RADA Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, London 18 & 20 September 2017
The auditorium of the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre was reconfigured to create a thrust stage of bare wooden planks level with the first two rows of stalls seats, which were arranged in a horseshoe shape around the thrust. The total capacity of the stalls and gallery was 183 seats.
The main stage area was bare apart from the lattice uprights of the lighting rig at each side and a plain backdrop for projections. The only set was a wall with doors and windows flown in for scenes in palace interiors. This was augmented by a desk, sofa and chairs as required.
There were four entrances to the performance space: two at the sides of the main stage through black curtaining and two at the top of the thrust through seating aisles.
Initial interior scenes featured a large square carpet at the end of the thrust. This was decorated with the royal Danish crest and the border was edged with a phrase in Danish set in capitals GØDE MÆND MÅ DØ MEN DØDEN KAN IKKE DRÆBE DERES NAVNE – in English: Good men must die but death cannot kill their names. This is a Danish version of a supposed Danish proverb but which only seems to exist in English.
When the audience entered the theatre, the stage was empty apart from a low upright piano and its accompanying wooden chair in the centre of the thrust.
The first utterances of the production were Hamlet’s intermittent sighs and groans which could be faintly heard (at least by those nearest the stage) deep offstage while the house lights were still on before the performance formally began.
The lights dimmed allowing Hamlet to approach and seat himself at the piano. When he was spotlit for the start of the performance, he was bent slightly over the closed keyboard, the palms of his hands resting on the upward slope of the keyboard cover. This contorted posture was held briefly, signalling his tension, before he relaxed, opened the keyboard and began to play and sing “And will he not come again?”
The slow mournful tapping out of the tune and Hamlet’s pained recitation of the song paused momentarily after the word “beard” as he was overcome with by emotion. Once finished, he immediately rose and slunk away up left thrust exit, as stage hands prepared the set for the next scene.
This opening, dispensing with all of 1.1, was reminiscent of the Cumberbatch Hamlet, which similarly foregrounded its star turn by having him engage in solitary musical melancholy. In Cumberbatch’s case he sat listening to a record on a portable gramophone whilst browsing a photo album. Star Hamlets seem to require immediate view of the actor, contrary to the play’s structure which first creates a ghost mystery then introduces the main character as bitter and sarcastic.
The piano and chair were removed, the square carpet was laid down, and a desk with the Danish crest on its front and accompanying chair placed in front of the flown-in palace interior wall.
As Claudius’s initial speech was staged as a television broadcast, the presence of stage crew arranging the space looked like part of the action.
Claudius sat at the desk and a crew member counted him down 3,2,1 silently with her fingers. No camera or other crew were visible so that he directly addressed the audience. The rest of the court, but significantly not Hamlet, waited among the audience in the two thrust entrances.
He was quite composed as began his reflections on the death of King Hamlet, but paused for several seconds after “… contracted in one brow of woe,/Yet…” looking down at the desk as if broaching the subject had opened a still festering emotional wound, before recomposing himself and continuing on to the topic of his recent marriage.
His mendaciously insincere regret for his brother’s death, orchestrated for consumption by a large television audience, contrasted neatly with the sincerity of Hamlet’s immediately preceding solitary and private grief.
The text was slightly edited to remove the reference to “auspicious” and “dropping” eyes. Elsewhere, however, the production did not habitually edit to remove ‘difficult’ language, containing a number of opaque phrases not commonly heard in contemporary performances.
Gertrude appeared at his side and took his hand when he mentioned her, compounding the impression that this was a stage-managed piece of political theatre for public consumption.
The text was reworked so that Claudius mentioned Fortinbras’s claims against Denmark and explained that he was sending a letter to the king of Norway to put a stop to them.
He spoke of “… those lands/Lost… To our most valiant brother.  We have here writ/To Norway (signed and showed signed letter to camera)… to suppress/His further gait herein. So much for him.” The closing sentence was spoken with an air of confident finality.
Claudius signalled the end of the transmission, or possibly recording, by making a cut gesture across his throat with his hand.
The broadcast over, the rest of the court minus Hamlet came forward chanting “Claudius! Claudius! Claudius!”
The new king was very pleased with himself and jokingly asked Laertes what he desired. Laertes was dressed down unlike the other courtiers and was very soft-spoken.
Polonius was middle-aged, tall and lean. The distinguishing feature of his character was that he evidently considered himself to be funny, but was in fact dreadfully unfunny: very much the “foolish prating knave” of Hamlet’s caricature, rather than the “good old man” of Gertrude’s description.
As previously mentioned, Hamlet was absent for this entire sequence, unlike productions that follow the text and position him onstage as a silent, bitter observer, only attending out of duty.
Hamlet strode confidently through the back wall right side door, closed it behind him and stood in front of it as Claudius first addressed him. This meant that it was Hamlet who seized Claudius’s attention by his entry rather than Claudius choosing to pay attention to an already present Hamlet.
His “A little more than kin, and less than kind” was strong and forceful. It was more a confident statement than a bitter, sarcastic retort resulting from pent-up frustration at previous silence.
This initial presentation of his character, not only contrasted with our first view of him, but effectively suppressed it. Whatever grief he might have felt in private, Hamlet operated at this level of strength when dealing with others.
Although Claudius mentioned his wedding to Gertrude, the scene was not marked by a pronounced wedding atmosphere. This meant that Hamlet’s black coat did not distinguish him sartorially from the rest of the court.
Gertrude attempted to raise his mood, but he responded by moving resolutely forward, explaining with clarity and precision that “I know not ‘seems’ etc.”
Claudius drew nearer to Hamlet combining a long lecture with an attempt at tactile friendliness. But his nephew was more than unmoved by his attentions.
When Claudius expressed the desire that he should “think of us/As of a father” Hamlet stood his ground and spat out a dismissive “pah!”
Hamlet only agreed to stay after Gertrude’s second intervention. He took her by the hands and stressed “obey *you*, madam” to emphasise that he would not do anything at Claudius’s entreaty.
She embraced him and they held hands, but this moment of closeness was cut short as Gertrude was escorted away by Claudius who asserted “Madam, come”. Hamlet tried to maintain hand contact, which lingered for a while as she moved further away, but distance eventually obliged her to let go. This loss of finger contact was echoed in the play’s closing sequence in which such contact was touchingly regained.
Hamlet was left alone. Thrown into spotlight, with an accompanying sound effect to mark the transition, he began his “too too solid flesh” soliloquy.
He began leant against the desk, then moved around the thrust addressing the audience with a strong, firm and passionate statement of his situation.
Having told us “I must hold my tongue” he set off briskly through the left thrust exit but was recalled just in time by Horatia’s greeting “Hail to your lordship” her swift entry catching him just as he disappeared.
The recasting of Horatio as a female Horatia would prove to be the production’s most interesting and dramatically rewarding feature.
Hamlet held her close with his arms around her waist as he welcomed her. This immediately established them as something more than just good friends.
Horatia, Marcella and Bernarda had come to tell Hamlet about the (unstaged) sighting of his father’s ghost. But before they could do so, Hamlet looked away from them and out into the audience, claiming that he had already seen his father in his mind’s eye.
He took a keen interest in their report of the ghost’s appearance. The text was cut to remove anachronistic references to armour. They all agreed to meet that night to try to spot it again.
The encounter between France-bound Laertes and his sister Ophelia was marked by the soft-spoken poetical tones of her brother’s admonishments. His sweet demeanour towards her here would make his subsequent violent actions seem all the more out of character. This Laertes was not a gruff combative young man easily given to violence.
Like many modern Ophelias, she rolled her eyes at her brother’s warning to guard her “chaste treasure”.
She charged him in return with being a “reckless libertine” at which point Laertes took a small condom packet from his pocket, assuring her “Fear me not”. When his father entered this joke was extended as Polonius presented him with huge box of condoms.
Polonius read his precepts aloud from sheets of paper handed to him by an assistant, which emphasised their status as “old saws”. After reading from each one he dramatically threw the sheet over his shoulder onto the floor. But not the last one “to thine own self be true” which instead of discarding, he carefully folded and presented to Laertes, underlining its importance.
The father’s lecture to his “green girl” daughter saw him again come close to overstepping the border between buffoon and clown.
Hamlet, Horatia and Marcella met to watch for the ghost. This scene was set not on any outside platform but in the same interior space as the previous scenes. Consequently, the initial remarks about the cold were cut.
They entered at the back of the stage by the windowed wall, proceeded into the thrust and turned to face the wall and desk. The besuited and haggard figure of the ghost appeared in the centre doorway, beckoning Hamlet to follow him.
Hamlet had his dagger drawn and pointed it at the ghost, demanding whether it was “King? father? [then even more quizzically] royal Dane?” He knelt before the desk, driving the point of his dagger down onto its surface, holding it in position with both hands on the hilt, as he bowed his head and demanded an explanation for this strange apparition.
Horatia and Bernarda tried to restrain Hamlet from following the ghost. His threat “I’ll make a ghost of *her* that stops me” was notable – primarily because it brought home that his companions were both women and only secondarily for its replacement of “lets” by “stops”.
Hamlet rushed out the doorway. Marcella paused in the doorway to decry that there was something “rotten” in the state of Denmark before joining the others in pursuit.
The lights came up on the ghost sat at the desk. He placed a pile of two books on it. He was confronted by Hamlet who entered through the thrust entrance and stood to hear the ghost’s explanation of how he had been killed.
Talking while sat at this desk directly echoed Claudius’s broadcast, but with the important distinction that the ghost was being truthful rather than engaging in propaganda.
The ghost’s voice was a sonorous rasp whose tormented tones matched the horror of his descriptions.
Learning that his father had been murdered, Hamlet crouched on spread knees digging his long dagger point into the ground in front of him, vowing that he would “sweep to my revenge”.
Sensing Hamlet’s eagerness, the ghost rose from the desk congratulating him “I find thee apt” and approached his son. He walked with a pronounced limp as he described the effect of the poison on his body, before turning round and exiting out the back wall door.
Hamlet fell face forward onto the ground before turning to lie on his back, banging his fists on the ground as he fired himself with resolution to avenge his father’s murder.
He sat upright as he thought out loud of his mother as a “pernicious woman”, and exuded a sense of satisfaction as he gazed at the audience to announce “So, uncle, there you are”.
Horatio and Marcella caught up with him. After explaining that the ghost was honest, Hamlet chattered manically and shook hands with them, provoking Horatia’s comment on his “wild and whirling words”.
The prince was excited and jolly until Horatia suggested there was no offence. In an abrupt change of mood, Hamlet slammed his dagger down onto the desk with a loud bang as he exclaimed “Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatia”.
A vow of silence was required of Horatia and Marcella. The ghost’s voice under the floor also enjoined them to swear. Hearing this deep vibrating utterance, Hamlet took up the carpet and examined its underside, then actually crawled underneath the carpet, emerging at the other side to wear it like a cape. It was in this guise that Hamlet responded to Horatia’s characterisation of the situation as “wondrous strange” by telling her “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome”.
In another violent gesture, Hamlet stabbed his dagger into the books that the ghost had left on the desk and encouraged them all to place their hands on its hilt to vow their silence, as the ghost’s deep voice once more sounded from underground.
The Reynaldo sequence was cut, so that the scene began with Ophelia rushing through the centre door holding a letter from Hamlet, telling Polonius how the prince had frightened her.
Ophelia’s reference to Hamlet’s doublet was kept, despite the anachronism.
Polonius was again comically upbeat in diagnosing Hamlet’s condition as the pangs of love.
A sofa was placed in the centre of the thrust, faced by two armchairs, to provide a cosy setting for Claudius and Gertrude to welcome Rosacrantz and Guildastern and brief them on their mission.
The text implies that Claudius confuses the identities of Hamlet’s two pals at the end of the sequence and is corrected by Gertrude. This production went one step further by having him get their names mixed up twice.
The king’s opening greeting to the pair as they each occupied an armchair “Welcome, dear Rosacrantz and Guildastern” was directed to each individual, but incorrectly. Hamlet’s friends immediately corrected Claudius, and his voice faded to a confused silence before he could finish pronouncing “Guildastern”. Then when they parted, he compounded his previous error by yet again getting their names the wrong way round. As his voice faltered in recognition of his error, Gertrude corrected him. The repetition of this gag reinforced the text’s hint that Claudius was in the habit of making this particular mistake.
The regendering of Rosacrantz and Guildastern worked together with the retention of an original wording in the text to create an interesting new meaning in performance.
The queen said to them: “And sure I am *two men* there is not living/To whom he more adheres”. This remark made the female versions of the original male characters even more privileged friends of Hamlet.
With Rosacrantz and Guildastern sent off to work, Polonius brought news of the return of the ambassadors from Norway. These characters did not appear, so the announcement was for information purposes only.
Polonius’s “brevity” speech included much pointing and was clownish more than buffoonish. This detracted from his likability and so diminished the shock of his subsequent killing.
He sat Ophelia down in an armchair while he read from the letter sent to her by the prince. This, like Hamlet’s other letters, bore an H symbol in the letterhead. Polonius turned the letter to show it to the king and queen, pointing at the word “bosom” as if it required particular attention.
Polonius suggested “loosing” Ophelia to Hamlet in order to observe his behaviour.
A more immediate opportunity to see the prince in action suddenly arose when Hamlet appeared through the back window door. The king and queen left Polonius to deal with the situation, and affecting an air of casual disregard, Polonius turned to face away from the doorway.
The audience could see Hamlet’s changed appearance straightaway as he entered: his face was painted with patches of black and white, and a Danish flag was draped loosely over his shoulders.
Polonius’s composure soon crumpled when he turned to face the prince. His greeting was reworked so that it was spoken: “How does my… good lord! Hamlet?” to underscore the bizarre nature of prince’s appearance.
In his fitful madman act, Hamlet looked Polonius up and down and called him a fishmonger. He described the sun as “a god kissing carrion”. The trigger word “conception” prompting him to lean forward onto the sofa and hump it.
A copy of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, an account of the author’s experience of depression, contained the “words, words, words” that Hamlet perused as he seated himself on the sofa next to Polonius.
The books “slanders” were mentioned but the slightly archaic list of slanders was skipped, enabling a more potent effect to be obtained from Hamlet’s response to Polonius leave-taking. After shifting closer to Polonius on the sofa and mimicking his movements such as crossing his legs, Polonius said “I will take my leave of you”.
Hamlet’s riposte “You cannot take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal” was followed by a triple repetition of “Except my life”, each iteration spoken in a deliberately distinct tone of voice.
“Except my life” was first pronounced flatly, then jokingly accompanied by manic laughter, and lastly with Hamlet distraught and tearful, his head sinking into his hands. He continued to bury his head in his hands as the bewildered Polonius left him.
Rosacrantz and Guildastern, having been warned of the change in Hamlet’s mood, came equipped to lighten it. The prince’s sullenness evaporated on seeing them, and when their portable radio began to play Kendrick Lamar’s i he joined in their dancing, lifting Rosacrantz off the ground, holding her horizontally behind his back and spinning her round. This sequence replaced the somewhat laboured banter of the original text and made for a more forceful and lively encounter based on music rather than wordplay.
The physical expression of their jollity continued. They threw sofa cushions at each other as Hamlet told them that Denmark was a prison, and the banter moved on to the subject of his ambition.
The mood became somewhat subdued when he accused the pair of being sent for, which they admitted. But then he dialled down the mood completely when telling them how he had lost all his mirth.
This sequence had more impact and its tone was darker coming so soon after the previous musical jollity. With hindsight it was possible ask how he could have lost all his mirth, given how much fun he appeared to be having with his friends when he first met them.
His caveat “Nor woman neither” took on a different meaning when said in wholly female company.
The two women responded to his changed mood with compassion and attention. Hamlet sat on the desk while Rosacrantz and Guildastern took tissues and wiped the paint from his face as they told him about the impending arrival of the players.
Polonius also heralded the players’ arrival in his own inimitable style. At first he walked in backwards with one eye on the offstage troupe with a cheery “Well be with you, gentlemen” but fell backwards over an armchair. He departed, returning shortly afterwards with a more extensive introduction. Itemising the genres in which the players excelled, he stressed the last syllable in “pastorAL” lending an affected air to his already strained introduction.
The company consisted of only two actors, so that elaborate greetings of individuals were unnecessary, allowing Hamlet to get straight down to his version of the speech by Pyrrhus.
Hamlet responded aggressively to Polonius’s interruptions. When the latter complimented him on his speech being “Well spoken” Hamlet shushed him. He continued to praise his “good accent” at which point the prince gestured to him to be quiet with the effect that Polonius’s voice trailed away to nothing before he could finish his line.
Nevertheless, he continued to interrupt after the First Player picked up where Hamlet left off.
His complaint that the player’s speech was “too long” was met with Hamlet’s sarcastic remark about it going to the barbers.
But when Polonius’s echoed Hamlet’s repetition of the phrase “mobled queen” the prince’s patience snapped and he silenced Polonius with a threatening fist gesture.
The First Player writhed on the ground with the emotion of playing the distraught Hecuba.
Hamlet’s “Now I am alone” soliloquy saw him spotlit as he spoke to the audience of his self-loathing in the face of the actor’s passionate portrayal of Priam’s wife.
He kicked the back of the sofa as he railed against the “kindless villain”, but in so doing he hurt his foot and hobbled in pain, regretting his rash intemperate action. Duly chastened by this discomfort, he knew he had become “an ass” whose “most brave” outburst had backfired.
He plumped and rearranged the cushions on the sofa, which seemed to suggest to him the idea of people “sitting at a play”, leading him in turn to the ruse of using the forthcoming performance to “catch the conscience of the king”.
After Rosacrantz and Guildastern had informed Claudius about the upcoming play, the king moved on to the serious business of setting Ophelia as bait in a trap for Hamlet. She was made to sit on a chair facing away towards the left corner of the thrust and read a bible.
Hamlet entered in spotlight from the back while Ophelia was shrouded in darkness near the edge of the thrust, her chair turned away from him.
Like many of his soliloquys in this production, “To be” was very subdued in tone, taking advantage of the intimate space to allow a very quiet delivery of the lines, which accentuated their inward-looking reflective content. Hamlet’s outward calm was betrayed only by a faint tear that trilled down his cheek.
The undercurrent of self-destruction inherent in his words became apparent when he spoke of making “his quietus” “With a bare bodkin” and slowly gestured cutting his wrist with an invisible knife.
The lights came up on Ophelia, providing his cue to notice her. She turned round in her chair to ask him how he was, to which he replied with a sheepish “Well, well, well.”
She offered to return the remembrances (a letter) quite calmly. When he denied having given her “aught” she proffered the letter again, stating firmly, and with hint of condescending admonishment at the obvious absurdity of his claim, “you know right well you did”.
Instead of losing his temper in his replies, Hamlet was also very calm. He appeared to be trying to rekindle their relationship. This developed into an interesting reading of the sequence.
During their debate about the relative merits of beauty and chastity he took her by the hand and they strolled about quite amicably as if they had broken up by mutual consent and this was their moment of declaring themselves just good friends.
But this low-level intimacy soon flowered into something more intense.
They drew close and held each other round the waist as Hamlet told her “I did love you once.”
Ophelia’s response “you made me believe so” was heartfelt and longing rather than an angry contribution to a row. Hamlet’s next phrase “You should not have believed me” continued this mood.
Sensing a growing intimacy between them, Ophelia whispered “I was the more deceived” as she kissed him. Hamlet kissed her back in a passionate embrace.
But he suddenly seemed to change his mind and drew back from her slightly, telling Ophelia softly “Get thee to a nunnery”. He then broke away from her completely and tried to justify his rejection of her by outlining his supposed faults.
As he castigated himself, Hamlet again displayed no anger towards Ophelia. As a considerate friend, he was trying to help her get over him: whatever they had once had, he now realised that their relationship could never work.
She listened to him, but as he once again softly advised her “Go thy ways to a nunnery” she took off her top and went to kiss him again, her near nudity emphasising the depth of her desire to rekindle their love.
At that very instant an offstage knock was heard that immediately informed Hamlet that he was being overheard.
He pointed and wagged his finger at Ophelia as he asked angrily “Where’s your father?” Her top, which had been clasped between their bodies in the nearness of their embrace, fell to the floor.
Her obviously deceitful answer caused him to fly into a rage. He bellowed that Polonius should “play the fool nowhere but in’s own house” at the unseen eavesdropper.
He tore Ophelia’s letter into shreds as he shouted a series of misogynistic taunts at her.
Declaring that “we will have no more marriages” he threw the shreds into the air so that they fell to the ground like confetti. For good measure, he also kicked her top along the ground back at her.
He stormed over to the secret door to scream at the unseen eavesdroppers that “all but one” of those already married should live.
With a final cry of “To a nunnery, go!” Hamlet rushed away. Ophelia leant against the back wall to decry the overthrow of his “noble mind”.
The obvious initial attachment between Hamlet and Ophelia in this sequence meant that Claudius’s statement “Love! His affections do not that way tend” had a ring of untruth about it. Despite Hamlet’s final rejection of her, sparked by his realisation that he was being spied on, he had clearly been loving towards her.
As Claudius and Polonius determined that Hamlet would be sent to England and also instructed to see his mother, Ophelia crouched on the ground trying to collect and reassemble the shredded pieces of the letter.
A player entered reciting his lines in preparation for the performance. Hamlet intercepted him and offered his ‘advice to the players’. The staging of this sequence thus provided interpolated lines for Hamlet to comment on.
The thrust stage was rearranged with the desk moved to its end and the sofa and chairs moved upstage to provide seating for the onstage audience.
Hamlet’s encounter with the female Horatia provided another instance of otherwise innocuous dialogue taking on a whole new meaning because of that character’s regendering.
The prince’s praise for the virtues of his now female ‘best friend’ was spoken as the pair held each other round the waist in the aftermath of Hamlet’s break-up with Ophelia.
Two phrases said by Hamlet to Horatia stood out in this respect:
“Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice/Sh’ath sealed thee for herself”
“Give me that *soul* man/That is not passion’s slave and I will wear *her* him/In my heart’s core”.
The overall effect was to suggest that Hamlet’s split from Ophelia was due, at least in part, to him having met someone new at university.
But despite the affection and warm words expressed here, nothing in their subsequent interactions, at least while Hamlet was still alive, looked like the flowering of the kind of fully declared amorous romance he had enjoyed with his ex.
The court entered to view the play, providing the prince with an opportunity to taunt his uncle. Hamlet sat himself behind the desk (the one bearing the royal Danish seal) to answer Claudius’s questions sarcastically almost as if doing an impression of him, but in a Scottish accent.
He came out from behind the desk to joke with Polonius about his student acting. Gertrude asked Hamlet to sit next to her, but instead he approached Ophelia. In view of their bad-tempered argument, she was unsurprisingly nervous around him and did not appreciate his “country matters” jokes.
Finally settling down to watch the entertainment, Hamlet sat on the ground at the foot of the sofa between it and Ophelia’s neighbouring chair.
The dumb show was cut and Rosacrantz and Guildastern helped out the two-man acting company by providing a haltingly amateurish joint delivery of the play’s prologue.
The Player King and Queen sat on the edge of the table to act out the latter’s reluctance to remarry once the former were dead.
Delighted at the Player Queen’s rejection of second marriage, Hamlet rose from ground exclaiming “Wormwood!” and went behind the sofa for a while to observe the Player King’s counterargument and the Queen’s renewed refusal.
There was a pause in the performance as the Player King lay down to sleep, during which Hamlet rushed out in front of the onstage audience to ask Gertrude how she liked the play.
He returned behind the sofa where, speaking at close range to his targets, he taunted Claudius with the idea that they were both guiltless “free souls”, announced the next character as Lucianus, and teased Ophelia with another lewd allusion.
Lucianus poured poison into the Player King’s ear at which point Hamlet rushed forward and jumped on the table, from which lofty vantage point he outlined the plot with the killer reference to how “the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”.
Claudius rose from the sofa and approached Hamlet. Stood at the foot of the table, he looked up at the triumphant prince briefly, but then turned away to his right, looked at the ground and then revolved right round before skulking off the left thrust exit, muttering softly “Give me some light, away”.
This reluctance to confront Hamlet directly together with Claudius’s submissive body language and sullen exit, prompted Hamlet’s “let the stricken deer go weep”.
Hamlet did a victory dance and sent Horatia to fetch some recorders. His jubilation was interrupted by Guildastern and Rosacrantz who implored him to visit Gertrude.
Horatia returned with a recorder which Hamlet used to shame Guildastern about her attempted manipulation of him. Polonius also encouraged Hamlet to visit his mother, a request that he met with his sarcastic game of cloudspotting.
Left alone to consider his next step, Hamlet described the late hour as the “witching time of night”. Crucially, his line “I will speak daggers to her but use none” was deliberately cut for reasons that were to become very apparent.
The brief appearances by Rosacrantz, Guildastern and Polonius were cut from the beginning of the scene to concentrate on the solitary figure of Claudius as he wrestled with his conscience.
The king was still wearing the dinner jacket he had put on for the play, but now his bow tie was undone and hanging loosely round his neck. A lighting effect was used to beam a cross shape onto the desk at the far end of the thrust to suggest that the location was some kind of chapel.
He declared “my offence is rank” before attempting to pray by placing his left hand on his heart and raising his right hand upwards.
This did not work, and Claudius expressed extreme torment when he collapsed and bewailed his “wretched state”. He knelt to pray again.
Hamlet entered through the centre door behind Claudius. Dagger in hand, he directed its point down towards the top of the kneeling Claudius’s head as he considered killing him. Deeming the moment inapt, he changed his mind and skulked away. Claudius rose to his feet, and dissatisfied with his attempt, removed the cross from round his neck and slammed it down on the desk before exiting.
The desk was moved to the centre of the thrust stage and decked with bedding to create an approximation of a bed within Gertrude’s closet.
Polonius hid in the secret doorway concealed behind the portrait of Claudius in the back wall.
Gertrude remained upstage while Hamlet entered, dagger drawn, from the thrust entrance. This aggressive armed stance made necessary the text edit in the “witching hour” sequence as outlined above.
The mutual rebuffs were strongly delivered and showed that Gertrude was a match for Hamlet’s force of character, at least at first.
Frustrated by Hamlet’s intransigence, Gertrude made to leave saying she would “set those to you who can speak”. Hamlet took hold of her, prompting her cry, Polonius’s echoing of it and Hamlet’s decisive action.
Approaching the source of the sound behind the Claudius portrait, Hamlet struck his dagger through it repeatedly. He turned away and lingered on the thrust part of the stage away from the back wall, looking in the opposite direction as Polonius staggered out and collapsed dead.
Hamlet did not know whom he had killed and when he let slip a reference to the killing of his father, Gertrude repeated Hamlet’s shock accusation back at him “As kill a king?”
This questioning provoked Hamlet to shout back very loudly “Ay, lady, it was my word”. But as he did so, he caught sight of the dead Polonius and realised that he hadn’t killed the new king.
He approached the back wall and looked at the slashed picture of Claudius that covered Polonius’s hiding place as if stabbing through it should, by some form of symbolic magic, have killed its subject. He stared in bewilderment at Gertrude, and finally switched his gaze onto the dead body in absolute consternation.
With a mixture of incomprehension and panic. Hamlet leant over Polonius’s body and shouted at it “Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger” in a desperate attempt at shifting the blame onto his victim.
Hamlet showed Gertrude the two pictures, the one of his father on the wall stage right and the now torn one of Claudius stage left.
Expressing his disgust as Gertrude’s intimacy with Claudius, the prince pulled up the bedding from the bed when referring to its “rank sweat” and continued to rail at her as the pair wandered to the end of the thrust. The ghost entered again through the centre door to remind Hamlet of his task.
The ghost slowly approached Hamlet, limping down the length of the thrust, and touched him on the side of the head before disappearing down the left thrust exit.
Gertrude assumed Hamlet’s vision of his dead father was a sign of madness. The pair sat on the ground and Hamlet took her hand and placed it on his neck so that she could feel that his pulse “doth temperately keep time”.
After this Gertrude and Hamlet were reconciled. They sat on the edge of the bed and Gertrude stroked his arm affectionately. The mention of Hamlet being sent to England was cut. The sequence ended with a now subdued Hamlet dragging Polonius’s body away.
Claudius found Gertrude and asked her what had happened. She began her explanation with a degree of composure, but leant against and slid down the back wall and sat slumped on the ground when describing the killing of the “unseen good old man”.
The king dispatched Rosacrantz and Guildastern to find Hamlet.
The recovery in Gertrude’s composure did not last long. She sank and knelt at the side of the bed sobbing.
Claudius tried to comfort by implying that he was also upset, saying “O come away,/My soul is full of discord and dismay” in a truly patronising tone of voice as if he were comforting a child. His pretence to fellow feeling was a patently cynical and insincere untruth.
After ensuring that Polonius’s body was “safely stowed” Hamlet was confronted by Rosacrantz who demanded to know the whereabouts of the deceased. The prince disdainfully compared her to a “sponge” that would eventually be squeezed dry of the king’s favours once she had outlived her usefulness.
Rosacrantz drew a handgun from the back of her trousers and forced Hamlet to accompany her. But such a threat appeared unnecessary as the prince gleefully ran ahead of her, requesting to be brought to Claudius.
Claudius’s interrogation of Hamlet was characterised by the audacity and effectiveness of the prince’s taunts. The fact that his wit and rhetorical dexterity could provoke his uncle to violence, paradoxically demonstrated Claudius’s weakness.
The king’s first attempt at questioning him was met by a soft, sarcastic riff on the body being eaten by worms.
His second try elicited another jocular response, but with a sting in the tail. Hamlet suggested that if Claudius’s messenger could not find Polonius in heaven “seek him i’th’ other place yourself”. This bitter barb so provoked Claudius that he suddenly lunged forward at Hamlet before equally quickly checking himself.
Hamlet greeted the news that he was to be sent to England by addressing Claudius as his “dear mother”. Claudius didn’t understand why, and when Hamlet explained his reasoning and embraced him as his mother, Claudius angrily and forcefully pushed him away with both hands.
Not often do productions portray that kind of anger and violence from Claudius once he has Hamlet firmly in his grasp.
The scene ended with a truncated version of Claudius’s invocation “And England, if my love thou hold’st at aught, effect/The present death of Hamlet…”
The staging of Hamlet’s departure from Denmark to England was reworked so that Fortinbras and the Norwegian Captain did not appear. Instead the Captain’s lines were transferred to Horatia.
Horatia, Hamlet, Rosacrantz and Guildastern appeared in moody dark outdoor coats against an equally moody projected backdrop of sombre clouds. A brief sound effect of overflying jets indicated the impending conflict between Norway and Poland.
Hamlet questioned Horatia about the troop movements, and her well-informed replies included her statement “We go to gain a little patch of ground…” – a line that only made sense if Horatia were herself Norwegian. As the text makes plain, this battle has nothing to do with Denmark.
Left by himself, Hamlet pondered the implications of “How all occasions do inform against me”. Once again, the intimacy of the space enabled another dialled down reflection on his situation.
On this calming note, the interval came.
The start of the second half saw Horatia, taking the Gentleman’s lines, telling Gertrude that Ophelia was “distract”. They were both wearing coats, indicating that this sequence took place outdoors.
After Horatia had gone to fetch Ophelia, Gertrude bent forward and nearly threw up. She proceeded to contextualise this by explaining that her soul was sick and that “Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss”.
This physical symptom of her inner distress followed on neatly from previous manifestations of her unhappiness.
Ophelia rushed straight towards Gertrude crying “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” before hugging her enthusiastically round the waist, and maintaining that grip as she swung the two of them round.
She began singing fragments of songs, which attracted the attention of the newly-arrived Claudius who asked her how she was.
Replying “Well, good dild you” Ophelia bowed so close in front of him that she touched him. She went behind his back and slid up and down in mimicry of a pole-dancing movement as she commented “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter”.
Her rebuffs to Claudius were spoken firmly and directly in his face, demonstrating that she was not afraid of the repercussions of expressing these manic sublimated accusations.
Ophelia’s actions became increasingly lewd.
She began singing “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day”. She illustrated the phrase “Then UP he rose” by punching her arm up phallicly between Claudius’s legs as she stressed the word. A similar gesture and stress accompanied “By COCK they are to blame”.
Ophelia lay on her back and simulated sex with her legs flat on the ground but bent apart at the knee, thrusting upwards rhythmically to the beat of “So would I ha’ done etc.” which she sang in a mocking imitation of the voice of the man who was breaking his promise to marry her precisely because of her willingness to accommodate him.
She clasped comically at her stomach as if this supposed intercourse had instantly produced a pregnancy. This gesture informed the line “We must be patient” with the implication that she was referring to herself and her unborn child.
Ophelia bade the “Sweet ladies, goodnight” and departed.
Laertes’ arrival was not announced by a messenger but by gunfire sound effects as he burst in brandishing a handgun.
His previous sweet disposition made this act of violence look out of character and thus all the more desperate. This was perhaps why Claudius did not appear overly scared when he tried to talk Laertes down.
Ophelia swept in, slowly flapping her arms likes wings, then froze in position among them. Laertes expounded at length on her pitiful condition stood right next to her.
She had brought with her numerous aromatherapy bottles containing flower essences. She made Laertes sit on the ground next to her and handed the first two bottles to him, which she named as rosemary and pansies.
As he took the bottles from her, Ophelia snatched the gun from his hand, got up from the ground and pointed the weapon at the others. She did not have her hand properly gripped on the trigger, so that her threat was more symbolic than real.
Ophelia distributed the rest of the bottles and made the four of them kneel at an imagined graveside. They were encouraged to pour the essences onto the grave while she stood at its head leading them in singing “And will he not come again?” as if it were a well-known tune. The popular familiarity of this tune had been suggested at the start of the performance by Hamlet playing it on the piano.
The ‘mourners’ put their hands together as if in prayer and poured the bottles on the ground in this mock funeral ceremony.
The pitiful sorrow of this spectacle took a shocking turn.
As Ophelia wished the others farewell with “God buy you” she pointed the gun at her own head as if about to shoot herself. But just at that instant she clutched at her stomach, feeling another imagined baby kick, and rushed away still clasping her hands over her stomach.
Given the playful mocking origins of Ophelia’s ‘pregnancy’ during simulated sex while singing a song about male promise-breaking, and the lack of an obvious baby bump, it is unlikely that Ophelia was actually pregnant. The most plausible explanation was that this supposed baby was part of her madness.
Claudius told Laertes he had to “commune with your grief” and handed the young man’s gun back to him in an act that symbolised how Claudius was effectively ‘rearming’ him.
If the reimagining of Horatio as a female Horatia whom Hamlet praised and held close round the waist had generated questions about the precise nature of their relationship, then this next brief scene of perfunctory exposition became unexpectedly enlivened by its provision of a further telling piece of the puzzle.
Horatia read out a letter from Hamlet that explained how he had survived the pirate attack on the ship taking him to England.
At the point where Hamlet explained “in the grapple I boarded them” she paused, lowered the letter and looked knowingly at the audience as if to say ‘tsk, typical Hamlet!’, before continuing to the end.
She acted like an established girlfriend rolling her eyes at yet another piece of bizarre but nonetheless endearing behaviour by her beloved.
Horatia read out the letter’s sign-off “Farewell. He that thou knowest thine. Hamlet.”
Written to a female Horatia, this phrase took on the sound of a declaration of erotic love. Not surprisingly therefore she clutched the letter to her chest as if it were a lover’s token.
These small but powerful hints provided a strong indication of her attachment to Hamlet.
Claudius explained to Laertes why he had not taken action against Hamlet.
Their discussion was interrupted by Horatia, not a Messenger, who brought Hamlet’s letters to Claudius.
She was dismissed with a very rude “Leave us” by Claudius, indicating perhaps that he disliked her for being too closely associated with the prince.
Claudius and Laertes devised the plot to kill Hamlet using a toxic-tipped foil and poisoned chalice.
Their deliberations were cut short by the appearance of Gertrude. She walked slowly across the back of the stage, trailing her white coat behind her and softly mumbling the production’s theme song “And will he not come again?” all of which added to the dejection of her expression as she told Laertes that his sister had drowned.
Ophelia’s grave was prepared by only one gravedigger, so the scene’s initial comic banter was cut. The gravedigger simply stood in the trap door at the centre of the thrust and threw out skulls while singing the song provided for him in the original text “In youth when I did love, did love”.
Hamlet and Horatia appeared from the thrust entrance and made fun of the gravedigger, joking that one of the disinterred skulls might be that of a lawyer.
As the gravedigger sung of how “age with his stealing steps/Hath clawed me in his clutch” he took an implausibly intact skeletal forearm and connected fingers, and played with them to make them appear to walk around the edge of the grave.
He arranged some skulls in front of him and used some short bones to drum on them enthusiastically as he continued to sing.
After trading witticisms with the gravedigger, Hamlet picked up Yorick’s skull and actually wretched before saying “My gorge rises at it”.
He adopted a Northern Irish accent to ventroliquise the skull saying “Now get you to my lady’s chamber… to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.”
Unlike many contemporary productions, RADA’s Hamlet did not cut the lines referencing how Alexander the Great’s dust could have turned into a plug stopping a bung-hole.
The pair lurked in the left thrust entrance when the funeral procession entered. Ophelia was wrapped in a white shroud and carried by Laertes in his arms. He placed her just by the graveside and asked “What ceremony else?”
Gertrude quietly poured some of Ophelia’s aromatherapy essence onto her, which she touchingly characterised as “Sweets to the sweet”.
Instead of leaping into the grave to be reunited with an already interred Ophelia, Laertes’ emotional reunion involved picking her up and carrying her down into the grave where he held her in his loving fraternal grasp.
Hamlet emerged from the shadows to confront Laertes, who jumped out of the grave and grabbed Hamlet with both hands by the throat. They were soon separated and restrained. The gravedigger held back Laertes while Horatia held back Hamlet to stop them fighting.
Hamlet swore at Laertes for outfacing him, and then fixed Claudius menacingly in his gaze, promising him that “dog will have his day”. This night-time scene was lit partly by the mourners’ handheld electric torches and Claudius’s torch ominously illuminated Hamlet’s face as he threatened him.
In the more relaxed atmosphere of the palace interior, Hamlet told Horatia about the plot to kill him. He had what appeared to be the original letter from Claudius to the king of England containing his death sentence. He defused her objections to the letter switch that had doomed Rosacrantz and Guildastern by asserting that they “did make love to this employment”.
Osric was played by the same actor as the clownish Polonius, which enabled him to negotiate both these roles with little effort. The courtier intruded on the pair marching in exaggerated military drill steps.
Hamlet made fun of him and insisted that he both remove and replace his pork pie hat in quick succession.
Osric’s verbose and meandering message about the return of Laertes and the bet on the fencing bout was sufficiently irritating for even Horatia to join in the mockery, so that “What imports the nomination of this gentleman?” was said by both of them to heighten its effect.
The sequence’s references to anachronistic “carriages” and “hangers” were cut.
Osric exited using exaggerated drill turns and steps. Hamlet followed close behind copying the courtier’s movements in mockery of his rigid military gait. This was an extension of the parodying of his affected overblown speech.
Hamlet’s calm resignation before the bout was indicated by his assurance that “the readiness is all”.
The court assembled amid the preparations for the fencing. A series of interlocking metal grilles was assembled in a line to form a long fencing piste down the length of the performance space. Two benches were arranged diagonally either side of the upstage end of the piste and a table was placed at its upstage end, the entire configuration forming an arrow shape.
Gertrude watched from stage right, while court outcast Horatia spied on events from the left thrust entrance.
Claudius made Hamlet and Laertes hold hands and make up, which Hamlet did calmly and at length.
The two fencers tried out foils at the downstage end of the thrust, but actually fought with both foil and dagger.
They readied themselves at the centre of the piste where Osric kept them separate until the swift withdrawal of his hand signified the start of the bout.
Hamlet immediately lunged forward in a confident move, striking the tip of Laertes’ sword with such determination that Laertes retreated in surprise. Laertes then tried a similar forward lunge at Hamlet, but he did not budge.
This initial token exchange established Hamlet as the more aggressive and confident swordsman. This seemed a reasonable outcome given Laertes’ characteristic mildness.
Once the bout began in earnest they both fought equally skilfully until Hamlet touched Laertes on his arm, which was declared a palpable hit.
Claudius took a pearl and placed it in the glass and offered it to Hamlet. He refused it and the glass was put on a tray carried by a servant.
Hamlet’s second hit, on the side of Laertes’ stomach, was conceded by his opponent. During the resulting pause, Gertrude used her handkerchief to mop Hamlet’s brow. She took the glass from the tray held by the nearby servant. Claudius, who was at the other end of the piste with Laertes, pleaded slowly and softly “Gertrude, do not drink”, but she firmly insisted that she would.
A third combat ended when the fencers’ foils and daggers ended up locked into a square formation, which was declared “Nothing neither way”.
The time had come for the bout to turn nasty.
Laertes stuck the “unbated” end of his foil into Hamlet’s back. The prince writhed in pain for some time after it hit home.
Hamlet turned and glowered at Laertes. As he was wearing thick gloves, Hamlet was able to grasp the still extended blade in his hands and wrench it from Laertes’ grip before using it to strike his opponent in the back in the same way.
Amid general consternation at the sudden violence, Laertes picked up Hamlet’s sword and they fought with each other again, but without daggers.
The fierce skirmish ended with Hamlet dealing another blow to Laertes’ stomach. The intensity of this hit could explain why of the two of them Laertes died first.
Laertes collapsed on the ground, followed almost instantly by Gertrude, who explained that her drink had been drugged.
Laertes told Hamlet about the poisoned blade. Claudius tried to grab the blade of the foil from Hamlet. But his attempt failed, giving Hamlet the opportunity to turn it on Claudius, who staggered away and collapsed at far end of the thrust.
Hamlet retrieved the poisoned glass from where Gertrude had dropped it and forced the remainder of its deadly contents into Claudius’s mouth as he lay helpless on his back.
With his dying breath Laertes asked to “Exchange forgiveness” with Hamlet and the two were reconciled.
The prince turned to Horatia, who stood just near him in left thrust entrance, and declared “I am dead, Horatia” before staggering back down the piste towards Gertrude. He fell to the ground right next to her, exclaiming “Wretched Queen, adieu”.
Hamlet sat upright looking back at the others, clutching his chest as he declared that “This fell sergeant Death/Is strict in his arrest”, his speech increasingly affected by the sharp contortions wracking his body.
All this time Horatia remained at a distance cowering just offstage, possibly because Claudius’s earlier rude dismissal still made her feel reticent about showing her face at a court event. But given that of the non-servants only she and Hamlet were now left alive this should not have been an obstacle.
Hamlet spoke to Horatia again saying that he was “dead” and that she should “report me and my cause aright/To the unsatisfied”.
This time she hurried to Hamlet’s side, exclaiming that she was “more an antique Roman than a Dane”. She took the poisoned glass in an attempt to drink its dregs, but he snatched it back from her.
She remained crouched on all fours at his right side.
After losing the tussle over the cup, Horatia took hold of Hamlet’s hand and kept holding it continuously until he was taken from her at the end of the sequence. This intense physical contact said more about their relationship than any of their previous embraces.
The sound of cannon was heard, prompting Hamlet to ask about the “warlike noise”. Osric informed him that it was the approach of Fortinbras.
Hamlet was now in his last few minutes.
He began sat upright but gradually leant further back, Horatia’s firm hold on his right hand enabling his descent to be both slow and smooth. As he reclined, he also gradually reached out with his left hand towards the dead Gertrude so that when almost fully prone, his fingers clasped hers.
The spectacle of devoted Horatia firmly gripping his hand while he reconciled himself with the mother whom he had moments before dismissed as “wretched” was very moving.
Those with memories stretching back to the start of the performance might have been reminded of the moment when Claudius escorted Gertrude away from Hamlet, breaking a hand contact they had established and which this sequence re-established.
Hamlet gave his approval of Fortinbras with his dying voice. He looked up briefly to declare “The rest is silence”.
And then there was a significant pause of silence as Horatia continued to gaze at his now dead body, still grasping his hand.
Horatia was given the final words of the performance, which were taken from her character’s responses and interactions with non-appearing characters and a few lines borrowed from Fortinbras himself.
Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet Prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
(sound of drums) Why does the drum come hither?
Give order that these bodies
(She faltered in grief at the phrase “these bodies” as she leant over Hamlet: she raised his hand, still firmly in her grasp, to her mouth and kissed it, then clasped it to her heart)
High on the stage be placed to the view,
[intervening lines] All this can I
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal.
Hamlet was slowly carried away on the shoulders of four people to a choral version of “And will he not come again?” while Horatia stood stiffly by and watched.
Once Hamlet had been carried offstage, the lights went down.
The reimagining of Horatio as a female Horatia was a simple switch that added an extra dimension to the story and new meaning to otherwise unremarkable lines, transforming this character from best mate to lover.
Despite the involvement of a director and principal actor who could easily have sold out a much larger venue over a considerably longer run, this production was perfectly tailored to its small studio theatre space.
It could have survived a transfer to somewhere like the Almeida or Donmar. But had it transferred to a bigger theatre, it would have lost its essential features which were a simplicity of staging and ultra-close audience proximity.
However, it seems unlikely that Tom Hiddleston will leave his Hamlet ambitions behind in Malet Street. At another time and in another place, he will retread the path from “A little more than kin, and more than kind” through to “The rest is silence”.
But improving on this performance and making as close a connection with the audience will be a really difficult task.
The production was directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Ayesha Antoine – Rosacrantz / Bernarda
Lolita Chakrabarti – Queen Gertrude
Eleanor de Rohan – Guildastern / Marcella / Priest
Nicholas Farrell – King Claudius
Sean Foley – Polonius / Osric
Tom Hiddleston – Hamlet
Ansu Kabia – King Hamlet / Player King / Gravedigger
Caroline Martin – Horatia
Irfan Shamji – Laertes / Player Queen
Kathryn Wilder – Ophelia