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.
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.
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.
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.