Dramaten’s Hamlet

What happens if you cut the role of Horatio from Hamlet and give most of his lines to Ophelia?

This is the main idea behind a production of Hamlet being staged by Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) in Stockholm in January. It will be Dramaten’s contribution to global commemorations of Shakespeare 400.

Director Jenny Andreasson previously focused her creative attentions on plays written by historically neglected female dramatists such as Françoise Sagan and Lillian Hellman.

A sympathy for neglected women playwrights has translated easily into fellow-feeling for Ophelia, the marginalised woman of Elsinore whose destiny as a character is to be obedient, then exploited, then mad, then dead.

In a Q&A on Dramaten’s website Andreasson has described how she first got to grips with the play by realising that she could make something new out of Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship, avoiding the usual cliché of Ophelia as victim to create a more equal relationship.

Whereas other directors, most recently Lyndsey Turner at the Barbican, have sought to make Ophelia less of a doormat by tweaking her character within the framework of the given text, this production will take the bold step of cutting Hamlet’s best friend Horatio and giving the bulk of his lines to Ophelia so that she effectively becomes his closest associate as well as lover.

A recent newspaper report on the start of rehearsals gave a taste of the finished result. The actors in the principal roles, Hamadi Khemiri as Hamlet and Nina Zanjani as Ophelia, read aloud from what was described as act one, scene one of the new production.

Translated back into English from the production’s Swedish they share the following exchange:

Ophelia
I think I saw him yesternight.
Hamlet
Saw? Who?
Ophelia
Your father.
Hamlet
You saw my father?
Ophelia
Season your admiration for a while
With an attent ear till I may deliver
This marvel to you.
Hamlet
For God’s love, let me hear!

Jenny Andreasson said in the same article that this reallocation of lines from Horatio to Ophelia had produced interesting results:

“In the scenes where she appears innocent, she instead turns out to be a very aware person. So when I began adapting the play a different Hamlet and a different Ophelia emerged.”

The travelling players who visit Elsinore will be a feminist theatre group, which suggests some rewriting or adaptation of The Mousetrap.

Part of Hamlet’s struggle will be about deciding what kind of a man he wants to be.

So far, so interesting.

Although no further specifics about the production have been provided so far ahead of its premiere in Stockholm on 16 January, it is possible to extrapolate some of the possibilities that the director’s basic premise makes possible.

In general terms, having Ophelia as Hamlet’s confidante and lover in the early part of the play must mean that their eventual falling out – Hamlet will eventually kill her father – will appear to have an even greater effect on them both because the intensity and closeness of their relationship will be portrayed on stage rather than merely described.

This also means that in the later part of the play, after Ophelia’s death, Hamlet’s isolation will be starker as he will have no Horatio to confide in, his final moments all the bleaker as no one will comfort him in his final moments.

Finally an Ophelia that a 21st century audience can really identify with?

I will be travelling to Stockholm in February to see three performances of the production and will report back on what actually happens.

Update: 22 December 2015

In a recent Dramaten press release, Jenny Andreasson makes these additional comments on her version of the play:

I see Hamlet and Ophelia as reflections of each other, more closely bound to each other than normal. Despite different starting points they do bear similarities throughout the story in their complex relationships with their fathers, their attempts at revolt and madness. Even the relationship between Queen Gertrude and the new king Claudius looks different than normal, since they share power, at least to begin with…

Update: 8 January 2016

The entire run of this production has been cancelled due to the director being ill. Nothing has been confirmed regarding a possible future continuation of the project.

dramaten hamlet
Nina Zanjani (Ophelia) and Hamadi Khemiri (Hamlet)

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.

Conclusions

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.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet

Hamlet, Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, 24-27 September 2014

The Royal Exchange in Manchester is a theatre in the round whose futuristic metal framework sits incongruously within the cavernous hall of the elegant Victorian building from which it takes its name. Six rows of seating on stage level and two rows on the first and second gallery levels place the audience very close to the performance space.

For Hamlet, the stage was initially set with two adjacent rectangular tables forming a square space piled high with props. At the centre of the square, one on each table, sat two large cardboard boxes marked ‘fragile’ bearing the design of a chair on the side; from each of these emerged the blade of a foil, the pair of blades arranged so that they crossed each other. Around the boxes were arranged stacks of small chairs atop which were tiny felt crowns, as well as neat piles of clothes, books, a recorder and a small speaker with its microphone. The arrangement was lit from above by a single bulb.

As the house lights dimmed for the start of the performance, two stage crew pushed the two adjacent tables out opposite exits clearing the space for the first scene.

Francisco (Tachia Newall) was the first guard to appear (1.1). Barnardo’s “Who’s there?” echoed from outside in the outer hall as he entered to approach Francisco inside the theatre. Both wore modern guard uniforms and brandished torches in the darkness of the Elsinore battlements.

Barnardo (Ben Stott) was soon joined in his relief of Francisco’s watch by a female Marcella (Claire Benedict), who wore a similar guard’s uniform with hi-viz yellow gilet, and by Horatio (Thomas Arnold), who was considerably older than Hamlet and wore a long coat against the cold.

Horatio’s scepticism about the ghostly apparition prompted Barnardo’s retelling of the previous two nights’ events.

Marcella sensed the ghost coming before its appearance. She clasped her hands to her stomach as if gripped by a palpable physical sensation in her guts heralding its arrival.

The ghost did not appear at this stage in the form of an actor. Instead bright light shone down from above accompanied by a throbbing electronic sound causing those present to take fright. The source of the light and sound seemed to weave from side to side above them and their gaze followed it.

This was more of an UFO sighting than a spectral visitation. Although the staging was effective, it was nevertheless frustrating that the figure described as resembling the king was not visible. The sound and light faded on Horatio’s direct address to it.

Now that the previously sceptical Horatio had seen the ghost for himself, the vindicated Marcella questioned him “Is it not like the king?” confidently expecting his concession. Horatio looked at the ground as he grudgingly admitted that the ghost resembled the king “As thou art to thyself”.

References to the King looking as he did when fighting Norway and discussion of Denmark’s war preparations were cut, in line with the production’s general expunging of the Fortinbras and Norway subplot. The mentions here of apparitions in the streets of ancient Rome were also removed.

The ghost soon returned, swooping above the stage as Horatio tried again to engage it, and causing the witnesses to duck and dive around as if avoiding a low-flying aircraft. Marcella drew her handgun, offering to strike at it with her “partisan”. The rapid sweep of the light and sound was a perfect match for the panicked reports the ghost’s ever-changing position. Then it was gone.

The ghost’s non-material form and its presence high in the air fitted extremely well with Marcella’s description of it as “majestical” and “as the air, invulnerable”.

All agreed that Hamlet should be informed.

Two tables were wheeled in and placed end-to-end to form one long dinner table (1.2). Claudius (John Shrapnel) and his guests entered on either side of it and took their places.

While Claudius, Gertrude (Barbara Marten) and most of the others were smartly dressed and businesslike in appearance, Hamlet stood out, and not just because of Maxine Peake’s striking short blonde hair: a style resulting from taking a photo of Tilda Swinton to the hairdresser.

Hamlet wore a dark outfit comprising loose-fitting wide-bottomed trousers topped with a buttoned jacket of the same colour, rather like a designer Chairman Mao boiler suit.

This was not a drag king, male impersonation with fake whiskers and cropped hair. Peake’s hair in particular was unmistakably feminine and her voice maintained its natural softness. She was recognisably a woman but with sufficient male accoutrements for her presentation of a male character to be believable while at the same time not obliterating her own femininity.

Ophelia (Katie West) wore a plain-looking blue and white check dress and had a mop of scruffy hair, making her look slightly dowdy and put-upon. She was the complete opposite of her vigorous business-suited mother and this made her as much of an outsider as Hamlet.

Claudius sat at one end of the table: to his immediate left was his man Osric (Ben Stott), then Ophelia, Laertes (Ashley Zhangazha) and an invented character Margaret (Michelle Butterly). Gertrude sat at the opposite end of the table facing her husband. Down the other side of the table were Horatio, separated by a sizeable gap from Hamlet, followed by Polonia (Gillian Bevan) who was positioned next to Claudius as his literal right-hand woman.

Claudius rose to speak of the old king’s death and his recent marriage to Gertrude. This unavoidably retained its mention of Denmark’s “warlike state”, references to which were otherwise completely expunged from the production.

He moved to Gertrude’s side, produced a necklace from a box and placed it round her neck as another symbolic reminder that she had been “taken to wife”.

Everyone applauded this except Hamlet, who continued to slouch, his hands in his lap.

Claudius walked back down Hamlet’s side of the table, speaking of the “better wisdoms” that had approved his actions. As he made his way, Claudius clasped Horatio on the back. But when he came to Hamlet, he could only look at him, his hand hesitantly raised as if ready to place it on his cousin’s shoulder, before continuing on, having conspicuously omitted Hamlet from his round of backslapping. He gave Polonia a reassuring pat too before taking his seat. This apprehensive change of mind demonstrated his nervousness towards Hamlet.

Declaring “For all our thanks” Claudius raised a glass in toast and everyone but Hamlet joined in raising their glasses.

This, together with Hamlet’s refusal to clap and his omission from Claudius’ glad-handing, provided a total of three indications of the tension between Claudius and Hamlet before any word of discord had been spoken. Hamlet’s sour face and detachment had been given a distinct context.

The latter part of Claudius’ speech about Fortinbras and the ambassadors was cut, so that Claudius continued by asking what suit Laertes had to him.

Laertes remained seated as he began his reply with the very formal “My dread lord”, then at Polonia’s prompting stopped, rose from his seat and restarted his address in a more respectful standing position.

Once he had completely his request for permission to return to France, Polonia, who was scrutinising his every move from the opposite side of the table, coughed and nodded at her son, prompting him to add the obsequious concluding formula “and bow them to your gracious leave and pardon”.

This sickening display must have increased the level of Hamlet’s disgust at the new court order beyond the limits of his tolerance.

Just as Claudius was finishing talking to Laertes, Hamlet got up from his seat, turned and started to walk away slowly. This made Claudius’ first words to him “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son” an attempt to call him back.

Hamlet’s decision to turn back, as well as his response “A little more than kin and less than kind”, together indicated that he had risen to the provocative bait of Claudius referring to him as “my son”. His buttons had been well and truly pressed. Bothering to deal with Claudius was an indication of just how annoyed Hamlet had become. But despite the provocation, Hamlet remained calm and measured.

He stood and leant on the back of his chair to trade bitter words with both Claudius and Gertrude. He was simultaneously sure of himself, but resigned to the overwhelming forces surrounding him. Despite the apparent futility, he felt compelled to plead his continued mourning for his father.

In “I am too much in the son”, Hamlet placed no great emphasis on “son” so that the possible sun/son pun was not brought out. “Ay, madam, it is common” was curt and to the point. But when he contradicted Gertrude over her use of “seems”, picking up and repeating her own word, Hamlet was slightly more enlivened as if relishing the opportunity to fully engage his disputational powers.

Hamlet avoided eye contact with Claudius when not talking to him, but made a point of looking at his uncle when remarking “they are actions that a man might play”. This was a subtle accusation of insincerity. There were signs later that Hamlet considered this a common problem among Claudius’ courtiers.

Hamlet, now sat down again, looked worried when Claudius said he should not go back to Wittenberg. He immediately fixed his gaze upon Gertrude, scanning her intently to see if she would take Hamlet’s side and contradict her husband. But when Gertrude said she wanted him to stay, Hamlet looked hurt and betrayed. Husband and wife truly were one flesh.

Resigned and disappointed, Hamlet slowly and deliberately voiced his assent to Gertrude’s entreaty.

The dinner finished, all the company began to depart except for Hamlet and Gertrude, who fixed a stony cold glare at her son, shaking her head in disapproval, before finally rising to leave Hamlet by himself. This was a further indication of their enmity. The contrast so far established between bullet-headed Claudius, stone-faced Gertrude and soft-spoken Hamlet was very keen.

Hamlet had turned to sit sideways facing along the length of the table. He bowed his head with his hand across his brow shielding his eyes and emitted a plaintive wail, the initial “O” of “O that this too too solid flesh”, before looking at his hands wishing that they might melt.

Hamlet was almost in tears, looked up at the sky to call upon God, and then slammed his hand angrily on the table to exclaim “Fie” at the world’s unweeded garden.

Hamlet’s expansion on this concept in relation to his mother and uncle saw him address the empty spaces they had just occupied. He turned to face the chair recently vacated by his uncle to spit out the word “satyr”: his description of Claudius in comparison with the “Hyperion” of his dead father.

It was possible to feel pain of Hamlet’s memories of his previous family life. His voice ached as he described the time when the old king “might not beteem the winds of heaven” affect his mother’s face.

This early in the performance, Hamlet’s phrase “Frailty, thy name is Woman” kindled a flicker of awareness of the woman beneath the male character.

His profound disappointment with his mother, particularly her prompt remarriage, caused a faint croak to affect his voice as he characterised her as worse than “a beast that wants discourse of reason”. This pained description was made more acute by the way Gertrude had just rebuffed Hamlet’s desire to return to university.

Hamlet paused when thinking of a figure with which he could not compare before alighting on “than I to… Hercules”.

By now the animation of Hamlet’s passion had made him rise from his chair. But in his dismal resignation that he had to hold his tongue, he went to sit at the other side of the table.

Horatio and Marcella entered behind Hamlet’s back, so he did not recognise Horatio at first by voice, offering him only a curt formulaic greeting. But once he turned round and recognised his friend, he rose and hugged him in warm welcome while Marcella stood back.

Hamlet and Horatio sat round the table so that when Hamlet referred to the “funeral baked meats” he was able to gesture directly at it as if still laden with the food.

Once Horatio had announced that he had seen his dead father, Hamlet looked him directly in the eye, his keen intelligence fully engaged.

Horatio explained the nature of the vision, citing Marcella as the sole initial witness because Barnardo was cut from this scene.

Hamlet asked whether his father had frowned, whether he had been “Pale, or red”, and wanted confirmation that he had fixed his eyes upon Horatio. No mention was made of a beard as John Shrapnel was clean shaven. The references to the dead king’s armour and beaver were removed, excisions which were in turn reflected in Hamlet’s summation “My father’s spirit [in arms]. All is not well.”

Hamlet agreed to accompany them that night. Left alone to ponder it all, he stood by the back of Gertrude’s chair to pronounce that “foul deeds will rise…” before exiting.

hamlet

Laertes and Ophelia entered and the young man hugged his sister lifting her off the ground (1.3). They sat and talked around the same table about Hamlet’s approaches to her. Laertes warned that the “sanity and health” of nation depended on the prince.

Ophelia rolled her eyes at Laertes’ florid euphemisms like “chaste treasure” and “unmastered importunity”. When hoping that her brother was not being hypocritical like a “libertine” Ophelia picked up a glass half full of wine and turned it sideways so that its contents came close to spilling out. This seemed to speak of her own daring.

Polonia breezed in and flashed a credit card at Laertes saying “There, my blessing with thee”. She offered it but then snapped it back to make plain that her “precepts” had to be taken on board first as a condition of her generosity. This was classic control freakery.

Polonia illustrated how Laertes should make an opponent “beware of thee” by making a fencing gesture brandishing the credit card as the blade. She advised her son to dress “rich, not gaudy” and looked at her own clothes when referring to the excellent French sense of fashion.

To underscore his familiarity with Polonia’s hackneyed maxims, Laertes spoke some key phrases along with her. When he chimed along with “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry” this hinted at the phrase’s iconic life outside the world of the play.

Polonia finally handed over the credit card as her “blessing”. Before he left, Laertes hugged Polonia in the same way as Ophelia by lifting her off the ground. She protested slightly at the impropriety of such a familiar gesture.

Polonia ordered Ophelia not to spend time with Hamlet continuing in her habitual clipped, no-nonsense manner. The character gender swap meant that her statement that she knew “when the blood burns how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows” became a reference to her own treatment by men as part of a classic mother-daughter talk.

This looked completely natural and far more psychologically realistic than the original. The allusion to Polonia’s previous bad experiences with men also made her more interesting as a character.

Ophelia exited briskly pronouncing her stroppy consent to her mother’s strictures.

The dinner table was cleared away for the platform scene (1.4). Hamlet, in a long coat, emerged with his companions. Their conversation was interrupted by the noise of fireworks marking Claudius’ revels. Hamlet’s “clepe us drunkards” sequence was cut, so that right after he commented on the custom “more honoured in the breach than the observance” the ghost made another appearance.

The ghost again took the form of electronic sound and lighting effects, creating the impression of an unworldly presence high above the ground. While the spectacle was very impressive, some of the emotional impact of Hamlet’s first encounter with his father’s ghost was lost.

Exclaiming “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Hamlet raised his arms to the sky in greeting. But while he seemed to be sure it was his father’s spirit, the audience had no visual cues to its identity. In line with the excision of references to old Hamlet’s armour, phrases such as “complete steel” were cut.

Beyond general awe, Hamlet’s first palpable emotion came with his determination to follow the ghost’s beckoning. Marcella tried to stop him “You shall not go” and Horatio drew him back “Be ruled”. They struggled as Hamlet insisted “My fate cries out” and then Hamlet produced a gun from his coat threatening to “make a ghost of him that lets me” at which Horatio cowered in fright. Hamlet gritted his teeth in determined anger. The stage cleared as Hamlet ran off in pursuit.

To the accompaniment of a sound like that of a spaceship landing, a large number of glowing light bulbs descended on their cables to chest height in the centre of the performance space, forming a kind of forest (1.5).

The ghost, now in the form of John Shrapnel in light-coloured loose fitting trousers and shirt, threaded his way through the bulb forest, followed shortly after by Hamlet, still in awed amazement and keeping his distance. Claudius moved slowly among forest of bulbs and Hamlet moved equally slowly after him. This looked wonderful.

Hamlet asked “Whither wilt thou lead me?” to which the ghost replied still facing away from his son.

But the ghost turned mid-explanation to face Hamlet for first time and a flicker of shock passed over Hamlet’s face when he recognised his father.

When the ghost mentioned that Hamlet should listen and then take revenge, Hamlet uttered a shocked, timid, but inquisitive “What?”

As if sensing his son’s continued doubts as to his identity, the ghost stressed “I am thy father’s spirit…” providing confirmation of Hamlet’s half-formed conclusion.

The “porpentine”, whose erect quills were likened to the hairs of someone listening to his tale of horror, was changed to “porcupine”.

Once the ghost had revealed that he had been murdered, Hamlet response “Murder?” was firmer than his previous timid response.

As he asserted “Haste me to know that I… may sweep to my revenge”, Hamlet changed briefly from childlike wonder into firm determination. But once silent again, he checked himself and returned to a state of stunned awe as he listened.

The ghost recounted the full story of his murder. Hamlet was relieved that the forebodings of his “prophetic soul” about his uncle were true.

The ghost knelt on the ground describing the terrible effects of the poison that had killed him.

Hamlet looked pitifully sympathetic and held his hands tentatively in front of him as if wanting to reach out and comfort the ghost. Hamlet was visibly suffering in compassion with his father’s plight.

Overcome with the terror of his memories, the ghost wailed “Horrible, horrible” at which Hamlet fell to his knees in front of him. They hugged in silence for a while as the ghost sobbed.

The ghost withdrew from the embrace, and sat apart from Hamlet, exhorting him not to allow Denmark to become “a couch for luxury damned incest”. He stood over the still kneeling Hamlet and rested his hand on his son’s head, warning him “Taint not thy mind” and telling him not to hurt his mother.

The ghost exited bidding “Adieu, adieu, adieu, remember me” leaving Hamlet still kneeling, his arms spread out as if pleading with him to stay. But he knew this was in vain.

Once ghost had left, the bulbs flew up, their ascent accompanied by more electronic whirring. Hamlet lay sprawled on his back watching them disappear, his hands reaching upwards towards them. This gesture was the continuation of the way he had reached out towards the human manifestation of the ghost, and consequently another way in which Hamlet bade his father farewell.

Hamlet came to his senses still lying on the ground and spoke of the “host of heaven, O earth…” then sat bolt upright to consider a more contentious idea: “Shall I couple hell?”

He vowed to wipe trivia from his memory and devote himself to his new project. Becoming angry at his relatives, he slammed the ground crying “villain”. His castigation of his mother as “most pernicious woman” seemed a fresh sore in view of her recent refusal to support him. Recalling the ghosts last words “Adieu, adieu, remember me” Hamlet looked at his gun, possibly in realisation that he would eventually have to use it.

Horatio and Marcella rushed in and Hamlet happily told them that the ghost was honest. Addressing them individually in turn as scholar and soldier, not “friends, scholars and soldiers”, Hamlet made them swear on his “arm”, the revolver, not to speak of what they had seen.

As they placed their hands on the gun in Hamlet’s outstretched hand, the ghost made its presence felt again, not as a spectral voice but as more of the same sound and light effects. Hamlet calmed the ghost saying “Rest, rest perturbed spirit” at which it fell silent.

The ghost manifested itself only once, so that Hamlet and his friends did not move around the stage to follow it. This also meant that Horatio’s “wondrous strange” was not in reaction to the ghost’s voice but to Hamlet’s description of his encounter.

Hamlet acquired a sense of his mission when speaking of the “cursed spite” of having to set a world out of joint aright.

Polonia asked Reynaldo (Tachia Newall) to give Laertes “this money” which looked like a cheque “and these notes” which were bank notes (2.1). Reynaldo had to discover “what Danes there are in Paris” before engaging them in conversation and describing some of Laertes’ mild faults.

When he asked why he should do this, Polonia (cutting the amnesia sequence) delighted in her explanation that he would with “his bait of falsehood, take this carp of truth” continuing with the full delightful “with windlasses and with assays of bias” sequence.

Ophelia ran in one entrance and was just about to hurry out another when Polonia called her back.

She described meeting the maddened Hamlet, his “doublet all unbraced, pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other” cutting the intervening two lines about his hat and stockings.

Ophelia was annoyed that Polonia could not see that Hamlet’s mood was not due to harsh words from her, but precisely because she had been denied access to him. Polonia was determined to inform the king.

Two chairs were provided for Gertrude and Claudius to speak with Rosencrantz (Jodie McNee), a tattooed young goth woman in black jeans, black leather jacket, and Guildenstern (Peter Singh), a young man in trendy clothes including a cropped jacket (2.2). They were engaged to discover what was ailing Hamlet. Claudius named the pair correctly when he first spoke to them, but got their names the wrong way round in his parting words and was corrected by Gertrude.

Despite the cutting of the Norway subplot, Polonia entered to tell Claudius of the return of the ambassadors from Norway, which here became an insubstantial passing detail, omitting the conversation with Cornelius and Voltemand. The gender swap produced the interested textual edit that had Claudius describe Polonia as “the mother of good news”.

Polonia made an excellent windbag. Amid her ramblings, she looked at her arms to indicate the “limbs and outward flourishes” of wit. Gertrude interrupted and put a pause in her “More matter… with less art” which was very effective at expressing her frustration. Polonia continued, omitting the lines about “cause”, “effect” and “defect”.

She pronounced “I have a daughter” at which she summoned Ophelia to read her own letter. This differed from the standard version of the text in which Ophelia’s parent does the reading.

Ophelia began to read aloud, but when she got to “bosom” Polonia became embarrassed at the indelicacy of the word and hastily cut Ophelia short saying “etc.” encouraging her to skip over that section. Ophelia continued with the concluding verse and sign off from Hamlet.

As she did so, Claudius rose and read the letter over her shoulder, signifying his instinctive curiosity and perhaps paranoia about any communication by Hamlet. He took the letter and passed it to Gertrude asking her if this could be the cause of Hamlet’s madness. She concurred before kindly returning the letter to Ophelia, a sign of her affection for her.

Just after the plot was hatched to “loose” Ophelia to him, Hamlet entered reading a book: the Vintage Classic edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Hamlet’s appearance had changed subtly. His hair was brushed up and there was a slight red smear of red lipstick on the corner of his mouth. The appearance of female cosmetics on a woman playing a man with an “antic disposition” was intriguing.

Polonia spoke “Do you know me my lord?” slowly and deliberately as if to an idiot. Hamlet smelt Polonia up and down before telling her she was a fishmonger. The text was altered so that Hamlet identified honesty as being “one woman out of ten thousand”. The sun was a “god kissing carrion”.

Hamlet’s lunacy increased. He asked “have you a daughter?” slowly and slightly creepily, brandishing the rolled-up book over his groin like a penis, then rubbing it vigorously as he spoke of “conception”. Polonia spoke aside directly to the audience about Hamlet “harping” on her daughter.

The pair sat in the two chairs. Asked what he read, Hamlet replied “Words, words, words” in a soft, purring coquettish voice as he smeared the book over his groin. It was interesting here to see a woman playing a madman adopting an exaggerated feminine voice to accentuate his affected insanity, because the female actor’s identity tended to peep through.

He leapt round to counter “Between who?” for declaring that “the satirical rogue” author had said that “old women” have grey beards. The application of this to Polonia added another layer of cross-gendered absurdity to Hamlet’s speech.

He knelt in front of her and spoke of old women’s “weak hams”, pushing her skirt up with his book. All of this he did “potently believe”, said while making another phallic gesture in front of his groin. He returned to the chair and talked of the backwards motion of a “crab”, scratching his groin as if it were infested with lice.

Polonia gestured to beckon him “out of the air”. Hamlet, still sat in a chair facing away from her, swivelled round to add “Into my grave.” Polonia pondered his strange replies before taking her leave.

Hamlet rose and approached her saying “You cannot take from me…” then fell flat on the ground and crawled towards Polonia on his stomach, reaching out to her as he repeated “except my life” in an exaggerated fashion like a bad actor. She scurried away convinced that he was insane, leaving Hamlet to mutter “tedious old fool”.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern saw Hamlet still lying on the ground. Rosencrantz whispered conspiratorially to Guildenstern, crept up to Hamlet’s side and surprised him with a loud “boo!”

The trio embraced warmly and sat in a loose group, which looked relaxed and completely natural for students catching up with each other. Hamlet placed the soles of his shoes against those of Guildenstern when referencing those items, and spread his knees apart describing Fortune as a “strumpet”, a gesture that again pointed to the woman playing the male Hamlet.

The joking turned serious when Hamlet asked why they had been sent “to prison hither”. Rosencrantz said that Hamlet’s ambition made Denmark a prison as it was “too narrow for your mind”, offering him a sachet of cocaine. Hamlet examined it, but handed it back as he concluded his “nutshell” image by saying that he had “bad dreams”. Rosencrantz sat in the chair opposite Hamlet, her legs hung over the side, proceeded to open the plastic packet and snort its contents.

They engaged in an earnestly student discussion about the relationship between ambition and dreams, as if in a philosophy class.

Hamlet’s initial friendliness deftly changed into cold confrontation as he told them that they had been sent for. Hamlet caught them trying to confer an answer, reminding them “I have an eye of you.” They finally admitted that they had been summoned.

Explaining that he had lost all his mirth, Hamlet mentioned “Man delights not me”, to which Rosencrantz responded with an “ah!” as if in possession of the solution to Hamlet’s troubles, then approached and kissed him. But Hamlet pushed her away confirming “no nor woman neither”.

This was a puzzling moment, because Rosencrantz appeared to make her kiss into a transgressive embrace of the woman actor, and her repulse by “Hamlet” became a reminder, despite her male impersonation and relationship within that role with Ophelia, of Maxine Peake’s own heterosexuality.

Rosencrantz announced the arrival of “the tragedians of the city” stressing the name excitedly as if sure Hamlet would react positively on hearing it. Indeed, he was overjoyed at the news.

Mention of “the late innovation” was cut, but this was ironical because children formed a large part of the travelling company. Hamlet took hold of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s hands explaining that he knew “a hawk from a handsaw”.

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Polonia arrived ahead of the players, but Hamlet did not conspire with his friends to mock her. Their disdain was simply marked by the rolling of their eyes.

She began her extensive list of theatre genres, accentuating each item by gesturing alternately from side to side. Hamlet watched and took great delight in exaggeratedly mimicking her gestures until Polonia was finally cut short by the noisy entry of the company.

The children were the first to enter followed by the adults and the company’s large wicker prop basket. The principal players were cross-gendered so that a woman was 1st Player or Player King (Claire Benedict) while a man was the Player Queen (Ben Stott).

Hamlet greeted one of children, making “We’ll e’en to it like French falconers” into a friendly gesture of encouragement. The inclusion of young people from the Royal Exchange Young Company here was a subtle reminder that this was where Maxine Peake had begun her acting career.

Hamlet and 1st Player sat on adjacent chairs as Hamlet attempted a speech about Priam. He forgot his lines, but 1st player came to his assistance by stroking his arm, which prompted him to continue “he whose sable arms”.

Hamlet rose and enjoyed scaring the kids with the bloody description of “total gules”. He rolled his eyes at Polonia’s interruption, complimenting him on his “good discretion”. When 1st Player took up the speech, Hamlet sat on the basket to listen.

As Pyrrhus rained blows on Priam, 1st Player pronounced “out, out” which was picked up and shouted by the onstage audience. The remainder of the speech was accompanied by them banging and stamping on the ground. But the fun was interrupted by Polonia’s “This is too long”. Hamlet stroked his chin and countered “It shall to the barber’s with your beard”. This referred back to his earlier mockery of Polonia when he remarked “old women have grey beards”.

1st Player continued with Hecuba. Hamlet sat in a chair next to Polonia and repeated the phrase “The mobled queen”. But when Polonia commented “That’s good”, Hamlet hypocritically shushed her.

With the speech ended, Hamlet instructed Polonia to see players well bestowed, but did not come back at her when she said she would do so “after their desert”.

Hamlet arranged for the actors to perform The Murder of Gonzago and then bid them “Follow that lady – and look you mock her not”, the last part of which was said with a laugh, implying that to do otherwise was nigh on impossible.

Hamlet was left alone to accuse himself a being “a rogue and peasant slave”. This intimate conversation with the audience began quietly. The gender swap of the 1st Player produced a rewrite so that Hamlet asked “What’s Hecuba to her, or she to Hecuba?”

Comparing the player’s passion with his feeble engagement, he demanded “Am I a coward?” still in a moderate voice. But replying to his own question, Hamlet shouted “Who calls me villain?” angrily turning around to interrogate the entire audience as if they had indeed all answered yes.

The fury of his response to the imagined condemnation by the audience, revealed that Hamlet knew the answer to this question all along. Consequently, his concession “I should take it” was not his first moment of recognition. He said he lacked gall, but did not say he needed it “to make oppression bitter”.

His self-disgust had brought him to the floor, where he had his spark of inspiration to use a play as “murder will speak with [most] miraculous organ”. Envisaging how this would work, Hamlet positioned the chairs, one for Claudius and another some distance away on which he sat as he imagined scrutinising his uncle.

At “The play’s the thing” Hamlet ripped up some of the white tape rectangle from the floor. Two others entered and tore up the remainder, and then together they rolled up the floor vinyl and carried it out. This was meant to symbolise the revelation of the underlying truth, but in performance it looked like a pointless exercise.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tried to explain Hamlet’s mood to Claudius and Gertrude (3.1). Ophelia was then herded into position on a chair reading a book provided by Polonia: the Vintage Children’s Classics edition of Little Women.

The sequence cut “To be, or not to be” so that Hamlet entered and immediately caught sight of “The fair Ophelia…” She rose to offer him a single letter, which contained his “words of so sweet breath” instead of a collection of “remembrances”. Hamlet pushed it back at her denying that he had given her anything.

Ophelia pursued Hamlet protesting the contrary as he went to sit in a chair at the other end of the space from where she had sat initially. She stood over him, still proffering the letter, until Hamlet grabbed her and pulled her down onto his lap and into an embrace to question whether she was “honest” or “fair”. Hamlet pushed her off and rose from the chair to tell her that he had loved her once, then contradicted himself, kissing Ophelia at length before saying “I loved you not”. This compounded the contradiction by being an expression of love.

Hamlet ranted that Ophelia should get to a nunnery, then caught sight of the book. He examined the cover and with a flash of insight detected in it Polonia’s influence. Smelling a device, he asked Ophelia where her mother was, before shouting offstage that she should only play the fool “in’s own house”: puzzlingly, this phrase was not rewritten to “in her”.

Ophelia cried out for someone to help Hamlet, to which he responded by throwing her to the ground to tell her “If thou dost marry…”

He stood over her tearing up the letter at “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny” with the letter shards forming a kind of snow shower. He continued his angry tirade about women’s ambling and jigging. Declaring that all those who were married would live, he shouted his qualification “all but one” offstage to clarify whom he meant. He walked out on Ophelia muttering “To a nunnery, go”.

Polonia breezily told Ophelia that she need not explain what had happened as they had heard it all, and dismissed Ophelia with a waft of her hand in her brisk and coldly efficient manner. Claudius was determined that Hamlet should go to England, while Polonia suggested that Gertrude should speak to him, an encounter she would observe.

The preparation for the play got underway with the players wheeling in their basket and spreading a rug on the ground (3.2). Small children’s chairs were positioned in a circle reflecting the layout of the surrounding Royal Exchange auditorium.

Hamlet earnestly instructed them how to “speak the speech” by not sawing the air with their hands. The male Player Queen responded “I warrant your honour” with precisely the kind of exaggerated hand-waving Hamlet had just admonished. Hamlet was nonetheless glad to see this player’s jovial spirit as he then warned them against being too tame. The female Player King said that they hoped they had “reformed that indifferently”. The part of Hamlet’s speech referencing the “groundlings” was cut.

Hamlet praised Horatio for not being “passion’s slave”. But when Hamlet mentioned that the evening’s play would contain a scene reminiscent of his father’s murder, Horatio looked worried and disapproving. It seemed that Hamlet had flattered Horatio because he knew that he would disapprove of his plan and was trying to get him onside, something that Hamlet had expressly denied “Nay, do not think I flatter…”. If so, this was in line with Hamlet’s other hypocritical inconsistencies.

Claudius asked Hamlet how he was, eliciting his nonsensical reply about “the chameleon’s dish” which he made pointing at the tiny chairs that he had allocated for Claudius and Gertrude to watch the play.

Hamlet turned to Polonia, who mentioned that she had played Julius Caesar as a student. Intriguingly, the gender swap of this character meant that the world of the play contained women playing male Shakespeare roles!

Hamlet was having none of Polonia’s nicely enunciated insincerity and adopted her style of speaking, smiling at her with his teeth clenched saying how “brute” it was of Brutus “to kill so capital a calf” before forcing her down onto her allocated chair.

Gertrude beckoned Hamlet to sit by her. Instead he approached Ophelia, who stood aside refusing to join the others, possibly because Hamlet was there. He took Ophelia by the hand and escorted her somewhat unwillingly to sit in a chair right next to his.

Hamlet asked if could lie in her lap. Rebuffed, he leant in close, surreptitiously looking over her shoulder towards the audience, asking her if she thought he meant “country matters”. Ophelia had had enough of him. Dismissing Hamlet with “You are merry, my lord”, she went to sit by herself.

Hamlet’s sarcastic remarks about his mother’s speedy wedding were countered by Ophelia from afar: this created psychological realism by showing Ophelia still upset and disturbed by Hamlet’s rough treatment, unlike some productions which portray them at this point laughing and joking together.

After Hamlet once again remarked on his mother’s remarriage, in words seemingly directed back at Ophelia but within earshot of his mother, Gertrude got up to leave but was gently pulled back down into her seat by Claudius. Her indignant reaction foreshadowed the eventual outcome of the evening’s performance.

The young children entered to the sound of the production’s theme song, Bowie’s Lady Grinning Soul. They handed the onstage audience candles in glass bowls to provide subtle lighting. They acted out the dumb show with the poisoner dancing and playing air guitar to woo the dumb show Gertrude into marrying him, a conclusion marked by them holding hands.

Hamlet explained the dumb show thus: “It means mischief”.

One of the young players burst out of the wicker basket, accompanied by two others who screamed loudly and played air guitar before standing formally before the king and queen to deliver the prologue. They made way for the gender-swapped Player King and Queen. Taken together with Polonia’s student Julius Caesar, this showed the world of the play to be very progressive in its gender-blind casting.

As the performance got underway, a captivated Hamlet was completely in awe of the woman actor portraying the King. He also enjoyed his pithy interjections.

Hamlet was asked the name of play and searched around before coming up with The Mousetrap. He explained that the “knavish piece of work” was “the image of a murder done in Vienna” and moved from his chair to sit on the hamper from where he directed “Begin, murderer”. He did not joke with Ophelia about “puppets dallying” or the “groaning” required to take his edge off, which kept their relationship in its sullen mood.

From this vantage point he could scrutinise Claudius directly opposite him. As Lucianus (Dean Gregory) began to administer the poison to the Player King’s ear, Hamlet leant sideways to look round the actor so that he could stare at Claudius. Horatio too sat forward with a fixed gaze. They were not disappointed.

Claudius rose from his chair in shock at the scene. Hamlet did not comment on the poisoning, so that when Polonia cried “Lights! Lights!”, it was obvious that Claudius had worked this out for himself. All the lights went on and the auditorium blinds were removed bringing in light from the hall outside. This was very effective in suggesting the scrutinising presence of the outside world. Hamlet took the company’s microphone and sang the song “Let the stricken deer go weep” in a sarcastic tone.

Whereas Hamlet was in a celebratory mood and swapped notes with Horatio on Claudius’ reaction, then called for music, the Player King by contrast stared sourly at him expressing her disgust at his stunt, which had disrupted their performance and ran counter to his previously professed respect for them.

He had exploited them as a means to an end. But Hamlet showed no sign of contrition, turning the couplet about King not like the comedy, ending “Why then belike he likes it not, perdie”, into a pathetic excuse directed somewhat childishly in response to the Player King’s fixed stare.

Rosencrantz informed Hamlet that his mother wished to speak with him. He was quietly sarcastic in recommending that the king’s choler should be notified instead to the doctor. He protested that he still loved Rosencrantz “by these pickers and stealers” making a wild gesture with his hands in triumphant insolence towards his enemies.

Hamlet was now sure that entire structure of the corrupt court orbiting Claudius was about to be brought down.

A child brought Hamlet a recorder. Maxine Peake completely mastered the necessary shift in tone from Hamlet’s initial wary playfulness when getting Guildenstern to try the recorder, to the bitter anger of the completion of his analogy. Hamlet stamped and lunged forward shouting “S’blood” before unleashing his full fierceness, accusing Guildenstern of thinking him “easier to be played on than a pipe”.

Actresses often speak of how Hamlet, unlike many female roles, truly stretches a performer’s range: this sequence was a good example.

On this busy day, Hamlet had another idiot to deal with. He ignored Polonia’s message from Gertrude by launching into what he clearly thought was his more urgent cloud recognition game. Polonia was given F’s “I will say so” enabling Hamlet to cut in again to have the final word, sending her away with a teeth-clenchingly sarcastic “‘By and by’ is easily said”.

Hamlet quietly promised not to harm his mother during his impending meeting with her.

The scene in the king’s private rooms began with Claudius’ deliberations, cutting his conversations with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonia (3.3). A red kneeler was positioned by an attendant, which Claudius rested on to begin his prayer.

Hamlet approached from behind and drew his revolver: “Now might I do it pat”. But he thought the matter over, changed his mind and lowered the weapon, determined to kill his uncle at a less sanctified moment.

In Gertrude’s room, Polonia hid by moving just out of sight into the shadows by one of the stage exits (3.4). Hamlet entered in his shirt sleeves with his gun held behind his back. This was puzzling in view of his previous statement about having no intention of harming her, in which case why did he have the gun so readily to hand? And in such an awkward position? This could have indicated Hamlet’s foreboding of danger from this dangerous woman whom he little trusted.

Hamlet’s insolent word game turned Gertrude’s references to “thy father” and “an idle tongue” back on her. This was consistent with the rest of his playfulness. The usual word order when he assured her that he had not forgotten her was changed to “Not so, by the rood”.

Gertrude began to drag him away, at which point he produced the gun and forced her back into the chair “Come, come and sit you down”. Gertrude did not take his threat seriously and her question “What wilt thou do?” was quietly defiant not fearful. Similarly her “Thou wilt not murder me” was definitive rather than pleading, and “Help, ho!” with her hands slightly raised was a sarcastic imitation of how someone more fearful than her might react, demonstrating that she did not feel in danger.

But Polonia heard her words, took them seriously, and ran in fearing murder.

Hamlet turned and fired instantly killing Polonia, who collapsed with blood splattered on her blouse, but then turned away again making it possible for him to plausibly deny knowing the identity of his victim.

Still facing away from Polonia, Hamlet asked if it was the king, then in what seemed an odd change of subject, accused Gertrude of killing a king and marrying his brother.

Confirming his accusation with “Ay, lady, it was my word”, Hamlet cut himself short as he turned to discover that he had in fact shot Polonia. He rushed forward to call her a “rash, intruding fool”, crouched at her side and angrily castigated the dead woman’s body “Take thy fortune”, making her death to be her fault because being “too busy is some danger”.

Hamlet led Gertrude back to the chair and explained what she had done to provoke his ire by standing behind her and marking with his finger the site of the blister on her forehead that her deed had set.

The firmness and dominance of his actions was also expressed in the way in which, enacting the “counterfeit presentment of two brothers”, he first pointed at his own brow to represent the brow of his father on which “grace was seated”. This showed that Hamlet so identified with his father that he thought himself in some way a copy. He stood to one side pointing at an unseen figure next to him to indicate the “mildewed ear” of his uncle.

Hamlet continued to taunt Gertrude for living in “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed” at which he leant across her still seated figure and rubbed his neck against hers before moving away to spit out the contemptuous “nasty sty” over which he imagined her making love. Gertrude rose from the chair pleading with Hamlet to stop the words entering her ears “like daggers”.

But Hamlet continued. His increasingly harsh invective against Gertrude’s “murderer” and “villain” husband was given violent physical expression when he ripped the necklace her new husband had recently gifted her from around her neck as he accused Claudius of stealing “the precious diadem” of the crown. This made Hamlet’s snatching of the necklace his exasperated recreation of the violence with which his uncle had usurped his father.

Hamlet was on the verge of tears, shrieking that Claudius was but “a king of shreds and patches”, as Maxine Peake expressed the character’s passion with a simultaneous glimpse of his frailty.

It was at this high pitch of emotion that the ghost entered from the side. His arrival was sufficient to tip Hamlet over the edge.

On seeing his father’s ghost, Hamlet broke off and fell backwards onto the ground, raising his arms in a vaguely defensive gesture and reliving the frightened awe of his first encounter with the figure.

Hamlet’s cowering conversation with the “vacancy” of the room convinced Gertrude that he was mad. She tried to comfort him in his distress, caressed him and played with his “bedded hair”, which was partly standing up just as she described. Hamlet sobbed and hugged her.

Hamlet became even more distraught when trying to get Gertrude to see ghost. He tearfully wailed “On him, on him!” and then raised his hands defensively, exhorting the ghost “Do not look upon me…”

The pathetic sight of Hamlet’s extreme distress contrasted greatly with his recent assuredness towards Gertrude. It was to Maxine Peake’s credit that she made this volte face perfectly credible.

Hamlet rose to follow the ghost as it exited “Look, how it steals away”, but remained behind, enabling Gertrude to comfort him and tell him that the vision was “the very coinage of your brain” and a “bodiless creation ecstasy is very cunning in”.

She sat him in the chair as if resting would effect a cure. Sensing the implication of her gesture, Hamlet rose from the chair and insisted that his pulse “as yours doth temperately kept time” and that she should not fool herself into thinking “not your trespass but my madness speaks”.

Hamlet moved behind the chair and crouched, reaching out his hands across its low back, imploring her “Confess yourself to heaven”. Gertrude said that he had “cleft” her “heart in twain” at which Hamlet stood to tell her to “throw away the worser part” and resist the temptation of sleeping with Claudius.

He hugged her “goodnight”, the pair now reconciled, and Hamlet looked towards Polonia once more saying that he would “bestow” her.

Gertrude asked what she should do and Hamlet replied that she should not let the King know that he was only “mad in craft”. Gertrude said she would not tell.

Hamlet dragged Polonia away, ending on an upbeat joke which indicated that his normal good mood had been restored after all the trauma. At this point the interval came.

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What is often one continuous sequence flowing seamlessly into the next scene was here interrupted by the interval. But Gertrude’s post-interval account of Hamlet’s actions served as a good recap (4.1).

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entered but were almost immediately sent away to provide the couple with privacy. The text was gender-swapped so that the characterisation of Polonius as the “good old man” became a description of Polonia as the “good wise counsellor”. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sent to seek Hamlet. Rosencrantz in particular was shocked to hear that he had killed Polonia.

Hamlet appeared still holding the fatal gun, the front of his white shirt covered with Polonia’s blood that had printed onto it as he moved her body, his hands now also bloodstained.

He threw the gun to the floor and sat upright, legs splayed apart, staring at it as he began the delayed soliloquy “To be, or not to be” (4.2).

Delivering this speech in the aftermath of killing Polonia, and with her blood on his shirt, provided a whole new context to the words. He had just taken arms against “a sea of troubles” but had messed up: not surprising then, that he looked at the gun resting a few feet away from him as he pondered the wisdom of that approach.

He constantly played with the gun as a symbol of both violent action and also of equally powerful self-destruction.

He paused and laughed as he realised “there’s the rub”, that dreams might come in that “sleep of death”. He rose from the ground, continuing his train of thought, pausing only over “the pangs of despised love”, no doubt thinking of Ophelia.

He placed his gun at his head: the “bare bodkin” to bring about his “quietus”. Concluding that “conscience does make cowards of us all” he stretched his arms out to include the audience. Holding the gun aloft, he meditated on the “enterprises of great pith and moment” that were thus turned “awry”.

Transferring this speech to this point in the play was problematic.

“To be” is an expression of Hamlet’s doubtfulness and indecision after he has heard the ghost’s story but before he has placed Claudius in The Mousetrap and found the “grounds more relative than this” that fire his subsequent feverish action. As such, the mood fits into the storyline perfectly.

But here Hamlet was expressing his doubts at a point where he already knew that Claudius was guilty, had set off on a determined course of action, and had already come close to prosecuting his revenge. Hamlet had become triumphant post-Mousetrap, nearly killing Claudius at prayer and then shooting at a figure he thought to be the king.

The sentiment of the soliloquy could, however, have been Hamlet’s second thoughts provoked by the knowledge that taking action could lead to disaster and the death of an innocent bystander like Polonia. But the fit with that particular circumstance was imperfect because it was a reflection on what he should do, not what he had already done.

On Thursday, 27 September two people sitting at stage level began whispering to each other during “To be” much to Maxine Peake’s irritation. Sensing an opportune phrase within the text, she turned to towards them and firmly ordered “NO MORE”. The rest was silence.

Whereas in the standard text this philosophical interlude is followed by the haranguing of Ophelia, in this production Hamlet merely lay on the ground and uttered a very inelegant and modern-sounding sigh of “O, here they come!” as he spied Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This comic footnote to the play’s most famous speech was curiously apt given its slightly denatured impact.

Rosencrantz approached the motionless figure, enabling Hamlet to repay her for the shock she had previously given him. Just as she leant over Hamlet, he sprang up pointing his gun and shouted “bang!” to scare her.

Hamlet continued in this vein as he irreverently answered Rosencrantz’s questions about the location of Polonia’s body. He struck a pose, one foot in front of the other sideways on, pointing his gun heroically, as he styled himself “the son of a king”.

Hamlet declared “The king is a thing”. When Guildenstern questioned “A thing, my lord?” Hamlet pointed the gun at Guildenstern and shouted “Of nothing!” as if about to shoot him.

But instead of firing, Hamlet merely laughed and handed over the gun demanding “Bring me to him”. Once Guildenstern had the gun, Hamlet mockingly took fright, raising his hands in fearful surrender with an “ooh” similar to that Rosencrantz had recently uttered in genuine fright. Hamlet ran off cackling ahead of his captors to find Claudius.

Hamlet arrived ahead of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and was not summoned separately into the king’s presence after their entry (4.3). This was consistent with Hamlet’s keenness to see Claudius at the end of the previous scene.

Hamlet was more manic than ever, entering with a sashay of jiggling dance moves as if in time to dance music only he could hear. The energy and skittishness of his arrival was continued in his wordplay.

Explaining that from a worm’s point of view the “fat king” and “lean beggar” were “two dishes but to one table”, Hamlet got down on one knee and shook jazz hands to announce “That’s the end”.

Continuing his analogy about worms and guts, Hamlet pointed at Claudius’ stomach to represent the “guts of a beggar”. This, together with his hint that the “worm” was Claudius’ penis, showed Hamlet’s continuing disrespect.

Asked where Polonia was, Hamlet showed his lack of concern by playing with Osric’s hair as he began his roundabout reply, before finally divulging that she was in the lobby. Claudius gestured to Osric, who rushed out. Hamlet followed Osric towards the exit urging “She will stay till you come” in a comical Lancashire accent: the only instance in the production of Maxine Peake’s own accent peeping through.

Claudius called Hamlet back to tell him he was being sent to England and confirmed that this was indeed a good thing “if thou knewest our purposes” to which Hamlet replied in a silly high-pitched voice “I see a cherub that sees them.”

Hamlet began his “Farewell dear mother” in soft a child-like voice as if trying to creep Claudius out, but became firmer when explaining that “Man and wife is one flesh”. He kissed Claudius on the cheek to conclude “So – my mother” as he exited.

Claudius’ ominous announcement of Hamlet’s fate was slightly rewritten. He said:

And England if thou holdst my love at aught
Effect the present death of Hamlet.

This brought together two separate phrases from the original text. In the second, “effect” was originally a noun “by letters congruing to that effect…”. The change here from noun to verb seemed a very Shakespearean transformation.

Scene 4.4 with the meeting between Hamlet and the Norwegian captain as well as Hamlet’s subsequent deliberations on the bloody folly of the Polish campaign, was completely cut as it related to the Norway subplot.

Ophelia demonstrated her disturbed state of mind before others commented on it (4.5). The large rectangle on the floor lit up. Ophelia walked into it and immediately stretched her whole body upwards, her hands extended above her, to the accompaniment of a disturbing electronic sound.

Her grasp was reminiscent of a drowning person reaching up for help, which perhaps foreshadowed her eventual fate.

As the sound fell silent, Ophelia crouched on her hands and knees, bent right over, in a corner of the rectangle as if scrutinising something on the ground. The invented character of Margaret watched over her outside the rectangle, which seemed to represent a separate space, Ophelia’s room or possibly the cell in which she was detained. If the space was a cell, then Ophelia’s initial gestures could have been her reaction to her incarceration.

Gertrude talked with Horatio, who spoke the Gentleman’s lines, describing Ophelia as “distract” and advising “Her mood will needs be pitied”. Gertrude was disturbed at Ophelia’s condition and turned to Margaret (not Horatio) to ask a plaintive “What would she have?” to which Margaret replied with a dismissive shake of the head as she turned away, indicating that Ophelia was past cure.

Horatio continued with a description of Ophelia’s disturbed condition brought on by her mother’s death.

Instead of Horatio saying of Ophelia “Let her enter”, Gertrude spoke this line in an altered form “Let [her] me come in”. She stepped over the outline of the illuminated rectangle to be with Ophelia.

Ophelia rose from her crouch to ask Gertrude “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” before launching, not into “How should I your true love know?”, but another instance of Bowie’s Lady Grinning Soul. She continued with the text’s “He is dead and gone” as she tore off her cardigan, an action performed with difficulty as her arms seemed to flail around of their own accord as she sang frantically.

Claudius approached and she moved close to him in respectful stillness, offering a polite “God dil’d you” before telling him in all seriousness that “the owl was a baker’s daughter”.

She began to sing the Valentine’s Day song and started stripping off the rest of her clothes, down to her bra and panties, arranging the discarded garments in a pattern on the floor. This foreshadowed the piles of clothes that would later form her grave. Scars were visible on her stomach that were indicative of self-harming.

As she sang “Young men will do’t if they come to it…” she embraced Margaret, rubbed herself lasciviously against her and kissed her.

Ophelia called for her coach and bade everyone “Goodnight, ladies, goodnight. Sweet ladies, goodnight, goodnight” but instead of exiting she returned to her corner and lay on her side to go to sleep. This made perfect sense of her goodnights. Claudius ordered “Give her good watch” but for obvious reasons omitted “Follow her close”, before ruminating on the sorry state of affairs with Gertrude.

Laertes burst in and aimed a handgun at the king. There was no heralding messenger nor did Claudius fuss about his “Switzers”. Gertrude stood just behind her husband, Laertes firmly at a distance from the pair, so that Claudius did not have to ask Gertrude to let go of him. Her only intervention was to assure Laertes that his mother’s death was “not by him”.

Ophelia must have recognised her brother’s voice. She roused herself, once again singing the Bowie song, which attracted Laertes’ attention. He was moved by her plight and offered her some of her discarded clothes in an attempt to get her to put them back on.

But she took the garments only to turn them into flowers. One item was declared to be rosemary and pansies, and given to Laertes. Fennel and columbines were represented by her dress, which was curtly given to Claudius. For rue, she took off one shoe and presented it to Gertrude, then pointed at the shoe still on her other foot and laughed “here’s some for me”. She ruffled Gertrude’s hair telling her “We may call it herb of grace o’Sundays” but lurched from this tender gesture into extreme passion as she sobbed that all the violets had withered when her mother had died.

She exited singing “And will she not come again?” without saying good-bye.

Claudius promised Laertes the kingdom if his mother’s death were proved his fault, and handed over his gun as a sign of good faith.

Horatio appeared with Hamlet’s letter and began to read it aloud, walking in a circle watched at a distance by Hamlet himself, who followed the same circular path as his friend, eventually taking up the narrative in his own words (4.6).

By this we learnt that Hamlet had escaped with the assistance of some pirates, had letters for the king, and also had news of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Claudius had now persuaded Laertes that he was not responsible for Polonia’s death, their newly sealed amity indicated by their glasses of wine (4.7). A messenger brought the letter from Hamlet.

Realising that Hamlet was returning, Claudius thought quickly to devise a plan. He seized upon Laertes’ prowess, mentioning “a quality wherein they say you shine…” with the intervening back story cut, continuing with “for art and exercise in your defence, and for your rapier most especial.”

After cleverly taunting Laertes that he might just be “the painting of a sorrow” and getting him to declare he would cut Hamlet’s throat “i’th’ church”, Claudius formulated the plan by which Laertes would cheat at fencing. Laertes briefly mentioned the poison he had acquired which would make the touch of his sword lethal.

Claudius devised the backup plan involving the poisoned drink and acted out the violence of the bout Laertes should engage in to make Hamlet thirsty.

Gertrude interrupted with her account of Ophelia’s drowning. She approached Laertes and clasped her hands around his in sympathy, taking his glass from him. Laertes reacted with anger, trying to stop himself from crying.

hamlet

The start of act five habitually marks a breathing space in the story and introduces some comic relief enabling the audience to unwind before the play accelerates to its tragic conclusion.

So the fact that this production heralded the start of this new phase by dropping a huge pile of clothes from a container up in flies that hit the floor with a resounding whump and blew dust in the stage level audience’s face, accentuated the difference between it and the preceding action (5.1).

Into this scattered mess of old cardigans and shirts walked two female gravediggers. One lay down on the pile like a dead body and pushed the clothes away from her to create a body-shaped space: in effect digging the grave.

They were both scousers: in what was billed as “a Hamlet for Manchester” the comic stereotype came from just up the M62. They set to work in their hi-viz jackets and woolly hats, but then fell into a discussion of whether the deceased was entitled to a proper Christian burial.

The chirrupy chief gravedigger (Michelle Butterly) delighted in her confident deployment of the Latin “se offendendo”, acting out the essential difference between a man drowning himself as opposed to the water coming to him, making short jaunts in imitation of the flow of water and the suicidal man. This was declared to be “Coroner’s ‘quest law”.

Her more taciturn assistant (Jodie McNee) was not impressed. Indeed her boss had to admit that it was unfair for “great folk” to get preferential treatment over their “even-Christian” as she sat and pointed back and forth between them to indicate that this term referred to the common people.

The boss set her assistant a puzzle about which trade built the most resilient structure. The gender swap of the characters validated the deployment of the feminine pronoun as generic: “What is *she* that builds… The houses *she* makes last…”

The chief gravedigger’s final words “Go get thee in and fetch me a stoup of liquor” were altered so that her assistant was dispatched to a variety of local Manchester hostelries. On 25 September it was “Go get thee to Sandinista’s…”; on 26 September “Sam’s Chop House” and subsequently “Room’s”. This was a nice touch in the light of Hamlet’s advice that clowns should “speak no more than is set down for them”, even though that particular phrase was cut from this production.

The gravedigger put on headphones and began to sing “And now the end is near…” as Hamlet and Horatio arrived at the graveside. She dug up ‘skulls’ from the pile of clothes that were tightly knotted woollen garments.

Hamlet’s lengthy imaginings about the identities of the newly disinterred skulls was shortened. He said that one might be a “politician” and then after musing “Why, may not that be the skull of a lawyer?” continued “Here’s fine revolution”, a phrase brought forward from slightly earlier in the text. This connection between a dead advocate and “revolution” carried shades of Jack Cade’s plan to “kill all the lawyers”.

Hamlet approached the chief gravedigger, who was facing away, and addressed her with the text’s “sirrah”, but when she turned and Hamlet saw that she was a woman, he correcting himself to “Madam” (24 September and 27 September). This was a fascinating alteration, showing that even this Hamlet (a woman presenting as male according to the programme) was capable of making assumptions.

There was something slightly regal in Hamlet’s voice when the Gravedigger joked with him about whose grave this was, a touch of the Queen’s “how do you like your work?” accent and manner.

Because Fortinbras was expunged completely from the production, the Gravedigger timed the start of her career to the year that the last king “overcame Norway”.

After the jollity of the Gravedigger’s quip that Hamlet’s madness would not be noticeable in England, she showed the stranger Yorick’s skull. It was difficult to take this seriously as a memento mori, an object of horror and reflection, when it was simply a rolled-up white wool pullover.

Hamlet held the ‘skull’ close to his own head, saying that his lady could paint her face “an inch thick” but “to this favour she must come”, and then used the ‘skull’ as a ventriloquist’s dummy putting on a silly voice to demand “make her laugh at that”. The lengthy digression on Alexander turning into a stopper was cut.

The funeral procession entered to the sound of a solemn tolling bell, the Priest (Tachia Newall) speaking Psalm 23’s “The Lord is my shepherd”, followed by the stooped mourners.

Ophelia’s dead body, carried in the Priest’s arms, was represented by her dress. This fitted with the cloth grave concept so that grave and body were of the same material, just as the dust of the dead body was returning to the dust of the ground. But it looked like something a low-budget fringe production might have devised.

Hamlet and Horatio crouched in the shadow of the exit at the other end. Hearing Laertes refer to “my sister”, Hamlet shot up as he realised that this was the funeral of Ophelia. Gertrude squatted by the graveside to deposit items of clothing representing valedictory flowers.

Laertes sank into the pile and gathered clothes around him: the earth piled on “the quick and dead”. Hamlet tried to rush forward, was restrained momentarily by Horatio, but freed himself to stand over Laertes and introduce himself as “Hamlet the Dane”.

Seeing that the king’s enemy had returned, Osric pulled his gun and pointed it at Hamlet. But Claudius gestured at Osric to lower his weapon. It was interesting to see Claudius pass up this opportunity: he could have let Osric shoot Hamlet with no blame attaching to himself.

In their scuffle, Laertes dragged Hamlet down into the grave and easily overpowered him, a predictable outcome given their relative sizes. Osric grabbed Laertes and pulled him away from Hamlet, who was then taken aside by Horatio.

Hamlet reached new heights of ferocity as he spat angrily that he would “fight with him upon this theme until my eyelids will no longer wag”. When Gertrude asked “what theme?” Hamlet became very annoyed that his mother did not understand the cause of his frenzy: “I loved Ophelia!”

As he continued, Gertrude quietly but firmly instructed Laertes to “forbear him”. Hamlet raged at Laertes for a while before he finally left the graveside.

While Maxine Peake’s voice and manner at this point were both fierce, her female shrillness made Hamlet into less of a commanding presence that he might have been. Hamlet had been easily overpowered in his struggle with Laertes. Unable to defeat him physically, Hamlet was left to unpack his heart with words.

Here as elsewhere this Hamlet’s vocal frailty, a woman actor lacking depth and power of voice, expressed an anger that was compensating for weakness rather than posing a credible threat. However, it was worth remembering that a physically bigger actress could have played this differently.

Hamlet and Horatio returned to the clothes pile, now representing a different location (5.2). Before they sat, Horatio pushed the clothes outwards to the sides in preparation for the circle of clothes in which the fencing contest would later take place.

Hamlet explained the story of his escape, the king’s death warrant and how he had rewritten the document. Horatio’s deduction about the fate of Hamlet’s warders was altered slightly to “So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are dead” a far blunter summary than that of the original text’s “go to’t”. Hamlet was unconcerned because “They did make love to this employment.”

When he caught sight of Osric, Hamlet asked Horatio in a whispered aside if he knew “this water-fly”. His disrespect continued when Hamlet whistled to Horatio to pick a hat from the pile of clothes, which Osric was ordered to wear.

Hamlet delighted in obliging Osric to take the hat off and put it on again, as well as mocking his speech, culminating in Hamlet’s slow staccato “What imports the nomination of this gentleman?” When Osric was asked about Laertes’ weapon and replied “Rapier and dagger”, Hamlet stuck two fingers up at him to point out “That’s two of his weapons”. The long discussion of carriages and hangers was cut.

Osric tolerated this disdain, but his frustration began to show. Impatient with Hamlet’s lack of response to the challenge, he gritted his teeth and asked “if your lordship would vouchsafe the answer”. Hamlet responded, mimicking this clenched teeth delivery, saying “How if I answer no?” before finally consenting. Osric threw down the hat contemptuously on his way out.

No messenger brought confirmation of the fencing match so the action continued with Horatio warning Hamlet that he would lose, which the prince denied, but without mentioning that he had been in “continual practice”.

There could not help but be a flicker of awareness of the female actor playing the role when Hamlet dismissed any concerns saying: “it is such a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman”.

Horatio helped Hamlet to prepare for the match by rolling up the sleeves of his shirt ready for some long white fencing gloves.

The pile of clothes was arranged into a circle marking the boundary of the arena, while the rectangle was lit in approximation of the piste. A table bearing the foils was placed at one end, a table bearing the drinks at the other, with a chair in front of each table. Gertrude sat in the chair in front of the drinks table, while a slightly more nervous Claudius stood near her.

Hamlet and Laertes were brought together to be reconciled, but Laertes was resistant to the idea at first. He took Hamlet’s hand, but pulled it away again signifying his continued discontent. This act of defiance became the context for Hamlet’s conciliatory words and request for Laertes’ pardon. Laertes’ grudging acceptance obtained, the pair tried out their foils and readied themselves.

Claudius made great show of the pearl he was to put in his cup. He drank from it first, then dropped the pearl into it: as this was the poisoned cup it meant that the pearl must have been the vector of the poison. This clever sleight of hand seemed intended to disguise Claudius’ actions.

Osric stood between the combatants holding their crossed blades up in the air with his own sword before drawing it away to mark the start of the bout. Tentative tappings of the blade tips gave way to fiercer action, culminating in Hamlet scoring the first hit with a glancing blow to Laertes’ leg.

Claudius offered Hamlet the drink but he refused, the king’s keenness to see his plot succeed prompting him to remain close to the piste holding the cup, ready and eager to hand it over.

The second bout was equally hard fought but ended in an easy hit for Hamlet as he pushed Laertes aside and dabbed playfully with the point of his foil on Laertes’ backside.

Gertrude rose from her chair and, standing just to the side of Claudius, offered her napkin to mop her son’s brow, to which Hamlet responded “Good madam” in polite refusal. Gertrude turned to her husband, took the poisoned cup from his hand and strode to the centre of the piste announcing her carousal “to thy fortune, Hamlet”.

She was now too far from Claudius for him to physically restrain her without causing a scene: all he could do was whisper to her not to. But she insisted “I will my lord” and downed a substantial gulp. Hamlet first-timers in audience gasped at Gertrude drinking from the poisoned cup.

Gertrude approached Hamlet and wiped his face with her napkin, then crossed the piste to sit in the other chair away from Claudius, who slumped back in what had been Gertrude’s chair. Laertes approached Claudius and whispered to him that he would now strike his deadly blow at Hamlet.

The third bout was the briefest of sword clashes that was pronounced “Nothing neither way”, its hectic pace heralding the frantic action that immediately followed.

Laertes lunged at Hamlet crying “Have at you now!” and nicked him on the arm. Clasping his arm and enraged by the stinging pain, Hamlet rushed at Laertes and engaged him with his foil. This descended into a scuffle in which Hamlet threw Laertes’ foil to the ground. Having dropped his own, Hamlet punched and kicked, then recovered the poisoned foil and nicked Laertes with it on his bare arm.

Laertes collapsed and nursed his wound, realising that he was dying “justly killed with mine own treachery”, while Gertrude slumped forward in her chair, almost bent double at the waist. But on hearing Claudius’ false claim that she had merely fainted, she struggled to raise her head and contradicted him with a fading, croaking voice, announcing that her drink was poisoned.

A distraught Hamlet rushed to Gertrude’s side as she fell to the floor. He became quite tender, leaning over her and making comforting shushing noises before turning away to shout for the door to be locked.

Laertes revealed that the king was to blame and that his sword had been “unbated and envenomed”. Laertes’ foil had been picked up by Horatio who now offered it to his friend. Hamlet took the blade and jabbed it at Claudius as he sat helpless in his chair. The king said that he was “but hurt” and the unarmed attendants ran out, usefully clearing the stage. Hamlet ordered his father to “Follow my mother” and forced the rest of poisoned drink down his throat as he sat paralysed with fear. Claudius died instantly, his neck arched back, his head facing upwards.

The distraught Laertes wanted Hamlet’s forgiveness and Hamlet responded tenderly by making more comforting shushing noises as he crouched and hugged Laertes in reconcilement. Laertes then died in Hamlet’s arms, at which Hamlet plainly but forebodingly announced “I follow thee”.

Hamlet told Horatio “I am dead” and gave a bitter glance at the “wretched queen”, an interesting turnaround from his compassion for her as she died. It seemed on balance that he had more tenderness for Laertes than his mother.

“You that look pale and tremble at this chance” was addressed to the audience, but as he weakened Hamlet lost his train of thought, and for a second time told Horatio that he was dead.

He asked his friend to “report me and my cause aright”, but Horatio had taken the poisoned cup and tried to drink from it.

Instead of physically intervening, which often does not look credible from someone who is weak and dying, Hamlet tried instead to exert moral authority. He simply faced his friend and reasoned that if Horatio died, Hamlet would have a “wounded name”. This persuasive argument caused Horatio to think again. He threw the cup to the ground.

This staging was a really good choice and added much to the portrayal of Hamlet’s character and to his friendship with Horatio.

With the Norway subplot expunged from the production, there was no approach of Fortinbras and no ambassadors, so that the performance ended with:

Hamlet

O, I die Horatio,
The potent poison quite overcrows my spirit
[slumped to the ground on his hands and knees]
The rest is silence [said smilingly and hopefully at Horatio as he propped himself up with his hands]
[collapsed on his side – lit rectangle extinguished to mark Hamlet’s death]

Horatio

Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet Prince,[kissed him]
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
[fade to blackout]

 

Conclusions

This production provided the reassurance of the familiar play together with the thrill of a complete new perspective. A woman as Hamlet defamiliarises the text but then proceeds to illuminate it. As Tony Howard pointed out in Women as Hamlet “The female Hamlet is a walking, speaking alienation effect”.

Maxine Peake presented Hamlet as a woman in male clothes with short hair, but used her own natural soft female voice. Her Hamlet displayed a mocking sense of humour even at some serious moments, deriving from his awareness that the court power structure made everyone act a part.

As he pointed out at the start, looking directly at Claudius, “they are actions that a man might play”. This production gave two levels of additional meaning to these words. Firstly, as an expression that men within the play were acting roles insincerely. Secondly, a comment on the play itself, consisting of “actions that a man might play” but were here being performed by a woman – and to great effect.

The relish with which this particular female actor sank her teeth into the juicy meat of one of theatre’s greatest roles was palpable.

Maxine Peake endowed Hamlet with mercurial alterations from calm to anger, dominance to self-doubt, stretching herself as an actor and making full use of her abilities in a complex and infinitely explorable part that is routinely and unjustly denied to half the profession.

The production’s treatment of role gender was as sophisticated as the play. Not only was Hamlet played by a woman as a man, but Polonius became a woman played by a woman. Other minor characters were treated in the same way. These changes made the play world look more recognisably like our own. Polonia in particular was a revelation and came close to stealing show from under Peake.

The audience was also a source of inspiration. Many at the Royal Exchange were seeing Hamlet for the first time. They gasped in shock at Polonia’s death, and reacted when Gertrude drank the poisoned drink meant for her son. Such reactions underscored the power of these plot twists.

Although not sung in the production itself, one particular line from the Bowie song Lady Grinning Soul seemed pertinent to the staging: “And when the clothes are strewn, don’t be afraid of the room”. The sentiment was apt for both Ophelia in her madness strewing her own clothes in her cell and also for Hamlet in the final scene amid the cloth circle.

This production was in part inspired by Phyllida Law’s continuing all-female prison Shakespeare project at the Donmar. It will no doubt be a source of inspiration to others who came to see a woman as Hamlet and went away with their heads buzzing with new ideas.

These are actions that a woman might play.

Gallery

Royal Exchange Manchester

Backstage

Hamlet

 

Absolute beginners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

Hamlet the Dane

Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 6 April 2013

The play was set within a fencing hall with the piste marked down the centre of the thrust stage. A raised platform at the rear contained a large Danish flag in one corner and a desk in the other. Foils hung from the wall of this office. A pitched roof with its skylights and fluorescent tubes hung above, and to the stage right side was a door with glass panels in its top half. A Latin inscription “mens sana in corpore sano” overlooked the whole.

A figure loitered briefly behind the door, removing a securing chain before entering and revealing himself to be Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet in his dark mourning suit and glasses. He leant forward with his head in his hands, clearly distressed. After composing himself, he picked up a lath sword and moved to the piste where he began a fencing manoeuvre.

He fought his way down the piste against an imaginary opponent. As he reached the end, the sound of clashing foils was briefly heard. Hamlet turned back and uttered the play’s first line “Who’s there?”

The sound of swords was an echo returning back in time from the final fencing bout. The answer to Hamlet’s question was that his future, his fate and his destiny were calling him.

The watch appeared via side entrances and, becoming aware of their presence, Hamlet slipped away to sit in darkness at the front of the stage writing in a notebook. Behind him the first scene played out, beginning with Barnardo (Dave Fishley) and Francisco (Mark Holgate) on the Elsinore battlements (1.1).

The Ghost (Greg Hicks) appeared on the stage right walkway dressed in fencing whites, which made little sense of Horatio’s (Alex Waldmann) comment that it was wearing the same armour in which the king had fought the Norwegians. At this point the production’s conceit clashed with the text.

Some men in welders’ outfits came through the door and out the stage left exit, prompting Marcellus’ (Samuel Taylor) question about Denmark’s war preparations. Horatio’s answer, in which he referred to “landless resolutes”, was interrupted by the reappearance of the Ghost on the stage left side. Marcellus took a sword hanging from the wall, but the Ghost withdrew and reappeared at various entrances before finally disappearing.

Hamlet rose from his seated position as the court entered for 1.2. The others all wore black fencing masks and moved in slow, formal dance steps as they collected around the besuited Claudius (Greg Hicks again).

The king looked lean and wiry, a physical condition that gave his insistent firm manner a kind of low-level hectoring aggression. This undercurrent of potential violence was pacified by the obedience that his manner engendered in those around him.

His new wife Gertrude (Charlotte Cornwell) had something fusty and matronly about her, which suggested that Claudius was more interested in the throne than in her.

Claudius dispatched the ambassadors, Voltemand (David Fielder) and Cornelia (Natalie Klamar), to Norway.

Our first sight of Polonius (Robin Soans) hinted that, either by accident or design, he was similar in demeanour and tone to Claudius.

Hamlet stood and watched from downstage left so that his first line “A little more than kin, and less than kind” was spoken upstage to a distant Claudius. Hamlet was mildly dismissive but not wracked by anger or melancholy.

Hamlet’s deliberations on “seems” were slow and methodical. In fact he paused before saying “seems” a second time as if loathed to utter the word, but there was also a hint of suppressed rage and passion lurking just below the surface.

Claudius’s extended response seemed intent on wearing down Hamlet’s resistance and culminated in offering him a drink, holding the glass as if beckoning Hamlet to take it. When Hamlet consented to obey his mother, Claudius gave him the glass. He chanted “Be as ourself in Denmark” like a drinking song, with the rest of the court joining in, to jolly Hamlet along as he drank. A loud bang caused party streamers to fill the air as confetti scattered on the ground.

It was noticeable at this point that with the fencing piste already visible from the very start and with Claudius offering Hamlet a drink, the opening scenes of the play contained echoes of its fatal conclusion. The fencing piste on which Hamlet would be injured, and a drink, indistinguishable from the one with which Claudius would try to poison him, had already been presented to us.

Hamlet soliloquised about his “too too solid flesh” as the tension within him spilled out. He seemed to have reached a point of resignation in which, beyond fury, he was scoffing at his mother’s infidelity.

Hamlet was extremely happy to see Horatio and hugged him warmly. But the fervent emotion of Hamlet’s welcome showed him to be deriving solace rather than unalloyed joy from the reunion. He was like a man stranded on a desert island spying the smoke trail of a passing ship.

After the hug, they both crouched on the ground as Hamlet clasped Horatio’s hands in his, not wanting to let go even as the conversation continued.

Horatio broached the subject of the Ghost, and Hamlet’s questions in response flashed out rapidly and instantly as if he had turned his laser-sharp intellect onto a matter which had now fully gripped his attention. Within milliseconds of new data about his father’s ghost becoming available, he had formulated and delivered a fresh question designed to elucidate the next vital detail.

After the others had left, Hamlet vowed to see the Ghost for himself. Immediately afterwards, Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) appeared through the side door. She had short dark hair, wore a sensible skirt and an Icelandic pattern pullover, and was carrying a large pile of books.

On seeing Hamlet she let the book pile fall to the ground with a crash at her feet and ran over to him. They embraced and kissed warmly. Hamlet saw Laertes approach from the stage left side and quickly left so that the action of 1.3 could commence.

Laertes (Luke Norris) said that his “necessaries” were all stowed away, which suggested that the pile of books carried by the sensibly dressed Ophelia were her own.

A number of Icelandic pullovers, Horatio wore one two occasionally, introduced an element of localised naturalism into the production. This implied though that the Danish court had a preference for Icelandic rather than Faroese knitwear.

Laertes had just witnessed the ending of his sister’s tryst with Hamlet, which proved excellent grounds for his warnings to her about him.

Ophelia countered Laertes’ conditional statement “Then if he says he loves you…” with an emphatic extra-textual “He does, he does”.

Polonius lectured Laertes and again proved nimble-witted rather than sluggish and buffoonish. When he turned his attention to Ophelia, she meekly accepted his counsel.

Hamlet and friends encroached upon Ophelia and Polonius as they entered for 1.4. The sound of Claudius’s partying filtered through the door, prompting Hamlet’s sarcasm about this custom.

The Ghost appeared and walked across the front of the stage from stage left to right. Hamlet addressed it quizzically. The Ghost began to leave via the stage right walkway and beckoned Hamlet to follow. Horatio and Marcellus’ attempts at restraint caused Hamlet to take a foil from the wall and threaten them with it before he followed the Ghost off.

Grief

Hamlet appeared shortly afterwards from the stage right upstage entrance and the Ghost began to speak to him. The Ghost had taken off his mask, so that Hamlet could see it was his father. When the mysterious figure confirmed his identity, Hamlet reached out his hand to touch his father. His line “O God!” was replaced by a gut-wrenching moan, an inarticulate outpouring of grief and deep emotion that seemed more appropriate to this passionate and emotional Hamlet than a well-articulated phrase.

When Hamlet made contact with his father’s body it was as if an electric shock had passed between them. The touch became a grasp as Hamlet was consumed by the desire to know more. While reports about the Ghost had been intellectually analysed, this actual contact produced upheavals in Hamlet’s heart that drove his outward behaviour.

The stage brightened as the Ghost said he could scent the morning air, which hurried him to his concluding story about his murder by Claudius. He asked Hamlet to remember him by offering his fencing mask, which Hamlet accepted in astonishment.

Hamlet followed the Ghost to the stage left exit, so that when Hamlet was left alone he fell back onto a bench at the side from which he had to raise himself, requesting that his sinews “bear me stiffly up”.

He seized his notebook to record his father’s words. His reference “At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark” saw him point to the ground, thereby emphasising the naturalistic location of the play suggested by the flag, and partly by the knitwear.

Horatio and Marcellus caught up with Hamlet, who began to be cheerily sarcastic with them. This being a fencing salon, Hamlet easily found a foil on which to make the others swear not to divulge what they had seen. The Ghost’s voice echoed encouragement, also causing wind to scatter papers on the upstage desk.

In line with the RSC’s edition of the text, Hamlet referred to there being “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy”.

This led into a quite camp imitation of the ways in which he did not want his friends to discuss his “antic disposition”.

Hamlet pulled Horatio back and directed his “time is out of joint” lines directly at him, not at the audience as an aside.

Polonius briefed Reynaldo (Daniel Easton) on how to spy on Laertes (2.1). As Polonius rambled on through his unnecessarily punctilious instructions, Ophelia burst in and stood silently staring at her father. This interruption became the cause of Polonius’s forgetfulness and the reason he had to pick up the thread of the conversation.

Ophelia sat quietly until Reynaldo had been dispatched, after which Polonius was free to listen to her. She spoke impulsively fired by the urgency that had driven her to burst in on him. She acted out Hamlet’s pained gestures when he had confronted her and Polonius decided to inform the king.

Rosencrantz (Oliver Ryan) and Guildenstern (Nicolas Tennant) wandered across the stage in their coats and carrying suitcases as if they had just arrived at the king’s behest (2.2). Drinks were brought for them.

At first the king was not sure which of them was which and did not address them individually. But on bidding them farewell he made an effort and got them the right way round, much to Gertrude’s satisfaction.

Polonius hurried to see the king and told him that he had found the cause of Hamlet’s madness, then ushered in the ambassadors who brought the good news of Fortinbras’ arrest. The king spoke with the ambassadors upstage, leaving Gertrude alone downstage sat on a chair looking neglected.

Ophelia was kept outside by her father and then ushered in and ordered to stand on a particular spot, receiving her cue to read from the letter Hamlet had sent. She snapped obediently into position and did as she was told.

Ophelia’s unquestioning deference meant that when Polonius told the king about his instructions to Ophelia to shun Hamlet, we understood that she had obeyed him.

As Polonius broached the outline of their further plot to “loose” Ophelia to Hamlet, the man himself entered, wearing an untied fencing outfit and mask. He sat down reading a sheet of paper and Polonius was left to deal with him alone.

Hamlet’s comical appearance made his response “words, words, words” even more funny. Further questioning prompted him to screw the paper up and throw it at Polonius when describing the slanders it contained.

Hamlet was jovially sarcastic, particularly when he walked backwards like a crab.

Polonius left in disgust clearing the way for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet greeted them and engaged in some bawdy play, simulating sex with Guildenstern who had spread his legs to indicate how he was one of Fortune’s “privates”.

Hamlet’s initial jollity soon gave way to suspicious questioning of their motives for visiting him. He referred to the “rights of our fellowship” and bared his forearm, as did the others, to reveal tattoos that witnessed some kind of pact between them.

Talking of having lost all his mirth, Hamlet’s reference to “this most excellent canopy” took on a comical note when he gestured upwards at the suspended roof. The drollery of his earlier appearance in the fencing suit indicated that he was not completely consumed by melancholy.

Hamlet’s philosophical observations did not hang like dense clouds of thought in the air, but seemed more to be exercises in rhetoric designed to convince others of his profundity. This was the conundrum: he had reason to be sad, but we also knew he was trying to affect sadness, so which was his real self?

Hamlet was genuinely interested in the news that the players had arrived and the production kept in his question as to why they were travelling, but without the boys’ company references.

Hamlet and companions sat on a bench and pretended to be engaged in conversation so they could make fun of mock Polonius. They formed a tight-knit little gang reminiscent of what must have been their previous closeness.

Hamlet stood to mock Polonius with his remarks about Roscius and Jephthah and then greeted the players. He congratulated a female player on being “nearer to heaven”, but without the final “by the altitude of a chopine”. Without the final part, Hamlet seemed not be commenting on an increase in height but an increase in age and proximity to death.

Hamlet launched into the Aeneas speech until it was picked up expertly by the First Player (Cliff Burnet).

Left alone after the impromptu performance, Hamlet half-laughed at himself, drawing out a long guttural moan of self accusation as he described himself as a rogue and peasant slave.

His admiring description of the player’s skill displayed much of the passion that he claimed he was unable to transform into action.

He spoke “John-a-dreams” slowly and affected a shambling gait with the self-deprecating implication that he was stupid.

His question to the audience “Am I coward?” did not provoke any response, though his subsequent lines were delivered as if he had in fact been directly accused. He foamed with growing anger at his supposed critics, descending into an overwrought display, the stupidity of which he suddenly became aware of, declaring himself to be “an ass”.

He hit upon his plan, but one he must have formulated earlier as he had previously told the players about the lines he wanted inserting into Gonzago.

Claudius and his court entered and gathered round Hamlet as he explained how he would use the play to trap the king, so that when he said “the play’s the thing” the cast were stood around like actors waiting for their cue, Hamlet’s final line in the scene.

As Hamlet departed, the king spoke with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had been unable to fathom Hamlet’s troubles (3.1). Ophelia sat behind them on the raised stage staring at the ground beneath her dangling feet, obviously unhappy at the part she was expected to play in the plan.

The king and Polonius hid behind the glass panel door, while Ophelia sat on the stage right bench with her box of reminiscences and the book given to her by Polonius.

Antic

As he approached, Hamlet could be heard offstage singing Happiness by Ken Dodd, a completely incongruous song in terms of the speech that followed, but one that perhaps fitted his desire to appear antic to others.

After the first few lines of the song, he caught sight of Ophelia and sat down at the edge of the platform and launched into the iconic soliloquy. This lurch into seriousness caught Ophelia’s attention, but even here Hamlet applied a lightness of touch. He lay on his side when expressing his desire for sleep, as if he found the concept of the “sleep of death” somehow amusing.

His sudden shift from a song of joy into a melancholic disquisition did not ring true and undermined the sentiments of his soliloquy. This was a good way of subverting what has become an all-too familiar speech.

He was sat on what would later become the stage for the players, and this was very much a conscious performance for the benefit of Ophelia, who was present throughout. His only genuinely heartfelt sentiment was his reference to her right at the end when he approached Ophelia, talking of her “orizons”.

Ophelia rose and thrust her box of remembrances at Hamlet. He took a letter from the box and made blah-blah noises as he contemptuously pretended to read its soppy contents. He ditched the box on the ground, informing her “I never gave you aught”. Screwing one of the papers into a ball he threw it at her face.

His mood flipped into aggression, telling her to get to a nunnery while ringing a large hand bell. He moved upstage to ask where her father was, but without there being any real indication that Polonius was spying on them. This was perhaps Hamlet’s instincts informing him.

He smeared Ophelia’s face with dirt taken from beyond the stage blocks, complaining of women’s “paintings”. He completed her humiliation by stripping off her pullover and skirt, leaving her vulnerably semi-clad. He also cut off some of her hair with a small knife.

Polonius and later the king re-entered. Ophelia borrowed her father’s jacket and told him (not in soliloquy) about Hamlet’s great overthrown mind and began collecting up the scattered contents of the box.

Claudius was clearly ruffled by the threat to himself posed by this aggression, and had already decided to send Hamlet to England.

At first the players ignored Hamlet as tried to begin his talk on acting (3.2). He repeated “Speak the speech…” several times to no avail before finally ringing a bell to secure their attention. He stood on a bench by the stage left doorway to give his lesson, illustratively sawing his hands.

Referring disparagingly to the groundlings “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise”, he looked to the people in the RST stalls immediately in front of him on the stage left side of the thrust, a joke which the whole audience seemed to appreciate.

As the court gathered for the performance, Hamlet instructed Horatio to observe Claudius and handed him a Polaroid camera with which to capture the hoped-for guilty look.

When Claudius entered he was wearing a fencing mask, possibly that belonging to Hamlet’s father. It was removed from his face just before he and Gertrude reached the bench that had been set aside in front of the raised stage. The others sat at the sides to watch, while Hamlet remained downstage.

Confident that events were under his control, Hamlet was boldly sarcastic and disrespectful to Claudius and Polonius.

In a great piece of realistic staging, Hamlet’s approaches to Ophelia and joking attempt to sit by her were indignantly rebuffed. After all, at their last encounter he had insulted and humiliated her. Reconciliation at this point would have seemed bizarre.

The dumb show was played out on the stage, from which the desk had now been removed, with a red curtain at its sides. The Player King and Queen (Cliff Burnett & Karen Archer) embraced in period costume, with the King wearing an oversized paper crown that towered upwards.

The poisoner appeared with a large phallic baguette dangling from his waist and gestured his covetousness of the queen and also of the castle on the painted backdrop. The gentle music of this scene changed to heavy metal as a figure in black modern dress with a skull pattern on her top entered to represent ‘poison’. She sat on the Player King’s chest to symbolise his murder.

After the poisoning the Player Queen tore apart a cob loaf, which she had thus far clasped to her bosom symbolising her heart, at which point the poisoner raised the phallic baguette in front of him and moved to embrace her.

The prologue was spoken in a vaguely Japanese style before the curtain opened to reveal the Player King and Queen sat on a sofa. Hamlet became ever more excited in his comments as the play reached the key theme of remarriage.

The flirtatious exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia with its references to “groaning” was cut.

The poisoner wore a suit identical to that of Claudius. He killed the Player King in imitation of Claudius’s crime, causing the king to rise from the bench in anger. He called for some light, to which Horatio responded by flashing the Polaroid camera in his face to capture his expression.

As Claudius stormed away and the guards arrested and led away the players, Hamlet and Horatio took to the stage. Hamlet, illuminating his face from below with a table lamp, sang the ditty about the “stricken deer” as Horatio snapped him with the camera. The interval came as the lights went out on the scene.

The second half began with Hamlet and Horatio continuing their conversation until they were interrupted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who told Hamlet that his mother had sent for him. Hamlet stood on the bench and twisted his feet from side to side creeping up and down it in a muted victory dance.

Hamlet was now effusive and jokingly reassured Rosencrantz that he still loved him “by these pickers and stealers”, talking to him as if he were a baby. But when Horatio brought the recorders, Hamlet became vitriolic in his denunciation of Guildenstern, standing close and speaking “though you fret me you cannot play upon me” directly into his face.

He turned instantly on Polonius, switching his full attention to him and completely forgetting Guildenstern, in order to play his cloud-watching game with the old man.

However, that done, he had calmed down enough to talk in soliloquy about how he would not harm his mother.

The king instructed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet to England, and they received a wad of notes in payment for their work (3.3). Polonius announced his intention to listen in on Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude, after which Claudius had a few moments alone.

Greg Hicks clasped his hands in front of him and physically wilted from the strident, confident man he had so far presented, as his Claudius bemoaned the rankness of his offence.

Hamlet walked across the back and glanced sideways when he spied the king. He took a foil and approached the kneeling figure. Pointing the foil directly at Claudius’s head, Hamlet considered striking him before realising that this would be “hire and salary, not revenge”. He brought the foil close to his chest before vowing to kill Claudius at a more opportune time.

Polonius hid behind the half-drawn curtain on the raised stage as Gertrude prepared to receive her son (3.4). Hamlet appeared with a bouquet of flowers. His mother sat on the sofa (brought down from the Mousetrap stage during the post-performance chaos) roughly stage left. Hamlet positioned himself on the bench stage right to ask “what’s the matter?”

Their bitter exchange riled Hamlet into something approaching anger. Responding to Gertrude’s threat “I’ll set those to you that can speak”, Hamlet took a sword from the wall and pointed it at Gertrude, prompting her fearful cries. This caused Polonius to shout for help and Hamlet responded rapidly by dashing towards him. Hamlet tore the curtain down on top of the unseen figure and stuck his sword straight through his bulk. The curtain was unwrapped to show the dead Polonius sat in a chair.

Approaching his mother again, Hamlet took the recently snapped Polaroid of Claudius and a photo of his father from his pocket to show her this “counterfeit presentment of two brothers”.

Hamlet tore off the sheet covering the sofa when complaining of Gertrude living “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed”, the item serving as a convenient approximation to bed sheets.

Hamlet was transformed and transfixed when his father’s Ghost appeared again upstage left, which perhaps helped him to be kinder to his mother, hugging her as he tried to convince her to cool her affection for Claudius.

When he was finished with Gertrude, Hamlet dragged Polonius out of the chair and sideways off the raised stage.

Threat

Gertrude was still crouched face down and sobbing when Claudius entered, giving real meaning to his “There’s matter in these sighs, these profound heaves” (4.1). Claudius again interpreted news of Hamlet’s rash actions as a direct threat to him. He sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find his son.

There followed a brilliantly inventive, exceedingly funny and wonderfully intuitive piece of staging.

Hamlet entered through the raised stage and descended the steps to the sofa carrying a mug of tea with the bag string draped over the lip. He sat and played with the teabag string before announcing “Safely stowed” with a self-satisfied exhalation (4.2).

Looking back at this sequence, it seemed perfectly logical that after carrying a heavy lifeless body a considerable distance around the castle, Hamlet would have needed a cuppa to unwind.

This state of relaxation informed his sarcastic answers to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s frantic questions about Polonius’s location. In the darkness it was difficult to see Polonius’s blood on his fencing suit.

He was particularly indignant at being “demanded of a sponge!” His semi-answer to their questions indicated that Polonius was “with the king”, as Hamlet indicated the King of heaven by pointing skyward. He insulted Claudius by describing him as a thing of nothing and then made his escape.

Hamlet was brought before Claudius, marching obediently but mockingly behind Guildenstern, all this still in the white fencing suit he had worn since his encounter with his father’s ghost.

He described the “convocation of worms” that were eating Polonius and outlined the fish/worm anecdote. However many times it is staged, Hamlet’s “He will stay till you come” never fails to be amusing, and this time was no exception.

At the very moment Claudius began to tell Hamlet that he was to be sent to England, Ophelia rushed silently into the room but was restrained and escorted out. But she had enough time to see Hamlet’s now fully-illuminated, blood-stained clothes. Her look of horror evidenced her realisation that Hamlet was responsible for her father’s death.

Hamlet’s response “For England!” saw him skip and twist the loose ends of his fencing suit in an imitation of Morris dancing.

Hamlet taunted Claudius by addressing him as his mother. He completed the explanation of his logic by kissing Claudius on the cheek, as he would his mother.

Claudius’s malevolent pronouncement of “the present death of Hamlet” was followed by the removal of the back wall of the raised stage to reveal a white backdrop with a single, distant tree in front of which the Norwegian army appeared (4.4).

The soldiers moved through this new upstage opening and began taking up the boards of the main stage platform to reveal dark soil underneath. Eventually a rough T shape remained with the fencing piste running the length of the stage still in place, but surrounded on all sides by dirt.

Hamlet appeared wearing a light-coloured suit for his journey and questioned the Norwegian Captain (Dave Fishley again) about his army’s mission. The “two thousand souls” line was given to the Captain.

Pondering this afterwards, Hamlet was inspired to act decisively after seeing such extensive preparations for a fight over nothing. But at the same time he displayed a hint of the quiet resignation that would characterise some of his subsequent statements.

Ophelia burst in on Gertrude and Horatio wearing a white wedding dress with a veil and clutching a bridal bouquet in front of her (4.5). She rushed excitedly to the top of the piste to ask “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?”

This could be interpreted two ways. The wedding dress and her previously avowed love for Hamlet meant she could have been referring to the prince. But it was also possible that, as a bride waiting to be escorted to the altar, she was expecting to see her father perform that honour.

But the overriding impression was that this sequence, normally about Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death, was here transformed into an expression of her thwarted but unabated passion for Hamlet.

She muttered “they’re not ready” as she looked at the overturned benches at the sides of the piste and set them upright. She handed her bouquet to Horatio and set out small bunches of flowers on the benches as if they were wedding guests, before reclaiming the bouquet once more. Looking up at the imagined altar, she crossed herself.

Claudius appeared and Ophelia hugged him warmly. She set off down the piste, her arm bowed out for her father to accompany her, as she sang ‘Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day’. Once at the end, she knelt as if before the altar.

She held out her hand as if holding that of her groom and started the ‘By Gis and by Saint Charity’ song, speaking the girl’s part, then shuffled sideways and put her opposite hand out to sing the boy’s part. This was slightly incongruous as the song recounted how a lad had not fulfilled his promise to marry a maid he had bedded.

As the others commented in wonderment, Ophelia continued in a world of her own. She stood up straight and looked out into the audience as if still waiting for Hamlet to turn up, pronouncing a hopeful “We must be patient” before departing with more distracted remarks, throwing her bouquet over her shoulder. A sad-looking Gertrude picked up the bouquet and kept it.

Claudius told of the imminent arrival of Laertes from France. Just then a violent commotion could be heard outside, prompting Claudius to call for his guards. A loud noise of an outer door being broken open brought real tension, so that when Laertes and his soldiers burst in, a sense of danger existed that was not diminished by the men with guns being told to wait outside.

Laertes himself was not armed and did not direct any weapon against Claudius, but the presence of his supporters outside the door was a constant reminder that he was capable of forcing compliance with his angry demands.

Ophelia’s second appearance saw her still wearing her wedding dress and her obvious madness appalled Laertes. Ophelia hugged her brother saying “Fare you well my dove”.

After encouraging everyone to sing “a-down a-down”, she took a foil from the wall and pointed it at Claudius, causing him some momentary fear, until she dropped the sword’s point to the ground and walked in a circle trailing it behind her.

Returning to where she had started, she briefly held the sword upright close in front of her as if beginning a fencing bout. She then removed the guard from the blade tip and clasped her other hand round its now bare point, cutting into her palm until it was smeared with her blood.

She took her bloodied hand and began to daub lines of blood on people’s foreheads, proclaiming each daub to be a flower.

This staging really tore up the rule book on how to portray Ophelia. The complete reimagining of the character at this point was exhilarating to behold.

She smeared Claudius’s face, describing the mark as rue. He had to wear his with a difference, so she made an additional red mark that differentiated him from the others.

Ophelia spoke her final song rather than singing it and left the assembled company stunned, an opportunity that Claudius seized on to further assuage Laertes.

A woman messenger brought a letter from Hamlet to Horatio, which he read aloud before setting off to prepare for Hamlet’s unexpected arrival (4.6).

Claudius showed himself to be a practised liar when he told Laertes that Hamlet’s popularity was the reason he had not put him on trial for Polonius’s murder (4.7).

The calm that the success of this lie produced in Claudius was short-lived as a letter arrived from Hamlet in which he informed the king he was returning. Claudius exclaimed “From Hamlet!” with utter incredulity.

Working together and thinking quickly, the pair hit upon their twin-track plan to murder Hamlet. Claudius walked up and down as he fretted about a backup plan should the envenomed sword not work, eventually hitting on the poisoned chalice.

Gertrude interrupted them, obliging Claudius to stow Hamlet’s letter hastily away in his inside jacket pocket. Claudius’s “How now, sweet queen!” was said with hasty embarrassment and fear that their plan might be discovered.

Gertrude’s poetic description of Ophelia’s death, which realistically no one could have witnessed in such lengthy detail without coming to assistance, enraged Laertes further to Claudius’s benefit.

After discussing the forthcoming burial and joking around, the two gravediggers, the younger a female (Rosie Hilal), set about their work (5.1). The older one (David Fielder again) used a spade to shift earth at the downstage foot of the piste, uncovering skulls as Hamlet and Horatio appeared in silhouette at the back of the stage as if coming from a great distance.

Hamlet saw the first skull and commented briefly on it (lawyerly references omitted) before sitting cosy by the Gravedigger, engaging him in conversation and a battle of wits. He seemed impressed by the man’s punctilious precision. The joke about Hamlet’s madness not being noticed in England was well-received.

The production was taking a well-earned comic breather before the final onslaught.

Favour

Hamlet took Yorick’s skull and its jawbone fell to the ground, prompting his remark that it was “quite chapfallen”. He handed it to an audience member at the front of the stalls, telling them to take it to “my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”. This had the effect of underscoring the humour in his remark, rather than its tragic bite.

Hamlet’s mind wandered onto his consideration of how Alexander might have been turned into a bung in a beer barrel, after which the funeral procession appeared in silhouette through the rear entrance, causing Hamlet and Horatio to move to the stage right side to observe.

Laertes bitterness showed in his scorn of the Priest (John Stahl) who had not given Ophelia the full ceremony. His reference to his sister told Hamlet that the funeral was that of Ophelia.

Ophelia, still in her white gown, was laid in a shallow recess in the soil at the foot of the piste, but remained visible to the audience. Gertrude stood over her to spread “sweets to the sweet”, placing on Ophelia’s grave the bouquet that she had discarded in her madness. This symbolically linked the marriage Gertrude had hoped to see between Ophelia and her son with the present funeral.

Laertes stepped down and lifted Ophelia up to embrace her lifeless form, barking out his instructions to bury him beside her under mountains of soil.

Hamlet came forward and tussled with Laertes on the piste, mocking his actions by tossing soil over himself, before storming off.

Ophelia remained in full view laid out in her grave throughout the remainder of the performance.

Hamlet recounted the full story of his escape to Horatio (5.2). He was quite relaxed and enjoyed discussing Claudius’s failed attempt to have him killed, which could be seen from his nonchalant description of the overblown language in the commission given to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and in his dismissal of his former friends “They are not near my conscience”.

Osric (Michael Grady-Hall) was a picture in his schoolboyish cap and blazer, which bore a miniature Danish flag on the breast pocket. Hamlet enjoyed making him take his cap off and then put it on again.

All was jollity until Osric mentioned that Hamlet had to “vouchsafe the answer” to the king’s wager. Hamlet’s mood seemed to change. He replied “How if I answer ‘no’?” with a muted earnestness that was completely unlike his previous quips at Osric’s expense.

Hamlet agreed to the wager and the seriousness he had lurched into with his question to Osric now informed his quiet resignation in the face of his fate.

The stage was swept in preparation for the fencing bout. Hamlet and Laertes met and were reconciled.

Hamlet had to change into a proper fencing suit, which he did in full view of everyone. The king brought a fencing mask for Hamlet. When he clapped eyes on it, the movements of everyone else on stage slowed down to emphasise the specialness of the moment: Hamlet realised that the mask was the one that his father had given to him. Once he had taken the mask, the action speeded up again to normal pace.

Laertes took one sword and pronounced it too light. Claudius took the poisoned and unbated one from the wall, which was then passed to Laertes.

Claudius stood to their left with the wine, while Gertrude was positioned to the right. They fenced up and down the piste, which had been visible since the start of the performance.

Hamlet scored his first point prompting Claudius to put the pearl into the glass, which he had to set aside when Hamlet refused it. Gertrude approached Hamlet to wipe his brow and then took the poisoned glass and drank from it despite Claudius’s protestations.

After the third pass Laertes charged at Hamlet cutting him under the right arm with the envenomed blade, causing Hamlet to drop his own foil. Osric wrestled Laertes’ sword from him, which Hamlet then snatched from Osric. Laertes and Hamlet wrestled over the sword and Laertes eventually cut his hand on the blade, thereby poisoning himself.

The queen fell to the ground and announced she had been poisoned, upon which the guards secured the doors.

The stricken Laertes collapsed in agony, blaming everything on the king. Claudius, discovering the doors locked, backed himself against the stage right side wall in terror. Hamlet approached Claudius and cut him behind the ear with the poisoned sword.

Hamlet dragged Claudius up onto the raised stage and, handing him the poisoned cup, demanded that he drink it off. Claudius paused, looked down at Hamlet, who had squatted on the ground in front of the stage, and complied.

Hamlet began to clap Claudius slowly as if this were some kind of grotesque performance. This was a direct echo of Claudius’s initial bullying of Hamlet to accept a drink and join in the wedding festivities. Claudius collapsed in pain and died too. He was soon followed by Laertes.

The presence of the dead Ophelia at the foot of the piste meant that each successive dead body was effectively adding to a formation of onstage bodies that had begun with her.

Hamlet took the royal crown from Claudius and placed it on his own head. He began to convulse as the potent poison gripped him. He slumped to the ground, but still had some strength left to prevent Horatio for drinking from the cup, which he had taken from the table.

Horatio saw the approach of Fortinbras, which prompted Hamlet to rise, remove the crown from his head and give his support to the Norwegian. He stood as he exclaimed “He has my dying voice. The rest is silence”.

He staggered down the piste. When he reached the end, he glimpsed Ophelia and a brief flash of joy traced across his face before he buckled and fell dead.

This raised the interesting possibility that he might have died before he set off down the piste and saw Ophelia. His final walk was one after death in which he had the privilege of glimpsing his love, who would have been theatrically absent to everyone else as the fencing piste and Ophelia’s grave were naturalistically two distant locations. Or alternatively, his glimpse of Ophelia could have been a fevered vision in his mind that occurred as he was dying. Either way, in performance it was incredibly powerful.

Alarm bells rang and the sprinkler system dousing the entire stage in water as Fortinbras (Chris Jared) appeared dramatically in semi-silhouette on the raised stage after which the stage went dark and the performance ended.

Conclusions

The production focused on the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia rather than foregrounding the play’s treatment of philosophical issues. Nor was this a production aching with relevance to contemporary society.

This was evidenced by the fact that “2B” became a performance that Hamlet staged for Ophelia rather than a genuine expression of his sentiment. It thereby mockingly subverted that soliloquy’s iconic status.

Some Hamlets examine the here and now. This one looked modern, very much in the “now”, but its ostensible Danish setting prevented it from commenting on the “here”. The costumes referenced the current fashion for Nordic Noir television, cleverly avoiding obvious and very specific Faroese pullovers in favour of “lopapeysa” garments with an Icelandic yoke pattern.

With nothing much to say about the human condition, the production became a portrait of one man’s condition, Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet.

His sheer emotionality was astonishing, making him much more than a simple vehicle for philosophical or political debate. He demonstrated a remarkable degree of passion, an appealing trait evidenced by his tactility and tone of voice.

But the production also deliberately rewrote the rulebook on how to present Ophelia, gleefully rejuvenating her character and breaching the dull limits of her standard depiction.

She popped up where not expected: having a visible tryst with her lover Hamlet, causing her father to lose train of thought and trying to speak to Hamlet before he was sent to England.

Our current understanding of insanity is different to that which framed the conception of Ophelia’s specifically female madness in the original text. With astounding boldness, the production completely updated the concept to include cutting and self harm.

As well as mourning her father, this Ophelia was insane with the desire to be married to Hamlet. The flowers she had gathered were carefully positioned like wedding guests. Instead of handing them out, as in the standard staging, she cut herself with a large blade and then smeared her own blood on people’s faces while talking of floral symbolism.

All in all, this was a production that generated lots of happiness…

A breath in pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puppet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

Hamlet in little boxes

The Rest is Silence, Studio 2 Riverside Studios, 16 June 2012

We queued in a dingy alley behind Riverside Studios to be admitted via the Studio 2 back door into a square space that appeared to have mirrored walls. For what seemed like ages the audience had no other object of attention but itself.

Then dreamthinkspeak’s take on Hamlet began.

For the next ninety minutes (with no interval) we were subjected to an intelligent rearrangement of the text that was played out behind the plastic walls integrating live action with video projection.

What appeared to be mirrored surfaces were illuminated to reveal a series of rooms around the central space. As the action moved from room to room, the best tactic was to go to the centre of the space and turn on the spot.

This review references the walls in this production in clockwise order starting with wall 1, which occupied one side of the square and was one large room (1).

The performance began with a projection onto the front wall of room 1. It showed Hamlet’s father walking in his orchard. He approached in close-up and we saw blood running out of his ear, which was obviously the aftermath of his aural poisoning.

Over behind wall 4, Claudius woke up in his bedroom with a start as if the projection had been his bad dream. He wandered naked into the bathroom next door and rehearsed a speech beginning “Though yet of Hamlet…”

In this production, many other characters rehearsed in private before making statements, thereby emphasising the false nature of public discourse and the performance pressure felt by in the world of the these speakers.

With our attention still focused on Claudius, other walls were lit up to reveal the space behind in which the other characters were preparing themselves. All the rooms looked like they belonging in either modern offices or stylish luxury homes. The inference was that this family was one of considerable wealth and commercial power.

Back in room 1 Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes and Hamlet appeared for the court scene. The court looked like a modern office reception area. The main characters, with the exception of Hamlet, dressed in business wear.

With Gertrude sat at his side, Claudius spoke “Though yet…” to a handheld video camera, with the images projected onto the front of walls 2 and 4. Having previously seen his rehearsal, this felt like a performance within a performance.

The speech done, Claudius and Gertrude directed their attention to Hamlet and sat either side of him on a sofa. Unlike the other power dressers, Hamlet wore a black pullover, part of a casual black outfit several degrees of smart below the ubiquitous corporate look.

After asking him about his melancholy, Claudius and Gertrude froze. Hamlet got up from the sofa and stood just in front of them to deliver “O that this too, too solid flesh…”. Once finished, he reinserted himself between them.

This manner of delivery further emphasised his isolation. What is normally a soliloquy was here delivered by Hamlet lonely among the crowd of his immediate family.

There was no Horatio in the production, which further increased the sense of Hamlet’s loneliness.

After Laertes was given leave to return to France, the action moved clockwise through the rooms. Ophelia and Laertes talked in her room about his impending departure and then Ophelia spoke with her father Polonius in his office about Hamlet’s advances to her.

Reversed

Claudius and Gertrude enlisted the aid of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a room in the corner of wall 3. At this point the action was mixed up and reversed. Skipping over Hamlet’s meeting with the pair, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sat around with notebooks reading back Hamlet’s words and laughing at what he had said to them. This emphasised their role as spies and the total insincerity of their friendship with him.

As they laughed, Hamlet sat in the room opposite (1) with his head in his hands. Other characters joined in the repetition of Hamlet’s worlds, so that eventually everyone was talking at once.

Hamlet rose to his feet when he saw his father in a room directly opposite (wall 3). His father beckoned to him with his handgun. The entire space went dark as Hamlet’s father explained how he had been killed. When the lights went up again, Hamlet was in the room with him holding onto the handgun.

The appearance of Hamlet’s father at this moment pointed to the possibility that it was some form of fantasy brought on by the extreme stress of his situation, surrounded as he was by a confused tumult of his own words being thrust back at him.

The room containing Hamlet and his father went dark as room 1 lit up to reveal Claudius and Gertrude cavorting together. Projections on the adjacent walls showed other people enjoying the high life. As he watched his family, Hamlet sat in semidarkness and put the gun to his head as if threatening suicide.

A projection of Hamlet’s father appeared on the back wall of room 1 as Claudius launched into “My offence is rank…” Hamlet’s father then walked in on them both, but invisible to the clearly disturbed couple.

Hamlet entered the room with the handgun, looked at the praying Claudius and spoke his “hire and salary” speech after refusing to shoot him.

Ophelia was in Polonius’ room playing with the objects on his desk, mockingly impersonating of his homilies on good behaviour. Meanwhile Polonius was in the long room (1) trying to hide behind the sofa before finally secreting himself behind an end door.

Ophelia went back into her room where she met Hamlet, who held her up against wall.

Hamlet went into the long room (1) and was confronted by both Gertrude and Ophelia. He launched into a conflation of his separate diatribes against them. This was a brilliant piece of reordering. Hamlet rejected Ophelia’s remembrances, and then, after being accused of offending his father, he ended up ordering Gertrude “Get thee to a nunnery”.

Ophelia left the room, allowing Hamlet to turn fully on Gertrude. Projected images of the two brothers allowed Hamlet’s father to be compared with the “mildewed ear” of his uncle.

He pointed the gun at Gertrude when accusing her of preferring a “King of shreds and patches”. At this point Polonius entered. Hamlet swung round to face him and pulled the trigger.

The rooms on wall 3 were searched through by Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern looking for clues to Hamlet’s madness. They found diaries and writings.

While this was going on, Hamlet stood in Gertrude’s closet (wall 4) and pointed the gun at a photo in a table-top frame, before sitting in Gertrude and Claudius’ bedroom.

Cacophony

The people in the rooms began to read out “To be or not to be” from the disparate papers they had discovered. This became a round, with one character beginning the speech after another had started. With all of them speaking at once, their words became a cacophony of sound.

Hamlet stared out at us and eventually joined in, speaking the words slowly and deliberately, as if truly discerning their meaning, unlike the garbled, uncomprehending confusion of the others.

This was one of moments where it was rewarding to concentrate ones gaze on Hamlet and merely listen to the other voices. At other times it was possible to listen to dialogue and view the speakers reflected on the opposite wall, allowing interesting effects to be created by the spectator.

Laertes returned to confront Claudius and Gertrude in their room with his gun, demanding to know how his father had died.

Over on wall 3, Hamlet appeared in a sea cabin on a ship bound for England. Further along the wall in a separate room, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sat at the stern of the ship, once again comparing notes on Hamlet’s utterances.

They repeated comically mixed up versions of “To be or not to be” constantly getting the words either wrong or out of order. This was funny and also a sideways glance at dreamthinkspeak’s own technique applied in this production. But mostly it showed how lesser mortals like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could not follow or accurately reproduce Hamlet’s train of thought.

The story of how Hamlet rewrote the execution order from Claudius was told in voiceover. We saw Hamlet take it from a bag belonging to his supposed friends and later replace it. A screen in the ceiling of the space was used to show wax dripping on to the rewritten commission to create a new seal.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appeared in a projection on the centre of wall 3. They were sitting in the same position as before, and as the camera pulled back we saw them looking out from the stern of a motor yacht, which slowly disappeared into the distance.

Back in long room, Claudius received letters from Hamlet, which he read out to Laertes. They now knew to expect his return at any moment.

In a tragic replay of her previous playful foolery in Polonius’ office, Ophelia reacted to her father’s death by going mad in the same room, crying and singing as her distraction mounted.

Over in the long room, Gertrude announced to Claudius and Laertes that Ophelia had drowned.

We saw the evidence of this in a video projection on the front of wall 1 in which Ophelia, suspended in water, floated gently upwards. The overhead screen was used to show her drifting gently across the ceiling. This overhead projection then merged seamlessly into her funeral as we looked up at soil being dropped towards us as if into her grave.

The production came to a close in the long room. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes was fought in complete silence. Foils were provided and poisoned drink was prepared, which Gertrude drank accidentally after wiping Hamlet’s sweaty face.

After the two stabbings, Hamlet forced poisoned drink down Claudius’ throat and all lay dying. Hamlet’s father entered the room and observed the scene.

At the back of the room, screens rolled up out of the way to reveal the projectors, while the orchard and ear sequence was played again on small monitors.

Conclusions

Billed as a meditative, dreamlike reconstruction of the play, this felt more like an innovative adaptation than an oblique comment.

Acting inside plastic boxes did not really bring out the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Danish court as might have been expected. Instead it worked to bring the action of the play closer to the audience: safe behind the plastic panels, the cast were more approachable.

At one point Hamlet banged his fist very forcefully against the plastic wall separating us from him. He struck against a barrier that divided cast from audience, but the loudness of the noise had the effect of emphasising our mutual proximity.

Hamlet – Globe to Globe

Hamlet, The Globe, 3 June 2012

The last Globe to Globe production was by no means the least of Shakespeare’s plays. The honour of closing the festival fell to Meno Fortas who brought us their Lithuanian Hamlet.

First performed in 1997, the original was four hours long. So this truncated two-hour version perhaps did not show the production at its best. But even the long version did not include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who were also absent here.

The stage was littered with rusting ironwork and suspended above was the large blade of a circular saw.

In the first scene, Barnardo and Marcellus saw an invisible ghost and looked up towards the saw, striking at the thin air around it.

The Danish court had Claudius (Vytautas Rumšas) and Gertrude (Dalia Zykuvienė-Storyk) sat on chairs either side of the stage, each with a servant crouched next to them like a dog. Hamlet (Andrius Mamontovas) and Laertes (Kęstutis Jakštas) stood in the middle, watching the grotesque Claudius, an odd man who laughed coarsely through gold teeth.

Laertes sat on his case, which looked like the keel of an upturned boat to lecture his sister Ophelia (Viktorija Kyodytė). She smoked a pipe and clapped vigorously with her hands when saying farewell to him.

The use of stage properties shifted to another level during Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost of his father.

The Ghost (Vidas Petkevičius) sat behind a screen and took his coat off. Hamlet was blindfolded while the Ghost placed his coat on top of the saw blade suspended above the stage. Hamlet peeped through and then removed his blindfold to catch sight of his father’s ghost for the first time.

The Ghost prompted his son to revenge his murder by clasping Hamlet’s hands into fists and kissed them in blessing.

A large block of ice was produced on which Hamlet tentatively stepped with his bare feet. But the real coup de théâtre came when the block of ice was smashed into pieces to reveal a dagger inside. As if to demonstrate his desire to use the weapon, Hamlet drew the dagger along the tip of his tongue with relish.

Hamlet’s dalliance with Ophelia saw them rolling around on the ground. She began to flap like a fish out of water, at which point Hamlet tried to revive her. But he was overkeen in his affections, causing Ophelia to tell Polonius (Povilas Budrys) what had happened.

The Players (Margarita Žiemelytė, Algirda Dainavičius & Vaidas Vilius) entered rolling on logs like they were a circus act. They chattered like birds as if they were tame caged creatures. Hamlet placed some black dust on a sheet of paper and blew the dust into their faces, symbolising the lines he wrote to amend their play into The Mousetrap. His inspiration became in this instance an exhalation.

When the dumbshow was acted out, the entire court joined in. Their faces were smeared with black dust marking their inclusion in the cast and by extension their absorption of Hamlet’s inspiring exhalation. The Player King was swapped at the last minute so that the Ghost took his place, underlining the subterfuge.

The pressure on Hamlet caused by the king’s anger against him was symbolised by Hamlet crouching sideways inside a metal box in which a pressure plate bore down on him.

This looked like a clumsy and heavy-handed way of conveying the character’s situation. Original stagings can sometimes be enlightening, but this was lacking in subtlety.

The production’s unfortunately tendency towards ponderous, unsubtle symbolism was taken up a gear at the start of the second half.

Hamlet was reminded of his father and his need to revenge his death, not by a visitation during his confrontation with Gertrude, but by the arrival of his father standing upright on a wheeled platform, from which height he attached an candelabra made of ice to the saw blade still hanging above the stage.

Vidas Petkevičius visibly shuddered as the tall trolley lurched across the boards of the Globe stage. Far from looking ghostly and meaningful, this moment seemed more like an impromptu piece of repair work.

Hamlet delivered his “To be or not to be” speech looking up at the ice chandelier, which at least meant that his words were focused on an object that had a direction connection with the revenge he was contemplating.

Claudius sat a table with a very large glass of liquid and ice as he contemplated his crimes. In his anger he smashed the ice chandelier. This gesture decoded: an object intended to focus Hamlet’s thoughts on his father was attacked by the usurper because it was somehow also perceptible to him as a reminder of his murderous rise to power.

Hamlet crept up behind Claudius with a large glass of liquid, and began to pour its contents onto his back. But after this slight trickle, he decided not to press home his attack and withdrew.

Instead he took the liquid and poured some of it onto a cloth to use like chloroform to abduct and interrogate Gertrude.

Polonius’ killing was a truly bizarre sequence in which he hid inside a trunk from which he extended a breathing tube. Hamlet then dunked the end of the tube in a glass containing poison, similar to that he had almost used against Claudius. Polonius breathed through the tube producing bubbles in the liquid. After the stream of bubbles had stopped, Hamlet turned the trunk upside down and then opened it to reveal Polonius dead.

After Hamlet was dispatched to England, Laertes returned to Denmark, and was soon recruited by Claudius to murder the swiftly returning prince. Claudius strapped foils to Laertes’ arms so that they became extensions of his limbs.

Ophelia descended into madness, again clapping her hands, and was applauded for so doing by the entire court who gathered to watch her.

Hamlet and Horatio (Simonas Dovidauskas) appeared just before Ophelia’s burial. Hamlet was shocked to discover Yorick’s skull, which was represented by a coconut. The coconut ended up in Gertrude’s lap. Hamlet addressed it in that location: a psychologically suggestive piece of staging.

The fight between Laertes and Hamlet saw the pair initially behind a small black sheet. They then climbed over the top and slid down the front as if descending into the black innards of the grave.

The final duel had Hamlet and Laertes holding foils while a flute played a tune. Both faced the audience and swished their foils back and forth in the air as if accompanying the tune. When Hamlet fell, he rapped on a drum. After Hamlet declared that the rest was silence, the Ghost appeared as Fortinbras to close Hamlet’s eyes.

This particular performance was the last of the run of the production and consequently the last performance of Globe to Globe. After taking several curtain calls, Andrius Mamontovas held his hand into a loose fist and flexed his fingers to make it resemble a beating heart, which he then kissed and threw at the audience. This was a touching image on which to end the festival.

While the production managed to tell the story of Hamlet, the use of visual imagery to convey meaning tended to spell things out with too little subtlety. The characters tended to take second place to the metalwork.

But looked at another way, this feature worked to the advantage of non-Lithuanian speakers because it made apparent what would normally only be suggested by the language, which for many in the audience was opaque.

Shakespeare found in Danish translation

Niels Brunse, Nancy W Knowles Lecture Theatre, The Globe, 18 April 2012

The second in the Globe’s series of talks on Shakespeare in translation took the form of a conversation between Danish translator and writer Niels Brunse and the Globe’s director of education, Patrick Spottiswoode. The talks are the educational backdrop to the Globe to Globe multi-language complete works festival.

Niels Brunse is on the way to becoming the first person to translate the complete works of Shakespeare into Danish.

He grew up in Elsinore, the famous location of Hamlet, and was first introduced to Shakespeare by a comic book version of Romeo and Juliet. Along with the rest of the population of the town, Niels became enraptured aged 14 by the 1964 BBC/DR co-production of Hamlet that was filmed on location in the castle at Elsinore.  This television version, with Christopher Plummer as Hamlet and Michael Caine as Horatio, formed Niels’ primary experience of seeing Shakespeare acted.

He dropped out of university, but succeeded in forging a career as a translator and writer.

A commission from a Danish theatre company to produce a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream led to a chain of similar commissions from other companies.

After translating several of Shakespeare’s plays, he realised that not all of them would be translated as a result of theatre commissions. So to fulfil his ambition of translating the complete works, he approached the Bikuben Foundation and received financial support to translate the entire canon of plays and sonnets.

Niels outlined a brief history of the translation of Shakespeare into Danish, starting from the early translation of Hamlet by Johannes Boye in 1777, through to the first translation of the (then) complete canon by Edvard Lembcke between 1861-73.

Most of these translations were for the page not the stage, whereas Niels Brunse, starting as he did with theatrical commissions, has always had a practical approach to translation.

He normally translates an entire play and leaves cutting to directors, but for a translation of Richard III he was given the parts required for translation and produced a Danish version that was in effect pre-cut.

The Danish language lends itself to the translation of Shakespeare because it has the same pattern of stresses as English so that iambic pentameter and blank verse can be rendered.

However, Niels found that the preponderance of monosyllabic words in English created a problem, as these would often have to be translated by longer Danish words. This caused difficulties in rendering the complete sense of verse lines, as omissions were necessary to maintain form.

He tries wherever possible to respect the division between prose and verse and also to retain rhyme in his translations. The prose/verse division was especially important, he thought, because Shakespeare’s theatre was not a theatre of scenic effects and sets, but of language. The prose/verse distinctions between characters were in effect part of their costume. The rhyming couplets at the ends of scenes were important signifiers of exits.

Niels begins the task of translating a play by consulting the Arden or New Cambridge annotated versions together with secondary reading. He also owns a facsimile edition of the First Folio. A read through results in him staging the play in his mind.

Obviously, plays not translated for stage commissions can be completed with less time pressure.

Niels courted controversy with his translation of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech, which he rendered:

“At være eller ikke, sådan er det -”

Translated back into Engish this becomes roughly:

“To be, or not, that’s the way it is – ”

He said that he received angry phone calls for having translated this most famous of speeches in this particular manner, but he was prepared to defend his version. His translation uses the first sentence as an introduction to the rest of Hamlet’s ideas, so that the remainder of the speech is an amplification of what Hamlet means by “the way it is”.

It was pointed out that his translation resembles the Q1 version “Ay, there’s the point”, but he said that this similarity was not intentional.

To date, Niels has translated a third of the plays and two thirds of the sonnets, the latter proving particularly difficult with their multiple layers of language. He is encountering similar problems in his current project, a translation of Love’s Labour Lost for the Bikuben edition.

He rounded off the talk with an anecdote that demonstrated how Shakespeare can be improved by translation, or at least given a new twist.

In King Lear the disguised Kent finds himself in conversation with a Gentleman at the end of 4.3, saying to him “When I am known aright, you shall not grieve lending me this acquaintance.”

The Danish for “known” is “kendt”, which is pronounced the same way as the character’s name. This enabled Niels to translate this phrase so that the first part of it read both as a faithful version of the original English but also as a cryptic statement of the disguised man’s true identity “When I am Kent again”.

The subtlety and cleverness of this effect, made possible by the characteristics of the Danish language, is undoubtedly something Shakespeare himself would have appreciated and possibly envied.

Shakespeare found in translation indeed.

Searching for Shaikh al-Zubair

It is the East study session, The Globe, 11 February 2012

The Globe’s multi-language complete works Shakespeare festival, Globe To Globe, is being accompanied by a series of three study days that examine the cultural context of some of the productions.

The first of them looked at Shakespeare and the Middle East. It included a talk by director Sulayman al-Bassam and a practical workshop with Khayaal Theatre Company.

An introduction on the history of Shakespeare performance in the region highlighted that Shakespeare had arrived in the Middle East relatively late, with performances only dating back to the late nineteenth century. Besides the usual Hamlets and Romeo & Juliets, it appears that Othello was a popular text.

But despite coming late to this part of the world, Shakespeare’s plays have proved to be an extremely useful resource.

Translation of foreign works, particularly Shakespeare, was traditionally used as way of getting round censorship.

And as Sulayman al-Bassam outlined in his contribution, Shakespeare performance in the Middle East still serves agendas other than the purely artistic.

The Arab trilogy

His Sabab theatre company has produced a trilogy of Arab Shakespeare plays: The Al-Hamlet Summit, which sees the action taking place within a ruling family in crisis; Richard III, An Arab Tragedy, which transfers the action to the Middle East, and The Speaker’s Progress, which uses a production of Twelfth Night in a fictional dictatorship to investigate the relationship between creativity and oppression.

This obviously involved a considerable amount of rewriting and adaptation to the extent that the plays constitute new texts and are published as such.

Some adjustments to an Islamic context were also made. For instance, the murder of Clarence in Richard III involved him being drowned in ablution water rather than wine.

Sulayman had some fascinating stories to tell about the company’s experiences of working in the region. But he also regretted that the majority of the performances took place outside the Arab world.

It was strange to hear someone talking about recent dealings with government censors. One red-pen-wielding bureaucrat questioned why in a particular scene Hamlet was not centre stage – an anecdote that suggests that some censors are in fact frustrated theatre directors.

Audience reactions can also be extreme. Sabab’s Richard III was performed in the Emirates to an audience consisting of 200 princesses. Their visceral responses to the drama (clapping at odd moments, leaving the auditorium to discuss the action and then returning) were prompted by onstage events that reflected their own recent family histories.

Actors are familiar with stage fright. But when in 2008 the Sabab company heard at the last moment that their performance in Damascus was going to be attended by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife, first night nerves transformed into genuine terror at displeasing the country’s autocrat.

There was relief when Bashar al-Assad responded to some of the political comment in the play by leading the applause. However, a forgotten detail in the production proved problematic.

Towards the end of Richard III a list of battle dead is read out. This adaptation replaced this with a list of recent assassination victims, which unfortunately included the name of a Lebanese journalist widely thought to have been killed by the Syrian secret service.

Bashar al-Assad’s face turned to thunder when the name was read out. He rose from his seat and left – a sequence of events familiar to anyone who has seen another of Shakespeare’s plays.

What was ostensibly a production of Richard III had turned weirdly into a real-life enactment of a key scene from Hamlet, with the Syrian president in the role of Claudius being “frighted with false fire”.

All this raises some interesting points.

Subversive political Shakespeare is an upside of bardolatory

Sulayman described Shakespeare as a ‘Trojan horse’ and a ‘mask’. The process of bardolatory transformed Shakespeare in the UK from writer to state-sanctioned demi-god. This in turn made Shakespeare into a high-status global brand, just like the Mont Blanc pens and Maybach cars with which autocratic elites like to surround themselves.

Royal endorsement in the UK is taken to indicate the brand’s innate conservatism, so that Shakespeare is avidly consumed by the world’s 1% as sign of their cultivation. For instance, the RSC theatre season is listed by Debretts as part of the ‘social season’ of high society.

But little do these elites realise that Shakespeare can, in the right hands and with a little tweaking, be rendered incredibly subversive, as Bashar al-Assad discovered to his dismay.

While bardolatory is rightly criticised for warping our perception of Shakespeare, the unassailable brand status it has afforded to the plays provides useful cover for theatre-makers with something subversive to say.

Can adaptations like this be described as appropriations?

The responses to Sulayman’s work have been intense and the envy of western theatre-makers who struggle to engage with their secure and comfortable audiences.

Shakespeare lived in an autocratic police state and had to deal with government censors.

Therefore, the cultural distance the works have to travel from 16th/17th century England to modern Britain is in some ways greater than the distance they travel to the contemporary Middle East.

Looked at another way, western productions and adaptations that try to shoehorn political meaning into the plays, for example the recent NT Hamlet that had surveillance cameras looking down onto the stage, are appropriating the plays from their original setting every bit as much as Middle Eastern productions. The latter perhaps represent continuity of setting rather than radical translocation.

The term ‘appropriation’ implies that Shakespeare is the property of our culture and that he is merely loaned out to other cultures. We should either credit all productions as being equally valid or describe all contemporary Shakespeare as appropriations of one sort or another.

The Globe to Globe festival reminds us that the violent world Shakespeare portrayed is immediately recognisable by many people as their own modern world. UK audiences today look on the history plays as quaint historical works about a long-forgotten past, with the occasional faint echo of relevance to events in far-flung places. Now Shakespeare is coming back at us from those far-flung places.

Practical session

The afternoon was taken up with a series of practical exercises in which we playfully explored the many ways in which Shakespeare neatly dovetails into Arabic culture.

Very much a storytelling culture, the Arab world also values rhythm and metre in language, which made Shakespeare prized.

However, given that Shakespeare drew on existing stories for his plays, it is difficult to say whether Arabic responses have been to Shakespeare’s individuality as a dramatist or to the sources on which he drew.

Arabic storytelling has stock characters such as Fools and djinns that parallel such characters as Feste and Puck, as well as the standard characters of romantic stories such as Romeo & Juliet.

The practical exercises and games introduced us to these themes and culminated in the group recreating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with one side using Shakespeare quotes to protest and another to assert state authority. This assumed a detailed and accessible knowledge of Shakespeare, which was a bit thin on the ground, but was fun nonetheless.

By the end of the day, we understood why many in the Arab world, like the Germans and Klingons, regard Shaikh al-Zubair as one of their own.