A breath in pain

The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 19 September 2012

The Tiger Lillies did not perform Hamlet. Hamlet was performed principally by members of Republique Theatre of Copenhagen with The Tiger Lillies providing musical accompaniment. Only occasionally was the musical element integrated into the action of the play. The Danes’ contribution could have existed independently.

The headlining of The Tiger Lillies meant that this production took place in Queen Elizabeth Hall, a venue that exists principally for performances of music and does not normally function as a theatre.

With The Tiger Lillies visible on either side, the performance began with a large dark screen in place across the stage. Voices whispered the opening line “Who’s there?” in cacophonous repetition.

As the accordion began to play, the heads of the principle characters appeared through the cloth looking dead. They revived in turn to speak a few of their lines. Martyn Jacques intoned a commentary, singing of ambition and sin.

Hamlet (Morten Burian) made an early appearance in a black outfit. He stood in front of the cloth for his “too, too solid flesh” soliloquy.

The curtain rose to reveal a dinner table pitched on a steep slant. Claudius (Zlatko Burić) and Gertrude (Andrea Vagn Jensen) sat on the highest side hanging down; Ophelia (Nanna Finding Koppel) in a bonnet was at the short stage right end of the table, while Laertes (Caspar Phillipson) was at the bottom looking upwards. Hamlet sat at the other end placing his head down on the table.

A song entitled “The King is Dead” explained the backstory about the death of Hamlet’s father and his mother’s marriage to his uncle. In a neat touch, glasses were stuck to the table angled properly as if the table were upright. The extreme slant of the table conveyed the idea that the world was out of joint.

They descended from the table and Claudius and Gertrude danced together.

This led into the ghost scene. The others stood behind Hamlet as a projection of the dead King’s face illuminated them. The men had taken off their shirts and they all rocked from side to side as if asleep. When the Ghost reached the point in his story about the murder, the beam of light narrowed so that the Ghost’s face was projected solely onto Hamlet’s face.

Ophelia was brought in sleeping on a bed. Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes were also slumbering but departed, leaving her alone. She awoke and tapped her finger on the ground causing a ripple of water to appear projected onto the back wall. This foreshadowed the water in which she drowned.

Adopting a balletic pose, Ophelia walked along the edge of the metal rail at the end of the bedstead. She lay on her back on the rail and then backflipped onto the stage. Hamlet was hoisted out on wires, appearing to be asleep on his side. This combination had a dreamlike quality. Ophelia attached herself to a wire and joined him in a similar pose as the two spun round near ground level in a pretty dance that exemplified their intimacy.

All this time Martyn Jacques sang a plaintive song “Alone” whose bitter-sweet meditation on loneliness undercut the beauty of the dance.

Hamlet detached himself from the wire and spun Ophelia around, depositing her back on the bed asleep.

Ophelia was visited by Laertes who lifted her limp limbs and rearranged them as he told her that he was departing.

Puppet

Polonius (Caspar Phillipson again) appeared as a puppet with huge grasping hands and a cloth face. He warned Ophelia in a comical puppet voice to keep away from Hamlet, accompanied by a song “Stay Away From Him”. Ophelia moved and danced as if still asleep and was eventually taken up and cradled against the wall in the grasp of Polonius’ huge hands.

Hamlet appeared sticking his head through an opening in the wall as a voiceover and a song “Murder” reminded him that his father had been murdered. He looked suitably distraught as Martyn Jacques played the accordion and taunted him with the details of his father’s killing.

Polonius’ head peered through the stage left opening and told Claudius and Gertrude that he had discovered the cause of Hamlet’s madness and read Ophelia’s letter. Ophelia herself sat below listening. Polonius suggest loosing daughter to Hamlet.

Hamlet brought out the bed and stood centre stage to deliver his “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Just as he drew his bare bodkin, Ophelia rushed in and snatched it out of his hand, effectively preventing him from killing himself.

They hugged each other on the bed, but this conciliatory mood did not last. They sat up on the bed as Hamlet announced that he had loved her once. Grasping her angrily, Hamlet ordered her to get to a nunnery. His attention was attracted to a brief appearance of the others above looking down at them, and which prompted him to ask Ophelia where her father was. He shouted that Ophelia would not escape calumny, but this warning was clearly directed at the offstage spies. Hamlet exited and the sobbing Ophelia was wheeled away on the bed by Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius.

Martyn Jacques tortured the distraught Hamlet with a song telling him that nothing was pure and that he was going mad. Hamlet writhed in mental agony. A song commented that Hamlet was a dangerous man because he was mad. His family danced behind him, with Gertrude on sousaphone, shadowing him sinisterly but then when he turned round to face them they looked about and whistled innocently.

The production did not cast Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but at this point the rest of the cast became mouthpieces for them at their first meeting with Hamlet. Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia and Laertes stood close round him and Hamlet toyed with moving their mouths and making them appear to utter sounds. Hamlet spoke both his own lines and those of his friends. First he used Laertes and Ophelia kneeling next to him, comically giving Ophelia a deep man’s voice and Laertes a high-pitched woman’s voice, and then Claudius and Gertrude standing either side of him.

The first half ended with the “to be or not to be” song with the whole cast standing downstage.

After the interval the second half began with Hamlet in front of the safety curtain delivering his Hecuba speech. He indicated himself as “this player” even though this did not make sense. He used the line “Am I a coward?” but none of the immediate follow-up, concluding with “the play’s the thing…”.

The Mousetrap was presented by the rest of cast dangling like puppets on strings. Hamlet squawked as he donned a commedia dell’arte bird mask. Claudius in the role of the Player King puppet put poison in the ear of Old Hamlet and pulled out a red handkerchief representing the dead King’s blood. Claudius and Gertrude broke out of their player roles to be themselves as the queen commented on the lady’s excess of protest and Claudius called for lights.

In the aftermath of the play, Claudius knelt praying as Hamlet stood apart with a dagger, eventually deciding to wait for a more opportune moment to take vengeance. Hamlet exited slowly through the centre doors to another dour song.

For the closet scene, a thin cloth descended behind which Gertrude hid Polonius. At first, Hamlet and Gertrude stood at a distance as a silent Hamlet mirrored his mother’s succession of nervous movements. This was neat because it foreshadowed the mirrored language of their first exchanges. The wordplay was made to look like an extension of this initial mirroring of posture.

Hamlet grasped Gertrude in an arm lock and she cried for help. Polonius shuffled behind the curtain, attracting Hamlet’s murderous attention. As Hamlet stabbed Polonius the cloth collapsed.

Folding

The entire world of the play started to come apart, represented by the back wall of the set slowly folding forward with a creaking sound, as Hamlet pursued Gertrude in slow motion.

Polonius lay underneath the descending wall, while Hamlet and Gertrude clung together under a flap in the wall through which they protruded as it reached the ground. They continued their argument. The Ghost was heard in voiceover. Hamlet dragged Polonius out via another door in the flat wall and moved his body like the flapping limbs of the puppet version of Polonius seen previously.

The wall returned to its upright position as Martyn Jacques sang a song entitled “Worms” intermixed with Hamlet’s worm anecdote before he was to England. He jokingly grabbed Claudius’ crotch when claiming his uncle was his mother.

An interpolated scene showed Hamlet and Ophelia lying together on the bed with a gentle musical accompaniment. They woke up next to each other and caressed. Ophelia walked in heeled shoes along the rail of the bedstead.

They looked at each other through one end of bedstead. Then shortly afterwards went to opposite ends of the bed and looked through opposite sets of bars. As Hamlet withdrew and left, Ophelia grasped desperately at him through the bars at her end.

This looked good, but how likely was it that she would have slept with Hamlet right after he had killed her father?

Gertrude and Claudius appeared at a window in the back wall, both in towels with Gertrude massaging her husband’s neck. Martyn Jacques sang “Bordello” about their relationship commenting that she was better to have whored herself to two kings rather than 10,000 strangers. Quality not quantity was what counted.

Laertes interrupted them, holding Polonius’ mask, demanding to know how his father had died. Claudius came out from behind the window and took Laertes away to speak with him.

Hamlet appeared at a window and described how he had escaped from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He jumped down from the window and showed the new letter he had written. A sheet billowed like water over which Hamlet swung on a wire. The sheet sea was suddenly pulled away leaving Hamlet swinging over nothing with Martyn Jacques telling him it was just a dream.

Ophelia’s madness began with her wandering holding a bunch of flowers accompanied by a jolly song “Sweet Suicide”. She leant against the back wall which sloped slightly back. Hands bearing other flowers appeared through holes in the wall. She gathered these into a huge bunch before moving downstage to cradle them like a baby. She howled and began offering the flowers to invisible people.

In a truly inspired moment Ophelia thought she saw another flower and came downstage to grasp at it. But there was nothing but empty space. This was a direct echo of Macbeth’s dagger of the mind.

Gertrude found her and took pity. She wrapped the train of her dress around Ophelia and escorted her away. This made Gertrude seem a compassionate and positive character.

Claudius asked Laertes what he would do to really prove his father’s son. This introduced the idea of killing Hamlet, and led into a discussion of the duel and the double poisoning.

Ophelia’s drowning was staged. Ophelia walked slowly across the dark stage, a large image of the moon projected onto the back wall. She turned to face the wall and when she reached its foot she walked up it supported on a wire as the projection changed to a roaring sea. When she reached the top, she fell a short distance and hung suspended while the projection changed to beneath the waves so that she appeared to sink.

Her funeral procession entered beneath her. Ophelia descended from her drowning position into their hands, while Hamlet stood downstage looking out at the audience. Ophelia revived and went to embrace Hamlet and hung around his neck. But after each of their embraces she fell limp and dead. The implication was that this vision of Ophelia was Hamlet’s fantasy into which the reality of Ophelia’s death occasionally intruded. He picked her up and carried her across his shoulders back to the funeral party.

Her family took Ophelia and laid her on a shelf in the wall to bury her. This first indication of the grave site prompted the start of the fight between Laertes and Hamlet. A scuffle broke out in slow motion with Laertes hanging off Hamlet. Claudius interrupted them and the motion sped up again into a furious verbal argument.

The back wall folded forward again and Gertrude positioned herself so that she appeared through a hole as the scene behind her was revealed.

Hamlet and Laertes stood ready brandishing foils, with Claudius positioned between them holding a glass ready to be poisoned. Gertrude joined them. The two combatants swiped their foils, the strokes enhanced by a swishing sound effect.

They faced forward and struck at thin air, scoring points without actually touching their opponent. Gertrude took the poisoned drink and refused to put it down. Laertes swiped at Hamlet without touching him, but as this represented a hit, Hamlet clutched himself and felt the moisture of his own blood. Without swapping blades, Hamlet drove his own sword into Laertes who fell. As Gertrude succumbed to the poison, the others upstage all fell to the ground.

Hamlet collapsed from his own injury while the others, including also Ophelia, moved towards him. Gertrude warned that she had been poisoned and Laertes explained why Hamlet was soon to die. As the others stripped off Hamlet’s shirt and grasped with their fingers at his face, Hamlet spoke his final lines, ordering Claudius to drink off the poison. This was not actually acted out, but tied up a loose end. He died centre stage alone to “Dissolution Song”.

Hamlet’s final words were edited so that he concluded:

“And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story. The rest is silence.”

Conclusions

Hamlet was deprived of Horatio, his companion and confidant, and also shadowed in his darkest moments of despair by Martyn Jacques who pursued him like a tormenting demon.

The role of Ophelia was enhanced, particularly her mad sequence which was much more effective for being acted out alone. An Ophelia who borrows from Macbeth certainly has depth.

The Tiger Lillies did not fit exactly with the feel of play but provided an interesting context for the retelling of the story.

If Martyn Jacques’ narrator was a cynical voice undermining Hamlet, then the mere existence of the play, told by those who drew their breaths in pain to tell his semi-heroic story, proves that cynicism wrong.

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