without being there to witness it? And why would any witness to the protracted drowning not intervene to rescue her? It began to look like Gertrude was there under duress to deliver a hastily concocted and transparently false cover story.
Given Gertrude’s affection for Ophelia, this must have been a galling task for her. Her sadness in retelling the story of Ophelia’s death was three-fold: she was in mourning for the girl; full of bitterness at the injustice of the murder; and also in turmoil at her own role as bearer of the official whitewash.
One gravedigger was present at the start of act five so that the comic banter that normally takes place between the two gravediggers was cut. This speeded up the arrival of Horatio accompanied by Hamlet with his cagoule and rucksack.
Hamlet’s contemplation of Yorick’s skull was, like much of the other metaphysical speculation in the play, something outside the main axis of the production. With modern political resonances to the fore, this Hamlet was in a political bind, not in the midst of an existential crisis, nor a family drama. So while this pause for reflection on the transience of life was one of the big moments in the play, it felt like an interlude before the return to the main drama of Hamlet’s personal struggles.
The priest performed Ophelia’s rites in Latin and their brevity caused Laertes to complain. Gertrude’s expressions of regret at Ophelia’s death again took on a different meaning in the light of her possible connivance in Ophelia’s murder. Hamlet and Laertes grappled over the grave.
Hamlet’s account to Horatio of his escape was interrupted by Osric, whom National Theatre regulars would have recognised as Nick Sampson who played Cool the butler in their recent production of London Assurance. The stakes in the fencing wager (rapiers, poignards, carriages etc.) were cut to avoid anachronism. It also seemed that some of Hamlet’s sarcastic comments to Osric were also cut.
A proper piste was rolled out diagonally across the stage in preparation for the fencing and both Hamlet and Laertes wore appropriate clothing and masks. Claudius and Gertrude watched from their chairs of state between which was a small table bearing a glass of wine into which Claudius had put the pearl and poison.
After the apparent (and from Laertes’ side insincere) reconciliation between the two combatants, the fencing began in a quite orderly fashion. The masks came off, however, after the first palpable hit, but all still seemed firmly within the rules and spirit of the sport.
Panic at Elsinore
When Laertes lunged at Hamlet and wounded him, he stared back in disbelief. Hamlet retaliated with real fury, and instead of being neatly contained on the piste, the fight ranged across the room. A great commotion broke out among the spectators in an atmosphere of general panic.
In the confusion of the combat they ended up swapping swords. When Hamlet realised that Laertes had been fighting with an unblunted weapon, he used it to strike at Laertes inflicting another mortal wound.
With the queen dead from the poisoned wine and Laertes confessing his plot with the king against Hamlet, the final act of violence in the production almost became a moment of comedy. Realising that the game was up, Claudius scurried across the stage with Hamlet in pursuit, but his gait was comically shuffling as if running were something he was unused to. Needless to say Hamlet easily caught up with him, stabbed him with his sword and forced him to drink the remaining poison.
Hamlet expired, but not before summoning the strength to wrest the poisoned cup from Horatio’s lips. Most productions have the problem of timing his fade-out so that he can still convincingly overpower his friend’s suicidal intentions.
His death was quickly followed by the noise of Fortinbras’ arrival reminding us that the business of politics never ends. Having stated his claim to the throne of Denmark, Fortinbras broadcast his tribute to Hamlet and instructions for the honouring of his dead body via a television crew wearing military uniforms.
Thus the final moment of the play, with a new ruler using the power of broadcast media to stamp his authority on events, echoed Claudius’ televised address near the start of the play. One possible implication of this was that Fortinbras would turn out to be another media-friendly tyrant just like Claudius. If so, Denmark would now be set for more control and oppression.
The modern staging of this production, setting the play within a world immediately recognisable as our own, provoked a sense of injustice at the power structure of the Danish court. A feeling that there was something jarring, inherently wrong and in need of correction formed the background to any consideration of events within the world of the play. This in turn tended to sideline the familial and philosophical anxieties of the characters. The murder of Ophelia, a shock especially to seasoned Hamlet watchers, did nothing to disengage us from these concerns.
Costume productions set in the past, including the non-specific ‘Ruritanian’ variety, do not have this effect: we tend to accept that autocratic rule and its associated injustices were a fact of history and in this context they do not arouse our concern. This allows our attention to focus more on the philosophical and timeless conundrums contained in the play.
After the stage had cleared and the broil of Elsinore’s troubles had faded, what remained was the memory of Rory Kinnear’s well-enunciated, saturnine discontent in the face of it all. There was calmness in the eye of the storm, but with no power to change anything.