The Factory Hamlet, Victoria and Albert Museum, 25 March 2011
The Factory Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet adheres strictly to the text but incorporates elements that oblige the cast to respond spontaneously in performance, thereby creating inspired and highly original work as well as the occasional unforgettable moment.
More than one actor learns the lines for each part, so roles are allocated by games of stone- paper-scissors played by audience members. No props are used other than those supplied by the audience.
The venues have ranged from traditional theatre spaces to wild and wonderful locations such as a Victorian water pumping station, the County Hall debating chamber, an archaeological site, and on this occasion the galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.
As the cast cannot prepare in advance for the precise combination of factors that make up the theatrical environment, their reactions and performances flow freely from somewhere other than a tight, pre-defined template. This produces theatre characterised by instinctive responses to unique conditions that could never be consciously planned or deliberately engineered.
The biggest surprise from this particular performance at the V&A was that it turned out to be one of the roughest gigs the Factory Hamlet has ever played and correspondingly the most creative and delightful.
By day the V&A is a quiet and reverential collection of fine art and design as genteel and respectable as the select west London borough in which it resides. But during this Friday Late event, dedicated to the theatre, a sound system blared out from the main entrance and the galleries and other spaces thronged with noisy crowds come to see the various spectacles on offer.
The cast and audience gathered in a corner at the back of the Daylit Gallery (64b). The roles were allocated and the audience requested to hold up the objects they had brought along for the cast to use as props. A countdown began to the start of the performance and we were underway. The platform scene saw the Ghost (Rhys Meredith) appear clutching a Danish flag and a torch was deployed to search the battlements. Horatio was performed by Madeleine Hyland.
Normally the Factory Hamlet takes a break between each act to move the audience around the space and to enable props to be put on display again. This promenade production, however, went on a tour round the galleries with no distinct breaks. The gap as the cast and audience relocated was filled by either a single line being repeated by one of the cast, or a thematic noise generated by the cast and, after some prompting, the audience.
The next scene was performed a short distance away from the start point on a stair case leading up to gallery 114e. As Claudius (Jonathan Oliver) began his speech it became apparent that the DJ sound system at the other end of the V&A was generating enough noise to drown out all but the most forceful of voices. The large crowd that had gathered around the playing area for the first scene now found itself strung out in a line with some stuck back at the start point.
This unplanned element in the performance gave an air of tension to proceedings as the cast battled to talk above the noise. Hamlet (Catherine Bailey) plucked a stuffed toy from the audience perhaps to illustrate Hamlet’s desire for comfort in the face of his problems. Gertrude was played by Joanna Croll.
Scene 1.3 saw us move on to gallery 111, which was full of small sculptures in glass cases. Ophelia (Laura Rees), Laertes (Simon Muller) and Polonius (Colin Hurley) had to thread their way among a densely packed audience spread throughout the long gallery to act the scene of Laertes’ departure.
The second platform scene began in the same spot with Hamlet present among the audience. But the Ghost made his entrance in the Cast Courts (46a) immediately below, obliging those audience members who could see over the balustrade to peer down into the mighty chasm of monstrous, plaster cast monuments.
Hamlet descended into the Cast Courts and together with the Ghost appeared as a tiny figure among the huge objects. Gazing down at this scene being played out among two sections of the cast of Trajan’s Column made Hamlet seem an insignificant figure, overwhelmed by the immensity of his environment in what was perhaps an apt concretisation of his situation at this point in the play. The Ghost handed his son the Danish flag, which Hamlet kept.
We moved off down some stairs into a corridor (107). After seeing Ophelia’s report to Polonius about Hamlet’s mad behaviour, we found ourselves on a busy stairway (85) outside the National Art Library.
Polonius used a tacky royal wedding souvenir to represent Hamlet’s love letter to Ophelia. The performance was made more interesting at this point as oblivious passers-by threaded their way past the actors.
After Polonius suggested loosing his daughter to Hamlet and the prince entered reading, the cast ushered the audience away mid-scene and we went on a long trek through the galleries until we assembled again in the Silver Discovery Area (66) in front of a large wine cooler; and in the middle of another performance.
As soon as I had caught up with the cast and saw Hamlet kneeling on the ground mirroring the posture of a living installation, I knew that this was going to be a classic Factory Hamlet moment. The scene recommenced and Hamlet copied the installation’s sequence of movements while addressing Polonius, incorporating another group’s performance into the Factory’s.
This was amusing in itself and also totally in character for a supposedly mad Hamlet. It was unplanned, unexpected and amazing to behold.
Hamlet and the installation soon became synchronised, with the installation adopting a new inflection of posture to accompany each of the characteristics of old men that Hamlet quoted from his book. The installation went onto her back foot when Hamlet said “if, like a crab, you could go backward”.
Polonius addressed his method in madness remark to the installation, which Hamlet also gestured at saying “what piece of work is a man”.
Rosencrantz (Scott Brooksbank), Guildenstern (Amanda Morgan) and subsequently the players (Federay Holmes and Leila Crerar) entered down a nearby staircase.
The action at the start of act three took place at a large light well at the end of gallery 74 looking down onto a corridor below. The scene was played round the rectangular opening.
The “To be, or not to be” speech was spoken by Jimmy Garnon (who had been the other option to play Hamlet) as a kind of externalised inner monologue. He stood opposite Catherine Bailey and spoke the words as if standing for Hamlet’s inner life. The hints at suicide in the speech prompted one or both of them to attempt climbing over the balustrade at the edge of the light well as if prepared to jump off. This had the effect of making the “undiscovered country” a real place several metres below.
Hamlet’s confrontation with Ophelia took place on the same spot with the audience gathered around the edges of the light well.
The Murder of Gonzago was performed in the corridor at the bottom of the light well with Federay Holmes and Leila Crerar providing narration as they instructed two passers-by to act out the story.
A stairway (G) provided the location for Hamlet’s meeting after the play with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the cloud-spotting game with Polonius. Hamlet stood on the landing at the top of the stairs looking over the balustrade at the others on a flight below.
Scene 3.3 with Claudius attempt at repentance took place in the Bromley-by-Bow room (58). The audience stood and sat in rapt silence in its authentic, dark wooden interior, which proved an atmospheric location for the action. Claudius drank from a water bottle and froze in position with the bottle at his lips when Hamlet discovered him and contemplated revenge, only to continue drinking when Hamlet exited.
Almost next door was the Bed of Ware in gallery 57, which was used for the closet scene. As the audience gathered, Polonius stood in a fixed position pointing at Gertrude, who moved away and back again, pointing in turn at Polonius. When the whole audience was in position, he leapt into action from his static pose.
Hamlet killed Polonius by placing a jacket over him and he adopted the performance’s chosen death posture by folding his arms in front of him, making small stroking movements with his hands. Audience members were invited to stand up to become the counterfeit presentments of the two brothers.
The reappearance of the Ghost saw him briefly take the Danish flag from Hamlet before handing it back as a reminder of his original exhortation to his son to revenge his murder.
The last interior space to be used was the Clore Study Area (55), a large, modern well-lit space in a corner of the building. It was here that we saw the key scenes in act four, including the audience member selected to read the part of the Danish Captain as well as Ophelia’s mad singing; she stood on a chair in front of bank of computer screens where she was comforted by Horatio.
The return of Laertes was heralded by a march played on a mobile phone. He crept down the centre of the space towards the end where Claudius and Gertrude stood.
Because Polonius had been killed by having a jacket placed over him, Simon Muller’s Laertes maintained this theme by holding a similar garment out in front of him, threatening to enfold Claudius within it.
At the point where Laertes confronted Claudius he was so impassioned that he talked over the King and drowned out his entreaties with his line “I’ll not be juggled with”.
Ophelia entered and had to crowdsource props to serve as flowers. She ended up with a jacket, a toy parrot and a bag of sweets.
For act five we moved outside to the courtyard of the V&A and sat beside the pond at its centre. Colin Hurley as the Gravedigger set out some props to form a grave. These included some flashing bicycle lights which served as skulls.
When Hamlet contemplated Yorick’s skull in the form of a bicycle lamp there came a point where the line questioning the whereabouts of the jester’s “flashes of merriment” seemed totally appropriate to the blinking light. Catherine Bailey as Hamlet seemed as surprised as everyone else to discover this unplanned match between the characteristics of the prop and that particular line in the play.
A chanting, bare-foot funeral procession carried Ophelia through the pond at the centre of the courtyard and up onto the makeshift graveyard. This was particularly moving to hear and even more impressive to see for those in the audience with a clear view of the pond.
The fight between Laertes and Hamlet took the form of aggressive smoking of cigarettes directed at the other character. Simon Muller enthusiastically lit his while Catherine Bailey merely held hers unlit between her lips. The intervention to separate them was represented by the other characters snatching and extinguishing the cigarettes.
Osric (Scott Brooksbank) alternately knelt and stood up when reminded by Hamlet how variously hot and cold it was.
The duel sequence took the form of Laertes and Hamlet hovering just above chairs, with a hit scored when one of them finally sat down. Laertes sat with a thump in his chair to signify the fatal blow against Hamlet, the two swapped chairs to represent the swapping of the swords that led to Laertes being hit with his own poison. The drink was represented by a plastic bag into which a feather duster was placed to signify the poison.
As the performance drew to a close on that cool evening, in the dim glow of the surrounding galleries, the audience and cast must have known that they had witnessed something special.
Not having full control of the space from the start with its noise and crowds had been an obstacle to be overcome. An atmosphere of tension ensued as the cast worked around the problems they encountered and this constant battle against the unforeseen made the many successes of the performance even sweeter.