Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 6 April 2013
The play was set within a fencing hall with the piste marked down the centre of the thrust stage. A raised platform at the rear contained a large Danish flag in one corner and a desk in the other. Foils hung from the wall of this office. A pitched roof with its skylights and fluorescent tubes hung above, and to the stage right side was a door with glass panels in its top half. A Latin inscription “mens sana in corpore sano” overlooked the whole.
A figure loitered briefly behind the door, removing a securing chain before entering and revealing himself to be Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet in his dark mourning suit and glasses. He leant forward with his head in his hands, clearly distressed. After composing himself, he picked up a lath sword and moved to the piste where he began a fencing manoeuvre.
He fought his way down the piste against an imaginary opponent. As he reached the end, the sound of clashing foils was briefly heard. Hamlet turned back and uttered the play’s first line “Who’s there?”
The sound of swords was an echo returning back in time from the final fencing bout. The answer to Hamlet’s question was that his future, his fate and his destiny were calling him.
The watch appeared via side entrances and, becoming aware of their presence, Hamlet slipped away to sit in darkness at the front of the stage writing in a notebook. Behind him the first scene played out, beginning with Barnardo (Dave Fishley) and Francisco (Mark Holgate) on the Elsinore battlements (1.1).
The Ghost (Greg Hicks) appeared on the stage right walkway dressed in fencing whites, which made little sense of Horatio’s (Alex Waldmann) comment that it was wearing the same armour in which the king had fought the Norwegians. At this point the production’s conceit clashed with the text.
Some men in welders’ outfits came through the door and out the stage left exit, prompting Marcellus’ (Samuel Taylor) question about Denmark’s war preparations. Horatio’s answer, in which he referred to “landless resolutes”, was interrupted by the reappearance of the Ghost on the stage left side. Marcellus took a sword hanging from the wall, but the Ghost withdrew and reappeared at various entrances before finally disappearing.
Hamlet rose from his seated position as the court entered for 1.2. The others all wore black fencing masks and moved in slow, formal dance steps as they collected around the besuited Claudius (Greg Hicks again).
The king looked lean and wiry, a physical condition that gave his insistent firm manner a kind of low-level hectoring aggression. This undercurrent of potential violence was pacified by the obedience that his manner engendered in those around him.
His new wife Gertrude (Charlotte Cornwell) had something fusty and matronly about her, which suggested that Claudius was more interested in the throne than in her.
Claudius dispatched the ambassadors, Voltemand (David Fielder) and Cornelia (Natalie Klamar), to Norway.
Our first sight of Polonius (Robin Soans) hinted that, either by accident or design, he was similar in demeanour and tone to Claudius.
Hamlet stood and watched from downstage left so that his first line “A little more than kin, and less than kind” was spoken upstage to a distant Claudius. Hamlet was mildly dismissive but not wracked by anger or melancholy.
Hamlet’s deliberations on “seems” were slow and methodical. In fact he paused before saying “seems” a second time as if loathed to utter the word, but there was also a hint of suppressed rage and passion lurking just below the surface.
Claudius’s extended response seemed intent on wearing down Hamlet’s resistance and culminated in offering him a drink, holding the glass as if beckoning Hamlet to take it. When Hamlet consented to obey his mother, Claudius gave him the glass. He chanted “Be as ourself in Denmark” like a drinking song, with the rest of the court joining in, to jolly Hamlet along as he drank. A loud bang caused party streamers to fill the air as confetti scattered on the ground.
It was noticeable at this point that with the fencing piste already visible from the very start and with Claudius offering Hamlet a drink, the opening scenes of the play contained echoes of its fatal conclusion. The fencing piste on which Hamlet would be injured, and a drink, indistinguishable from the one with which Claudius would try to poison him, had already been presented to us.
Hamlet soliloquised about his “too too solid flesh” as the tension within him spilled out. He seemed to have reached a point of resignation in which, beyond fury, he was scoffing at his mother’s infidelity.
Hamlet was extremely happy to see Horatio and hugged him warmly. But the fervent emotion of Hamlet’s welcome showed him to be deriving solace rather than unalloyed joy from the reunion. He was like a man stranded on a desert island spying the smoke trail of a passing ship.
After the hug, they both crouched on the ground as Hamlet clasped Horatio’s hands in his, not wanting to let go even as the conversation continued.
Horatio broached the subject of the Ghost, and Hamlet’s questions in response flashed out rapidly and instantly as if he had turned his laser-sharp intellect onto a matter which had now fully gripped his attention. Within milliseconds of new data about his father’s ghost becoming available, he had formulated and delivered a fresh question designed to elucidate the next vital detail.
After the others had left, Hamlet vowed to see the Ghost for himself. Immediately afterwards, Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) appeared through the side door. She had short dark hair, wore a sensible skirt and an Icelandic pattern pullover, and was carrying a large pile of books.
On seeing Hamlet she let the book pile fall to the ground with a crash at her feet and ran over to him. They embraced and kissed warmly. Hamlet saw Laertes approach from the stage left side and quickly left so that the action of 1.3 could commence.
Laertes (Luke Norris) said that his “necessaries” were all stowed away, which suggested that the pile of books carried by the sensibly dressed Ophelia were her own.
A number of Icelandic pullovers, Horatio wore one two occasionally, introduced an element of localised naturalism into the production. This implied though that the Danish court had a preference for Icelandic rather than Faroese knitwear.
Laertes had just witnessed the ending of his sister’s tryst with Hamlet, which proved excellent grounds for his warnings to her about him.
Ophelia countered Laertes’ conditional statement “Then if he says he loves you…” with an emphatic extra-textual “He does, he does”.
Polonius lectured Laertes and again proved nimble-witted rather than sluggish and buffoonish. When he turned his attention to Ophelia, she meekly accepted his counsel.
Hamlet and friends encroached upon Ophelia and Polonius as they entered for 1.4. The sound of Claudius’s partying filtered through the door, prompting Hamlet’s sarcasm about this custom.
The Ghost appeared and walked across the front of the stage from stage left to right. Hamlet addressed it quizzically. The Ghost began to leave via the stage right walkway and beckoned Hamlet to follow. Horatio and Marcellus’ attempts at restraint caused Hamlet to take a foil from the wall and threaten them with it before he followed the Ghost off.
Hamlet appeared shortly afterwards from the stage right upstage entrance and the Ghost began to speak to him. The Ghost had taken off his mask, so that Hamlet could see it was his father. When the mysterious figure confirmed his identity, Hamlet reached out his hand to touch his father. His line “O God!” was replaced by a gut-wrenching moan, an inarticulate outpouring of grief and deep emotion that seemed more appropriate to this passionate and emotional Hamlet than a well-articulated phrase.
When Hamlet made contact with his father’s body it was as if an electric shock had passed between them. The touch became a grasp as Hamlet was consumed by the desire to know more. While reports about the Ghost had been intellectually analysed, this actual contact produced upheavals in Hamlet’s heart that drove his outward behaviour.
The stage brightened as the Ghost said he could scent the morning air, which hurried him to his concluding story about his murder by Claudius. He asked Hamlet to remember him by offering his fencing mask, which Hamlet accepted in astonishment.
Hamlet followed the Ghost to the stage left exit, so that when Hamlet was left alone he fell back onto a bench at the side from which he had to raise himself, requesting that his sinews “bear me stiffly up”.
He seized his notebook to record his father’s words. His reference “At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark” saw him point to the ground, thereby emphasising the naturalistic location of the play suggested by the flag, and partly by the knitwear.
Horatio and Marcellus caught up with Hamlet, who began to be cheerily sarcastic with them. This being a fencing salon, Hamlet easily found a foil on which to make the others swear not to divulge what they had seen. The Ghost’s voice echoed encouragement, also causing wind to scatter papers on the upstage desk.
In line with the RSC’s edition of the text, Hamlet referred to there being “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy”.
This led into a quite camp imitation of the ways in which he did not want his friends to discuss his “antic disposition”.
Hamlet pulled Horatio back and directed his “time is out of joint” lines directly at him, not at the audience as an aside.
Polonius briefed Reynaldo (Daniel Easton) on how to spy on Laertes (2.1). As Polonius rambled on through his unnecessarily punctilious instructions, Ophelia burst in and stood silently staring at her father. This interruption became the cause of Polonius’s forgetfulness and the reason he had to pick up the thread of the conversation.
Ophelia sat quietly until Reynaldo had been dispatched, after which Polonius was free to listen to her. She spoke impulsively fired by the urgency that had driven her to burst in on him. She acted out Hamlet’s pained gestures when he had confronted her and Polonius decided to inform the king.
Rosencrantz (Oliver Ryan) and Guildenstern (Nicolas Tennant) wandered across the stage in their coats and carrying suitcases as if they had just arrived at the king’s behest (2.2). Drinks were brought for them.
At first the king was not sure which of them was which and did not address them individually. But on bidding them farewell he made an effort and got them the right way round, much to Gertrude’s satisfaction.
Polonius hurried to see the king and told him that he had found the cause of Hamlet’s madness, then ushered in the ambassadors who brought the good news of Fortinbras’ arrest. The king spoke with the ambassadors upstage, leaving Gertrude alone downstage sat on a chair looking neglected.
Ophelia was kept outside by her father and then ushered in and ordered to stand on a particular spot, receiving her cue to read from the letter Hamlet had sent. She snapped obediently into position and did as she was told.
Ophelia’s unquestioning deference meant that when Polonius told the king about his instructions to Ophelia to shun Hamlet, we understood that she had obeyed him.
As Polonius broached the outline of their further plot to “loose” Ophelia to Hamlet, the man himself entered, wearing an untied fencing outfit and mask. He sat down reading a sheet of paper and Polonius was left to deal with him alone.
Hamlet’s comical appearance made his response “words, words, words” even more funny. Further questioning prompted him to screw the paper up and throw it at Polonius when describing the slanders it contained.
Hamlet was jovially sarcastic, particularly when he walked backwards like a crab.
Polonius left in disgust clearing the way for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet greeted them and engaged in some bawdy play, simulating sex with Guildenstern who had spread his legs to indicate how he was one of Fortune’s “privates”.
Hamlet’s initial jollity soon gave way to suspicious questioning of their motives for visiting him. He referred to the “rights of our fellowship” and bared his forearm, as did the others, to reveal tattoos that witnessed some kind of pact between them.
Talking of having lost all his mirth, Hamlet’s reference to “this most excellent canopy” took on a comical note when he gestured upwards at the suspended roof. The drollery of his earlier appearance in the fencing suit indicated that he was not completely consumed by melancholy.
Hamlet’s philosophical observations did not hang like dense clouds of thought in the air, but seemed more to be exercises in rhetoric designed to convince others of his profundity. This was the conundrum: he had reason to be sad, but we also knew he was trying to affect sadness, so which was his real self?
Hamlet was genuinely interested in the news that the players had arrived and the production kept in his question as to why they were travelling, but without the boys’ company references.
Hamlet and companions sat on a bench and pretended to be engaged in conversation so they could make fun of mock Polonius. They formed a tight-knit little gang reminiscent of what must have been their previous closeness.
Hamlet stood to mock Polonius with his remarks about Roscius and Jephthah and then greeted the players. He congratulated a female player on being “nearer to heaven”, but without the final “by the altitude of a chopine”. Without the final part, Hamlet seemed not be commenting on an increase in height but an increase in age and proximity to death.
Hamlet launched into the Aeneas speech until it was picked up expertly by the First Player (Cliff Burnet).
Left alone after the impromptu performance, Hamlet half-laughed at himself, drawing out a long guttural moan of self accusation as he described himself as a rogue and peasant slave.
His admiring description of the player’s skill displayed much of the passion that he claimed he was unable to transform into action.
He spoke “John-a-dreams” slowly and affected a shambling gait with the self-deprecating implication that he was stupid.
His question to the audience “Am I coward?” did not provoke any response, though his subsequent lines were delivered as if he had in fact been directly accused. He foamed with growing anger at his supposed critics, descending into an overwrought display, the stupidity of which he suddenly became aware of, declaring himself to be “an ass”.
He hit upon his plan, but one he must have formulated earlier as he had previously told the players about the lines he wanted inserting into Gonzago.
Claudius and his court entered and gathered round Hamlet as he explained how he would use the play to trap the king, so that when he said “the play’s the thing” the cast were stood around like actors waiting for their cue, Hamlet’s final line in the scene.
As Hamlet departed, the king spoke with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had been unable to fathom Hamlet’s troubles (3.1). Ophelia sat behind them on the raised stage staring at the ground beneath her dangling feet, obviously unhappy at the part she was expected to play in the plan.
The king and Polonius hid behind the glass panel door, while Ophelia sat on the stage right bench with her box of reminiscences and the book given to her by Polonius.
As he approached, Hamlet could be heard offstage singing Happiness by Ken Dodd, a completely incongruous song in terms of the speech that followed, but one that perhaps fitted his desire to appear antic to others.
After the first few lines of the song, he caught sight of Ophelia and sat down at the edge of the platform and launched into the iconic soliloquy. This lurch into seriousness caught Ophelia’s attention, but even here Hamlet applied a lightness of touch. He lay on his side when expressing his desire for sleep, as if he found the concept of the “sleep of death” somehow amusing.
His sudden shift from a song of joy into a melancholic disquisition did not ring true and undermined the sentiments of his soliloquy. This was a good way of subverting what has become an all-too familiar speech.
He was sat on what would later become the stage for the players, and this was very much a conscious performance for the benefit of Ophelia, who was present throughout. His only genuinely heartfelt sentiment was his reference to her right at the end when he approached Ophelia, talking of her “orizons”.
Ophelia rose and thrust her box of remembrances at Hamlet. He took a letter from the box and made blah-blah noises as he contemptuously pretended to read its soppy contents. He ditched the box on the ground, informing her “I never gave you aught”. Screwing one of the papers into a ball he threw it at her face.
His mood flipped into aggression, telling her to get to a nunnery while ringing a large hand bell. He moved upstage to ask where her father was, but without there being any real indication that Polonius was spying on them. This was perhaps Hamlet’s instincts informing him.
He smeared Ophelia’s face with dirt taken from beyond the stage blocks, complaining of women’s “paintings”. He completed her humiliation by stripping off her pullover and skirt, leaving her vulnerably semi-clad. He also cut off some of her hair with a small knife.
Polonius and later the king re-entered. Ophelia borrowed her father’s jacket and told him (not in soliloquy) about Hamlet’s great overthrown mind and began collecting up the scattered contents of the box.
Claudius was clearly ruffled by the threat to himself posed by this aggression, and had already decided to send Hamlet to England.
At first the players ignored Hamlet as tried to begin his talk on acting (3.2). He repeated “Speak the speech…” several times to no avail before finally ringing a bell to secure their attention. He stood on a bench by the stage left doorway to give his lesson, illustratively sawing his hands.
Referring disparagingly to the groundlings “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise”, he looked to the people in the RST stalls immediately in front of him on the stage left side of the thrust, a joke which the whole audience seemed to appreciate.
As the court gathered for the performance, Hamlet instructed Horatio to observe Claudius and handed him a Polaroid camera with which to capture the hoped-for guilty look.
When Claudius entered he was wearing a fencing mask, possibly that belonging to Hamlet’s father. It was removed from his face just before he and Gertrude reached the bench that had been set aside in front of the raised stage. The others sat at the sides to watch, while Hamlet remained downstage.
Confident that events were under his control, Hamlet was boldly sarcastic and disrespectful to Claudius and Polonius.
In a great piece of realistic staging, Hamlet’s approaches to Ophelia and joking attempt to sit by her were indignantly rebuffed. After all, at their last encounter he had insulted and humiliated her. Reconciliation at this point would have seemed bizarre.
The dumb show was played out on the stage, from which the desk had now been removed, with a red curtain at its sides. The Player King and Queen (Cliff Burnett & Karen Archer) embraced in period costume, with the King wearing an oversized paper crown that towered upwards.
The poisoner appeared with a large phallic baguette dangling from his waist and gestured his covetousness of the queen and also of the castle on the painted backdrop. The gentle music of this scene changed to heavy metal as a figure in black modern dress with a skull pattern on her top entered to represent ‘poison’. She sat on the Player King’s chest to symbolise his murder.
After the poisoning the Player Queen tore apart a cob loaf, which she had thus far clasped to her bosom symbolising her heart, at which point the poisoner raised the phallic baguette in front of him and moved to embrace her.
The prologue was spoken in a vaguely Japanese style before the curtain opened to reveal the Player King and Queen sat on a sofa. Hamlet became ever more excited in his comments as the play reached the key theme of remarriage.
The flirtatious exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia with its references to “groaning” was cut.
The poisoner wore a suit identical to that of Claudius. He killed the Player King in imitation of Claudius’s crime, causing the king to rise from the bench in anger. He called for some light, to which Horatio responded by flashing the Polaroid camera in his face to capture his expression.
As Claudius stormed away and the guards arrested and led away the players, Hamlet and Horatio took to the stage. Hamlet, illuminating his face from below with a table lamp, sang the ditty about the “stricken deer” as Horatio snapped him with the camera. The interval came as the lights went out on the scene.
The second half began with Hamlet and Horatio continuing their conversation until they were interrupted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who told Hamlet that his mother had sent for him. Hamlet stood on the bench and twisted his feet from side to side creeping up and down it in a muted victory dance.
Hamlet was now effusive and jokingly reassured Rosencrantz that he still loved him “by these pickers and stealers”, talking to him as if he were a baby. But when Horatio brought the recorders, Hamlet became vitriolic in his denunciation of Guildenstern, standing close and speaking “though you fret me you cannot play upon me” directly into his face.
He turned instantly on Polonius, switching his full attention to him and completely forgetting Guildenstern, in order to play his cloud-watching game with the old man.
However, that done, he had calmed down enough to talk in soliloquy about how he would not harm his mother.
The king instructed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet to England, and they received a wad of notes in payment for their work (3.3). Polonius announced his intention to listen in on Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude, after which Claudius had a few moments alone.
Greg Hicks clasped his hands in front of him and physically wilted from the strident, confident man he had so far presented, as his Claudius bemoaned the rankness of his offence.
Hamlet walked across the back and glanced sideways when he spied the king. He took a foil and approached the kneeling figure. Pointing the foil directly at Claudius’s head, Hamlet considered striking him before realising that this would be “hire and salary, not revenge”. He brought the foil close to his chest before vowing to kill Claudius at a more opportune time.
Polonius hid behind the half-drawn curtain on the raised stage as Gertrude prepared to receive her son (3.4). Hamlet appeared with a bouquet of flowers. His mother sat on the sofa (brought down from the Mousetrap stage during the post-performance chaos) roughly stage left. Hamlet positioned himself on the bench stage right to ask “what’s the matter?”
Their bitter exchange riled Hamlet into something approaching anger. Responding to Gertrude’s threat “I’ll set those to you that can speak”, Hamlet took a sword from the wall and pointed it at Gertrude, prompting her fearful cries. This caused Polonius to shout for help and Hamlet responded rapidly by dashing towards him. Hamlet tore the curtain down on top of the unseen figure and stuck his sword straight through his bulk. The curtain was unwrapped to show the dead Polonius sat in a chair.
Approaching his mother again, Hamlet took the recently snapped Polaroid of Claudius and a photo of his father from his pocket to show her this “counterfeit presentment of two brothers”.
Hamlet tore off the sheet covering the sofa when complaining of Gertrude living “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed”, the item serving as a convenient approximation to bed sheets.
Hamlet was transformed and transfixed when his father’s Ghost appeared again upstage left, which perhaps helped him to be kinder to his mother, hugging her as he tried to convince her to cool her affection for Claudius.
When he was finished with Gertrude, Hamlet dragged Polonius out of the chair and sideways off the raised stage.
Gertrude was still crouched face down and sobbing when Claudius entered, giving real meaning to his “There’s matter in these sighs, these profound heaves” (4.1). Claudius again interpreted news of Hamlet’s rash actions as a direct threat to him. He sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find his son.
There followed a brilliantly inventive, exceedingly funny and wonderfully intuitive piece of staging.
Hamlet entered through the raised stage and descended the steps to the sofa carrying a mug of tea with the bag string draped over the lip. He sat and played with the teabag string before announcing “Safely stowed” with a self-satisfied exhalation (4.2).
Looking back at this sequence, it seemed perfectly logical that after carrying a heavy lifeless body a considerable distance around the castle, Hamlet would have needed a cuppa to unwind.
This state of relaxation informed his sarcastic answers to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s frantic questions about Polonius’s location. In the darkness it was difficult to see Polonius’s blood on his fencing suit.
He was particularly indignant at being “demanded of a sponge!” His semi-answer to their questions indicated that Polonius was “with the king”, as Hamlet indicated the King of heaven by pointing skyward. He insulted Claudius by describing him as a thing of nothing and then made his escape.
Hamlet was brought before Claudius, marching obediently but mockingly behind Guildenstern, all this still in the white fencing suit he had worn since his encounter with his father’s ghost.
He described the “convocation of worms” that were eating Polonius and outlined the fish/worm anecdote. However many times it is staged, Hamlet’s “He will stay till you come” never fails to be amusing, and this time was no exception.
At the very moment Claudius began to tell Hamlet that he was to be sent to England, Ophelia rushed silently into the room but was restrained and escorted out. But she had enough time to see Hamlet’s now fully-illuminated, blood-stained clothes. Her look of horror evidenced her realisation that Hamlet was responsible for her father’s death.
Hamlet’s response “For England!” saw him skip and twist the loose ends of his fencing suit in an imitation of Morris dancing.
Hamlet taunted Claudius by addressing him as his mother. He completed the explanation of his logic by kissing Claudius on the cheek, as he would his mother.
Claudius’s malevolent pronouncement of “the present death of Hamlet” was followed by the removal of the back wall of the raised stage to reveal a white backdrop with a single, distant tree in front of which the Norwegian army appeared (4.4).
The soldiers moved through this new upstage opening and began taking up the boards of the main stage platform to reveal dark soil underneath. Eventually a rough T shape remained with the fencing piste running the length of the stage still in place, but surrounded on all sides by dirt.
Hamlet appeared wearing a light-coloured suit for his journey and questioned the Norwegian Captain (Dave Fishley again) about his army’s mission. The “two thousand souls” line was given to the Captain.
Pondering this afterwards, Hamlet was inspired to act decisively after seeing such extensive preparations for a fight over nothing. But at the same time he displayed a hint of the quiet resignation that would characterise some of his subsequent statements.
Ophelia burst in on Gertrude and Horatio wearing a white wedding dress with a veil and clutching a bridal bouquet in front of her (4.5). She rushed excitedly to the top of the piste to ask “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?”
This could be interpreted two ways. The wedding dress and her previously avowed love for Hamlet meant she could have been referring to the prince. But it was also possible that, as a bride waiting to be escorted to the altar, she was expecting to see her father perform that honour.
But the overriding impression was that this sequence, normally about Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death, was here transformed into an expression of her thwarted but unabated passion for Hamlet.
She muttered “they’re not ready” as she looked at the overturned benches at the sides of the piste and set them upright. She handed her bouquet to Horatio and set out small bunches of flowers on the benches as if they were wedding guests, before reclaiming the bouquet once more. Looking up at the imagined altar, she crossed herself.
Claudius appeared and Ophelia hugged him warmly. She set off down the piste, her arm bowed out for her father to accompany her, as she sang ‘Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day’. Once at the end, she knelt as if before the altar.
She held out her hand as if holding that of her groom and started the ‘By Gis and by Saint Charity’ song, speaking the girl’s part, then shuffled sideways and put her opposite hand out to sing the boy’s part. This was slightly incongruous as the song recounted how a lad had not fulfilled his promise to marry a maid he had bedded.
As the others commented in wonderment, Ophelia continued in a world of her own. She stood up straight and looked out into the audience as if still waiting for Hamlet to turn up, pronouncing a hopeful “We must be patient” before departing with more distracted remarks, throwing her bouquet over her shoulder. A sad-looking Gertrude picked up the bouquet and kept it.
Claudius told of the imminent arrival of Laertes from France. Just then a violent commotion could be heard outside, prompting Claudius to call for his guards. A loud noise of an outer door being broken open brought real tension, so that when Laertes and his soldiers burst in, a sense of danger existed that was not diminished by the men with guns being told to wait outside.
Laertes himself was not armed and did not direct any weapon against Claudius, but the presence of his supporters outside the door was a constant reminder that he was capable of forcing compliance with his angry demands.
Ophelia’s second appearance saw her still wearing her wedding dress and her obvious madness appalled Laertes. Ophelia hugged her brother saying “Fare you well my dove”.
After encouraging everyone to sing “a-down a-down”, she took a foil from the wall and pointed it at Claudius, causing him some momentary fear, until she dropped the sword’s point to the ground and walked in a circle trailing it behind her.
Returning to where she had started, she briefly held the sword upright close in front of her as if beginning a fencing bout. She then removed the guard from the blade tip and clasped her other hand round its now bare point, cutting into her palm until it was smeared with her blood.
She took her bloodied hand and began to daub lines of blood on people’s foreheads, proclaiming each daub to be a flower.
This staging really tore up the rule book on how to portray Ophelia. The complete reimagining of the character at this point was exhilarating to behold.
She smeared Claudius’s face, describing the mark as rue. He had to wear his with a difference, so she made an additional red mark that differentiated him from the others.
Ophelia spoke her final song rather than singing it and left the assembled company stunned, an opportunity that Claudius seized on to further assuage Laertes.
A woman messenger brought a letter from Hamlet to Horatio, which he read aloud before setting off to prepare for Hamlet’s unexpected arrival (4.6).
Claudius showed himself to be a practised liar when he told Laertes that Hamlet’s popularity was the reason he had not put him on trial for Polonius’s murder (4.7).
The calm that the success of this lie produced in Claudius was short-lived as a letter arrived from Hamlet in which he informed the king he was returning. Claudius exclaimed “From Hamlet!” with utter incredulity.
Working together and thinking quickly, the pair hit upon their twin-track plan to murder Hamlet. Claudius walked up and down as he fretted about a backup plan should the envenomed sword not work, eventually hitting on the poisoned chalice.
Gertrude interrupted them, obliging Claudius to stow Hamlet’s letter hastily away in his inside jacket pocket. Claudius’s “How now, sweet queen!” was said with hasty embarrassment and fear that their plan might be discovered.
Gertrude’s poetic description of Ophelia’s death, which realistically no one could have witnessed in such lengthy detail without coming to assistance, enraged Laertes further to Claudius’s benefit.
After discussing the forthcoming burial and joking around, the two gravediggers, the younger a female (Rosie Hilal), set about their work (5.1). The older one (David Fielder again) used a spade to shift earth at the downstage foot of the piste, uncovering skulls as Hamlet and Horatio appeared in silhouette at the back of the stage as if coming from a great distance.
Hamlet saw the first skull and commented briefly on it (lawyerly references omitted) before sitting cosy by the Gravedigger, engaging him in conversation and a battle of wits. He seemed impressed by the man’s punctilious precision. The joke about Hamlet’s madness not being noticed in England was well-received.
The production was taking a well-earned comic breather before the final onslaught.
Hamlet took Yorick’s skull and its jawbone fell to the ground, prompting his remark that it was “quite chapfallen”. He handed it to an audience member at the front of the stalls, telling them to take it to “my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”. This had the effect of underscoring the humour in his remark, rather than its tragic bite.
Hamlet’s mind wandered onto his consideration of how Alexander might have been turned into a bung in a beer barrel, after which the funeral procession appeared in silhouette through the rear entrance, causing Hamlet and Horatio to move to the stage right side to observe.
Laertes bitterness showed in his scorn of the Priest (John Stahl) who had not given Ophelia the full ceremony. His reference to his sister told Hamlet that the funeral was that of Ophelia.
Ophelia, still in her white gown, was laid in a shallow recess in the soil at the foot of the piste, but remained visible to the audience. Gertrude stood over her to spread “sweets to the sweet”, placing on Ophelia’s grave the bouquet that she had discarded in her madness. This symbolically linked the marriage Gertrude had hoped to see between Ophelia and her son with the present funeral.
Laertes stepped down and lifted Ophelia up to embrace her lifeless form, barking out his instructions to bury him beside her under mountains of soil.
Hamlet came forward and tussled with Laertes on the piste, mocking his actions by tossing soil over himself, before storming off.
Ophelia remained in full view laid out in her grave throughout the remainder of the performance.
Hamlet recounted the full story of his escape to Horatio (5.2). He was quite relaxed and enjoyed discussing Claudius’s failed attempt to have him killed, which could be seen from his nonchalant description of the overblown language in the commission given to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and in his dismissal of his former friends “They are not near my conscience”.
Osric (Michael Grady-Hall) was a picture in his schoolboyish cap and blazer, which bore a miniature Danish flag on the breast pocket. Hamlet enjoyed making him take his cap off and then put it on again.
All was jollity until Osric mentioned that Hamlet had to “vouchsafe the answer” to the king’s wager. Hamlet’s mood seemed to change. He replied “How if I answer ‘no’?” with a muted earnestness that was completely unlike his previous quips at Osric’s expense.
Hamlet agreed to the wager and the seriousness he had lurched into with his question to Osric now informed his quiet resignation in the face of his fate.
The stage was swept in preparation for the fencing bout. Hamlet and Laertes met and were reconciled.
Hamlet had to change into a proper fencing suit, which he did in full view of everyone. The king brought a fencing mask for Hamlet. When he clapped eyes on it, the movements of everyone else on stage slowed down to emphasise the specialness of the moment: Hamlet realised that the mask was the one that his father had given to him. Once he had taken the mask, the action speeded up again to normal pace.
Laertes took one sword and pronounced it too light. Claudius took the poisoned and unbated one from the wall, which was then passed to Laertes.
Claudius stood to their left with the wine, while Gertrude was positioned to the right. They fenced up and down the piste, which had been visible since the start of the performance.
Hamlet scored his first point prompting Claudius to put the pearl into the glass, which he had to set aside when Hamlet refused it. Gertrude approached Hamlet to wipe his brow and then took the poisoned glass and drank from it despite Claudius’s protestations.
After the third pass Laertes charged at Hamlet cutting him under the right arm with the envenomed blade, causing Hamlet to drop his own foil. Osric wrestled Laertes’ sword from him, which Hamlet then snatched from Osric. Laertes and Hamlet wrestled over the sword and Laertes eventually cut his hand on the blade, thereby poisoning himself.
The queen fell to the ground and announced she had been poisoned, upon which the guards secured the doors.
The stricken Laertes collapsed in agony, blaming everything on the king. Claudius, discovering the doors locked, backed himself against the stage right side wall in terror. Hamlet approached Claudius and cut him behind the ear with the poisoned sword.
Hamlet dragged Claudius up onto the raised stage and, handing him the poisoned cup, demanded that he drink it off. Claudius paused, looked down at Hamlet, who had squatted on the ground in front of the stage, and complied.
Hamlet began to clap Claudius slowly as if this were some kind of grotesque performance. This was a direct echo of Claudius’s initial bullying of Hamlet to accept a drink and join in the wedding festivities. Claudius collapsed in pain and died too. He was soon followed by Laertes.
The presence of the dead Ophelia at the foot of the piste meant that each successive dead body was effectively adding to a formation of onstage bodies that had begun with her.
Hamlet took the royal crown from Claudius and placed it on his own head. He began to convulse as the potent poison gripped him. He slumped to the ground, but still had some strength left to prevent Horatio for drinking from the cup, which he had taken from the table.
Horatio saw the approach of Fortinbras, which prompted Hamlet to rise, remove the crown from his head and give his support to the Norwegian. He stood as he exclaimed “He has my dying voice. The rest is silence”.
He staggered down the piste. When he reached the end, he glimpsed Ophelia and a brief flash of joy traced across his face before he buckled and fell dead.
This raised the interesting possibility that he might have died before he set off down the piste and saw Ophelia. His final walk was one after death in which he had the privilege of glimpsing his love, who would have been theatrically absent to everyone else as the fencing piste and Ophelia’s grave were naturalistically two distant locations. Or alternatively, his glimpse of Ophelia could have been a fevered vision in his mind that occurred as he was dying. Either way, in performance it was incredibly powerful.
Alarm bells rang and the sprinkler system dousing the entire stage in water as Fortinbras (Chris Jared) appeared dramatically in semi-silhouette on the raised stage after which the stage went dark and the performance ended.
The production focused on the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia rather than foregrounding the play’s treatment of philosophical issues. Nor was this a production aching with relevance to contemporary society.
This was evidenced by the fact that “2B” became a performance that Hamlet staged for Ophelia rather than a genuine expression of his sentiment. It thereby mockingly subverted that soliloquy’s iconic status.
Some Hamlets examine the here and now. This one looked modern, very much in the “now”, but its ostensible Danish setting prevented it from commenting on the “here”. The costumes referenced the current fashion for Nordic Noir television, cleverly avoiding obvious and very specific Faroese pullovers in favour of “lopapeysa” garments with an Icelandic yoke pattern.
With nothing much to say about the human condition, the production became a portrait of one man’s condition, Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet.
His sheer emotionality was astonishing, making him much more than a simple vehicle for philosophical or political debate. He demonstrated a remarkable degree of passion, an appealing trait evidenced by his tactility and tone of voice.
But the production also deliberately rewrote the rulebook on how to present Ophelia, gleefully rejuvenating her character and breaching the dull limits of her standard depiction.
She popped up where not expected: having a visible tryst with her lover Hamlet, causing her father to lose train of thought and trying to speak to Hamlet before he was sent to England.
Our current understanding of insanity is different to that which framed the conception of Ophelia’s specifically female madness in the original text. With astounding boldness, the production completely updated the concept to include cutting and self harm.
As well as mourning her father, this Ophelia was insane with the desire to be married to Hamlet. The flowers she had gathered were carefully positioned like wedding guests. Instead of handing them out, as in the standard staging, she cut herself with a large blade and then smeared her own blood on people’s faces while talking of floral symbolism.
All in all, this was a production that generated lots of happiness…