In orbit around Saturn

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.

Customary suits

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.

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