Hamlet: 1603, White Bear Theatre Kennington, 30 April 2011
What better way to research audience reactions to the First Quarto of Hamlet than to stage the play yourself and then ask people what they thought?
Imogen Bond embarked on an MA dissertation on precisely this topic and worked with Vital Signs Theatre to direct a production as “practice-based research”. After every Thursday and Saturday performance in the month-long run she would hold a post-show discussion allowing the audience to respond to what they had seen.
The White Bear Theatre in Kennington is a black box studio in the rectangular back room of a pub. Seating is on two rows of benches set in an L-shape along the back wall and stage left side.
The set for this production consisted of two thin black curtains: one hung near the back of the stage and one placed stage right. In front of each curtain was a wooden bench. These items remained in place for most of the play serving as a variety of locations.
The stage went dark and the watch entered pointing torches around the auditorium, shining them at the audience in particular. The female Horatio was played by Katie Hayes who wore a fawn raincoat throughout.
The Ghost appeared at the corner in the L-shape of the audience seating. The torches turned towards the static figure and a red spot light illuminated him. Dressed in black apart from a red neckerchief, he had a look of fear and horror on his face. He trembled as he slowly raised his arms in front of him.
Rather than a disdainful and masterful monarch returning to haunt his domain, this Ghost was a timid figure who inspired pity. After his first appearance he disappeared back into the corner.
Horatio explained the nature of Denmark’s war preparations to the others as they all sat on a bench, still in complete darkness, with the trio using their torches to illuminate each other’s faces.
The Ghost appeared for a second time and then exited by a side door, leaving the others resolved to inform Hamlet about the vision.
Although Q1 (like the more familiar Q2) does not include Ofelia in scene 2, in this production Rebecca Pownall’s character did enter as per F.
Q1 misses out the King’s long-winded opening speech, which I particularly missed. Robert Lonergan’s King had a flicker of smugness about him as he dispatched Cornelia (often played by women in contemporary productions of Q1 but possibly originally male) and Voltemar to Norway. His speech from ll.26-32 felt like edited highlights of the familiar, longer versions of the text.
Matthew Spencer as Leartes was quite young and fresh-faced. Hamlet, played by Jamie Matthewman was slightly more careworn. The Queen’s two lines in this scene enabled us to see that Diana Katis’ character was soft-spoken and ineffectual.
Hamlet responded to his uncle, talking with passion of “the ornaments and suits of woe”. He spoke as if lost in the world of his own thoughts, only occasionally dropping into the real world in order to lambast it.
In general the compression of the speeches in this part of Q1 produced a blunter, less poetic feel that seemed to warrant a certain coarseness of emotion. But the “grieved and sallied flesh” soliloquy had the same impact as in Q2/F as it was largely the same.
Just good friends
In the post-show discussion the director said that the decision to have a female Horatio was simply to even out the balance of male and female roles and to produce a more compassionate environment for Hamlet.
However, when Horatio hugged Hamlet affectionately as she and Marcellus met the prince, there was inevitably a hint of some form of attachment at least on Horatio’s side.
The hug was long and lingering: they were still holding each other by the time Hamlet said he thought he could see his father. Horatio grasped him firmly by the hand to reply “I saw him once – he was a gallant king”. She intensified her grip further when telling Hamlet she had seen his father the previous night.
Horatio sat with Hamlet on a bench. She continued to hold him firmly as she explained the full story of the Ghost’s visitations. This sequence emphasised the strong bond between Horatio and Hamlet, but inevitably created the impression that there was something more than friendship between them.
Smartly dressed Leartes had packed his suitcase and said goodbye to Ofelia in scene 3. She promised to keep her “honour firm” and patted her stomach. Corambis played by Maurice Byrne was a standard issue pompous father. His blessing to Leartes had him stuff a wad of cash into his son’s inside breast pocket.
Ofelia found Corambis’ homilies rather funny and made a “ducky” gesture with her limp wrist when he referred to the vagaries of French fashion. The wonderful phrase “springes to catch woodcocks” survived whatever process created Q1, which lent an air of familiarity to the scene.
The lights went out and torches shone again for scene 4 back on the battlements. Sound effects were used to suggest the offstage festivities.
The Ghost appeared in the same spot as before. With the same look of terror and again lit in red, he raised his arms slowly before beckoning to Hamlet with his finger. As the others tried to stop him, Hamlet drew a small dagger to fend them off.
Hamlet knelt on the ground to talk with the Ghost in scene 5. The spectral figure seemed frightened when describing his “prison-house”. This dead delivery continued into his description of his murder. Hamlet was suitably enraged and the stage grew slightly lighter as the Ghost talked of the glow worms showing the matin to be near.
Horatio and Marcellus caught up, giving Hamlet’s female friend another opportunity to sit close to him. Hamlet nearly ran off when speaking his wild and whirling words and was quite violently aggressive towards Horatio when telling her “by Saint Patrick” that there was “much offence”. Horatio was shocked to see this transformation in him. The aggression here seemed to prefigure his subsequent treatment of Ofelia.
Hamlet encouraged the others to swear on his knife. However, the sound effect of the Ghost’s voice echoing the word “swear” was a little underpowered.
The others exited leaving Hamlet to speak his “time is out of joint” speech in soliloquy.
Corambis spoke to Montano about Leartes in scene 6 and enjoyed acting out how Montano should proceed in gaining information about the young man. This was a good way of underscoring the previous acting experience Corambis speaks of before The Murder of Gonzago is performed.
One of the tricky parts of the Q1 text was neatly dealt with. When Corambis explains what the other party in the conversation might divulge to Montano, the text reads “or ‘entering a house of lightness’ (viz. brothel)”. The “viz.” was rendered by Corambis turning to the audience and speaking “brothel” as an aside rather than pronouncing the abbreviation as “videlicit” or “namely”.
Ofelia entered in a disturbed state. She acted out the way Hamlet had held her wrist and taken her pulse, as well as looking over his shoulder. Corambis’ conclusion that he was “mad for thy love” got a laugh from someone in the audience.
The King and Queen’s recruitment of Rossencraft and Guilderstone was made humorous by the obsequiousness of the pair. Rossencraft, played by Clive Keene, was an Ed Miliband lookalike in a tank top and tie, while his female companion Guilderstone (Lucy Lill) was a nervous bundle of grins and shrugs in the service of wide-eyed sycophancy. Rossencraft even knelt before the King to remind him of his power to command. Instantly and almost comically dislikeable, these two would not be missed when news of their demise came later.
Corambis and Ofelia entered with her father bringing news of the return of the ambassadors from Norway, after which the old man proceeded to ramble about the origins of Hamlet’s madness.
He explained how the “effect defective comes by cause” to the playgoers as if casting around for the greatest possible audience for his word play and general performance. Corambis offered Ofelia’s letter to the King, but he ordered the old man to read it himself. The plan to spy on an arranged meeting between Hamlet and Ofelia was proposed.
Hamlet appeared far stage right from the auditorium entry doors. Ofelia went behind the rear curtain and the King and Corambis hid behind the stage right side curtain as the prince came centre stage for his big soliloquy.
He sat on the centre bench with his book and began Q1’s famous “Ay, there’s the point” version of that speech. Of all the soliloquies, in all the plays, in all the canon, the makers of Q1 had to rehash this one. It was exciting to hear the most famous speech in English drama being mashed into bits and served up in a disjointed form.
When talking of the “bare bodkin” he made a sharp jab with his elbow as if striking a blow.
Ofelia coughed slightly and attracted Hamlet’s attention, causing him to comment on her presence. She came from behind the curtain and sat next to him to hand over a neatly tied packet of letters.
Their argument kicked off and Hamlet grabbed Ofelia when telling her to go to a nunnery. She seemed scared at this aggressive change in his mood, just as Horatio had done earlier. Hamlet stood next to the stage right curtain concealing the King and Corambis to say “Where’s thy father?” Sensing the truth despite Ofelia’s denial, he directed his next line through the curtain secure in the knowledge that the “fool” Corambis would hear his insult.
The fast pace of Hamlet’s invective against Ofelia and women in general was slowed each time he ordered his former love “To a nunnery, go!” which was said coolly and deliberately with an air of finality.
Hamlet almost attacked Ofelia when she said “Alas, what a change is this!” He grabbed hold of her face when referring to “your paintings”. Knowing that the King was probably listening in on him as well, Hamlet addressed to the curtain his remark “All that are married, but one, shall live. His final “To a nunnery, go!” was also said slowly.
After running off briefly, Hamlet returned and lay on his back on the bench reading a book for his “fishmonger” debate with Corambis. He sat bolt upright when asking him “Between who?” before adopting a normal sitting position. Corambis’ asides were addressed to the audience.
The creepy pair Rossencraft and Guilderstone entered and were laughing at Hamlet well before he said “No, nor woman too”. Guilderstone was giddy with excitement when explaining that the players were on their way.
Hamlet really came alive at this news. He acted in the relevant characters when referring to “he that plays the king” as well as the Knight, Lover, Clown and Lady.
Hamlet had some fun mocking Corambis on his return. Hamlet grabbed Corambis and held him for his “Jephthah, judge of Israel” line.
Hamlet’s mood was even better after the arrival of the players. He congratulated a bearded man on his “valence” and a young woman for her increase in height.
The bearded man responded to Hamlet’s request for a passionate speech by striking a dramatic pose and asking “What speech, my good lord?” This line is given in the text to the entire company of players.
Hamlet stressed the phrase “caviare to the million” and adopted an effeminate voice when imitating the critic who said there were “no sallets in the lines to make them savoury”.
Hamlet began a speech, which was then picked up by the bearded Player and acted out against the Player Duke. A sad-looking Hecuba had a headscarf wound around her head as the “kercher” was mentioned.
The prince stood at the end of a line of players to explain that he wanted some lines inserted into The Murder of Gonzago.
Hamlet went over the audience and sat on a seat in the corner to deliver his “dunghill idiot slave” soliloquy. This was a nice touch as it emphasised his role as mere spectator of the player’s stirring performance. His sense of low status was matched by him being relegated out of the world of the play to join its audience.
He looked around at us when asking who plucked his beard, twitted his nose and gave him the lie i’th throat.
The brief scene 8 showed us Rossencraft and Guilderstone telling the King and Queen about the impending play. Arrangements were made for the Queen to sound out Hamlet.
The curtains were tied back and the benches moved to create more space for the play scene (9). Hamlet entered carrying a recorder and really enjoyed giving his advice to the players. He acted out the sawing of the air and was quite funny when reciting the list of popular catchphrases, which are peculiar to the Q1 version of this speech.
Horatio and Hamlet stood close together as the prince explained to his companion that she should observe the King closely.
The King and Queen sat among us in the audience. This was an interesting staging, but it did have the disadvantage for most audience members of making the royal couple’s reactions difficult to see. Sometimes these reactions are the most important part of the sequence.
Hamlet refused his mother’s offer to sit near her. A bench was placed stage right on which Rossencraft and Ofelia sat. Hamlet went over and lay across them so that his head was in Ofelia’s lap. But he rose up and knelt before Ofelia to ask her about “contrary matters”.
The dumb show was one of the highlights of the production. A microphone on a stand was placed stage left and a glamorous woman (Pamela Banks) began singing Billie Holiday’s It Felt Like Reaching For The Moon. The atmosphere was that of an American nightclub in the 1940s.
The woman, the Player Duchess, danced with the Player. Lucianus stood and watched before breaking in and stealing a dance with the woman. The Player Duke hit Lucianus who fought back and knocked the Duke to the ground and then poured poison in his ear. Lucianus and the Duchess then went off together.
The Q1 version of Ofelia’s reaction to this dumb show consists of a series of three curt and impatient questions about its meaning. Ofelia seems to have been profoundly affected. The production read that interpretation into her response and made her reaction to the prologue of key significance later on.
Hamlet stood stage right to observe the King and Queen during the actual spoken part of the play. It was difficult for me to see them, but I did notice that Gertred often frowned.
Lucianus poured poison in the ear of the sleeping Player Duke at which point the King called for lights and announced he was going to bed. The Q1 version of the King’s line is difficult to play in anger as it implies no more than tiredness.
Hamlet dealt confidently with Rossencraft and Guilderstone when they spoke to him. He was so angry with Rossencraft that he stuck the mouthpiece of the metal recorder into her neck when reminding her that she was trying to play him like a pipe. His fury scared both of his friends.
Corambis also tried speaking to Hamlet, but the prince just looked off stage left and mocked him with questions about the shape of the cloud. In Q1 Corambis statement “Very like a whale” is followed by Hamlet’s “Why, then, tell my mother…” creating assonance between the end and beginning of their lines.
At the start of scene 10 the King walked in from behind the centre curtain and knelt to pray. Hamlet entered behind him and put his dagger at his uncle’s throat. This was very powerful as Hamlet’s barely concealed rage was just millimetres from finding fulfilment.
Corambis hid behind the stage right curtain for the next scene in Gertred’s closet. Hamlet had his dagger ready out, so when he detected someone in the room he stabbed Corambis through the fabric. He collapsed dragging the curtain to the ground with him.
He sat down next to Gertred and showed her a single picture, not two, which somehow represented both Hamlet’s father and uncle. As things got more emotional the pair stood and Gertred hugged Hamlet wailing that he was cleaving her heart in twain. Responding to this, Hamlet was somewhat softer and comforted her with the idea of throwing away the better half. She again came across as rather weak.
The Ghost entered and stood behind the centre curtain with a red spot light once more lending an unearthly glow to his figure. At the end of this visitation, Hamlet dragged Corambis out stage right.
The King dispatched Rossencraft and Guilderstone to find the prince. Hamlet returned holding Rossencraft by the neck while Guilderstone informed the King that they could not find Corambis’ body. While talking to the King of worms and beggars, Hamlet pushed Guilderstone out, making her squeal.
Hamlet’s rage and sarcasm were brilliantly controlled as he taunted his uncle with the words “Farewell, mother” and his subsequent explanation of the conundrum.
The King’s chilling remark that Hamlet “must die” brought the scene to a conclusion.
Scene 12 had Fortenbrasse stand in the corner and address his instructions about the request for passage to the audience. His solitary figure looked quite ominous.
Ofelia’s madness (scene 13) referred back to the prologue to The Murder of Gonzago, which judging by her insistent questions had stirred something within her. As the King and Queen discussed Hamlet’s dispatch to England, she entered singing.
She held an imaginary microphone and imitated the style of the nightclub singer in the prologue. Ofelia occasionally tapped the mic, said “one, two” and blew “phut, phut” into it in between the lyrics. She ran around in a disturbed mood looking quite dishevelled with dirt on her face.
The stage direction for Ofelia’s entry in this scene specifies that she plays a lute. This production introduced something of a performance-related theme to Ofelia’s madness and so was in keeping with the spirit of the original.
Despite the anger in his words, smartly dressed Leartes with his small dagger drawn did not look particularly threatening as he entered stage right. Rather than an avenging son, he looked more like an upmarket diner unhappy with his meal.
Ofelia re-entered in the midst of Leartes’ confrontation with the King, carrying small bundles of flowers. She put them on the ground and knelt to distribute the flowers to the others. She continued to sing into a pretend microphone in the same style as before. She repeated “God be with you ladies” several times before exiting.
Scene 14 is unique to Q1 and shows Horatio in conversation with the Queen. In this production Horatio and Gertred sat on a bench as the young woman explained the contents of Hamlet’s letter: that he had arrived back in Denmark, how he had escaped and the fate of Rossencraft and Guilderstone.
The Queen, firmly on Hamlet’s side, said she would “soothe and please” her husband and also offered her blessings and care to her son.
In another brief scene (15) the King explained the plan to kill Hamlet to Leartes, but they were interrupted by the Queen bringing the news of Ofelia’s drowning.
This production chose to represent the “two Clowns”, the Gravedigger (doubled with the Ghost) and a Second Man (doubled with Ofelia), literally as circus clowns with white faces and red noses. Their initial appearance took the form of a comedy routine.
They carried a number of small old-fashioned suitcases. As they talked, they passed them around in a cycle of unburdening where each tried to offload the suitcases onto the other.
For some reason, the Gravedigger had an Australian accent. Perhaps he was a grave “digger”?
The two benches were moved to the centre of the stage and placed parallel a few feet apart to form gravesides. The suitcases were piled on top of each other to form an end. The black side curtain that had previously been torn down by the dying Corambis was spread over the benches and brought flat to ground in the space between to form the grave. The top suitcase was opened to show its contents, including bones and skulls.
The second gravedigger mimed being hung by a rope when saying how the gallows “brings many a one to his long home”.
The Gravedigger knelt between the cloth-covered benches as if down in a grave as Hamlet and Horatio entered. Hamlet crouched the stage right side of the grave while Horatio adopted a similar posture stage left.
As the Gravedigger reached the point where he referred to “young Hamlet” he looked straight at him with a quizzical look that might have suggested that he recognised him. He put a strange emphatic stress on the word “wits” on both occasions he said it.
Hamlet’s Yorick speech was the more effective for the proximity of him and the plaster skull to the audience. He held it and contemplated the life it had once contained. In this way he was offering it to us for our consideration as well.
The suitcase was closed and its bones and skulls stored away. The cloth was taken and folded up to represent Ofelia’s body.
The funeral procession entered behind the centre curtain and Hamlet and Horatio withdrew. The cloth representing Ofelia was placed into the space between the benches forming the grave. The Priest spoke a brief blessing in Latin (not in the text) prompting Leartes’ question “What ceremony else?”
The Queen threw a single red rose into the grave. This gesture with a flower of romance related directly to her expressed wish to have adorned Ofelia’s bridal bed. It also enhanced the more compassionate and sympathetic characterisation of Gertred seen from her support for Hamlet in Q1’s scene 14.
Leartes jumped into the grave followed soon after by Hamlet and they fought. The prince grabbed Leartes by throat as indicated in the text.
The final scene (17) began with Hamlet and Horatio sat on a bench as the Braggart Gentleman entered to explain the wager the King had arranged. Hamlet stood to tease him about the temperature and was sarcastic in mocking his use of the word “carriages”.
The centre curtain was again tied back for the duel. The King and Queen sat on a bench stage right. A stick and piece of rope was used to mark out the of a circle in chalk on the floor. Daggers were brought out to be used instead of foils. Hamlet won the toss of a coin, which meant that Leartes had to enter the circle and defend himself with his dagger.
The match began and Hamlet circled around Leartes before striking at him. Scores were kept in chalk on the back wall of the set. Another bout was fought before they swapped positions with Hamlet inside the circle.
The Queen wiped Hamlet’s face with a cloth and then took a drink from the poisoned cup.
Horatio exclaimed “I’ll hit you now” and stabbed Hamlet. But then he threw down his dagger in terror saying “And yet it goes almost against my conscience”. Hamlet picked up his opponent’s dagger. Leartes, backed into the corner offered his open hand enabling Hamlet to cut it with the envenomed dagger.
This production staged the fight so that Leartes instantly regretted what he had done. By making a more or less suicidal gesture, he allowed Hamlet to kill him.
The Queen collapsed and died. Leartes explained the nature of the plot, prompting Hamlet to take the dagger and drink and then stab the King, forcing him to drink poison too.
Horatio joined Hamlet kneeling centre stage as he weakened. After preventing his friend from following him into death, Hamlet died in her arms.
Fortinbrasse and the Ambassador brought events to a conclusion. Q1’s reference to a scaffold being erected in the market-place to enable the story to be told looked very much like evidence that the text was based on a touring production that would have been staged in market places.
The Q1 version of Hamlet is fast paced and puts the emphasis on action rather than philosophical contemplation. But nevertheless this innovative production managed to inject some thoughtfulness into the play making it more than a simple run through of the story. It was a very good example of how to achieve a thought-provoking result with the bare minimum of resources, but without making the production look tacky and cheap.
Vital Signs demonstrated that Q1 Hamlet is a very entertaining piece of theatre and deserves a wider airing. Given the many different ways that Shakespeare plays are cut for small-scale production, what could be better than one that comes complete with its own performance history? Each new production of Q1 builds upon a growing heritage of performance that asserts the value of the text.
Shakespeare lovers will “hear” the more familiar Q2/F versions of particular speeches anyway when confronted with the less poetic Q1 versions, enabling them to get the best of both worlds: the thrill of an alternative text and a gentle inner voice reminding them of the beauty of the familiar.