To be ? Not to be – Hamlet’s chalk and talk philosophy class

Hamlet, Rose Kingston, 24 May 2011

Northern Broadsides brings something distinct to the table. Its productions are not necessarily game-changers, but they always leave you feeling that you’ve seen something different.

The set for this production of Hamlet consisted of two wedge shaped blocks: one sloping down towards the audience, the second slanting across from stage left. The second block had a piano built in at the thick end and a shallow pool of water at the thin end where it met the other block in the middle of the stage.

The performance began with bagpipes playing on the upper gallery. The guards entered the dark battlements holding torches, one of them coming through the audience. They used their torches to illuminate their own and other’s faces. The Ghost appeared on the upper gallery wearing a white smock and a fencing mask. This looked quite odd, given that the Ghost of old Hamlet is supposed to appear exactly as he did when making war. This Ghost looked more like a children’s dressing-up box version of a warrior.

The Ghost’s second appearance was equally unimpressive. Two marionette figures appeared in quick succession at opposite ends of the stage, causing Barnardo and Horatio to direct their “’Tis here” shouts to different locations. This really did not work and during the post-show discussion, director Conrad Nelson mentioned that the initial puppetry concept for the Ghost had been scaled down. Given the end result it would have been better to have scrapped it completely.

The second scene of act one was superb. The cast formed a 40s band with Ophelia in front of a mic in a white dress singing a song composed of her own St. Valentine’s Day tune from later in the play and the “Doubt that the stars are fire” letter.

Claudius played the piano hidden in the thick edge of the wedge stage left. Laertes stood with a rose, while Gertrude sashayed down the centre walkway dancing to the music. This was the wedding celebration.

The King rose from the piano and delivered his opening speech down stage. He was very affable and likeable with open body language and a disarmingly frank demeanour. So relaxed was he in his new position that he momentarily reclined on the walkway when talking. He did not look like a murderer burdened by conscience.

So much for her

Claudius threw away one of Fortinbras’ letters, with which he had been pestered, with the remark “So much for her” confirming what had been inferred by previous references to the young Norwegian: the troublesome youth was female.

The production also featured an ambassador called Cornelia, which was a slightly more standard gender role swap: this also occurred in the recent NT production.

Laertes was physically quite small, which would later diminish the potency of his threatening behaviour. Polonius was a standard old man with a beard.

Hamlet sat on the stage left end of the walkway wedge facing away from the celebrations. Still dressed for the funeral in a grey shirt and black trousers, looking a little like Ian Curtis, he took a piece of chalk and wrote with it on the walkway (a quick inspection at the interval revealed that he had written “strumpet”, perhaps a comment on his mother).

His exchanges with his uncle and mother were characterised by barely concealed anger. He looked quite wound up and dangerous. Conceding to his mother’s entreaties, he bit his lip in suppressed rage.

The rage came flooding out during his “solid flesh” soliloquy. Collapsing on his knees, Hamlet sobbed and his voice broke up at “O God, God”. His mood lightened when he saw his friend Horatio and the others, but something of his torment returned when Horatio specified that he had seen “the King your father”. Hamlet grabbed Horatio quite forcefully and shook him when requesting confirmation of this unbelievable news. He looked grimly determined when deciding to confront the Ghost himself.

Laertes said goodbye to his sister Ophelia, who had now changed out of her white party dress into a dowdier green outfit. Laertes gestured at the bottom of her skirt when requesting her not to open her “chaste treasure”.

Polonius started his precepts lecture to his son from memory, but soon resorted to reading his bons mots from a small notebook he had with him. Laertes and Ophelia mocked him behind his back. Polonius’ only notable gesture was to make a lunge with an invisible sword when telling Laertes that any opponent should “beware of thee”.

The rest of the scene 1.3 with Polonius extracting the truth about Hamlet’s attentions from Ophelia was fairly standard stuff.

Battlements

The stage went dark for the return to the battlements. A band played offstage to create the sound of the King’s party. The Ghost entered on the gallery again and beckoned Hamlet away. Hamlet went up the central walkway, but did not need a weapon to fend off the others who were trying to stop him.

Hamlet met the Ghost who was standing on the central walkway with his smock and fencing mask. These were then removed by someone behind him to reveal Hamlet’s father in full dress uniform and sword. The old King’s bearing was regal, authoritative and military. As he explained his situation, his son Hamlet stood and listened with tears in his eyes.

The Ghost drew his sword and formally presented it to Hamlet, who accepted it in wonderment. As they parted, the Ghost raised his arm as he said “Adieu, adieu, adieu…” to Hamlet. Their finger tips almost met.

Hamlet collapsed to the ground crying “Hold, hold, my heart” and as he vowed to “set it down” he again chalked on the walkway which became his “tables”. He became very energised for his “wild and whirling words”. Hamlet got his companions to swear on his father’s sword, but this was not seen again. His request that his friends should not divulge what they had seen was fairly amusing.

Act two began with Polonius talking to Osric who took over the lines normally spoken by Montano. Osric was camp and sat cross-legged in a suit with a yellow waistcoat. Ophelia’s entry and description of Hamlet’s madness was unremarkable except for the fact that she hugged her father when saying that she was “so affrighted”.

The scene in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are recruited (2.2) began with the King greeting the pair individually by name, but as we later discovered he mistook one for the other. This was understandable as they were played by near-identical brothers and appeared rather like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee with their tweed suits and coordinated body language. At the end of their conversation, the King spoke to them again, but this time the Queen contradicted him by addressing each by the correct name.

The return of the ambassadors from Norway saw more references to a female Fortinbras. Polonius’s explanation of the Hamlet/Ophelia situation to the King and Queen was routine.

Gone fishing

Hamlet, however, was anything but unremarkable. His antic disposition saw him enter wearing a yellow sou’wester and carrying a fishing rod. He sat on the walkway and pretended to fish. When not fishing he took up a hardback edition of 1984 and read.

His response to Polonius’ question about his reading matter was “Words, words, wur oh ur ds zer”. As he said “except my life” he drew a large knife from a fishing bag and stared at it in mock terror.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern even confused Hamlet. As he was talking to them he chalked R and G on separate miniature blackboards and gave them one each. Predictably, he got them the wrong way round, obliging the twins to swap boards.

The “what a piece of work” speech was a standard run through, but surprisingly this production kept the references to the child acting companies that so many contemporary productions of Hamlet cut without question. With Polonius back, Hamlet performed his “Jephthah” speech on his knees.

The players entered singing a 1940s ditty. The 1st Player was doubled with the Ghost. After the speeches, Hamlet’s “Am I a coward” soliloquy was mostly directed at those in the pit cushions area. In the post-show discussion it was noted that from the stage those crouched just in front of the stage are clearly visible to the actors, while the rest of the auditorium is a dark blur.

Ophelia was made ready with a tied parcel of books as bait for Hamlet at the start of act three. She stood to one side just offstage. The King and Polonius went fully offstage to listen and observe. Hamlet entered down the centre walkway and began chalking on it.

His first chalk marks read “To be ? Not to be”. After he had written this out, he spoke the words and then continued with the soliloquy, making more chalk marks as he went. He drew a downwards arrow and wrote “die” beneath. Another downwards arrow was followed by “sleep”. Concluding that the sleep of death was a consummation devoutly to be wished, he chalked a large tick next to “sleep”. A final arrow connected “sleep” to “death” at which point this diagrammatic representation of his philosophy was complete and he continued without adding to it.

In the post-show talk, Conrad Nelson assured that he had arrived at this idea before seeing the recent National Theatre production in which Rory Kinnear had also made use of chalk in a slightly different way.

Hamlet was very rough with Ophelia when confronting her. He was consistently thus when dealing with close associates in an agitated state. She was so shaken that she remained on stage crying for some time after her father and the King had left.

Players

The prince was in a very different, happy mood soon afterwards giving his advice to the players at the start of 3.2.

The royal party entered to see the play. Ophelia sat on a suitcase stage right while the King and Queen sat on chairs of state at the top of the centre walkway. Hamlet asked Polonius what role he acted, but did not make the follow-up quip provided in the text. The effect was just to leave him hanging in mid-air as if Polonius’ anecdote was boring.

Hamlet accompanied his “metal more attractive” remark with a lewd gesture directed at Ophelia and was similarly very jokey with her when referring to “country matters”.

The dumb show saw a wheelbarrow brought onto to the side walkway by the Player Queen. The Player King then poured buckets of fake water (silver sprinkles) onto the barrow causing rows of small wooden flowers and finally one large flower to pop up. The Player Queen took this flower, but it immediately wilted when the Player King fell asleep. Possibly a sexual metaphor was being hinted at here.

The real King was brought up onto the walkway to enact the role of the dumb show poisoner, Lucianus. He thought that he was going to be pouring water on the sleeping Player King, but instead his water bucket was swapped for one marked “weedkiller”. As he died, the Player King literally kicked the bucket, tipping it over with a swift tap of his foot. This was incredibly funny to watch because the gregarious and up-for-it King was very happy to join in with the dumb show, blissfully unaware that he was being subtly mocked.

The play proper began with the Prologue making a noise with a train whistle ushering in a Brief Encounter style piece with the Player King and Queen carrying luggage and shaking rain off their umbrellas.

Musical accompaniment was provided by, among others, Polonius on cello and Hamlet on double bass. Hamlet took the double bass bow and stuck it between his legs in a rude gesture to Ophelia when telling her about the groaning needed to take of his “edge”.

Lucianus poured poison in the sleeping Player King’s ear causing the real King to storm out. Hamlet was triumphant.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tried to talk to Hamlet in the aftermath of the play, but the prince picked up his fishing rod again and ignored them. This prompted Guildenstern to tell him to “start not so wildly from my affair”. Suitably chastened, Hamlet put down the rod saying “I am tame, sir, pronounce”.

Whistle

Hamlet accompanied his “pickers and stealers” remark by waggling his fingers, almost groping after Rosencrantz. Instead of a recorder, Hamlet used the train whistle to explain how he would not be played upon.

Scene 3.3 saw quite a good-humoured King sit by the edge of the stage and deliver his “O, my offence is rank” speech. This was less of a contrite and anguished prayer and more of a matter-of-fact consideration of the options open to him. Hamlet described killing the King there and then as “base and silly” as he came up behind him.

In the closet scene, Polonius hid behind a thin piece of cloth at the base of one of the upright installations at the back of the set. Hamlet entered down the centre walkway and confronted his mother. He was very rough with her, making her so afraid that she cried out, prompting Polonius to react and reveal his hiding place. Hamlet killed the rat.

Gertrude looked really traumatised. But her ordeal was far from over. Hamlet produced a picture from his pocket. He snatched a miniature of Claudius from around his mother’s neck. Pieces of link from the chain bobbled around on the ground.

Just as his rough treatment of Gertrude was reaching its peak, the Ghost of his father appeared down the centre walkway, again in full dress uniform. His commanding presence produced instant obedience from his son. The scene ended with Hamlet pulling Polonius out on the sheet he had been hiding behind.

Gertrude was still very distraught when telling her husband what had happened. This traumatic state was slightly overplayed as it prompted some of the less reverent members of the audience to titter at her excessive discomfort.

Having been located by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet was excessively confident in his dealings with Claudius, telling him the tale of the worm and the fish. The King was unbowed and was equally confident in pronouncing “the present death of Hamlet”.

The female Fortinbras appeared in the upper gallery and gave her orders to the Captain. Hamlet entered with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. His conversation with the Captain omitted the lines referring to Fortinbras so that the text was not too distorted by a reference to her as Old Norway’s “niece”.

Singing

Ophelia was back in her white party dress again for 4.5. She sang her songs and when the King entered, she forced him to accompany her on the piano as she sang “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day”. She exited scattering piles of paper around her.

Laertes burst in, but with no followers and with no weapon. A slight figure, this Laertes did not look like much of a threat to the King, making the latter’s reactions seem overblown.

The return of Ophelia saw her strike out feebly at the King half-sobbing “Guilty, guilty”. She handed out rosemary to Laertes, curtly thrust fennel and columbines at the King, then gave some rue to the Queen.

The set’s water feature came into its own as Ophelia sang “And will ‘a not come again”. She crouched down into the water, soaking the bottom of the dress. She stood up, dripping wet and exited. This prefigured her offstage drowning.

Horatio appeared in the upper gallery to read the letter, which he realised could only be from Hamlet. In the next scene (4.7) the King also received a letter from Hamlet. He hatched the plan to kill Hamlet with Laertes, who produced the bottle of unction. The Queen entered down the centre walkway looking even more distraught than before to bring the news of Ophelia’s drowning.

A section of the centre walkway was opened up to form a grave at the start of act five. The gravediggers were portrayed as two music hall comedians. This comic interlude was a very entertaining breather amid all the drama.

The Gravedigger threw skulls over his shoulder as he excavated them. Fortunately, Hamlet was able to catch them and then comment on them. His exchanges with the Gravedigger saw the comedian give a well-timed, confident performance. The audience responded warmly with laughter, particularly at the joke at the expense of the English.

An inch thick

Hamlet held Yorick’s skull level with his own head and brought it close to his face when telling it “Now get you to my lady’s table”.

The funeral procession came down the central walkway and Ophelia was placed into the trap door grave. The Priest gave a silent blessing, prompting Laertes’ question “What ceremony else?” During this time Hamlet and Horatio stood offstage left.

Laertes, overcome with grief, jumped into the trapdoor grave and hugged the shrouded body close to him. Hamlet came out of hiding and grappled with Laertes outside the grave. His ranting ended with him jumping into the grave to comfort the dead Ophelia himself.

After explaining his escape to Horatio, Hamlet toyed with Osric, continuing the game of hot and cold beyond the limits of the text by way of gesture. Osric eventually got fed up with this and threw his hat, which he had been donning and doffing, to the ground.

Osric’s campness was again signalled by his excitement in describing the fencing prowess of Laertes. When he had finished explaining the bout to Hamlet, the prince took Osric’s hat from the ground and stuck it firmly but awkwardly back on his head. He made a thrusting motion to demonstrate to Horatio that he had been in continual practice.

The fencing match itself saw the stage furnished with a pedestal to hold the poisoned wine cup. The foils were presented to each fencer in a cloth wrap. The fighting was very energetic with the pair ending up lying on their backs on the side walkway exhausted as Osric pronounced “Nothing neither way”.

As Hamlet stood up to continue, Laertes cut him on the back of the leg, shouting “Have at you now!” The fight continued with Hamlet taking Laertes’ sword and cutting him with it. The Queen fell to the ground, having drunk the poisoned wine, which the King tried to cover up by saying she had swooned.

Laertes told Hamlet that the King was to blame, prompting the prince to cut the King on the back of the neck. As his uncle fell to the ground, Hamlet made him drink the poisoned wine too.

Hamlet’s death was followed by the sound of military music and the arrival of the female Fortinbras.

Conclusions

This Hamlet was lively, fast-paced and entertaining with some good ideas but also a few dud ones.

Nicholas Shaw’s Hamlet provided a central energy to the production and the direction from Conrad Nelson ensured that the story was told efficiently while also providing enough novelty to keep seasoned Hamleteers engaged.

The production exuded the kind of unpretentious honesty that characterises much of Northern Broadsides’ work. And with a pit cushion ticket costing just £8, the whole evening was excellent value for money.

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