Absolute beginners

Hamlet, Middle Temple Hall, 19 April 2014 & The Globe, 26 April 2014

Before setting off round the world, the Globe’s touring production of Hamlet played at two very different venues: Middle Temple Hall (tickets £50) and The Globe itself (tickets from £5).

Middle Temple Hall is one of only two extant Shakespearean performance spaces, the other being Hampton Court Palace, so any performance of Shakespeare there is a special event.

The basic touring set was implanted in both spaces: a backcloth hung from a metal framework together with packing cases and planks. At Middle Temple Hall it was performed on a wooden platform. When transferred to the Globe, the outline of this platform was marked on its stage. All of this was good practice for the various conditions they would encounter on their journey.

The performance began with a rousing song about beggars, with the cast accompanying themselves on instruments, which were also used for the incidental music. This was a reminder of how touring companies were often considered little better than beggars unless they could demonstrate noble patronage. This beggars song was also played when the Mousetrap company arrived within the play, further underscoring that connection.

The text drew heavily on the First Quarto (Q1), a short version of Hamlet possibly deriving from a touring version of the play, making its use here another nod to the original touring tradition.

The Q1 borrowings caused Polonius (Rãwiri Paratene) to say that one might “find directions forth”; Claudius (John Dougall) used the word “swoopstake-like” and concluded his meditation on his crimes with “No King on earth is safe, if God’s his foe”. The Gravediggers spoke of the grave as a “long house” and of water as a “parlous devourer” of bodies.

The most extensive Q1 borrowing was an entire speech unique to that version about “warm clowns” and the various ways in which they speak more than is set down for them in a play text. And as if to demonstrate that point the Gravedigger did indeed launch into a non-textual but semi-scripted modern English digression when he first appeared. At Middle Temple Hall, Dickon Tyrrell told a joke about booking a holiday and being asked “Eurostar?” and replying “Well, I’ve played a few seasons on the Globe”. This perhaps approximated to the way that the original clowns in these parts did branch off into their own comic routines.

The battlements of Elsinore were suggested by planks arranged into a V-shape pointing towards the audience. The ground further off where Hamlet first met the Ghost was indicated by the same planks sloping down to the ground from the tops of packing cases.

In another self-referential detail, the travelling players called themselves “Two Planks and a Passion”, which would also have made an apt name for the Globe company.

Despite its basic set, the production managed a coup-de-théâtre during the Mousetrap sequence. After a dumbshow set to a rumba rhythm, a curtain was drawn across the stage from behind which the Claudius and Gertrude (Miranda Foster) changed costumes and emerged as the Player King and Queen to act out their scene. After the repeated references to the remarriage of widows, the curtain was closed once again, only to open moments later to reveal a stony-faced Claudius sitting with Gertrude, the same bench serving sequentially as both Mousetrap stage and Mousetrap audience seating.

But this was followed by an even neater trick; the Player King reclined on his side facing away from the audience as the wicked usurper poured poison in his ear. As the direct parallels with Claudius became very apparent he stormed onto the stage from the front calling for lights. This came as a complete surprise because we had been tricked into thinking John Dougall was still on stage.

In addition to the doubling of their roles, the First Player’s connection with Claudius was also emphasised when the actor recited a speech about the Trojan War, at one point describing how Pyrrhus had tried to strike at Priam, but simply stood “And like a neutral to his will and matter, did nothing.” He spoke that phrase staring fixedly at Hamlet and it was as if Claudius were taunting him with his own inaction.

This Hamlet really did consider that his advice to the players was important. When the Player Queen was on stage, Hamlet (Naeem Hayat) stood just to her side trying in vain to restrain her from sawing the air too much with her hands.

The final scene was notable for two things: it showed Claudius handing the cup he had just poisoned almost absent-mindedly to a servant and Gertrude intercepting it before it had reached safety. Secondly, when Horatio tried to join Hamlet by drinking the dregs of the poison, Hamlet snatched it from him and downed the remainder himself, perhaps in an attempt to ensure there was none left to harm his friend.

In its essential elements the production remained constant across the two venues. But the way the production reacted with these two very dissimilar spaces and their audiences meant that the results were different.

At Middle Temple Hall, Hamlet could not resist directing one of the play’s legal jokes out to the audience where distinguished lawyers in dark suits mingled with the slightly less impressive contingent of Globe diehards, one of whom was wearing a replica football shirt.

“Might this not be the skull of a lawyer?” he quipped with a wry smile full of expectation that this might tickle the toes of the assembled advocates. Not a single titter.

The Globe, however, was a completely different proposition. The touring set seemed a natural fit for the partially covered Southwark stage, and close proximity to a standing audience made for a greater level of interaction.

This reviewer decided to take the opportunity to test the proposition that Hamlet’s “Am I a coward?” soliloquy had been written to provide the actor with an inbuilt comeback to heckling provoked by that supposedly rhetorical question. Shared light and the informality of standing in the yard in front of a thrust stage militate in favour of audience participation.

Naeem Hayat crouched close to the ground on the stage right side of the base of the triangular promontory, as he addressed part of his soliloquy to some groundlings directly in front of him. I had a clear view of him from my position where the promontory joined the main stage on the opposite, stage left side.

He calmly asked “Am I a coward?” and left a slight pause of the kind that rhetorical questions require. Mirroring his behaviour I looked straight ahead and snapped “Yes”. He whipped his head round and fixed his fiery gaze on me.

Pausing long enough to position himself with his face a few inches from mine, he launched into the text’s scripted response “Who calls me villain? etc.” His eyes were a mixture of Hamlet’s fury and the actor’s delight at the challenge. I met his gaze, caring little about the flecks of spit on my glasses and steeling myself against the onslaught with the knowledge that however combative he was now, in a few seconds Hamlet was going to concede that I had a point.

“’Swounds, I should take it…” he admitted and began to recoil, almost taken aback that the tramline of the text required him to back away from his tormenter.

The fact that this exchange began when the actor was already engaged with other groundlings, almost having a conversation with them, underlines how readily the Globe promotes this kind of engagement.

Conclusions

The production felt incredibly fresh, as if a ‘new’ play text had been given to a touring company to see what they could do with it. Stripping the Hamlet monster of the expectations generated by 400 years of tradition was liberating.

The frequent use of Q1 text hinted at the economies of touring versions of plays.

Audiences around the world might be surprised at the rustic simplicity of the production, but they will be getting something profoundly authentic.

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