Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet

The extensive warnings not to take photographs and to switch off phones before entering the theatre were followed up once inside, not only by hand-held signs brandished by the ushers and a similar sign actually projected onto the safety curtain, but also by a pre-show announcement repeating these instructions.

The announcement concluded with a notice that the performance would begin in one minute. But as if pre-empting this countdown the safety curtain immediately unlocked and its metal jaws opened as large speakers filled the auditorium with the sound of Nature Boy by Nat King Cole.

A shallow downstage area was revealed, backed by a wall with a single central door in front of which Hamlet sat leaning against one of two tea chests perusing photo albums. Next to him was a red Dansette record player on which a disc turned and from which the music now solely emanated.

He continued to look at the albums for a while until all of a sudden the music came to an abrupt but still echoing halt. Hamlet looked up from his album, staring ahead as if seized by awareness of something.

In the context of his imminent comments, this was an instance of him seeing his dead father in his mind’s eye. We shared his interiority as the fading of the music marked his detachment from his surroundings to enter the world of his thoughts. This prefigured the use of slow-motion detachment for Hamlet’s soliloquies, which were staged so that the audience repeatedly accompanied Hamlet into the life of his mind.

He called out “Who’s there?” Then stood to demand “Answer me. Stand and unfold yourself” at which point Horatio entered through the door. Behind him in the doorway was a rough rock face rather than blank indistinct darkness, a surface that would appear on two subsequent and significant occasions, but which on its first appearance would go largely unremarked.

Horatio had a vaguely hipster vibe: tattoos on his arms, a checked shirt, dark-framed glasses, and carried a rucksack.

The pair launched into the dialogue from their first meeting in 1.2. Horatio explained he was in Elsinore for the funeral, but Hamlet insisted on correcting him to state more accurately that his friend had come to see his mother’s wedding.

Hamlet’s rueful “My father, methinks I see my father” did not lead into Horatio’s account of his sighting of the Ghost, but instead referred back to Hamlet’s startled reaction when listening to the record which we had just witnessed. We were thus provided with an actual example of Hamlet’s reminiscing and recall of the past.

A servant entered and said “The Queen, your mother, sends me hence to entreat you to make haste. The hour is come. The guests who now assemble wait upon you” – an invented line that summoned Hamlet to the dinner of 1.2.

Horatio left him alone. Hamlet put the record back on again and the same tune restarted. After a short while the servant called out from behind the door “I am sent expressly to your lordship” – a line borrowed from Timon of Athens.

One of the more remarkable features of the production was the extent to which the reworking and reordering of the original text was facilitated by lines taken from other Shakespeare plays and indeed at one point from another version of Hamlet.

Before he left, Hamlet picked up a black jacket and sniffed at it deeply before putting it on. This was clearly a garment once worn by his father and which still bore traces of his scent. Not only would Hamlet be taking his fixation with his father’s memory into the wedding feast, but he was also wearing an item of his father’s clothing, whose darkness would stand out against the feast’s dominant colour scheme.

The first encounter with the Ghost was cut, but some of its dialogue surfaced elsewhere creating frissons of recognition. One could only admire the way these lines, missing presumed lost, fitted into their new context. This could be seen as deliberate toying with experienced Hamlet watchers. The attention to this audience demographic was thoughtful and tasteful, one of this production’s many demonstrations that it was not a simple cash cow star vehicle but also a considerate reworking of the play.

The back wall of Hamlet’s den rose to reveal the grandeur of the main set, a vast hall with a staircase stage right leading up to a balcony running along the sidewall. A deep corridor led off from the centre of the hall, at the entrance to which stood a piano.

The long wedding banquet table occupied the centre of the hall. The decor of the table and the dress of the other guests were predominantly white, which contrasted with Hamlet’s black jacket. White snowy decorations hung from the ceiling and the table decorations were also white and frosty.

As Hamlet moved to the stage left end of the table, Ophelia gave him a long, lingering look and followed him. Hamlet stood in front of the portrait of his father as a young man adorning the wall and was so caught up in his thoughts that Ophelia had to nudge him twice before he noticed her next to him. He turned with a start as if surprised by her presence.

The pair enjoyed a fairly passionate kiss, while everyone else’s attention was directed to the newlyweds who had just appeared at the top of the stairs stage right.

Thus the first symbolic tableau of the production was a juxtaposition of Hamlet and Ophelia’s genuine but hidden love on one side, while the contrived, incestuous love of Gertrude and Claudius, made possible by the latter’s murder of Gertrude’s husband, faced them on the other.

Almost simultaneous with the young lover’s clinch, Claudius and Gertrude descended the stairs pausing halfway down to share a kiss, to applause from the assembled guests. All the while a version of the Nature Boy tune that had been on Hamlet’s record player, jangled prettily in the background linking the first scene with this second.

Hamlet approached the table and took a gulp from his wine glass before anyone else had sat down to dinner. He would take similar gulps as Claudius was talking, as if trying to numb the pain of the moment.

Claudius gestured at the assembled company to sit. Gertrude, in a white dress and an elaborate white headpiece, sat at the head of the table while Claudius stood some distance away to address the dinner guests. Hamlet just stared ahead of himself not making eye contact with Claudius.

The production cut out “difficult” lines and changed some “difficult” words. So in this speech there was no mention of the “auspicious” or “dropping eye”.

The guests clapped when Claudius indicated that Gertrude had been “taken to wife”, applause with which Hamlet hesitantly joined in.

After outlining Fortinbras malevolent intentions, Claudius sent Cornelius and a female Voltemand with his message to the King of Norway. Voltemand would later make other appearances most notably taking on Osric’s lines in act five. The NT Live screening revealed that the envelope containing Claudius’ letter to the King of Norway was addressed incorrectly to “HRH the King of Norway” rather than the correct “HM”.

Claudius turned to Laertes who rose from his chair resplendent in his white uniform to explain that he wanted to return to France.

Following Laertes’ example, Hamlet rose as Claudius addressed him with “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son”. His “A little more than kin, and less than kind” was spoken standing and turned to face Claudius, himself still standing to the side and in front of the table. These his “first words” in the play were variously: analytical, accusatory and tinged with finely controlled anger.

If people had come to see a Sherlockian Hamlet, then this moment in which the intellectual prince instantaneously analysed his uncle’s remark before countering it with a witty play on words would have gone some way to satisfying them.

Hamlet picked up on Gertrude’s use of the word “seems” as an intellectual would. There was a rising anger in his repetition of the negatives “Nor, Nor, No, Nor” which then subsided into bitterness by the end of speech in which he spoke of the “trappings and the suits of woe”.

He sat down as Claudius criticised his “obstinate condolence” and “unmanly grief”. The King gradually made his way over to Hamlet who was sitting halfway down the table.

When his uncle asked Hamlet to think of him “as of a father” and later when he paused behind the prince, referring to him as “our chiefest courtier, cousin and our son” Hamlet could be seen fighting to suppress his fury.

Beginnings of utterances played on his lips as if a million thoughts were exploding in his mind all at once. The colossal effort of this self-censorship played across his face, fully demonstrating his later remark “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue”. When he did speak, we were hearing edited and carefully controlled highlights of his thoughts.

Claudius’ remark that Hamlet was “the most immediate to our throne” caused a buzz of hushed whispers around the table as the others noted his uncle’s implication that Hamlet had been designated his heir.

Claudius told Hamlet not to return to Wittenberg, prompting him to rise again from his chair, the most demonstrative protest that he could allow himself.

He was, however, assuaged by Gertrude’s insistence and agreed to stay. Obeying her request resolved the conundrum of whether or not to obey the hated Claudius. The King characteristically welcomed this as “a loving and a fair reply”, and his clapping of Hamlet’s acquiescence was echoed by the others.

Claudius said that Hamlet’s change sat “smiling to my heart”, at which point the lights flickered and everyone but Hamlet came to a halt as he began his first soliloquy. The soliloquies were staged as temporal disruptions in which the world outside Hamlet’s mind came to a halt and then proceeded in slow motion as he allowed us into the world of his thoughts.

Some of the serving staff shook the ends of their hands as if affected by this temporal disruption before continuing. Hamlet’s ability to have this effect hinted that he was in fact a powerful individual in some respects and not the helpless victim of circumstance.

This might have looked gimmicky, but it did highlight the special nature of the soliloquy speeches, using time distortion to indicate how Hamlet and his innermost thoughts were disconnected from the surrounding world. Purist objectors to this staging should ask themselves whether a writer prepared to have Jupiter descend on an eagle throwing thunderbolts in Cymbeline might have been tempted to use a slow-mo soliloquy time bubble had it been technically possible. It is also worth noting that in The Tempest, Prospero enchants his enemies so that they succumb to a frozen stupor.

Bemoaning his “too, too solid” flesh, Hamlet stepped up and stood on the table as he bewailed the “stale, flat and unprofitable” nature of the world. He moved across it and down the other side. Meanwhile the others rose from the table and exited in slow motion. He stood facing the audience to complain of the “unweeded garden”, turning to look at Claudius when remarking that it was occupied solely by “things rank and gross in nature”.

Calling to mind his mother’s hasty remarriage caused such discomfort that he winced when saying “Must I remember?” and “Let me not think on’t”. His anguish was inducing something akin to physical pain.

He began a sentence “Why, she…” but cut it short as he was once again tormented by his thoughts.

He concluded with “but break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue”: we had indeed seen ample demonstration of the heartbreak engendered by his self-censorship.

Hamlet jumped back onto the table, and returned to his place at table where he took another gulp of wine just as time sped up to normal speed as the dinner guests departed.

Once the stage was clear of everyone except Hamlet, Horatio appeared with two guards and recounted the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father the night before.

Horatio introduced the guards Marcellus and Barnardo using a line borrowed from 1.1 so that they were “Friends to this ground, and liegemen to the Dane”. Hamlet expected the other two to explain and urged them to relate what they had seen using Horatio’s “Speak [hesitant pause] I charge thee speak”. But Horatio had to fill their silence with his version of what he, Marcellus and Barnardo had seen.

The production cut the references to the dead king’s armour as the Ghost would eventually be seen in modern military uniform, which meant that Hamlet asked about the ghostly figure’s general appearance, beard and face.

One of them explained that “it shrunk away in haste” when “the morning cock crew loud” using Horatio’s lines from 1.2. Scholar Horatio butted in with his explanation from 1.1 that such crowing meant that a spirit “hies to his confine”.

Hamlet concluded that this was “My father’s spirit”. The reference to “in arms” was cut, the prince continuing with “All is not well… etc.”.

Laertes descended the staircase carrying his suitcase while Ophelia sat at end of the long table with her camera (1.3). Her photography would become significant later in the production.

He put down the suitcase and sat half on the edge of the table to begin lecturing his sister on the subject of Hamlet. His first two lines in this speech were taken from Q1 Hamlet:

I see Prince Hamlet makes a show of love –
Beware, Ofelia, do not trust his vows;

replacing “For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour”.

As they spoke servants began clearing the table. Once the table was finally removed, a candlestick would be left abandoned on the ground which Ophelia would crouch before and photograph as she spoke with Polonius.

Ophelia only half-listened to Laertes’ long speeches about her honour, preferring to play with her camera. But when Laertes told her to avoid Hamlet’s “unmastered importunity” she grew tired of his moralising and tried to slide away. Laertes responded by approaching and grasping her with an insistent “Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister”.

Whereas up to this point he had been content to speak to her from a distance, the urgency of his concern now required proximity.

Significantly, as this lecture on restraint was being delivered, Claudius could be seen at the end of the long corridor leading off from the main chamber lewdly chasing Gertrude. This was another instance of Gertrude and Claudius being contrasted with the younger characters.

Ophelia’s counter to Laertes was changed to “heed not his own reed”, which is still incomprehensible to anyone who does not understand the word “reed”. This could have been left as per the original and the sense would still have come across. Other productions pitched at a similar audience demographic demonstrate more trust in their abilities.

As Laertes assured her “Fear me not” the two sat down at the piano together to play a tune, during which Polonius entered. Laertes was taken by surprise and rose from the piano briskly to greet his father with a hint that he had grown up receiving rebuke if he did not do so.

Laertes stood to receive his “blessing” which was not in form of money, just an open embracing gesture. Polonius read his list of precepts from a reporter’s notepad (later changed to a more ornate bound notebook), turning over the pages as he went down the list. There was no flicker of sarcastic recognition from either Laertes or Ophelia. Polonius indicated that Laertes’ opponents should “beware of thee” by raising and shaking his fists combatively. The borrower/lender precept was cut.

Once Laertes had hurried on his way, Polonius told Ophelia to be wary of Hamlet. His phrase “Springes to catch woodcocks” was cut in line with the production’s policy of simplifying elegant but opaque language. At this point Ophelia was lying on the ground photographing the fallen candlestick. This contrasted with Laertes’ eager obedience and perhaps hinted at her subsequent disobedience.

A very clear sign of Ophelia’s intentions came when she promised her father “I shall obey, my lord”. This was said half-heartedly as she skulked away looking back at Polonius as she screwed up her mouth into a mild grimace. This clearly signalled the insincerity of her outward compliance. Lyndsey Turner’s Ophelia was never going to be placid and obedient.

The battlement scene began with Danish troops marching across the stage carrying boxes observed by two guards, Marcellus and Barnardo, up on the balcony (1.4).

The guards established the location and time by using Hamlet’s and Horatio’s lines from 1.4: “What hour now?” “I think it lacks of twelve.”

The Danish soldiers came to a halt and their leader, having heard the guards, replied “No, it is struck”. One of the guards remarked that it was almost the time at which “the spirit held his wont to walk”.

Barnardo called out to the troops asking what purpose these military preparations served, using Marcellus’ lines from 1.1 “Tell me he that knows… etc.”.

The lead soldier looked up at them and explained with a hearty “To the wars, my boy, to the wars” – a line of Parolles from All’s Well That Ends Well 2.3. This borrowed line was followed by the main body of Horatio’s account of the conflict between Denmark and Norway taken from 1.1, starting from “At least the whisper goes so.”

Once he had completed his explanation, he slid away as if having revealed too much. The text was changed so that he spoke of Fortinbras’ men as a “troop of lawless resolutes”.

Barnardo thanked the soldier for his information, saying he was “well studied for a liberal thanks which I do owe you” – a line of Antony’s from Antony and Cleopatra.

Hamlet and Horatio arrived up on the balcony, commenting on the “nipping” and “eager air”. A faint rumble was heard from Claudius’ party. Hamlet’s disdainful remarks about this unfortunate custom were quickly followed by the entry of the Ghost through the large centre door.

The spectral figure was spotlit from behind in the darkness. Hamlet threw up his hands as he cried “Angels and ministers of grace defend us.”

The Ghost, at once imposing but decrepit in his shabby, mud-splattered dress uniform, stood centre stage and beckoned with his crooked finger towards the still astounded prince.

Hamlet leant forward on the balcony as he tried to elicit a response from the figure, employing various forms of address, pausing for reply between each one: “Hamlet… King… father… royal Dane…”. The anguish in his voice increased with every unsuccessful attempt. The Ghost beckoned him and disappeared into the darkness.

Hamlet became frantic in his desire to follow after the Ghost. The two guards tried to prevent him by holding their weapons before them barring his passage along the balcony. But Hamlet seized hold of the guns and pushed them both backwards, a considerable feat, until they gave way at the corner of the balcony. Hamlet was then free to descend the staircase and follow the Ghost out the door. This staging was a thoughtful consideration of Hamlet’s phrase that

My fate cries out
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve.

Hamlet followed the Ghost back onto the stage from stage left and remained at a distance as the Ghost explained what had befallen him (1.5).

This time when the Ghost appeared framed by the doorway, instead of showing the corridor beyond, it was blocked off by a solid wall of jagged rock. This was the same rock that had appeared behind the small doorway to Hamlet’s den when Horatio had entered at the start of the performance.

The fleeting glimpse of the rock wall in the first scene was something more easily spotted on a repeat view of the production, after having seen the same wall appear at large size and for a lengthy period during the Ghost’s appearance. The realisation that Horatio’s apparently unremarkable bumbling entry had been accompanied by an indication of the supernatural made that moment spookier on repeat views.

Hamlet dropped to his knees when the Ghost mentioned that he had been murdered. The Ghost’s voice was characterised by an old-fashioned clipped precision.

This sequence was subject to extensive textual editing. The good line “I find thee apt” was cut. The description of the effects of the poison saw “lazer-like” changed to “leper-like” and “instant tetter” replaced with “foul eruption” as the Ghost bared his chest to show the disfigurement of his skin. Some of these changes were perhaps unnecessary as an audience can understand such words in context, particularly with visual cues. The phrase “eager droppings into milk” became “acid dropping into milk” based on reading “aygre” for “eager”.

The Ghost shouted at the injustice of being dispatched with all his “imperfections”. The words “on… my… head” were punched out with a staccato roar, which merged into his truly horrified exclamations “O horrible, O horrible, most horrible”, spoken as the culmination of his anger rather than isolated bit shouting.

In a brilliant piece of staging, the Ghost’s exit was down a trench, which explained why his voice could be subsequently heard coming from under the floor. The Ghost at one end of the trench descended steps down into the ground as Hamlet knelt at the opposite end willing him not to go. The Ghost gazed up at Hamlet before disappearing from view with the words “remember me”.

The trap door shut and the carpet that had been magically moved aside to uncover it returned to its former place. As a final touch the glass chandelier descended into its normal position. We were firmly back to normality.

Hamlet recoiled from the end of the trench and found himself sitting upright, very much back in the real world. He took out a notebook which served as his “tables” to note the connection between smiling and villainy. The text was altered so that he referred to the “book and volume of this brain”. Having finished writing, he pointed accusingly at his work, jabbing the notebook with his finger to exclaim with emphasis “So, uncle, there you are.”

Horatio and the others caught up with the bewildered prince. Hamlet asked them to swear on his “arm”, literally his outstretched hand. This seemingly insignificant point established early on that Hamlet was unarmed, making his subsequent transition to armed revenger the more striking.

The Ghost’s voice that urged them to swear changed position under the stage, prompting Hamlet to follow the sound. Hamlet urged his companions to swear not to reveal what they had seen or heard: they consented with the oath “By heaven, I swear.”

Horatio’s comment that this was “wondrous strange” was characterised by Hamlet as an instance of something not “dreamt of in our philosophy”.

As Hamlet spoke of assuming an “antic disposition” he dragged a large chest out from under the stairs and placed it to the side stage right. There was much comedy in Hamlet’s adopting the various poses that his friends might strike when hinting to others about his great secret.

The text was rewritten so that Hamlet made another explicit request “Swear besides…” for them to not to reveal that he was going to act the antic. His friends agreed, again prompted by the Ghost, with another compliant “By heaven, I swear”.

Hamlet crouched by the dressing up box to remark that the time was “out of joint”. This idea of time being out of joint could be seen as the inspiration for the temporal disruptions accompanying key moments in the production.

Hamlet immediately set about preparing for his antic act. He took out a Native American headdress and tried it on. Ophelia had descended the stairs from her room just off the balcony and went to talk with him. She knelt in front of him and held out a comforting hand. Hamlet gently pushed it away implying that he was okay and not in need of reassurance.

He whispered conspiratorially in her ear and they began to search inside the box of outfits. Ophelia took out a soldier’s tunic and held it up to show him. This brief moment, a few seconds of performance time, was very telling. It meant that Hamlet was looking for a suitable costume in which to appear “antic” and that Ophelia, having been informed of his intentions by his whispering, had found the tunic and was showing it to him as if to say “Will this do the trick?” This demonstrated her full knowledge of, and complicity, in his scheme.

Ophelia helped Hamlet on with tunic. She understood his purpose in wearing this bizarre outfit and would therefore not be shocked by any of his manic behaviour. This would form the context to her subsequent conversation with Polonius.

While this had been going on, the set behind them had been changed to the palace war room. Polonius sat behind a long table (2.1).

Immediately their conference had finished Hamlet made a quick exit, while Ophelia rose and turned towards the war room. At this point, a temporal disruption took effect so that the war room staff started to walk out backwards. She caught sight of Polonius and tried to escape his attention, but he noticed and summoned her saying “How now, Ophelia, what’s the matter?”

Unable to escape, she approached her father as he sat at the desk and told him how she had been “affrighted” by Hamlet’s craziness.

Her behaviour here was pointedly different from the standard staging of this sequence in which a genuinely disturbed Ophelia rushes in to tell Polonius what has happened. Her description was characterised by the kind of nervousness that results from replying to a question with an elaborate lie. Ophelia’s words included the text’s reference to Hamlet’s “doublet”, the anachronism of which in this modern dress production accentuated the inauthenticity of her obviously invented account.

In the standard version of the play there is a scene break which (even in productions without 2.1 beginning with Polonius and Reynaldo) allows for time to pass between Hamlet’s decision to assume an antic disposition and Ophelia’s entry with her account of an offstage encounter with the mad Hamlet.

This production deliberately created a continuous sequence, which showed everything from Hamlet’s decision to act mad, his meeting with Ophelia, their conspiracy and her subsequent encounter with her father, making it clear that no offstage encounter with the mad Hamlet of her description took place.

The fact that Ophelia sought out Hamlet and they appeared on good, friendly terms, demonstrated that she was breaking her promise to obey Polonius’s command to stay away from him. Because she had clearly already lied to Polonius when vowing obedience, her blatant lies to him at this juncture appeared all the more in character.

The staging also meant that the rupture caused by Ophelia’s obedient rejection of Hamlet in the standard version of the play did not take place. The couple remained on good terms, at least for the while. This completely changed the meaning of their next encounter as it would begin with Hamlet still well disposed towards Ophelia, and not seething in resentment at her refusal of him.

We had just seen Ophelia slandering several moments leisure with Hamlet, helping him on with his actual antic outfit. It was therefore obvious that any reference by her to being scared by him was pure invention. The secretive whispering firmly suggested that Hamlet had requested Ophelia to recount this invented story to Polonius as part of his campaign to affect madness. Normally this scene implies that Ophelia is giving a genuine account of events, is a disinterested party to Hamlet’s plan and informs her father out of genuine concern. The staging here made it plain that she was acting as Hamlet’s agent and unequivocally on his side.

In the standard version of the play Hamlet is rejected by Ophelia and Hamlet makes her the target of his antic behaviour because he sees her as part of the court world. Positioning Ophelia as part of Hamlet’s team would increase the impact of subsequent developments in the Ophelia/Hamlet relationship.

Polonius decided to inform the King of the events described by his daughter. Ophelia lied once again when she confirmed that she had obeyed her father and denied access to Hamlet.

In the scene break, Ophelia looked up to the open door of her room where palace servants were rifling through her belongings as they searched for evidence that might support Polonius’ impending report to Claudius. She cried “No, no, no” as she ran up the stairs and tried to stop them, shrieking in protest as this violation of her privacy. A letter was seized on, which became the letter that Polonius almost immediately presented to Claudius and Gertrude.

Polonius’ determination to get evidence for his assumptions showed him to be efficient, ruthless and callously indifferent to Ophelia’s feelings. This was quite unlike many of the standard versions of a character who is typically presented as bumbling but well intentioned.

Normally 2.2 begins with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being introduced to the King and Queen, but here this introduction was delayed.

The action continued in the war room. The production was very astute in recognising that the King of Denmark at time of impending war would be involved in military planning. A long desk stretched out from the centre door around which uniformed men and women answered phones, typed and filed documents. A large map of Europe was fixed to a board. Lengths of string were pinned to the map along the coast of Norway and in the sea to the north of Denmark possibly indicating naval movements.

Polonius entered the war room where the both King and Queen were busy at work. He carried the letter that had been retrieved from Ophelia’s room and announced that he had found cause of Hamlet’s madness. The ambassadors’ return was delayed until just before the loosing scene so as not to interrupt the flow of Polonius’ report.

The Queen sat on the opposite side of the table from Polonius, while the King stood a short distance from him. Both listened to his long-winded introduction, cut short by Gertrude’s insistence that he provide “more matter with less art”. The mention of “beautified” being a “vile phrase” was cut.

Polonius did not bring Ophelia with him. He read the love letter himself and handed it to the King, who showed it to Gertrude asking her “Do you think ‘tis this?”. She agreed.

Polonius insisted that he was correct in his conclusion that love was the cause of Hamlet’s madness, pointing out that he had never misled the King previously. But there was ample evidence that Polonius was not as straight and honest as he pretended.

Palace servants had ransacked Ophelia’s room and had passed an incriminating letter to Polonius. This made the latter’s reference to Ophelia in “obedience” showing him the letter a sinister reminder that she had done nothing of the sort and that Polonius was lying. Further instances of this kind would be forthcoming.

Polonius suggested “loosing” his daughter to Hamlet. This overt statement of his intention to manipulate Ophelia to provoke a reaction was something that the production seized upon to suggest subtly elsewhere that Polonius was a habitual manipulator.

Their deliberations were interrupted by a noisy consternation behind the large centre door. Martial music could be heard and when the doors swung open its volume increased as Hamlet appeared in the doorway. Everyone except Polonius fled, leaving him the sole spectator to Hamlet’s antic performance.

He was dressed like a toy soldier in a uniform composed of a British tunic with GR insignia on its white cross webbing and a Napoleonic French 21st regiment shako. A red drum hung in front of him from a neck strap. A servant had placed his portable record player on the table to provide musical accompaniment.

He moved like a marching band drummer making exaggerated high steps, pointing his elbows out to bring the drumsticks down in a pretence of drumming. He looked to one side, then the other, holding the drumsticks out in exaggerated marching band movements.

Reaching the long table, he removed the drum from round his neck and placed it on the end of the table. The music quietened and changed to a more sedate pace as he climbed up onto the long table, facing lengthways toward the audience, and proceeded to walk along it. His movements were slow and stilted. He looked around him saluting an imaginary adoring public.

He made a visual joke. Seeing a red telephone on the desk, presumably some kind of “hot” line, he slowly reached down to pick it up but immediately withdrew his hand as if it had been scalded and shook it with a pained expression.

In response to Polonius query, Hamlet took in a deep breath through his nose before pronouncing that he did know who Polonius was: a fishmonger. He crouched down to ask Polonius whether he had a daughter, adding that he should not let her “walk in the sun”, at which point he slapped a metal ashtray onto Polonius’ lapel which stuck in place. This odd accoutrement was reminiscent of the star-shaped medal that Polonius and others had worn on their dress uniforms for the wedding dinner. This prompted Polonius’ remark that Hamlet was still harping on his daughter. In this sequence some of the more difficult lines such as “Conception is a blessing” were cut.

Asked what he was reading, Hamlet replied “Words” (emphatic), “words” (duh), “words” ( bored yawn). He reached down to pick up a clipboard from the table, which gave Polonius occasion to enquire about “the matter” he was reading. His response “Between whom, sir?” had its grammar corrected to modern educated English. This seemed completely in character.

Hamlet itemised the list of “slanders”, appearing to read a list of the characteristics of old men from the clipboard as if it were a checklist. But all the while he was making marks on the paper, so that when he referred to the slanders being “thus set down” he could turn the clipboard to show Polonius his rough drawing of a skull. This was a cute reference to one of the play’s iconic props.

He walked comically backwards in supposed imitation of a crab snapping his fingers against his thumbs like crab claws. It was perhaps tangentially relevant that people walking backwards was a feature of some of the production’s time distortion sequences.

Hamlet knelt at the end of the table as he joked that if Polonius took his leave, there was nothing he would more willing part with “except my life”. He grasped the drum strap still around his neck and jerked it upwards, turning it into a halter. Polonius made a quick exit just as Hamlet repeated the phrase “except my life” as if struck by a thunderbolt of thought just as he had been right at the start of the performance. With the strap still round his neck, thinking about death, Hamlet launched into…

To be, or not to be – moved to this point from its normal position in 3.1. The lighting changed so that a white pattern was projected onto the walls of the room. This was an astounding moment. In most productions, this speech seems to come from nowhere as Hamlet appears and begins it with his mood unconnected to anything immediately preceding.

In this staging, we saw Hamlet initially in a mood of manic creativity and comic high spirits, mocking and jesting with Polonius, as well as making the audience laugh with his clowning. But then he suddenly switched from considering life and death in jocular terms and dived headlong into an abyss of existential doubt.

Hamlet appeared to have been hit by a train, and the effect in performance on this reviewer was of exactly the same nature. Placing 2B and its ruminations on death immediately after a joke on the subject was a coup de théâtre commensurate with the more obvious visual grandeur of the staging.

Hamlet knelt on the table with the shako in front of him as he launched into the speech in a continuous but drastically altered train of thought from his joking with Polonius.

Cumberbatch’s rendering was characterised by his Hamlet’s astonishment at where his stream of consciousness had led him. There was a mixture of surprise and bewilderment at first, before he gave expression to the various moods suggested by the twists and turns of the thread of ideas running through the soliloquy.

This meant for instance that Hamlet was close to tears when he longed for the “consummation devoutly to be wished”.

The soliloquy, like most of the rest of the play, was in its F form, apart from one passage which was audaciously rewritten for clarity:

But for the dread of something after death
(The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns). It puzzles the will

This bold stroke, tampering with one of the most famous passages in English literature, proved that the production considered nothing to be untouchable.

As Hamlet spoke of “enterprises of great pitch and moment” he again held up the neck strap like a noose round his neck. This gesture implied that he considered suicide as his great enterprise from which he was being held back by fear of death, the words not expressing his reluctance to revenge. He removed the strap from his neck and dropped it onto the table as he described how such enterprises “lose the name of action”, thereby completing the image. This was a very interesting interpretation.

At the end Hamlet simply walked back up table and out the centre door as the war room returned to its normal function.

Despite the repositioning of To Be, Hamlet’s next words in the production were in fact “The fair Ophelia…” creating a certain sense of continuity, at least in Hamlet’s lines.

The remainder of 3.1 (minus Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting back on Hamlet’s behaviour) was repositioned at this point.

Because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had not yet made their first appearance, the beginning of this scene in which they tell the King and Queen about the arrival of the players was relocated.

First up, however, was the return of the ambassadors from Norway with news that Fortinbras had been censured by the Norwegian King.

As that sequence was concluding, Polonius led Ophelia out of her room up on the balcony. Both descended the stairs into the war room as Polonius declared, “This business is well ended” from the conclusion of the ambassador’s sequence. He was carrying a large black box. Ophelia was made to stand awkwardly by the long table looking decidedly uncomfortable.

Claudius explained to Gertrude that the loosing subterfuge was intended to reveal the cause of Hamlet’s troubles “If’t be th’affliction of his love or no.” Gertrude responded with lines of hers borrowed from 2.2 so that she attributed Hamlet’s mood to “His father’s death and our o’re-hasty marriage”.

Ophelia received comforting words from Gertrude before her ordeal. Gertrude told her that she wished Ophelia were the cause of Hamlet’s distress and shook her hand. But coming directly after her words to Claudius to the effect that Ophelia was probably not the cause, this looked slightly insincere.

It was part of Lyndsey Turner’s genius that she took these two apparently contradictory statements by Gertrude and juxtaposed them to bring out the stark contrast.

It is important to bear in mind that unlike the standard version of the play, this scene did not involve an Ophelia who had rejected Hamlet. We had seen how she had disobeyed her father and actively helped Hamlet to conspire against Polonius. At this moment in the production Hamlet was still on good terms with Ophelia and had no reason to be angry towards her.

Polonius sat Ophelia at the piano, with the musical score serving as the “book” she had to read, and placed the large black box on the piano. She was then left to play.

The large ugly box was clearly not something that an amorous young woman would use to store love tokens. Its plainness, enhanced by scruffy white labels on the side, made it look like discarded office storage, precisely the kind of box in which Polonius might store documents. His role in the provision of the box was heavily suggested by the fact that he had brought it into the room.

Hamlet entered as Ophelia played on the piano. He dragged in a large, oversized toy fort. Catching sight of Ophelia, he stopped what he was doing and looked on her with genuine admiration.

This meant that his “The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in thy orisons etc.” was an expression of genuine affection that had not been sullied by her rejection of him. Hamlet stood and admired his friend, lover and Team Hamlet member.

Ophelia asked him how he was doing and Hamlet’s “I humbly thank you, well, well, well” used the repetition of “well” to make Hamlet sound relaxed and reassuring, the “wells” trailing off into silence. This enhanced the good atmosphere between the couple.

After greeting Hamlet, she brought the box over and placed it hesitantly in front of him on the long table, claiming that these were “remembrances” that she had “longèd long to redeliver”.

She did not make eye contact with Hamlet. Her hands displayed the beginnings of the twitches that would later become more grossly exaggerated in her mad scene.

In most productions this is the point at which Ophelia hands over a delicate bunch of letters and tokens tied up with pink ribbon. Hamlet, annoyed at this further sign of her rejection of him, throws them back declaring “I never gave you ought” bitterly denying the obvious truth of his gift, but using that phrase to rescind and cancel the gift rather than deny that it actually took place.

However, in this staging Hamlet stared at the box like he had never seen it before. He said “No, not I. I never gave you aught” plainly and with puzzlement as a genuine statement of fact. This was because Hamlet had never seen this box: it was a prop supplied by Polonius for his staging of a display of Hamlet and Ophelia’s love for the benefit of the King.

Hamlet’s entirely credible denial showed that the “remembrances” were Polonius’ invention. Polonius was not just embellishing the truth but also fabricating it. This was another contradiction of his assurance to the King that he was always honest and plain-dealing.

Ophelia declared “… you know right well you did” with some assurance. But tellingly her delivery of the homiletic phrase “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind” had a stiltedness to it that very heavily suggested that this was a line drummed into her by Polonius as part of the prearranged script for her encounter with Hamlet. The phrase was certainly reminiscent of the homilies Polonius had read out from his notebook to Laertes.

Ophelia’s insistence that he had given her the things in the box made Hamlet think. Faced with this inexplicable behaviour he had one plain, simple question for Ophelia.

He looked her in the eyes and calmly asked: “Are you honest?”

In the standard version of the play, Hamlet is infuriated by Ophelia’s repeated rejection of him and launches into a diatribe juxtaposing “honesty” (sexual chastity) and “beauty”. He asserts that women in possession of the latter are rarely exemplars of the former.

In this version, however, the question taken in isolation from the rest of Hamlet’s rhetoric used the word “honest” in its familiar modern sense. With Hamlet confronted with an indication of Ophelia’s dishonesty, the question had the force of “Why are you lying to me?”

Ophelia responded with an invented (though possibly borrowed) line “Yes, my lord.”

The penny dropped and Hamlet’s world imploded. He realised in an instant that Ophelia had defected from Team Hamlet. He declared “I did love you once” and was soon telling Ophelia “Get thee to a nunnery” before launching into a tirade of self-hatred.

In a desperate attempt to explain herself, Ophelia went over to the table and started to write a note. She hoped to warn Hamlet of the trap set for him without alerting the eavesdroppers by writing down a message rather than telling him out loud.

Hamlet picked up on this, but showed no interest in the note itself. He demanded of Ophelia where her father was, dragging her by the hand over to the far stage right door and opening it as if expecting to find Polonius behind it.

He then stormed to the stage left door, still dragging Ophelia along with him, prompting her desperate “Heavenly powers restore him”. Hamlet seemed to realise that Polonius was behind the door, but did not open it to confront him as he had done with the first door.

The fact that Ophelia had previously been Hamlet’s agent compounded the hurt that he felt at this moment. In most productions, Ophelia is a neutral presence, not fully committed to Team Hamlet, up until this scene where he discovers that she is working for her father and the King. In this staging Ophelia goes from being Hamlet’s accomplice to working for his principal enemies. This made her betrayal more cutting.

Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia began calmly. He took her by the arm and escorted her away as if simply wanting to remove her from his presence. But he stopped to harangue her, telling her angrily she would not escape calumny and that he was sick of the way women “jig amble and lisp”. But this had been brought on solely by his realisation of her betrayal at this moment.

Suspecting that the King and Polonius were behind the stage left door, he shouted at them that there would be no more marriages and all but one would live.

Once he had gone, Ophelia gave voice to her distress at seeing how Hamlet’s noble mind had been overthrown.

The King emerged convinced that Hamlet was not in love despite Polonius’ pleading to the contrary. There was no mention of the play at this point because the scene reordering meant that the players had not yet arrived. Polonius merely told Ophelia that they had heard everything and then left.

With some assistance from palace staff, Hamlet moved the long table offstage and finished setting up his oversized toy fort, complete with life-size toy soldiers at each of its four corners, and then hid inside it.

At this point, the first part of 2.2 was inserted: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were introduced to Claudius and Gertrude up on the balcony.

The King got Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the wrong way round, which Gertrude corrected in her greetings. But the impact of this was lost because the sequence took place up on the narrow balcony so that the King’s initial allocation of identities was not really clear.

Rosencrantz (not Guildenstern) said that he wanted their actions to be “pleasant… and helpful… [as an afterthought]… to him” and was able to gesture towards the unseen Hamlet hiding inside his play in a genuine expression of concern at Hamlet’s apparently disturbed condition.

The action continued with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s sequence from 2.2 so that their first appearance was delayed until right before their meeting with Hamlet.

Voltemand took over Polonius’ words from 2.2.215 and showed the pair down to where Hamlet had emerged and was playing in his fort. He had also barricaded the doors into the room and placed wooden planks across the bottom of the staircase that the pair had to step over.

Still in his soldier’s uniform, Hamlet put on a record of martial music and marched across its tiny interior, making it look as if he was going up and down steps, as well as pointing his gun across the fort battlements at unseen enemies.

Noticing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he took the record off. This was a sign of respect for their presence, which fitted with his warm greeting to them. He removed his jacket and mopped his brow. This seemingly insignificant gesture set up the idea that Hamlet routinely perspired, preparing the way for Gertrude to mop his brow during the fencing match at the end.

Hamlet’s joy at this reunion with his old friends led into joking. But Hamlet did not find “her privates we” funny, possibly because this involved pointing at Hamlet’s uniform so that “privates” became a reference to military rank.

In a change to the text Hamlet asked them “What make you from England?”, which explained why they would later accompany Hamlet to that country.

Hamlet asked why they had been sent to “prison hither”, declaring emphatically and with the text’s elision amended “Denmark is a prison”.

He began to question them about whether they had been sent for. The text was also altered so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had a confession in their looks that their modesties did not have “craft enough to cover”.

Rosencrantz eventually admitted that they had been summoned and a gratified Hamlet stretched his hand up in the general direction of Rosencrantz to salute his albeit tardy honesty. They all sat down in front of the fort as he told them precisely why they had been brought to Elsinore.

He explained gloomily that he had “foregone all custom of exercise”. The “What a piece of work” speech felt underpowered with Cumberbatch not striving to give the character depth of feeling. This was surprising as he did not have a similar problem with 2B.

However, the odd nature of Hamlet’s mood did come across when he accused them of smiling at one of his remarks when they clearly had not done so.

Rosencrantz’s mention of the arrival of the players delighted Hamlet. The line about the “picture in little” was taken from this point in the text and transferred to Horatio before the start of the play. Hamlet’s “Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore” was directed to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Because Hamlet had barricaded the door, Polonius could not gain access. They heard him outside. Rather than Hamlet repeating his words, he instead pre-empted them, so that their exchange ran:

Hamlet (in sarcastic imitation of Polonius): My lord, I have news to tell you.

Polonius (insistently outside the door): My lord, I have news to tell you.

Hamlet (with satisfaction): Buzz, buzz.

Polonius, still outside the door, pleaded further “I do entreat your patience to hear me speak the message I am sent on” – a line of Julia’s from The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Hamlet went over to the door and jokingly cocked a pretend rifle, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern copying his gesture as they pretended to be soldiers attacking the intruder and making gun noises. This led into his puzzling hawk/handsaw remark.

Polonius said outside the door that the actors had “come hither”. As Hamlet unbarred the door, he asked in reply “What players are they?” a line normally addressed to Rosencrantz. Polonius came through the door just as Hamlet was ducking down stowing the plank under the stairs. This meant that Polonius continued on into the room unaware that Hamlet was now behind him. Hamlet followed at his heels and tapped a surprised Polonius on the shoulder. Polonius recited the list of theatre styles (long F version) from his notepad.

Hamlet barked out a series of questions at Polonius which in the original text are put earlier to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, indicating both his keenness to find out about the players as well as expressing his annoyance at Polonius:

“How chances it they travel? Do they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? Are they so followed? How comes it? Do they grow rusty? Come on man, about it, about it!”

The players were a young modern company and their arrival was like a breath of fresh air. Hamlet’s description of one of the actors as “valanced” was changed to “bearded”.

Hamlet asked one of the actors to speak one of his favourite speeches but launched into it himself. At the end of his stint Hamlet once more mopped his brow in another demonstration of his propensity to become “hot and scant of breath”.

Polonius’ irritating remarks were cut, so that he did not interrupt either Hamlet’s or the player’s acting. The absence of these intrusions kept the focus on Hamlet’s rapt attention as he sat observing the player’s performance. Consequently, his insistence “Say on, come to Hecuba” became a fervent desire to hear that sequence, rather than an instruction to proceed after one of Polonius’ witless interruptions.

The player did as instructed. The text of the Hecuba sequence was altered so that “bisson rheum” became “blinding tears”.

Hamlet’s quiet acquiescence changed when the Player uttered the word “passion” which was the trigger for Hamlet to be struck by a thought. The actor froze with his hand jittering in the air as time came to halt. Hamlet entered soliloquy mode, talking to us while the outside world was put on hold.

The player continued his performance in slow-motion, while Hamlet rose from the ground and came downstage to tell us why he was a “rogue and peasant slave”.

This trigger word “passion” was echoed in his soliloquy, giving it extra significance. Hamlet’s reference to the player’s “dream of passion” and his own “motive for passion” referred back to the “passion” in the player’s speech.

In the standard staging this soliloquy comes some time after the player’s rendition. There is no obvious connection between the player’s use of the word and Hamlet’s. Interpolating the soliloquy made the connection between the different occurrences more obvious.

Hamlet asked “Am I a coward?” with a worried look. He looked out at the audience to ask “Who calls me villain?” not passionately but more like a teacher asking a class a question. The references to nose tweaking and beard plucking etc. were cut. He simply continued “I should take it”.

As his self-loathing at his failure to confront the “bloody, bawdy villain” intensified he roared, “oh vengeance” with clenched fists. This scarily powerful moment was striking in its forcefulness, particularly if witnessed from the first few rows of the stalls.

He described himself as the “son of the dear murdered” before spitting out the word “Scullion”.

His frustration came to a head as he exclaimed “Ho about my brains” raising his hands above his head, his eyes closed as if willing himself to find a neat solution to his predicament.

It seemed to work. He turned back to look at the player who was now bowing at the end of his Hecuba speech, the lights coming up on him slightly. At the same time a light came on inside Hamlet’s head. “Guilty creatures sitting at a play” could be tricked into proclaiming “their malefactions”. In this staging Hamlet’s scheme was inspired by a performance reaching its conclusion right in front of him rather than the slightly more distant inspiration of the standard version.

Time in the surrounding world sped up to its normal pace as Hamlet returned to his former position to join in the applause. The action continued with the remainder of scene so that unlike in the standard version his inspiration for the play within the play was followed by his arrangement of it. He requested that the players perform The Murder of Gonzago with additional lines that he would supply.

This solved the chronological absurdity of most stagings of the play in which Hamlet arranges for the special performance before appearing to have the flash of inspiration that provides him with the idea for it. This production avoided that paradox completely, the reordering of the material creating a clearer narrative.

Hamlet emphatically concluded “The play *is* the thing” rather than speaking the contracted “play’s”. This stress on “is” hinted at his resolution. The phrase was delayed from the end of his transposed soliloquy so that it still ended the scene.

The sequence of events was reordered so that the play was staged immediately after its commissioning.

In the scene break, as the players’ stage was brought in and made ready, Hamlet squatted to pen the additional lines in his notebook. He quickly presented them to the main actor who began to speak them as the next scene began.

With Hamlet crouching a short distance away the Player King rehearsed the new lines intoning “Villain, villain, smiling damnèd villain. That a brother could be so treacherous, he whom…” (3.2). The first sentence was Hamlet quoting himself. The second sentence was taken from Prospero telling Miranda about his brother Antonio in 1.2 of The Tempest. The fact that the Player was cut short after speaking the first two words of the next phrase was particularly cheeky as it implied that had the Player not been interrupted, he would have continued with more from Prospero’s Tempest speech.

Hamlet’s first words to the Player became a flustered correction of the performance he had just observed “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you…” His dissatisfaction and directorial note came across as slightly comic. This made perfect sense given the crucial importance of the performance in Hamlet’s scheme to reveal the King’s guilt.

He continued with general observations on acting. But his varying advice, first not to be bombastic, then to avoid tameness but rather “hold the mirror up to nature” did not come across as nuanced and balanced advice. This was rather panicky flip-flopping by someone who knew nothing about theatre direction. Having insisted on one approach, Hamlet contradicted himself. He eventually concluded that the Player would be better off following his own instincts rather than Hamlet’s inconsistent advice. Admitting that he was not one to correct the actor’s technique, he conceded “let your own discretion by your tutor”.

Played this way, the speech did not look like Shakespeare’s authoritative voice outlining his own particular philosophy of stagecraft.

Hamlet dispatched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, now wearing court livery reflecting their minion status, to fetch the King and Queen. This was basically a reworking of 44-48 with Rosencrantz taking Polonius’ line, so that Hamlet asked them “Will the King hear this piece of work?” with the reply “And the Queen too…” and Hamlet’s final instruction “Will you two help to hasten them?”

Horatio appeared, prompting Hamlet to enquire “What, is Horatio there?” to which his friend replied “A piece of him.” The unexpected and dislocated positioning of this exchange, missing presumed discarded with the cutting of 1.1, was a treat for anyone in audience who loved these particular lines. They popped up like a long-lost friend and also fitted the moment perfectly, thereby providing another instance of the skill with which the text had been rearranged.

Horatio was carrying a commemorative plate featuring a large photo of the new King’s face. He showed it to Hamlet using lines borrowed from 2.2. The reference to ducats was changed to crowns.

This led into Hamlet’s effusive praise of Horatio’s character. Hamlet told him to watch the King, which he did from up on the balcony.

The royal couple arrived to view the play. They entered down the mains stairs with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern answering their questions about Hamlet’s mood and informing them of Hamlet’s delight at the travelling players (taken from the start of 3.1). The reference to the players worked well as a preamble to their actual performance.

A small but ornate travelling theatre was in position. Its raised, shallow stage was covered by curtains. Individual chairs were placed in front of it so that the audience of the onstage play would have their backs to the Barbican audience. Musical instruments including a double bass were placed at the sides of the seating area and decorated with white branches. The adorned instruments looked beautiful but also served the practical purpose of pre-positioning the clarinet/recorder used later by Hamlet.

Gertrude asked Hamlet how he was faring, so that the cold mocking sarcasm of his reply about eating “of the chameleon’s dish” was directed at her, not Claudius. Hamlet asked Polonius about his acting but moved away and ignored him when he began his account of playing Julius Caesar.

These exchanges showed Hamlet dealing perfunctorily with those he deemed guilty as if confident of the success of his scheme.

Ophelia was the last member of the audience to arrive. She looked nervous of Hamlet, anxiously wringing her hands. Her reaction was one of puzzlement when Hamlet rejected Gertrude’s invitation to sit next to her and referred to Ophelia as “metal more attractive”.

Hamlet teased her with his reference to lying in her lap. He put his hand over his mouth as he apologised with comic exaggeration for any implication of “country matters”. He also got in a dig about how cheerily Gertrude looked only two hours after the death of her husband.

Ophelia eventually sat on the stage right side but in front of Hamlet. The prince himself sat at the stage right end of the back row next to Gertrude and Claudius at its centre.

The play began straight away without its dumb show prologue. The room darkened and the travelling stage curtain drew back to reveal the Player King and Queen. Because Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius were on the back row they were clearly visible to the Barbican audience in silhouette created by the lighting of the travelling stage. During the first part of the performance Hamlet occasionally turned his head to scrutinise Claudius who was closest to him.

He also interrupted the performance with his sarcastic “Wormwood, wormwood” remark and “If she should break it now”.

The Player Queen finished her protestations that she would never marry again and the Player King came down from the stage to fall asleep on his side behind the stage audience. The real King and Queen along with the rest of the court audience turned round to face the sleeping actor and consequently the Barbican audience.

Gertrude concluded that “the lady doth protest too much methinks.” Claudius enquired about the “argument” of the play but Hamlet’s response did not include the wordplay “poison in jest”.

Hamlet explained more about the play then rose and picked up the “KING jacket” from the floor to play Lucianus himself. This was a slightly shabbier version of the luxurious blue jacket Claudius was wearing with the word KING in large capitals across the back.

Gertrude saw Hamlet donning this costume to join in with the performance and posed two questions in quick succession: firstly “What means this, my lord?” using Ophelia’s line 129, to which Hamlet explained that his character was “one Lucianus, nephew to the king”. He turned his back to show the large word KING painted on the back of the gown, drawing attention to the fact that this was a crude representation of the current King.

Not satisfied with this explanation and still puzzled, Gertrude asked more insistently and emphatically “Will you tell us what this show means?” (modified Ophelia line 136), to which Hamlet responded, commenting on his active role and inserted scene/lines and with even less precision than before “This means mischief”.

Hamlet as Lucianus poured the poison into the Player King’s ear. The assiduously rehearsed “Villain, villain, smiling damnèd villain. That a brother could be so perfidious” was cut short as Hamlet excitedly talked over the top of the now disappointed actor about the murderer getting the hand of “the old man’s Gonzago’s wife”.

Claudius did not require the point about the perfidious brother to understand the scene. His expression changed on seeing the auricular poison being administered at which point he stormed out.

Horatio agreed that the King had changed. Hamlet called for music but there was no mention of calling for recorders as a metal clarinet, one of the instruments decorated with branches in front of the travelling stage, would be left behind after the clear-up.

Rosencrantz ask Hamlet to visit his mother in her closet. Hamlet approached him and began dancing toe-to-toe with him in slow deliberate steps. Not wishing to offend his social superior, Rosencrantz reluctantly joined in. Guildenstern split the dancing pair, protesting that “this courtesy is not of the right breed” and Rosencrantz requested a “wholesome answer”.

No wholesome answer was forthcoming from Hamlet because his wit was “diseased”. But at least he stopped dancing, but only to take up the clarinet and taunt Guildenstern for trying to play his stops.

Polonius also told Hamlet that the Queen wished to speak with him (this would subsequently prove to be not 100% accurate) but Hamlet was only interested in toying with Polonius. Looking up at imaginary clouds, Hamlet invited him to agree with his assessment of which animal they resembled. The weary Polonius did not play along and refused to look upwards, limiting himself to perfunctory replies to Hamlet’s ridiculous questions. His tired, bored expression indicated that he was simply humouring the perpetrator of a childish game.

Hamlet told Polonius to say that he would come “by and by” and the old man replied (using the F version) “I will say so”. This prompted an angry parting swipe from Hamlet “By and by is easily said”.

The same lighting effect and white pattern projection on the back wall accompanied the brief “witching time of night” soliloquy that had been used for the 2B speech.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were told by Claudius that they would soon be accompanying Hamlet to England (3.3).

Polonius appeared at the top of the stairs to tell the King that Hamlet was on his way to Gertrude’s closet. He said he would hide behind the arras to overhear their conversation.

Claudius’ confession and admission of his guilt was uncharacteristically tender for someone who had previously castigated Hamlet for his “unmanly grief”. That this particularly gruff and harsh Claudius could express such depth of feeling made this segment especially moving

Hamlet appeared up on the balcony, but because he was still routinely unarmed, had to borrow a sword from the balcony wall to threaten imminent death on his enemy. He held the sword high above his head in an aggressive gesture, but as he was on the high balcony he was not within striking distance. The positioning of Hamlet in relation to Claudius enhanced the feeling that Hamlet’s vow was more rhetorical than an actual threat.

Deciding “This would be scanned” he turned his head sideways, momentarily lost in thought. He determined that killing Claudius at this moment would be “hire and salary” and promising retribution at a more opportune moment, left Claudius still praying on his knees.

In the standard version of the play, Gertrude wants to see Hamlet and Polonius facilitates this meeting while eavesdropping on it. In this production, a very slight change to the start of the scene cast it in a more sinister light (3.4).

An argument between Polonius and Gertrude could be heard in the palace corridor just offstage at the top of the stairs. When they emerged, Gertrude was vehemently objecting to Polonius’ orders to confront Hamlet. She was given lines from other Shakespeare plays that transformed her into the reluctant dupe of yet another of Polonius’ staged encounters.

Offstage in the corridor Polonius could be heard mentioning “Orders of his majesty”, which implied he was acting under Claudius’ direction. He instructed Gertrude to “lay home to him”. But instead of the compliant “I’ll warrant you…” provided for her in the standard text, she objected using the following borrowed lines:

“No, not for all the riches under heaven” (Anne from Henry VIII 2.3), followed immediately by

“I pray you, do not push me” (Paulina from The Winter’s Tale 2.3)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s as well as Polonius’ reports to Hamlet that Gertrude wanted to see him were therefore lies. This was as much a contrived meeting to assist Polonius in his scheme as that between Hamlet and Ophelia. It demonstrated that Polonius had the power, presumably derived from the King’s own authority, to browbeat and threaten the Queen herself.

Polonius hid behind the travelling stage curtain. An obvious choice, but this meeting was supposed to take place in Gertrude’s closet, not the large hall in which the play had been staged. Where exactly were they?

Hamlet answered back to his mother in curt and perfunctory fashion. She became frustrated and tried to leave, determined to “set to you those that can speak”.

He pulled her over to the side and forced her down onto a chair where he intended to show Gertrude “the inmost part of you”. But she rose and tried to escape, exclaiming “Thou wilt not murder me…” Hamlet caught up and pulled her back to just in front of curtain, at which point Polonius cried out. Hamlet turned towards the curtain and stabbed his blade through the material crying “How now! A rat!”. The concluding “Dead for a ducat, dead!” was cut.

The curtain was drawn back to reveal Polonius bleeding through his shirt front. His lifeless figure was helped down from the raised stage by Hamlet and left dead in front of it.

Hamlet put Gertrude back on the chair stage left. He used the painting of his father as a young man on the wall together with the Claudius commemorative plate left behind by Horatio as the “counterfeit presentment of two brothers”. His veneration of the image of his dead father, something also glimpsed briefly at the start of the wedding banquet, was contrasted with the contemptuous manner in which threw the Claudius plate to the floor when he asked how Gertrude could “batten on this moor”.

Hamlet rebuked his mother for being “cozened” at “blind man’s bluff” rather than “hoodman-blind”: a reasonable change that effectively clarified his meaning.

Chastened by Hamlet’s verbal onslaught, Gertrude turned her whole body around on the chair to face away from him, prompting his comment “O shame, where is thy blush?” He interpreted her movement as indicative of her feelings of guilt.

Gertrude slumped to the ground, breaking down in tears as she pleaded “O speak to me no more! These words like daggers…” Hamlet’s invective against Claudius reached its peak as the stage curtain opened to reveal the ghost of his father, first in darkness, then with the rock backdrop exactly as he had appeared on his first appearance.

The Ghost remained invisible to Gertrude. Hamlet had to explain to her what he was seeing, but did not comment when the Ghost vanished. His father just faded away unremarked, which was slightly unusual as Hamlet could have been expected to have clung to every second of his appearance. The disappearance of the Ghost was marked only by Gertrude assuring Hamlet that this vision was merely the “coinage” of his brain.

Emotionally drained, the pair squatted on the ground. Hamlet asked his mother to spurn Claudius as well as to throw away “the worser part” of her heart and “live the purer with the other half”.

All mention at this point of Hamlet being sent to England was cut, which was reasonable as we had not seen him being informed of Claudius’ decision.

Hamlet dragged “foolish prating knave” Polonius backwards out the door.

Claudius appeared at the top of the stairs (4.1). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s brief appearance and exit at this point were cut, which kept the atmosphere intimate and menacing.

Claudius began with a blunt “Where is your son?” Gertrude saw Hamlet’s dagger on the floor and began to pick it up, but was cut short by Claudius’ questioning. She moved completely away from the dagger before explaining the sorry sequence of events.

The King, ever wary of injury to reputation, angrily explained to Gertrude that they would be held responsible for Polonius’ death. His agitation at this was more acute than his anger at the killing itself.

The full complement of Claudius’ attendants, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were summoned. The King addressed them as “Friends both all” and told them that “Hamlet in madness” had slain Polonius. They reacted in shock and were sent to find the prince.

In the scene break, Ophelia ran down the stairs distraught and knelt over Hamlet’s dagger, which was still covered in her father’s blood. She touched it and then held out her own now bloodstained hands shrieking, the shriek provoking a time distortion. She was carried away by palace staff after displaying this first sign of her imminent implosion. The travelling stage was removed.

Hamlet reappeared but did not comment that Polonius’ body had been “safely stowed” (4.2). He just remarked on the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the other pursuers “O, here they come!”

He throttled an invisible sponge to demonstrate how Rosencrantz would be squeezed dry when no longer of use to the King. But instead of this reflecting on Claudius, the anger and frustration with which the mime was performed made it rather a manifestation of Hamlet’s own revengeful, destructive urges.

Hamlet apparently conceded to his capture saying “Bring me to him” but immediately dodged past his guards. He escaped and was chased across the stage and through the palace corridors looping back onto the main stage under strobe lighting.

The stage was cleared for the King to talk with Voltemand (rather than Rosencrantz) about Hamlet being liked by the “distracted multitude” (4.3). Hamlet was brought in under escort.

The prince’s cool defiance was shown by his joke about Polonius being eaten by a “convocation of worms”. The fish/worm conundrum was not included as these lines are not in F. An edge of cold anger entered his voice when he told Claudius to “seek him in the other place yourself”. He became slightly calmer advising Claudius that Polonius was “up the stairs”.

Voltemand hurried up them to find Polonius’ body. Hamlet’s “He will stay until you come” made her look back at him and obediently slow down. This was a subtle indication of Hamlet’s latent power.

The prince was told that he was being sent to England. He bade farewell to Claudius styling him “dear mother”. The reasoning for this was set out with mocking insincerity and rounded off with a curtsey as he was led away.

Claudius gave Rosencrantz and Guildenstern their commission before turning towards the audience to conclude:

And England, if my love thou hold’st at aught
Pay homage to our order inscribed in letters conjuring to that effect
The present death of Hamlet.
For like the hectic in my blood he rages
And thou must cure me.

Claudius turned his back to the audience. Vast quantities of black confetti began to blast continuously onto the stage as the Barbican safety curtain slowly closed for the interval.


At the start of the second half, the safety curtain descended to reveal the figure of Fortinbras (4.4). This paralleled the start of the performance with its reveal of Hamlet and thus positioned them as equivalent but opposed figures. The actor’s Estonian accent immediately marked him out as a foreign, possibly sinister presence in contrast to the British accents of the rest of the production.

The stage was strewn with dark rubble as if a mudslide had enveloped the house. At the sides, chairs were strewn on top of the mud. The centre doorway was open and a steep muddy slope stretched up to the end of the corridor. Norwegian soldiers huddled round camp fires and in shelters, lurking in the shadows.

Fortinbras despatched his men who marched up the steep muddy incline out of sight as Hamlet, his hands bound behind his back and wearing a dark parka, was brought in under guard by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Despite generally following the F text, this scene followed the Q2 version.

Hamlet talked with the Norwegian captain, whose accent wobbled between Scottish and something vaguely Nordic. He was played by the same actor as the Danish soldier who had explained the war preparations to the guards earlier in the play. The fact that he was immediately recognisable as the previous soldier but now in a different army was more than just actor doubling. The roles could have been played by different actors, but the decision here to use the same one looked like a statement on their interchangeability. A soldier in the Danish army was very much like a soldier in the Norwegian army.

The soldier was eating from his mess tin and this preoccupation as well as his natural wariness made him cursory and unwilling to share information. He described the patch of ground being fought over as having “no profit in it but the name”. Hamlet wondered whether the Poles would not defend it: the captain’s “Yes” was cut, so that he replied “It is already garrisoned”, removing the apparent absurdity of him agreeing but in fact disagreeing with Hamlet’s point.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sat on their suitcases. At the end of his conversation with the soldier everyone apart from Hamlet succumbed to a temporal disruption and froze. The prince soliloquised on why he had not yet acted as he had promised despite being surrounded by exemplars of resolution. No special lighting effects were used to accompany this particular moment frozen in time, which was comparatively subtle.

He resolved that his “Thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”, a determination that the production would show him fulfilling in the aftermath of his escape.

Whatever else the mud enveloping the stage was meant to symbolise, it was the perfect setting for Ophelia’s madness (4.5).

Gertrude descended the stairs in her nightdress telling Voltemand impatiently “I will not speak with her” as if she had been woken in the middle of the night to deal with a disturbed, insomniac Ophelia. Gertrude was helped into her gown onstage by an attendant.

Voltemand took on Horatio’s role in this scene as the production sensed quite rightly that as a close associate of Hamlet, his friend would be on the run after Hamlet’s capture.

Ophelia ran in from the stage right entrance asking “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” She wore a black dress, her hair was dishevelled and there was a bald patch on the right side of her head where she had pulled her hair out.

She launched tentatively into her first song “How should I your true love know”, but withdrew in fear when Gertrude approached, making jerky movements with her arm and shoulder like a traumatised person constantly correcting their posture. This combined with the bald patch on the side of her head to create an image of complete mental collapse.

Ophelia continued her song until its final words “true-love showers”. She greeted Claudius with “God dil’d you” but cut the remark about the baker’s daughter, continuing with her enigmatic “we know what we are but not what we may be”.

Instead of following on with the lewd song “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day” she began repeating phrases from earlier in the play.

She walked across to the piano stage left saying “If you find him not this month you shall nose him as you go up the stairs”.

Claudius termed this a “Conceit upon her father”. Ophelia returned to him from the piano chastening him with “Pray you, let’s have no words of this. Shhh”. In context it was possible that this could have been something repeatedly said to her to calm her madness and therefore although part of the standard text as this point, the line could have been integral to her reliving of the past.

She moved back to the piano and began cleaning it of dust and debris reciting “To the celestial and my soul’s idol etc.”. These words were said with sarcasm, mocking the solemn declaration of love in Hamlet’s poem.

Ophelia moved back centre stage to fire off in rapid succession:

“Be wary then: best safety lies in fear”

Indeed. ‘Tis in my memory locked”

How sayest thou?”

“Think yourself a baby”

“I shall obey, my lord”

This device was an obvious borrowing from Macbeth and one which transformed Ophelia into a Lady Macbeth figure, hinting at her traumatisation and obsession with the past. But this association with Lady Macbeth also hinted at Ophelia’s feelings of guilt.

The choice of words for Ophelia to repeat indicated what Lyndsey Turner considered to be uppermost in Ophelia’s mind. It was telling that her first words were Hamlet’s apparently callous joke about her father’s dead body: we had previously seen her screaming after discovering it, her hands covered in Polonius’ blood. Her repetition of Hamlet’s words indicated her shock at Hamlet’s murder of her father and more importantly the callousness of his reaction to having done so.

This was then contrasted with the solemn declaration of love in Hamlet’s poem, showing that she now considered his sentiment empty and worthy of derision given what he had done.

She then added, in the order in which they occur in the play, one line from her brother Laertes and her response; one line from her father followed by her own “I shall obey my lord”, something which she singularly failed to do. This formed two conversations.

Given that she now regretted her association with Hamlet, it was possible to see her repetition of Laertes and her father’s warnings to stay away from him, and her own false vow of obedience as expressions of regret that she had not heeded them.

She got down on all fours in the mud scrutinising and playing with the earth, which seemed to prompt her comment “I cannot choose but weep that they should lay him i’th’ cold ground”.

She sprung to her feet vowing that her brother would know of this and exclaimed “Goodnight sweet ladies” as she exited swiftly up the stairs.

Claudius’ sorrow was cut short by Laertes’ entry, which was not pre-empted by Claudius mentioning that he had knowledge of the young man’s return.

Laertes and his armed followers came down the mud slope corridor with a loud commotion. He had a handgun, which he aimed directly at Claudius as he approached him, while the others trained rifles on the King. Both Claudius and Gertrude fell to the ground and remained separated on different parts of the stage. But whereas Gertrude sat upright, Claudius lay on his back, raising himself only slightly to engage Laertes in conversation.

Gertrude was at some distance from Laertes, so the text’s two mentions of her being ordered to let him go were cut.

Laertes demanded “Where is my father?” Interestingly, the replies by Gertrude and Claudius were transposed so that the encounter became:

Laertes: Where is my father?
Gertrude: Dead.
Claudius: But not by me.

This was a psychologically astute intervention into the standard text originally written for an encounter with a Laertes brandishing a sword. In any production in which Laertes threatens Claudius with a gun, the threat to the King is more immediate and the pressure on him not to taunt Laertes with a blunt word like “dead” all the greater. Any wrongly chosen word could push the avenging Laertes over the edge and make him pull the trigger. It looked completely right for the lines to be transposed so that this Claudius cut in directly after Gertrude’s “dead” with a desperate plea of innocence.

The aggrieved Laertes was not entirely pacified. He cocked his gun, warning “Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit. I dare damnation”.

Claudius began to talk Laertes down. The word “swoopstake”, describing the nature of Laertes’ intended revenge, was changed to “wildly”. This was perhaps an unnecessary alteration.

Once the King had managed to calm Laertes, he got up from lying on his back and offered to reveal the identities of the young man’s real enemies, tempting him with “Will you know them, then?”

Laertes took the bait and gestured to his followers to lower their weapons and depart. Claudius realised that he had made himself safe.

The calm was soon cut short by the reappearance of Ophelia, who burst out of her room at the top of the stairs. She clutched a small bunch of flowers in one hand and with the other she dragged a large trunk that thumped loudly on each step as she pulled it down the staircase behind her. The loud bangs punctuating its descent were like the “knocks of doom” on doors heard in plays like Macbeth.

She dragged it to a position just right of centre stage, carefully moving dirt from around it, while singing the Q2 nonny-less version of:

They bore him bare-faced on the bier
And in his grave rained many a tear

before leaving it to head over to the piano. She glanced back to address the trunk with the words “Fare you well, my dove”. This all indicated that the luggage represented her dead father.

Her gait was slightly stooped and mechanical. With her black dress and black hair she appeared like a mad demented crow. The bald patch exacerbated this effect.

She sang a brief snatch of a song before encountering Laertes. She initially walked past him but then turned to look at him, slightly surprised to see her brother again. Ophelia pulled him towards the piano, telling him emphatically “You must sing play down-a-down, a-down a-down”.

After sitting him at the keyboard, she sang the tune “Nah, na, nah. Nah, na, nah”, which Laertes listened to and then copied on the piano. This became a broken version of the sibling closeness established by their piano duet at the start. She looked at him with a frantic joy, commenting “How the wheel becomes it”.

She handed out her flowers, giving rosemary to Laertes as he sat at the piano, pansies to a female officer and the fennel and columbines to Gertrude. Her presentation of the rue to Claudius was accompanied by a new, specific identification of the herb’s meaning “that’s for repentance”.

But this was merely a prelude to the centrepiece of Ophelia’s second mad episode. She played a note on the piano in order to tune her singing voice. She moved back towards the others trying to keep the note in her head by humming it and tapping the side of her head repeatedly.

Ophelia approached the trunk and urged the others to form a rough semicircle around it. She stood with her arms by her sides and slightly raised in front of her, palms facing outwards in an open gesture and began to sing “Will he not come again” very slowly and quietly. The others bowed their heads and held their hands in front of them as if in prayer, transforming her madness into a reverential wake even though Polonius had already officially been buried.

This was a magical moment of stillness as the words trickled out of her frail figure. The others, and indeed the whole Barbican audience, listened to her faltering words in complete silence.

Once she had finished singing, she went over to the piano again and started to play quietly as Claudius further patched things up with Laertes. Gertrude withdrew to the side, silent in thought, her presence overshadowed by the men.

Laertes referred to Polonius’ “obscure burial… No noble rite, nor formal ostentation”. This provided a retrospective explanation for Ophelia’s ritual with the trunk as an attempt to provide her father with the “rite” and “ostentation” she thought he deserved. An idea latent in the text was here fully developed with an ersatz coffin to which mourners paid respects to the accompaniment of Ophelia’s song.

Ophelia’s need for this would subsequently be matched by Laertes’ desire to supplement his sister’s subsequent “maimed rites”. The production would highlight his attempt at so doing.

Claudius and Laertes finished their deliberations. The King gestured at Gertrude to accompany him, but she shook her head and remained behind to observe Ophelia who continued to play at the piano.

Ophelia rose from the piano and slowly walked barefoot up the mud slope corridor, the tune still playing from the stage sound system after she had abandoned the instrument. Gertrude watched her gradual progress until Ophelia turned right and disappeared from view. Gertrude then examined the suitcase which had stood on stage all this while. She carefully opened the lid and examined its contents: a large pile of black and white photographic prints and Ophelia’s precious camera.

Realising the significance of this, Gertrude ran after Ophelia up the muddy corridor. This pursuit would later explain how she was able to observe and provide a reliable account of Ophelia’s demise. Though other interpretations of her report were possible.

Horatio was on the run, walking across country with his rucksack, when he was caught up by the messenger. He made Horatio stay so that the sailors following close behind could deliver letters from Hamlet (4.6.) Horatio read aloud the letter explaining that Hamlet had escaped and was on his way back to Elsinore.

The King and Laertes continued to bond (4.7). Claudius explained that he had not taken action against Hamlet earlier because he was adored by the “common crowd” as opposed to the text’s “general gender”. A letter from Hamlet was delivered by Voltemand, which she had obtained via a “Mattheus” rather than the text’s “Claudio”. Laertes relished the prospect of telling Hamlet “Thus diest thou” which he pronounced through gritted teeth demonstrating a keen desire for revenge.

Some of the dialogue in this scene was held over until after Ophelia’s funeral to provide a more immediate connection between the plot and its enactment.

The sequence in which Claudius asked Laertes if he was merely the “painting of a sorrow” and his reply that he would cut Hamlet’s throat “in a church” was brought forward to this point. Those exchanges in which Claudius motivated Laertes were collected here, and the precise details of the plan held over until after the funeral.

Claudius said that the plot would be so subtle that even Hamlet’s mother would “uncharge the practice/And call it accident”, at which point as if on cue Gertrude descended the muddy slope returning from her pursuit of Ophelia.

After saying that “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel” to both of them, she approached Laertes and paused as she tried to summon the courage to tell him the sad news. This silence lasted an agonisingly long time before she was able to take both his hands in hers and say “Your sister’s drowned, Laertes.” This long pause was evidence of the production’s emotional literacy in that such bad news would not be broken immediately as suggested by the continuation of the verse line.

Her report of the drowning was similarly slow and pained. Laertes was so overcome that he fought back his tears as if ashamed of them, turning away from the others when he cried.

Although Gertrude following after Ophelia might explain her eyewitness account of the accidental drowning, she only pursued Ophelia because she suspected that she might be about to do something reckless, having left behind the trunk full of photos and her camera.

The possibility existed therefore that Gertrude had suspected that Ophelia was disturbed to the point of suicide and had witnessed her deliberately drowning herself. The version she related here, an accident caused by an “envious slither” that had broken, could have been an invention to assuage the already enraged and dangerous Laertes.

The text has always stated that the authorities who investigated the drowning found the death to be questionable and pressure was put on them to allow a Christian burial. But in this staging with clear signs of Gertrude’s concern for Ophelia’s intentions and her eyewitness role, there was an explicit contrast between Gertrude’s concern that Ophelia might do herself some harm and her subsequent account of a purely accidental death, and also between Gertrude’s account and the official verdict.

If the Queen had been an eyewitness and her report taken for truth in respect of her status, from where did the doubts about suicide arise?

The funeral scene (5.1) began with the start of Hamlet’s account to Horatio of the King’s plot and how he escaped from it, taken from 5.2. This was another astute change, because it would be expected that Hamlet would tell Horatio his biggest news as soon as he met him and not save it until later.

The pair crouched at the far stage right side on a muddy mound. Hamlet explained to Horatio how he had averted his execution. He managed to reseal the forged commission because “even that was heavenly ordained”. This was yet another superfluous alteration to a phrase that most audiences understand in context: “even in that was heaven ordinant”.

As he did this, Horatio applied a bandage to Hamlet’s hand and wrist, which must have been injured at some point during his escape. It added to the sense that on returning to Elsinore this Hamlet was a man of action. This impression was further enhanced when Horatio unwrapped a handgun from a cloth and showed it to Hamlet as if in fulfilment of a specific request to supply a weapon. More of the gun would be seen later.

Hamlet got as far as describing the “sea-fight” and what was “sequent to it” when they spotted the old gravedigger and his younger companion. They hunkered down to conceal themselves. Horatio used an invented line “Let us repair” to draw Hamlet aside.

The gravedigger wheeled his barrow down the mud corridor accompanied, not by a second gravedigger, but by a female clipboard-wielding official who oversaw his work. The grave trap door was already open.

The woman’s reply to the gravedigger’s question about Christian burial confirming the coroner’s decision as well as her directive to dig the grave right away, all worked perfectly as the authoritative instructions of a supervisor rather than the comments of a subordinate.

The gravedigger’s response did not include the “se offendendo” and “three branches” remarks. The reference to “crowner’s quest law” was also cut.

He used his orange thermos flask and cup to illustrate the various modes of interaction between water and a drowned person.

The supervisor let slip that Ophelia should not really have had a Christian burial, an official concession that the gravedigger thought shameful.

The gravedigger teased the supervisor with his joke about Adam’s profession being noble because he could not have “dig’d” without (a coat of) arms. The humour continued with his riddle about grave-makers building houses that last until doomsday.

The old man went to work with his radio playing Sinatra singing All of Me. This song was apt as it was an anatomisation of the body consistent with the grave-maker removing bits of bodies from the old graves to make a new one. The song referenced “lips”, which would be specifically mentioned by Hamlet in relation to Yorick’s skull: “Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft”. His irreverent humour could be seen by the way he sang along using a bone as a pretend microphone.

Hamlet and Horatio came forward while the gravedigger continued to throw skulls out of the grave. They were propelled completely offstage left where they were caught in a net to prevent intrusive noise.

Hamlet suggested that one of the skulls could have been the “pate of a politician”, clearly intending the contemporary meaning of the word. This was followed immediately by the mention of “a lawyer” and his “action of battery” but not the long list of legal terms.

The prince found the gravedigger’s various witticisms amusing, including his account of Hamlet being sent into England on account of being mad. Hamlet’s inability to follow the old man’s logic caused him to roll his eyes pitifully.

Yorick’s skull was produced. But Hamlet’s meditation on it did not convey any weight of philosophical pondering. His remark about a lady painting herself an “inch thick” but still resembling the skull was cut.

Hamlet got as far as “Not one now to mock your own grinning” when they were interrupted by the arrival of the funeral party.

The funeral procession made its way slowly down the dark, muddy slope corridor. Hamlet and Horatio went to hide over stage right. Subdued lighting and the torches of the procession added to the atmosphere of crepuscular gloom.

Laertes and others bore a stretcher on their shoulders on which rested Ophelia’s body wrapped in thick black plastic The stretcher was lowered by ropes into the grave. This done, Laertes enquired “What ceremony else?”

Once Laertes realised that this was all the religious ceremony Ophelia would be getting, he suddenly improvised some himself. He clasped his hands and turned “And from her fair and unpolluted flesh/May violets spring” into a graveside prayer of his own devising before turning angry words on the officiating clergyman.

This impromptu expansion of the official rites referred back to Ophelia’s devised ritual for her father, demonstrating that the siblings shared a common desire for due ceremony.

Hamlet stood up when he realised from Laertes’ word “sister” that the deceased was Ophelia.

Picking up on Laertes’ upset at the lack of ceremony, Gertrude leant forward and dropped flowers in grave saying “Sweets to the sweet”, a phrase directed supportively at Laertes to draw attention to her own homage to Ophelia.

We had already seen Laertes’ sorrow for his sister and his annoyance, but it was still a surprise when he jumped into the grave and pulled up Ophelia’s shrouded body into an embrace.

Hamlet came forward and introduced himself, prompting Laertes to jump out again. They scuffled before being separated. Hamlet did not comment on Laertes’ fingers being at his throat as the scuffle was intense and therefore wordless.

Laertes was pulled away but protested using lines borrowed from Hamlet “I will fight with him upon this theme/Until my eyelids will no longer wag”. This gave Laertes some speech that the text does not provide for him at this point. Claudius and Gertrude’s remarks in lines 261-262 were transferred to the middle of the scuffle.

The Queen did not ask “What theme?”, Hamlet simply harangued Laertes in return claiming “I loved Ophelia…” declaring the superiority of his love. Hamlet went to the graveside and in an angry parody of Laertes’ grandiose speech, asked him if he would “drink up eisel a poison, eat a crocodile” and shouted to the skies about “millions of acres” that would be piled on him to make “Ossa like a wart”.

Hamlet’s first words to Laertes had demanded “What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis?” And he concluded with a parody of Laertes “emphasis” neatly bookending their interaction.

Transferring some of Hamlet’s lines to Laertes was a clever edit, as in the standard Folio text used in this production, Laertes only speaks five words after Hamlet’s sudden appearance. In this staging they got to exchange harsh words as well as blows.

Hamlet challenged Laertes to explain why “you use me thus?” He taunted “the cat will mew” gesturing disparagingly at Laertes, then pointed proudly at himself to declare “dog will have his day” before running off.

At this point Claudius continued outlining the fine detail of his plot to Laertes, a discussion which had been interrupted earlier by Gertrude. In retrospect this was a better staging than Gertrude’s shock news coming neatly at the end of a completed conversation.

Claudius began with the reference to “last night’s speech” but continued with the development of his plan to kill Hamlet. He referred to Laertes’ skill with a blade “a quality wherein they say you shine… for your rapier most especially”. The long diversion about the Frenchman Lamord was cut as it usually is.

Laertes would use an “unbated” sword tipped with an unction so lethal that “no application on earth”, rather than the text’s “cataplasm so rare”, could reverse its effects.

Claudius suggested a back-up in the form of poison contained in a “chalice of the like”, rather than the text’s “for the nonce”.

Hamlet and Horatio hastily regrouped inside the palace (5.2). Hamlet drew and cocked his handgun declaring that he thought it “perfect conscience” to avenge Claudius’ crimes and “quit him with this arm”.

The production thus provided a satisfying answer to the conundrum of why Hamlet returns to Elsinore. He was determined to enact his revenge very enthusiastically and efficiently, rather than simply drifting back for unspecified reasons of curiosity or the working of destiny. He had obviously asked Horatio to procure him a suitable weapon for this long premeditated task.

Hamlet practiced holding the gun. As he said “… and a man’s life no more than to say one” he pointed the gun at an imaginary adversary, pronouncing “one” like a substitute for “bang”. This clearly indicated his readiness to use the gun and that he considered taking Claudius’ life no more than pronouncing the word “one”.

His newfound disregard for human life could also be seen in his casual dismissal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who “did make love to this employment”.

While he had willingly supplied his friend with the weapon, Horatio was disturbed by this new turn in Hamlet’s character. He exclaimed “Why, what a king is this!” which was not a comment on Claudius, but very distinctly Horatio’s criticism of Hamlet. The implication was that Hamlet’s disdain for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was neither kingly nor noble.

They were interrupted not by Osric, but by the now familiar female Voltemand. Hamlet hastily put the gun behind his back as he faced her and then turned away to secrete the gun in his cagoule pocket. He asked Horatio if he knew “this lady?”, adapting the text’s “water-fly” insult into an enquiry about whether she was to be trusted. Horatio replied “no”.

Voltemand was not toyed with nor made to remove and then replace a hat. Neither did they make fun of her way of speaking.

She simply delivered the King’s message about the fencing contest and departed. This was possibly to save time and hasten the final sequence. With a female character indoors in modern dress any reference to hats would have looked odd. Another reason for the alteration was that a note of peril had been introduced by Hamlet’s brandishing of a gun that comedy would have unnecessarily deflated. This was also not the kind of palace where courtiers were given to florid language. Additionally, Hamlet had murder on his mind and was not in a mood to joke.

There was no mention of the horses, the stakes or carriages, just the terms of the contest. But Hamlet did sarcastically point out that rapier and dagger were “two of his weapons”.

A moment of tension arose when Hamlet suggested declining the invitation “How if I answer no?” But was there no reply and the idea that he would not attend evaporated without further comment.

Hamlet had his moment of stoic calm “If it be, ‘tis not to come…” before the production shifted into its final sequence.

Chairs were positioned in rows facing diagonally towards the centre at stage right. A table stood to the left of the chairs and a rack of foils was placed to their right.

Meanwhile downstage Hamlet changed into a white fencing jacket. Horatio went to hide out of sight behind an open door stage left.

The King forcefully reconciled Laertes and Hamlet. He brought them together and encouraged them to hold hands as they stood side by side. Each kept hold of the other’s hand as Hamlet apologised solemnly and with sincerity. Laertes said he was “satisfied in nature” but there was something more grudging in his words of reconciliation.

They examined and practised with the foils. Hamlet’s left hand was still bandaged so that he was in effect competing with an injury from a previous fight. Claudius flourished a precious “jewel” rather than a “union”.

The fencing began in earnest.

In the first bout Hamlet managed to touch his sword against Laertes’ stomach. As a prize for winning, Claudius put the jewel into the cup and offered it to Hamlet, but he declined.

The second bout resulted in another hit for Hamlet, this time on the side of his opponent’s leg.

An air of levity was introduced by Claudius proffering the poisoned cup insistently at both bout intervals, rather than Gertrude offering it the second time. Claudius’ two lines were split between the first and second bout: 1st = “Stay, give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine”, 2nd = “Here’s to thy health. Give him the cup.” This last instance with the more sinister “give him the cup” made light of Claudius’ desire to poison Hamlet.

Gertrude came forward and mopped Hamlet’s brow with her handkerchief as he was “hot and scant of breath”. We had been prepared for Hamlet’s sweatiness by the previous occasions on which he had wiped his own brow.

Crucially, Gertrude’s drinking from the cup was delayed from its standard position until after the fencing.

The King sidled over to Laertes and seemed to whisper something. Laertes responded out loud telling the King “I’ll hit him now. And yet it is almost against my conscience”. This edit improved on the original text.

The third bout began, concluding with both Hamlet and Laertes’ sword points making contact with the other. This was adjudicated “Nothing neither way”. Laertes cried “Have at you now” and struck Hamlet’s back with the point of his foil. The prince dropped his sword and clutched at his injury while Laertes walked away clenching his fist in victory.

But the shocked Hamlet fought back.

The injured prince grappled with Laertes and managed to wrest his sword from his hand, which was thrown to the ground. They were separated and both put up their hands in apparent surrender, but went at it again with renewed vigour. Hamlet tried to reach for Laertes’ sword abandoned on the floor, but Laertes was able to hold him back. With only their hands for weapons, they scuffled and punched.

Laertes realised that he could rearm himself and raced up the first few steps of the staircase to take a cutlass from the wall. He turned on Hamlet, who by now had retrieved Laertes poisoned sword from the ground. They engaged in another vicious sword fight which concluded when Hamlet forced Laertes to the ground, dropping his second sword.

For some strange reason the killing of Laertes was enacted in slow-motion with the rest of the cast pirouetting oddly in circles in normal time, as Hamlet drove the point of the poisoned sword down onto the palm of Laertes’ outstretched hand. Normal speed resumed after the blow had been struck. The music that played during this sequence was the version of Nature Boy that had played over the beginning of the dinner sequence.

This last time disruption sequence worked the opposite way to previous ones in that Hamlet and Laertes moved in slow-motion while the world outside continued at normal speed albeit behaving in a stylised way. A possible interpretation was that it marked the point at which Hamlet closed off his mind to the outside while simultaneously perpetrating a violent act that he perceived at a distorted speed. But why this should apply to his striking Laertes and not the more significant target of Claudius remained unclear.

Laertes admitted he was “justly killed” with his own treachery like “a woodcock to mine own snare”.

While this was happening, Gertrude picked up the cup from the table and held it in her hands looking down at it fearfully, walking in a tight circle behind the table and then emerging from the shadows.

She drank from the cup despite Claudius insistence that she should not. After taking a few steps forward she collapsed as the poison was so fast-acting. The King claimed that she had fainted, but he was contradicted not by the now stone dead Gertrude, but by Horatio who emerged from his hiding place to declare that the drink had been poisoned.

Was Gertrude’s death suicide? She looked at the cup ominously, and could have noticed Claudius’ suspiciously repeated insistence that Hamlet take it. But on the other hand she drank from it publically when she could have done so secretly. Immediately after drinking she seemed interested in what was happening and showed no signs of expecting to die.

Laertes lay struggling on the ground as he explained that the King was behind the plot. As soon as he heard this, Hamlet took up the poisoned sword and ran at Claudius. The King tried to escape up the stairs, but Hamlet caught up with him on the first few steps and struck him in the back. As he collapsed, Hamlet took the poisoned cup and forced more poison down him.

Hamlet and Laertes exchanged forgiveness with the prince wishing “Heaven make thee free of it” as he reached down and shook Laertes by the hand.

In this version, the Claudius/Laertes plot allowed Hamlet to kill the King in hot-blooded revenge for the immediate threat to this life and not as the comparatively cold-blooded killer he planned to become using the handgun supplied by Horatio.

Hamlet began to feel the effect of the poison announcing “I am dead, Horatio.” He turned to Gertrude and said farewell “Wretched Queen, adieu.”

Horatio tried to drink from the poisoned cup and kill himself, but Hamlet fought him for it with the last of his fading strength. Horatio dropped the cup, but it seemed that he could have drunk from it if he had wanted to. The struggle over it was not enough to deprive him of a determined opportunity. Neither was it made obvious that he had been dissuaded from suicide by the force of his friend’s plea to remain alive to tell his story. This minor detail remained a bit of a directorial loose end.

The sound of Fortinbras’ arrival was not enquired about nor explained. Much of Hamlet’s dying words, including his reference to the “potent poison” were cut.

Hamlet ended thus:

… tell my story.
O, I die, Horatio.
The rest is silence.

He slumped unceremoniously in Horatio’s arms who cradled him as he faced upwards. This position was changed in the aftermath of the NT Live screening so that Hamlet delivered his final words propping himself up looking straight ahead before collapsing. This made for a more photogenic end with the expression on his face clearly visible.

Horatio’s wished his “sweet Prince” farewell.

“The rest is silence” came soon after Hamlet’s injunction to Horatio to tell his story. This created a connection between the two phrases, so that “The rest” could be seen as “the rest of my story” being reduced to silence.

Hamlet’s dying words contained no assent to Fortinbras assuming power, which made the latter’s subsequent claim to the Danish crown look opportunistic.

Fortinbras entered through the centre doors and commented on the large number of dead bodies. The English ambassadors were cut. Horatio ordered Hamlet to be placed on view on a stage and vowed that he would tell his story.

Fortinbras concluded with “Go, bid the soldiers shoot”, which was addressed to Horatio who left to carry out the new ruler’s instructions.

After a decent pause the lights faded into darkness.


Lyndsey Turner managed to square the circle of staging a production that pleased first-time theatregoers while also providing plenty of interest and fascinating new angles for seasoned Hamlet-watchers.

According to Baz Bamigboye’s interview with Cumberbatch published on 28 August 2014, both he and Turner had wanted the production to feel fresh, something to be achieved by treating it like a piece of new writing. The production delivered on that promise.

An enormous amount of work was carried out on the text, which bore innumerable signs of rethinking and critically examining the detail of the play. Although some of the text changes for clarity were questionable, most were laudable and some provided profound insights.

This work was so thorough that in some instances it brought about seamless improvements that rendered themselves invisible to the general viewer and therefore passed unremarked. The best example of this was the change to Gertrude and Claudius lines when Laertes threatened the King with a gun on returning from France.

Other changes were on a grander scale, but no less successful. The transformation of Ophelia into a more active character expanded her circumscribed role and made her part of Team Hamlet, rather than a peripheral love interest who loses her sanity. This was done paradoxically with a minimum of intervention: just a few changes to Ophelia’s delivery of existing lines and a brief scene interlude in which we saw her helping Hamlet. The multiple implications of this, Ophelia disobeying her father and being actively involved in Hamlet’s scheme, changed the meaning of her words elsewhere.

The reworking of the play structure incorporated the recycling of parts of the cut scene 1.1, and most notably the insertion of lines taken from other Shakespeare plays: Timon of Athens, All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony & Cleopatra, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Tempest, Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale.

There were also two lines taken from Q1 Hamlet to add clarity to one of Laertes first speeches. Not often is Q1 drawn on to improve on the supposedly superior versions of Hamlet. Noticing and identifying these borrowings was a complete joy.

Perhaps the most powerful alteration was the repositioning of 2B to maximise its impact right after Hamlet’s joking about death with Polonius. In the first previews, this speech was placed right at the start of the performance. Its final resting place was a distinct improvement.

Polonius was made more deceitful and manipulative. In addition to the standard ‘loosing’ of Ophelia, he also organised the ransacking of her room to find evidence of Hamlet’s affection for her, and lied to the King and Queen that the letter had been offered voluntarily. He similarly forced Gertrude into a staged encounter with Hamlet to which she clearly did not consent.

The most striking individual performance was Siân Brooke’s Ophelia whose madness was one of the most memorable and compelling sequences in the production. It was fitting that Turner’s augmentation of Ophelia’s role in the story was complemented by such a fine interpretation.

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This review was based on six viewings of the production at the Barbican: 2, 12 (matinee), 17 and 26 September, 10 and 31 (matinee) October, as well as two cinema screenings.