Sinéad Cusack’s Kent

King Lear, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 7 & 8 October 2017

Not content with merely providing a bespoke showcase for Ian McKellen’s monumental talent, this production also created new meanings within a familiar story by casting Sinéad Cusack as a female Kent and enhancing that character’s role within the play.

The Chichester Lear came about because McKellen had been dissatisfied with the 2007 RSC production of King Lear. He had performed in large theatres that he found “uncongenially spacious” and had been obliged to shout lines that he felt would be better delivered “at times as conversation, in a theatre like the Minerva where intimacy conjoins audience and actor” (source: production programme).

His desire to play a smaller venue meant that fewer people were able to see the production and the scramble for tickets obliged the theatre to limit bookings to two per customer.

Sitting just a few feet away from McKellen’s Lear was a powerful experience, both in terms of the quality of the performance and for what it represented. McKellen has admitted that this was probably the last major Shakespeare role of his career, and the sense of an actor having his last hurrah suffused into the performance so that it underlay his character’s downward trajectory in the play.

When McKellen’s Lear told the younger actors playing his daughters that he was shaking his cares from him to confer them on “younger strengths”, the parallels with the last days of his Shakespeare career resonated somewhere deep in the background.

There is something to be said for quitting while you are ahead – and here McKellen was at the peak of his craft, particularly in his furious rages at Lear’s wayward daughters Goneril and Regan.

Shakespeare often manages to convey with precision the confused way in which people under stress jump from one thought to another, and McKellen was amazingly focussed in conveying Lear’s imprecision. The underlying paradox produced a remarkable effect in performance.

There was something almost inexpressibly marvellous about being simultaneously in the presence of the actor’s lucidity and the character’s confusion with each of these contradictory facets being felt at one and the same time with equal force, co-existing at precisely the same point in space and time but also entirely separate and distinct.

But the production was much more than a career-topping wish fulfilment vehicle for McKellen.

While the principal actor excelled in delivering a traditional Lear, from the point of view of generating new meanings within the story, the production’s most interesting aspect was its reworking and enhancement of Kent.

The director Jonathan Munby provided an object lesson in how changing the sex of a character can be combined with other reworkings of the text to create exciting new ideas.

In a significant alteration to the original, the production showed that Lear’s division of the kingdom was a surprise sprung on an unsuspecting court, who thought that Lear had gathered them together for the sole purpose of resolving the contest between the rival suitors for Cordelia’s hand in marriage.

Kent was shown to be Lear’s most trusted advisor, because only she was informed in advance of his decision. This indication of her elevated status at Lear’s court meant that her eventual revolt in the face of his unreasonableness was all the more striking, and her fall from favour all the more precipitate.

Once in exile she adopted a male disguise as the servant Caius, which enabled new meanings to be wrought from the existing text. She was also given a significantly different role in serving Lear in disguise than is commonly the case for male Kents.

The transformation of the character of Kent lay at the heart of the production’s opening sequences that reworked the original priorities of Lear’s assembly of his court.

At the very start of the performance, the lights went down on an empty stage. When they came on again, McKellen’s Lear stood at its centre resplendent in full ceremonial uniform. He held a document in his hand. He remained motionless, looking off towards the centre exit before departing through it.

The progress of the document became a key to understanding the narrative of the sequence.

The action continued with the text’s entries for Gloucester and the person referred to here as the Countess of Kent.

The document that Lear had been carrying during his fleeting appearance was now in Kent’s possession. She entered holding the unfolded document before her, reading the paper with an anxious furrowed brow, her focused scrutiny excluding every other object of attention.

She wandered stage right facing away from Gloucester as she exclaimed “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”

This entry could have been staged with both of them examining the document, but the staging instead emphasised that the knowledge contained in the document was solely accessible to Kent.

Gloucester’s next speech was divided between him and Kent to ensure that it was Kent who commented on the division of the kingdom in isolation and not Gloucester discussing it on equal terms of familiarity, so that it went:


It did always seem so to us:


But now, in the division of the kingdom…


…It appears not which of
the dukes he values most;

If Kent was the only person privy to the plan and she was facing away from Gloucester when she said “But now, in the division of the kingdom…” it was possible that this was an aside, a comment on the division that only she knew about, and that Gloucester’s lines simply ran on from each other so that he did not know about the plan. The general surprise at Lear’s announcement suggested that few knew about it.

With the introduction of Edmund over, Lear and the rest of the court entered to a fanfare of song in Latin. Desk and chairs were brought in with miniature French and Burgundian flags. These flags also hung fullsize at back of stage either side of Lear’s huge portrait.

The present business was clearly indicated to be the marrying off of Cordelia. The text was rearranged so that it dealt with France and Burgundy before anything else.

Thus Lear’s first words were:

The princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn *project*,
And here are to be answer’d.

This was met murmurs of approval as this was the main purpose of the occasion, known in advance by all those present. The clue was in the phrase “long in our court” which indicated that the competitive wooing of Cordelia by the two princes had been a lengthy process with which everyone was familiar. This ceremony was designed to mark the conclusion of the deal.

Lear ordered Gloucester to “attend the lords of France and Burgundy”.

But then Lear dropped his big surprise:

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

The word “meantime” went from being the first word in the original text’s expository speech to an indication that he was introducing supplementary matters pending the conclusion of the main event, as well as hinting that the purpose of this as yet unannounced project was “darker”.

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom…

As soon as he had announced this division of the kingdom, the sisters, but mainly Goneril and Regan exclaimed a loud “What?!” in tones of confusion, puzzlement and anxiety.

Clearly Lear had given no prior warning of this plan to anyone other than Kent. The absence of the impending clarifying context meant that this initial bald statement was met with consternation and disbelief.

It was only when Lear went on to explain that this division would involve the conferment of his power “on younger strengths” that a commensurate wave of relief passed through his daughters as they realised there was some benefit in this for them.

Lear’s shock announcement also thus became another example of the impulsive and unpredictable behaviour that Regan and Goneril charged him with in their conversation at the end of the scene.

Kent resigned by handing in her badge of office, which she had worn on her lapel. This resignation had greater significance because she had been the only person entrusted with his plan.

Kent’s explanation for her disguised condition in 1.4 left out much of its beginning and its references to borrowing “other accents” and razing “likeness”. She was dressed in shabby clothes with a beanie hat to hide her hair as she was pretending to be a man. This had echoes of other Shakespeare characters like Rosalind who do similar. But she did change from her usual RP accent to Irish for this transformation and so did actually borrow other accents.

She became caught up in the jollity of Lear and his men returning from a hunt. The scene’s first question and answer between her and Lear took on new meaning given Kent’s chosen disguise.

Lear asked “What art thou?” to which Kent’s reply “A man, sir” went from being the original male Kent’s sarcastic statement of fact to this disguised female Kent’s hopeful pretence of the illusion she wished to convey.

A line was added in which Lear asked him/her his name. She replied “K..K.. Caius”.

In performance this sounded just like the stuttered delivery of her assumed name. But this initial hesitancy was more likely the suppression of her natural instinct to reply “Kent”, turning the opening consonant sound “K” into the start of her assumed name, the two being helpfully similar. Like many people trying to live under an assumed identity, she found it difficult to throw off the past.

Kent did not mention her age, possibly because that also has her state that she loves women. But in other respects she acquitted herself very plausibly as a combative man.

She tripped Oswald and held him by back of the head and threw him face down on the ground to teach him “differences”.

Kent was similarly pugnacious at the start of 2.2 when she challenged and scared away Oswald with a knife.

When held to account by Cornwall for her actions, she was placed inside a metal cage which was hoisted above the stage.

This provided an opportunity to make one of Lear’s line humorous, as he pointed at her and ordered her to “stay there”.

Reimagining Kent as a woman meant that when she made herself known to the Gentleman in 3.1, she did so by removing her beanie to reveal the full flow of her hair.

Once Kent was in a position to help the distressed Lear, the production’s reworking of the character made her more attentive and solicitous than is the case for most male Kents.

After the storm scene, Gloucester brought Lear, Kent, Edgar and the Fool into an outhouse, which was being used as an abattoir. Animal carcases hung from hooks besides cow and pig heads.

Kent lovingly attended to Lear and turned on an electric bar fire to warm him as he was laid on a camp bed. Her entreaty that Lear should “lie down and rest upon the cushions” was made to look like classic female nurturing.

Lear used the animal heads to represent his wayward daughters. A cow’s head stood in for Goneril while a pig’s head became Regan in his eccentric farmyard court of justice. As each of his daughters was found guilty in absentia, Lear took the offending animal head and threw it away, aided by all the others apart from Kent. She tried to intervene and stop the madness by taking the animal heads from them. But she failed.

Continuing the theme of Kent’s heightened concern for Lear’s welfare, she became one of the party that went searching for him at Dover and was one of the first to find him in 4.6.

Kent was given two of the lines spoken by a Gentleman: “You shall have anything” and “You are a royal one, and we obey you.”

Kent’s presence in 4.7 was therefore neatly explained by her presence in this previous scene.

Kent made herself known to Cordelia, but said she wanted to remain in disguise until a moment of her choosing. In this context, Cordelia’s “Then be’t so, my good lord” was a jocular reference to Kent’s assumed male identity.

In many productions, Cordelia remains near to Lear as he recovers. In this version, Kent was also close at his side. She looked on with a constant air of solicitude as father and daughter were reunited.

She held Lear as he got out of bed and tried to kneel to Cordelia. Once he was sitting up in bed with his legs hanging over the side, Kent put slippers on his feet to make him more comfortable.

Staged in this way, Kent almost became a second Cordelia.

The extent to which this production was as much about Kent’s dedication to Lear, as Lear’s own personal journey was shown in the final scene.

Kent sat behind Lear and eased him backwards as he expired, his “Look there…” fading gently into nothing.

The fact that Lear did not react when informed that this female Kent had been in disguise as a male Caius accentuated his declining grip on reality.

Taking her companionship with Lear to its logical extreme her veiled reference to undergoing an imminent journey because “my master calls me, I must not say no” could be seen as Kent identifying so closely with Lear that she had to follow him wherever he went, even into death.

The twin plot lines of Edgar’s shadowing of his father Gloucester and Kent’s shadowing of his master Lear came to resemble each other more closely than usual because of the enhancement of Kent’s role and the change of sex in the character.

A question arose as to the precise motivation for this Kent’s actions. If Edgar was motivated by bonds of kinship, was Kent motivated solely by a sense of duty, or was it something more personal? The production did not attempt to provide a ready-made answer to this question and the thought space thereby provided allowed the possible options to be considered at leisure.



Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet

RADA Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, London 18 & 20 September 2017

The theatre

The auditorium of the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre was reconfigured to create a thrust stage of bare wooden planks level with the first two rows of stalls seats, which were arranged in a horseshoe shape around the thrust. The total capacity of the stalls and gallery was 183 seats.

The main stage area was bare apart from the lattice uprights of the lighting rig at each side and a plain backdrop for projections. The only set was a wall with doors and windows flown in for scenes in palace interiors. This was augmented by a desk, sofa and chairs as required.

There were four entrances to the performance space: two at the sides of the main stage through black curtaining and two at the top of the thrust through seating aisles.

Initial interior scenes featured a large square carpet at the end of the thrust. This was decorated with the royal Danish crest and the border was edged with a phrase in Danish set in capitals GØDE MÆND MÅ DØ MEN DØDEN KAN IKKE DRÆBE DERES NAVNE – in English: Good men must die but death cannot kill their names. This is a Danish version of a supposed Danish proverb but which only seems to exist in English.

Who’s there?

When the audience entered the theatre, the stage was empty apart from a low upright piano and its accompanying wooden chair in the centre of the thrust.

The first utterances of the production were Hamlet’s intermittent sighs and groans which could be faintly heard (at least by those nearest the stage) deep offstage while the house lights were still on before the performance formally began.

The lights dimmed allowing Hamlet to approach and seat himself at the piano. When he was spotlit for the start of the performance, he was bent slightly over the closed keyboard, the palms of his hands resting on the upward slope of the keyboard cover. This contorted posture was held briefly, signalling his tension, before he relaxed, opened the keyboard and began to play and sing “And will he not come again?”

The slow mournful tapping out of the tune and Hamlet’s pained recitation of the song paused momentarily after the word “beard” as he was overcome with by emotion. Once finished, he immediately rose and slunk away up left thrust exit, as stage hands prepared the set for the next scene.

This opening, dispensing with all of 1.1, was reminiscent of the Cumberbatch Hamlet, which similarly foregrounded its star turn by having him engage in solitary musical melancholy. In Cumberbatch’s case he sat listening to a record on a portable gramophone whilst browsing a photo album. Star Hamlets seem to require immediate view of the actor, contrary to the play’s structure which first creates a ghost mystery then introduces the main character as bitter and sarcastic.


The piano and chair were removed, the square carpet was laid down, and a desk with the Danish crest on its front and accompanying chair placed in front of the flown-in palace interior wall.

As Claudius’s initial speech was staged as a television broadcast, the presence of stage crew arranging the space looked like part of the action.

Claudius sat at the desk and a crew member counted him down 3,2,1 silently with her fingers. No camera or other crew were visible so that he directly addressed the audience. The rest of the court, but significantly not Hamlet, waited among the audience in the two thrust entrances.

He was quite composed as began his reflections on the death of King Hamlet, but paused for several seconds after “… contracted in one brow of woe,/Yet…” looking down at the desk as if broaching the subject had opened a still festering emotional wound, before recomposing himself and continuing on to the topic of his recent marriage.

His mendaciously insincere regret for his brother’s death, orchestrated for consumption by a large television audience, contrasted neatly with the sincerity of Hamlet’s immediately preceding solitary and private grief.

The text was slightly edited to remove the reference to “auspicious” and “dropping” eyes. Elsewhere, however, the production did not habitually edit to remove ‘difficult’ language, containing a number of opaque phrases not commonly heard in contemporary performances.

Gertrude appeared at his side and took his hand when he mentioned her, compounding the impression that this was a stage-managed piece of political theatre for public consumption.

The text was reworked so that Claudius mentioned Fortinbras’s claims against Denmark and explained that he was sending a letter to the king of Norway to put a stop to them.

He spoke of “… those lands/Lost… To our most valiant brother. [edit] We have here writ/To Norway (signed and showed signed letter to camera)… to suppress/His further gait herein. So much for him.” The closing sentence was spoken with an air of confident finality.

Claudius signalled the end of the transmission, or possibly recording, by making a cut gesture across his throat with his hand.

The broadcast over, the rest of the court minus Hamlet came forward chanting “Claudius! Claudius! Claudius!”

The new king was very pleased with himself and jokingly asked Laertes what he desired. Laertes was dressed down unlike the other courtiers and was very soft-spoken.

Polonius was middle-aged, tall and lean. The distinguishing feature of his character was that he evidently considered himself to be funny, but was in fact dreadfully unfunny: very much the “foolish prating knave” of Hamlet’s caricature, rather than the “good old man” of Gertrude’s description.

As previously mentioned, Hamlet was absent for this entire sequence, unlike productions that follow the text and position him onstage as a silent, bitter observer, only attending out of duty.

Hamlet strode confidently through the back wall right side door, closed it behind him and stood in front of it as Claudius first addressed him. This meant that it was Hamlet who seized Claudius’s attention by his entry rather than Claudius choosing to pay attention to an already present Hamlet.

His “A little more than kin, and less than kind” was strong and forceful. It was more a confident statement than a bitter, sarcastic retort resulting from pent-up frustration at previous silence.

This initial presentation of his character, not only contrasted with our first view of him, but effectively suppressed it. Whatever grief he might have felt in private, Hamlet operated at this level of strength when dealing with others.

Although Claudius mentioned his wedding to Gertrude, the scene was not marked by a pronounced wedding atmosphere. This meant that Hamlet’s black coat did not distinguish him sartorially from the rest of the court.

Gertrude attempted to raise his mood, but he responded by moving resolutely forward, explaining with clarity and precision that “I know not ‘seems’ etc.”

Claudius drew nearer to Hamlet combining a long lecture with an attempt at tactile friendliness. But his nephew was more than unmoved by his attentions.

When Claudius expressed the desire that he should “think of us/As of a father” Hamlet stood his ground and spat out a dismissive “pah!”

Hamlet only agreed to stay after Gertrude’s second intervention. He took her by the hands and stressed “obey *you*, madam” to emphasise that he would not do anything at Claudius’s entreaty.

She embraced him and they held hands, but this moment of closeness was cut short as Gertrude was escorted away by Claudius who asserted “Madam, come”. Hamlet tried to maintain hand contact, which lingered for a while as she moved further away, but distance eventually obliged her to let go. This loss of finger contact was echoed in the play’s closing sequence in which such contact was touchingly regained.

Hamlet was left alone. Thrown into spotlight, with an accompanying sound effect to mark the transition, he began his “too too solid flesh” soliloquy.

He began leant against the desk, then moved around the thrust addressing the audience with a strong, firm and passionate statement of his situation.

Having told us “I must hold my tongue” he set off briskly through the left thrust exit but was recalled just in time by Horatia’s greeting “Hail to your lordship” her swift entry catching him just as he disappeared.

The recasting of Horatio as a female Horatia would prove to be the production’s most interesting and dramatically rewarding feature.

Hamlet held her close with his arms around her waist as he welcomed her. This immediately established them as something more than just good friends.

Horatia, Marcella and Bernarda had come to tell Hamlet about the (unstaged) sighting of his father’s ghost. But before they could do so, Hamlet looked away from them and out into the audience, claiming that he had already seen his father in his mind’s eye.

He took a keen interest in their report of the ghost’s appearance. The text was cut to remove anachronistic references to armour. They all agreed to meet that night to try to spot it again.


The encounter between France-bound Laertes and his sister Ophelia was marked by the soft-spoken poetical tones of her brother’s admonishments. His sweet demeanour towards her here would make his subsequent violent actions seem all the more out of character. This Laertes was not a gruff combative young man easily given to violence.

Like many modern Ophelias, she rolled her eyes at her brother’s warning to guard her “chaste treasure”.

She charged him in return with being a “reckless libertine” at which point Laertes took a small condom packet from his pocket, assuring her “Fear me not”. When his father entered this joke was extended as Polonius presented him with huge box of condoms.

Polonius read his precepts aloud from sheets of paper handed to him by an assistant, which emphasised their status as “old saws”. After reading from each one he dramatically threw the sheet over his shoulder onto the floor. But not the last one “to thine own self be true” which instead of discarding, he carefully folded and presented to Laertes, underlining its importance.

The father’s lecture to his “green girl” daughter saw him again come close to overstepping the border between buffoon and clown.


Hamlet, Horatia and Marcella met to watch for the ghost. This scene was set not on any outside platform but in the same interior space as the previous scenes. Consequently, the initial remarks about the cold were cut.

They entered at the back of the stage by the windowed wall, proceeded into the thrust and turned to face the wall and desk. The besuited and haggard figure of the ghost appeared in the centre doorway, beckoning Hamlet to follow him.

Hamlet had his dagger drawn and pointed it at the ghost, demanding whether it was “King? father? [then even more quizzically] royal Dane?” He knelt before the desk, driving the point of his dagger down onto its surface, holding it in position with both hands on the hilt, as he bowed his head and demanded an explanation for this strange apparition.

Horatia and Bernarda tried to restrain Hamlet from following the ghost. His threat “I’ll make a ghost of *her* that stops me” was notable – primarily because it brought home that his companions were both women and only secondarily for its replacement of “lets” by “stops”.

Hamlet rushed out the doorway. Marcella paused in the doorway to decry that there was something “rotten” in the state of Denmark before joining the others in pursuit.


The lights came up on the ghost sat at the desk. He placed a pile of two books on it. He was confronted by Hamlet who entered through the thrust entrance and stood to hear the ghost’s explanation of how he had been killed.

Talking while sat at this desk directly echoed Claudius’s broadcast, but with the important distinction that the ghost was being truthful rather than engaging in propaganda.

The ghost’s voice was a sonorous rasp whose tormented tones matched the horror of his descriptions.

Learning that his father had been murdered, Hamlet crouched on spread knees digging his long dagger point into the ground in front of him, vowing that he would “sweep to my revenge”.

Sensing Hamlet’s eagerness, the ghost rose from the desk congratulating him “I find thee apt” and approached his son. He walked with a pronounced limp as he described the effect of the poison on his body, before turning round and exiting out the back wall door.

Hamlet fell face forward onto the ground before turning to lie on his back, banging his fists on the ground as he fired himself with resolution to avenge his father’s murder.

He sat upright as he thought out loud of his mother as a “pernicious woman”, and exuded a sense of satisfaction as he gazed at the audience to announce “So, uncle, there you are”.

Horatio and Marcella caught up with him. After explaining that the ghost was honest, Hamlet chattered manically and shook hands with them, provoking Horatia’s comment on his “wild and whirling words”.

The prince was excited and jolly until Horatia suggested there was no offence. In an abrupt change of mood, Hamlet slammed his dagger down onto the desk with a loud bang as he exclaimed “Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatia”.

A vow of silence was required of Horatia and Marcella. The ghost’s voice under the floor also enjoined them to swear. Hearing this deep vibrating utterance, Hamlet took up the carpet and examined its underside, then actually crawled underneath the carpet, emerging at the other side to wear it like a cape. It was in this guise that Hamlet responded to Horatia’s characterisation of the situation as “wondrous strange” by telling her “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome”.

In another violent gesture, Hamlet stabbed his dagger into the books that the ghost had left on the desk and encouraged them all to place their hands on its hilt to vow their silence, as the ghost’s deep voice once more sounded from underground.


The Reynaldo sequence was cut, so that the scene began with Ophelia rushing through the centre door holding a letter from Hamlet, telling Polonius how the prince had frightened her.

Ophelia’s reference to Hamlet’s doublet was kept, despite the anachronism.

Polonius was again comically upbeat in diagnosing Hamlet’s condition as the pangs of love.


A sofa was placed in the centre of the thrust, faced by two armchairs, to provide a cosy setting for Claudius and Gertrude to welcome Rosacrantz and Guildastern and brief them on their mission.

The text implies that Claudius confuses the identities of Hamlet’s two pals at the end of the sequence and is corrected by Gertrude. This production went one step further by having him get their names mixed up twice.

The king’s opening greeting to the pair as they each occupied an armchair “Welcome, dear Rosacrantz and Guildastern” was directed to each individual, but incorrectly. Hamlet’s friends immediately corrected Claudius, and his voice faded to a confused silence before he could finish pronouncing “Guildastern”. Then when they parted, he compounded his previous error by yet again getting their names the wrong way round. As his voice faltered in recognition of his error, Gertrude corrected him. The repetition of this gag reinforced the text’s hint that Claudius was in the habit of making this particular mistake.

The regendering of Rosacrantz and Guildastern worked together with the retention of an original wording in the text to create an interesting new meaning in performance.

The queen said to them: “And sure I am *two men* there is not living/To whom he more adheres”. This remark made the female versions of the original male characters even more privileged friends of Hamlet.

With Rosacrantz and Guildastern sent off to work, Polonius brought news of the return of the ambassadors from Norway. These characters did not appear, so the announcement was for information purposes only.

Polonius’s “brevity” speech included much pointing and was clownish more than buffoonish. This detracted from his likability and so diminished the shock of his subsequent killing.

He sat Ophelia down in an armchair while he read from the letter sent to her by the prince. This, like Hamlet’s other letters, bore an H symbol in the letterhead. Polonius turned the letter to show it to the king and queen, pointing at the word “bosom” as if it required particular attention.

Polonius suggested “loosing” Ophelia to Hamlet in order to observe his behaviour.

A more immediate opportunity to see the prince in action suddenly arose when Hamlet appeared through the back window door. The king and queen left Polonius to deal with the situation, and affecting an air of casual disregard, Polonius turned to face away from the doorway.

The audience could see Hamlet’s changed appearance straightaway as he entered: his face was painted with patches of black and white, and a Danish flag was draped loosely over his shoulders.

Polonius’s composure soon crumpled when he turned to face the prince. His greeting was reworked so that it was spoken: “How does my… good lord! Hamlet?” to underscore the bizarre nature of prince’s appearance.

In his fitful madman act, Hamlet looked Polonius up and down and called him a fishmonger. He described the sun as “a god kissing carrion”. The trigger word “conception” prompting him to lean forward onto the sofa and hump it.

A copy of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, an account of the author’s experience of depression, contained the “words, words, words” that Hamlet perused as he seated himself on the sofa next to Polonius.

The books “slanders” were mentioned but the slightly archaic list of slanders was skipped, enabling a more potent effect to be obtained from Hamlet’s response to Polonius leave-taking. After shifting closer to Polonius on the sofa and mimicking his movements such as crossing his legs, Polonius said “I will take my leave of you”.

Hamlet’s riposte “You cannot take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal” was followed by a triple repetition of “Except my life”, each iteration spoken in a deliberately distinct tone of voice.

“Except my life” was first pronounced flatly, then jokingly accompanied by manic laughter, and lastly with Hamlet distraught and tearful, his head sinking into his hands. He continued to bury his head in his hands as the bewildered Polonius left him.

Rosacrantz and Guildastern, having been warned of the change in Hamlet’s mood, came equipped to lighten it. The prince’s sullenness evaporated on seeing them, and when their portable radio began to play Kendrick Lamar’s i he joined in their dancing, lifting Rosacrantz off the ground, holding her horizontally behind his back and spinning her round. This sequence replaced the somewhat laboured banter of the original text and made for a more forceful and lively encounter based on music rather than wordplay.

The physical expression of their jollity continued. They threw sofa cushions at each other as Hamlet told them that Denmark was a prison, and the banter moved on to the subject of his ambition.

The mood became somewhat subdued when he accused the pair of being sent for, which they admitted. But then he dialled down the mood completely when telling them how he had lost all his mirth.

This sequence had more impact and its tone was darker coming so soon after the previous musical jollity. With hindsight it was possible ask how he could have lost all his mirth, given how much fun he appeared to be having with his friends when he first met them.

His caveat “Nor woman neither” took on a different meaning when said in wholly female company.

The two women responded to his changed mood with compassion and attention. Hamlet sat on the desk while Rosacrantz and Guildastern took tissues and wiped the paint from his face as they told him about the impending arrival of the players.

Polonius also heralded the players’ arrival in his own inimitable style. At first he walked in backwards with one eye on the offstage troupe with a cheery “Well be with you, gentlemen” but fell backwards over an armchair. He departed, returning shortly afterwards with a more extensive introduction. Itemising the genres in which the players excelled, he stressed the last syllable in “pastorAL” lending an affected air to his already strained introduction.

The company consisted of only two actors, so that elaborate greetings of individuals were unnecessary, allowing Hamlet to get straight down to his version of the speech by Pyrrhus.

Hamlet responded aggressively to Polonius’s interruptions. When the latter complimented him on his speech being “Well spoken” Hamlet shushed him. He continued to praise his “good accent” at which point the prince gestured to him to be quiet with the effect that Polonius’s voice trailed away to nothing before he could finish his line.

Nevertheless, he continued to interrupt after the First Player picked up where Hamlet left off.

His complaint that the player’s speech was “too long” was met with Hamlet’s sarcastic remark about it going to the barbers.

But when Polonius’s echoed Hamlet’s repetition of the phrase “mobled queen” the prince’s patience snapped and he silenced Polonius with a threatening fist gesture.

The First Player writhed on the ground with the emotion of playing the distraught Hecuba.

Hamlet’s “Now I am alone” soliloquy saw him spotlit as he spoke to the audience of his self-loathing in the face of the actor’s passionate portrayal of Priam’s wife.

He kicked the back of the sofa as he railed against the “kindless villain”, but in so doing he hurt his foot and hobbled in pain, regretting his rash intemperate action. Duly chastened by this discomfort, he knew he had become “an ass” whose “most brave” outburst had backfired.

He plumped and rearranged the cushions on the sofa, which seemed to suggest to him the idea of people “sitting at a play”, leading him in turn to the ruse of using the forthcoming performance to “catch the conscience of the king”.


After Rosacrantz and Guildastern had informed Claudius about the upcoming play, the king moved on to the serious business of setting Ophelia as bait in a trap for Hamlet. She was made to sit on a chair facing away towards the left corner of the thrust and read a bible.

Hamlet entered in spotlight from the back while Ophelia was shrouded in darkness near the edge of the thrust, her chair turned away from him.

Like many of his soliloquys in this production, “To be” was very subdued in tone, taking advantage of the intimate space to allow a very quiet delivery of the lines, which accentuated their inward-looking reflective content. Hamlet’s outward calm was betrayed only by a faint tear that trilled down his cheek.

The undercurrent of self-destruction inherent in his words became apparent when he spoke of making “his quietus” “With a bare bodkin” and slowly gestured cutting his wrist with an invisible knife.

The lights came up on Ophelia, providing his cue to notice her. She turned round in her chair to ask him how he was, to which he replied with a sheepish “Well, well, well.”

She offered to return the remembrances (a letter) quite calmly. When he denied having given her “aught” she proffered the letter again, stating firmly, and with hint of condescending admonishment at the obvious absurdity of his claim, “you know right well you did”.

Instead of losing his temper in his replies, Hamlet was also very calm. He appeared to be trying to rekindle their relationship. This developed into an interesting reading of the sequence.

During their debate about the relative merits of beauty and chastity he took her by the hand and they strolled about quite amicably as if they had broken up by mutual consent and this was their moment of declaring themselves just good friends.

But this low-level intimacy soon flowered into something more intense.

They drew close and held each other round the waist as Hamlet told her “I did love you once.”

Ophelia’s response “you made me believe so” was heartfelt and longing rather than an angry contribution to a row. Hamlet’s next phrase “You should not have believed me” continued this mood.

Sensing a growing intimacy between them, Ophelia whispered “I was the more deceived” as she kissed him. Hamlet kissed her back in a passionate embrace.

But he suddenly seemed to change his mind and drew back from her slightly, telling Ophelia softly “Get thee to a nunnery”. He then broke away from her completely and tried to justify his rejection of her by outlining his supposed faults.

As he castigated himself, Hamlet again displayed no anger towards Ophelia. As a considerate friend, he was trying to help her get over him: whatever they had once had, he now realised that their relationship could never work.

She listened to him, but as he once again softly advised her “Go thy ways to a nunnery” she took off her top and went to kiss him again, her near nudity emphasising the depth of her desire to rekindle their love.

Fate intervened.

At that very instant an offstage knock was heard that immediately informed Hamlet that he was being overheard.

He pointed and wagged his finger at Ophelia as he asked angrily “Where’s your father?” Her top, which had been clasped between their bodies in the nearness of their embrace, fell to the floor.

Her obviously deceitful answer caused him to fly into a rage. He bellowed that Polonius should “play the fool nowhere but in’s own house” at the unseen eavesdropper.

He tore Ophelia’s letter into shreds as he shouted a series of misogynistic taunts at her.

Declaring that “we will have no more marriages” he threw the shreds into the air so that they fell to the ground like confetti. For good measure, he also kicked her top along the ground back at her.

He stormed over to the secret door to scream at the unseen eavesdroppers that “all but one” of those already married should live.

With a final cry of “To a nunnery, go!” Hamlet rushed away. Ophelia leant against the back wall to decry the overthrow of his “noble mind”.

The obvious initial attachment between Hamlet and Ophelia in this sequence meant that Claudius’s statement “Love! His affections do not that way tend” had a ring of untruth about it. Despite Hamlet’s final rejection of her, sparked by his realisation that he was being spied on, he had clearly been loving towards her.

As Claudius and Polonius determined that Hamlet would be sent to England and also instructed to see his mother, Ophelia crouched on the ground trying to collect and reassemble the shredded pieces of the letter.


A player entered reciting his lines in preparation for the performance. Hamlet intercepted him and offered his ‘advice to the players’. The staging of this sequence thus provided interpolated lines for Hamlet to comment on.

The thrust stage was rearranged with the desk moved to its end and the sofa and chairs moved upstage to provide seating for the onstage audience.

Hamlet’s encounter with the female Horatia provided another instance of otherwise innocuous dialogue taking on a whole new meaning because of that character’s regendering.

The prince’s praise for the virtues of his now female ‘best friend’ was spoken as the pair held each other round the waist in the aftermath of Hamlet’s break-up with Ophelia.

Two phrases said by Hamlet to Horatia stood out in this respect:

“Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice[edit]/Sh’ath sealed thee for herself”


“Give me that *soul* man/That is not passion’s slave and I will wear *her* him/In my heart’s core”.

The overall effect was to suggest that Hamlet’s split from Ophelia was due, at least in part, to him having met someone new at university.

But despite the affection and warm words expressed here, nothing in their subsequent interactions, at least while Hamlet was still alive, looked like the flowering of the kind of fully declared amorous romance he had enjoyed with his ex.

The court entered to view the play, providing the prince with an opportunity to taunt his uncle. Hamlet sat himself behind the desk (the one bearing the royal Danish seal) to answer Claudius’s questions sarcastically almost as if doing an impression of him, but in a Scottish accent.

He came out from behind the desk to joke with Polonius about his student acting. Gertrude asked Hamlet to sit next to her, but instead he approached Ophelia. In view of their bad-tempered argument, she was unsurprisingly nervous around him and did not appreciate his “country matters” jokes.

Finally settling down to watch the entertainment, Hamlet sat on the ground at the foot of the sofa between it and Ophelia’s neighbouring chair.

The dumb show was cut and Rosacrantz and Guildastern helped out the two-man acting company by providing a haltingly amateurish joint delivery of the play’s prologue.

The Player King and Queen sat on the edge of the table to act out the latter’s reluctance to remarry once the former were dead.

Delighted at the Player Queen’s rejection of second marriage, Hamlet rose from ground exclaiming “Wormwood!” and went behind the sofa for a while to observe the Player King’s counterargument and the Queen’s renewed refusal.

There was a pause in the performance as the Player King lay down to sleep, during which Hamlet rushed out in front of the onstage audience to ask Gertrude how she liked the play.

He returned behind the sofa where, speaking at close range to his targets, he taunted Claudius with the idea that they were both guiltless “free souls”, announced the next character as Lucianus, and teased Ophelia with another lewd allusion.

Lucianus poured poison into the Player King’s ear at which point Hamlet rushed forward and jumped on the table, from which lofty vantage point he outlined the plot with the killer reference to how “the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”.

Claudius rose from the sofa and approached Hamlet. Stood at the foot of the table, he looked up at the triumphant prince briefly, but then turned away to his right, looked at the ground and then revolved right round before skulking off the left thrust exit, muttering softly “Give me some light, away”.

This reluctance to confront Hamlet directly together with Claudius’s submissive body language and sullen exit, prompted Hamlet’s “let the stricken deer go weep”.

Hamlet did a victory dance and sent Horatia to fetch some recorders. His jubilation was interrupted by Guildastern and Rosacrantz who implored him to visit Gertrude.

Horatia returned with a recorder which Hamlet used to shame Guildastern about her attempted manipulation of him. Polonius also encouraged Hamlet to visit his mother, a request that he met with his sarcastic game of cloudspotting.

Left alone to consider his next step, Hamlet described the late hour as the “witching time of night”. Crucially, his line “I will speak daggers to her but use none” was deliberately cut for reasons that were to become very apparent.


The brief appearances by Rosacrantz, Guildastern and Polonius were cut from the beginning of the scene to concentrate on the solitary figure of Claudius as he wrestled with his conscience.

The king was still wearing the dinner jacket he had put on for the play, but now his bow tie was undone and hanging loosely round his neck. A lighting effect was used to beam a cross shape onto the desk at the far end of the thrust to suggest that the location was some kind of chapel.

He declared “my offence is rank” before attempting to pray by placing his left hand on his heart and raising his right hand upwards.

This did not work, and Claudius expressed extreme torment when he collapsed and bewailed his “wretched state”. He knelt to pray again.

Hamlet entered through the centre door behind Claudius. Dagger in hand, he directed its point down towards the top of the kneeling Claudius’s head as he considered killing him. Deeming the moment inapt, he changed his mind and skulked away. Claudius rose to his feet, and dissatisfied with his attempt, removed the cross from round his neck and slammed it down on the desk before exiting.


The desk was moved to the centre of the thrust stage and decked with bedding to create an approximation of a bed within Gertrude’s closet.

Polonius hid in the secret doorway concealed behind the portrait of Claudius in the back wall.

Gertrude remained upstage while Hamlet entered, dagger drawn, from the thrust entrance. This aggressive armed stance made necessary the text edit in the “witching hour” sequence as outlined above.

The mutual rebuffs were strongly delivered and showed that Gertrude was a match for Hamlet’s force of character, at least at first.

Frustrated by Hamlet’s intransigence, Gertrude made to leave saying she would “set those to you who can speak”. Hamlet took hold of her, prompting her cry, Polonius’s echoing of it and Hamlet’s decisive action.

Approaching the source of the sound behind the Claudius portrait, Hamlet struck his dagger through it repeatedly. He turned away and lingered on the thrust part of the stage away from the back wall, looking in the opposite direction as Polonius staggered out and collapsed dead.

Hamlet did not know whom he had killed and when he let slip a reference to the killing of his father, Gertrude repeated Hamlet’s shock accusation back at him “As kill a king?”

This questioning provoked Hamlet to shout back very loudly “Ay, lady, it was my word”. But as he did so, he caught sight of the dead Polonius and realised that he hadn’t killed the new king.

He approached the back wall and looked at the slashed picture of Claudius that covered Polonius’s hiding place as if stabbing through it should, by some form of symbolic magic, have killed its subject. He stared in bewilderment at Gertrude, and finally switched his gaze onto the dead body in absolute consternation.

With a mixture of incomprehension and panic. Hamlet leant over Polonius’s body and shouted at it “Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger” in a desperate attempt at shifting the blame onto his victim.

Hamlet showed Gertrude the two pictures, the one of his father on the wall stage right and the now torn one of Claudius stage left.

Expressing his disgust as Gertrude’s intimacy with Claudius, the prince pulled up the bedding from the bed when referring to its “rank sweat” and continued to rail at her as the pair wandered to the end of the thrust. The ghost entered again through the centre door to remind Hamlet of his task.

The ghost slowly approached Hamlet, limping down the length of the thrust, and touched him on the side of the head before disappearing down the left thrust exit.

Gertrude assumed Hamlet’s vision of his dead father was a sign of madness. The pair sat on the ground and Hamlet took her hand and placed it on his neck so that she could feel that his pulse “doth temperately keep time”.

After this Gertrude and Hamlet were reconciled. They sat on the edge of the bed and Gertrude stroked his arm affectionately. The mention of Hamlet being sent to England was cut. The sequence ended with a now subdued Hamlet dragging Polonius’s body away.


Claudius found Gertrude and asked her what had happened. She began her explanation with a degree of composure, but leant against and slid down the back wall and sat slumped on the ground when describing the killing of the “unseen good old man”.

The king dispatched Rosacrantz and Guildastern to find Hamlet.

The recovery in Gertrude’s composure did not last long. She sank and knelt at the side of the bed sobbing.

Claudius tried to comfort by implying that he was also upset, saying “O come away,/My soul is full of discord and dismay” in a truly patronising tone of voice as if he were comforting a child. His pretence to fellow feeling was a patently cynical and insincere untruth.


After ensuring that Polonius’s body was “safely stowed” Hamlet was confronted by Rosacrantz who demanded to know the whereabouts of the deceased. The prince disdainfully compared her to a “sponge” that would eventually be squeezed dry of the king’s favours once she had outlived her usefulness.

Rosacrantz drew a handgun from the back of her trousers and forced Hamlet to accompany her. But such a threat appeared unnecessary as the prince gleefully ran ahead of her, requesting to be brought to Claudius.


Claudius’s interrogation of Hamlet was characterised by the audacity and effectiveness of the prince’s taunts. The fact that his wit and rhetorical dexterity could provoke his uncle to violence, paradoxically demonstrated Claudius’s weakness.

The king’s first attempt at questioning him was met by a soft, sarcastic riff on the body being eaten by worms.

His second try elicited another jocular response, but with a sting in the tail. Hamlet suggested that if Claudius’s messenger could not find Polonius in heaven “seek him i’th’ other place yourself”. This bitter barb so provoked Claudius that he suddenly lunged forward at Hamlet before equally quickly checking himself.

Hamlet greeted the news that he was to be sent to England by addressing Claudius as his “dear mother”. Claudius didn’t understand why, and when Hamlet explained his reasoning and embraced him as his mother, Claudius angrily and forcefully pushed him away with both hands.

Not often do productions portray that kind of anger and violence from Claudius once he has Hamlet firmly in his grasp.

The scene ended with a truncated version of Claudius’s invocation “And England, if my love thou hold’st at aught,[edit] effect/The present death of Hamlet…”


The staging of Hamlet’s departure from Denmark to England was reworked so that Fortinbras and the Norwegian Captain did not appear. Instead the Captain’s lines were transferred to Horatia.

Horatia, Hamlet, Rosacrantz and Guildastern appeared in moody dark outdoor coats against an equally moody projected backdrop of sombre clouds. A brief sound effect of overflying jets indicated the impending conflict between Norway and Poland.

Hamlet questioned Horatia about the troop movements, and her well-informed replies included her statement “We go to gain a little patch of ground…” – a line that only made sense if Horatia were herself Norwegian. As the text makes plain, this battle has nothing to do with Denmark.

Left by himself, Hamlet pondered the implications of “How all occasions do inform against me”. Once again, the intimacy of the space enabled another dialled down reflection on his situation.

On this calming note, the interval came.


The start of the second half saw Horatia, taking the Gentleman’s lines, telling Gertrude that Ophelia was “distract”. They were both wearing coats, indicating that this sequence took place outdoors.

After Horatia had gone to fetch Ophelia, Gertrude bent forward and nearly threw up. She proceeded to contextualise this by explaining that her soul was sick and that “Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss”.

This physical symptom of her inner distress followed on neatly from previous manifestations of her unhappiness.

Ophelia rushed straight towards Gertrude crying “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” before hugging her enthusiastically round the waist, and maintaining that grip as she swung the two of them round.

She began singing fragments of songs, which attracted the attention of the newly-arrived Claudius who asked her how she was.

Replying “Well, good dild you” Ophelia bowed so close in front of him that she touched him. She went behind his back and slid up and down in mimicry of a pole-dancing movement as she commented “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter”.

Her rebuffs to Claudius were spoken firmly and directly in his face, demonstrating that she was not afraid of the repercussions of expressing these manic sublimated accusations.

Ophelia’s actions became increasingly lewd.

She began singing “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day”. She illustrated the phrase “Then UP he rose” by punching her arm up phallicly between Claudius’s legs as she stressed the word. A similar gesture and stress accompanied “By COCK they are to blame”.

Ophelia lay on her back and simulated sex with her legs flat on the ground but bent apart at the knee, thrusting upwards rhythmically to the beat of “So would I ha’ done etc.” which she sang in a mocking imitation of the voice of the man who was breaking his promise to marry her precisely because of her willingness to accommodate him.

She clasped comically at her stomach as if this supposed intercourse had instantly produced a pregnancy. This gesture informed the line “We must be patient” with the implication that she was referring to herself and her unborn child.

Ophelia bade the “Sweet ladies, goodnight” and departed.

Laertes’ arrival was not announced by a messenger but by gunfire sound effects as he burst in brandishing a handgun.

His previous sweet disposition made this act of violence look out of character and thus all the more desperate. This was perhaps why Claudius did not appear overly scared when he tried to talk Laertes down.

Ophelia swept in, slowly flapping her arms likes wings, then froze in position among them. Laertes expounded at length on her pitiful condition stood right next to her.

She had brought with her numerous aromatherapy bottles containing flower essences. She made Laertes sit on the ground next to her and handed the first two bottles to him, which she named as rosemary and pansies.

As he took the bottles from her, Ophelia snatched the gun from his hand, got up from the ground and pointed the weapon at the others. She did not have her hand properly gripped on the trigger, so that her threat was more symbolic than real.

Ophelia distributed the rest of the bottles and made the four of them kneel at an imagined graveside. They were encouraged to pour the essences onto the grave while she stood at its head leading them in singing “And will he not come again?” as if it were a well-known tune. The popular familiarity of this tune had been suggested at the start of the performance by Hamlet playing it on the piano.

The ‘mourners’ put their hands together as if in prayer and poured the bottles on the ground in this mock funeral ceremony.

The pitiful sorrow of this spectacle took a shocking turn.

As Ophelia wished the others farewell with “God buy you” she pointed the gun at her own head as if about to shoot herself. But just at that instant she clutched at her stomach, feeling another imagined baby kick, and rushed away still clasping her hands over her stomach.

Given the playful mocking origins of Ophelia’s ‘pregnancy’ during simulated sex while singing a song about male promise-breaking, and the lack of an obvious baby bump, it is unlikely that Ophelia was actually pregnant. The most plausible explanation was that this supposed baby was part of her madness.

Claudius told Laertes he had to “commune with your grief” and handed the young man’s gun back to him in an act that symbolised how Claudius was effectively ‘rearming’ him.


If the reimagining of Horatio as a female Horatia whom Hamlet praised and held close round the waist had generated questions about the precise nature of their relationship, then this next brief scene of perfunctory exposition became unexpectedly enlivened by its provision of a further telling piece of the puzzle.

Horatia read out a letter from Hamlet that explained how he had survived the pirate attack on the ship taking him to England.

At the point where Hamlet explained “in the grapple I boarded them” she paused, lowered the letter and looked knowingly at the audience as if to say ‘tsk, typical Hamlet!’, before continuing to the end.

She acted like an established girlfriend rolling her eyes at yet another piece of bizarre but nonetheless endearing behaviour by her beloved.

Horatia read out the letter’s sign-off “Farewell. He that thou knowest thine. Hamlet.”

Written to a female Horatia, this phrase took on the sound of a declaration of erotic love. Not surprisingly therefore she clutched the letter to her chest as if it were a lover’s token.

These small but powerful hints provided a strong indication of her attachment to Hamlet.


Claudius explained to Laertes why he had not taken action against Hamlet.

Their discussion was interrupted by Horatia, not a Messenger, who brought Hamlet’s letters to Claudius.

She was dismissed with a very rude “Leave us” by Claudius, indicating perhaps that he disliked her for being too closely associated with the prince.

Claudius and Laertes devised the plot to kill Hamlet using a toxic-tipped foil and poisoned chalice.

Their deliberations were cut short by the appearance of Gertrude. She walked slowly across the back of the stage, trailing her white coat behind her and softly mumbling the production’s theme song “And will he not come again?” all of which added to the dejection of her expression as she told Laertes that his sister had drowned.


Ophelia’s grave was prepared by only one gravedigger, so the scene’s initial comic banter was cut. The gravedigger simply stood in the trap door at the centre of the thrust and threw out skulls while singing the song provided for him in the original text “In youth when I did love, did love”.

Hamlet and Horatia appeared from the thrust entrance and made fun of the gravedigger, joking that one of the disinterred skulls might be that of a lawyer.

As the gravedigger sung of how “age with his stealing steps/Hath clawed me in his clutch” he took an implausibly intact skeletal forearm and connected fingers, and played with them to make them appear to walk around the edge of the grave.

He arranged some skulls in front of him and used some short bones to drum on them enthusiastically as he continued to sing.

After trading witticisms with the gravedigger, Hamlet picked up Yorick’s skull and actually wretched before saying “My gorge rises at it”.

He adopted a Northern Irish accent to ventroliquise the skull saying “Now get you to my lady’s chamber… to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.”

Unlike many contemporary productions, RADA’s Hamlet did not cut the lines referencing how Alexander the Great’s dust could have turned into a plug stopping a bung-hole.

The pair lurked in the left thrust entrance when the funeral procession entered. Ophelia was wrapped in a white shroud and carried by Laertes in his arms. He placed her just by the graveside and asked “What ceremony else?”

Gertrude quietly poured some of Ophelia’s aromatherapy essence onto her, which she touchingly characterised as “Sweets to the sweet”.

Instead of leaping into the grave to be reunited with an already interred Ophelia, Laertes’ emotional reunion involved picking her up and carrying her down into the grave where he held her in his loving fraternal grasp.

Hamlet emerged from the shadows to confront Laertes, who jumped out of the grave and grabbed Hamlet with both hands by the throat. They were soon separated and restrained. The gravedigger held back Laertes while Horatia held back Hamlet to stop them fighting.

Hamlet swore at Laertes for outfacing him, and then fixed Claudius menacingly in his gaze, promising him that “dog will have his day”. This night-time scene was lit partly by the mourners’ handheld electric torches and Claudius’s torch ominously illuminated Hamlet’s face as he threatened him.


In the more relaxed atmosphere of the palace interior, Hamlet told Horatia about the plot to kill him. He had what appeared to be the original letter from Claudius to the king of England containing his death sentence. He defused her objections to the letter switch that had doomed Rosacrantz and Guildastern by asserting that they “did make love to this employment”.

Osric was played by the same actor as the clownish Polonius, which enabled him to negotiate both these roles with little effort. The courtier intruded on the pair marching in exaggerated military drill steps.

Hamlet made fun of him and insisted that he both remove and replace his pork pie hat in quick succession.

Osric’s verbose and meandering message about the return of Laertes and the bet on the fencing bout was sufficiently irritating for even Horatia to join in the mockery, so that “What imports the nomination of this gentleman?” was said by both of them to heighten its effect.

The sequence’s references to anachronistic “carriages” and “hangers” were cut.

Osric exited using exaggerated drill turns and steps. Hamlet followed close behind copying the courtier’s movements in mockery of his rigid military gait. This was an extension of the parodying of his affected overblown speech.

Hamlet’s calm resignation before the bout was indicated by his assurance that “the readiness is all”.

The court assembled amid the preparations for the fencing. A series of interlocking metal grilles was assembled in a line to form a long fencing piste down the length of the performance space. Two benches were arranged diagonally either side of the upstage end of the piste and a table was placed at its upstage end, the entire configuration forming an arrow shape.

Gertrude watched from stage right, while court outcast Horatia spied on events from the left thrust entrance.

Claudius made Hamlet and Laertes hold hands and make up, which Hamlet did calmly and at length.

The two fencers tried out foils at the downstage end of the thrust, but actually fought with both foil and dagger.

They readied themselves at the centre of the piste where Osric kept them separate until the swift withdrawal of his hand signified the start of the bout.

Hamlet immediately lunged forward in a confident move, striking the tip of Laertes’ sword with such determination that Laertes retreated in surprise. Laertes then tried a similar forward lunge at Hamlet, but he did not budge.

This initial token exchange established Hamlet as the more aggressive and confident swordsman. This seemed a reasonable outcome given Laertes’ characteristic mildness.

Once the bout began in earnest they both fought equally skilfully until Hamlet touched Laertes on his arm, which was declared a palpable hit.

Claudius took a pearl and placed it in the glass and offered it to Hamlet. He refused it and the glass was put on a tray carried by a servant.

Hamlet’s second hit, on the side of Laertes’ stomach, was conceded by his opponent. During the resulting pause, Gertrude used her handkerchief to mop Hamlet’s brow. She took the glass from the tray held by the nearby servant. Claudius, who was at the other end of the piste with Laertes, pleaded slowly and softly “Gertrude, do not drink”, but she firmly insisted that she would.

A third combat ended when the fencers’ foils and daggers ended up locked into a square formation, which was declared “Nothing neither way”.

The time had come for the bout to turn nasty.

Laertes stuck the “unbated” end of his foil into Hamlet’s back. The prince writhed in pain for some time after it hit home.

Hamlet turned and glowered at Laertes. As he was wearing thick gloves, Hamlet was able to grasp the still extended blade in his hands and wrench it from Laertes’ grip before using it to strike his opponent in the back in the same way.

Amid general consternation at the sudden violence, Laertes picked up Hamlet’s sword and they fought with each other again, but without daggers.

The fierce skirmish ended with Hamlet dealing another blow to Laertes’ stomach. The intensity of this hit could explain why of the two of them Laertes died first.

Laertes collapsed on the ground, followed almost instantly by Gertrude, who explained that her drink had been drugged.

Laertes told Hamlet about the poisoned blade. Claudius tried to grab the blade of the foil from Hamlet. But his attempt failed, giving Hamlet the opportunity to turn it on Claudius, who staggered away and collapsed at far end of the thrust.

Hamlet retrieved the poisoned glass from where Gertrude had dropped it and forced the remainder of its deadly contents into Claudius’s mouth as he lay helpless on his back.

With his dying breath Laertes asked to “Exchange forgiveness” with Hamlet and the two were reconciled.

The prince turned to Horatia, who stood just near him in left thrust entrance, and declared “I am dead, Horatia” before staggering back down the piste towards Gertrude. He fell to the ground right next to her, exclaiming “Wretched Queen, adieu”.

Hamlet sat upright looking back at the others, clutching his chest as he declared that “This fell sergeant Death/Is strict in his arrest”, his speech increasingly affected by the sharp contortions wracking his body.

All this time Horatia remained at a distance cowering just offstage, possibly because Claudius’s earlier rude dismissal still made her feel reticent about showing her face at a court event. But given that of the non-servants only she and Hamlet were now left alive this should not have been an obstacle.

Hamlet spoke to Horatia again saying that he was “dead” and that she should “report me and my cause aright/To the unsatisfied”.

This time she hurried to Hamlet’s side, exclaiming that she was “more an antique Roman than a Dane”. She took the poisoned glass in an attempt to drink its dregs, but he snatched it back from her.

She remained crouched on all fours at his right side.

After losing the tussle over the cup, Horatia took hold of Hamlet’s hand and kept holding it continuously until he was taken from her at the end of the sequence. This intense physical contact said more about their relationship than any of their previous embraces.

The sound of cannon was heard, prompting Hamlet to ask about the “warlike noise”. Osric informed him that it was the approach of Fortinbras.

Hamlet was now in his last few minutes.

He began sat upright but gradually leant further back, Horatia’s firm hold on his right hand enabling his descent to be both slow and smooth. As he reclined, he also gradually reached out with his left hand towards the dead Gertrude so that when almost fully prone, his fingers clasped hers.

The spectacle of devoted Horatia firmly gripping his hand while he reconciled himself with the mother whom he had moments before dismissed as “wretched” was very moving.

Those with memories stretching back to the start of the performance might have been reminded of the moment when Claudius escorted Gertrude away from Hamlet, breaking a hand contact they had established and which this sequence re-established.

Hamlet gave his approval of Fortinbras with his dying voice. He looked up briefly to declare “The rest is silence”.

And then there was a significant pause of silence as Horatia continued to gaze at his now dead body, still grasping his hand.

Horatia was given the final words of the performance, which were taken from her character’s responses and interactions with non-appearing characters and a few lines borrowed from Fortinbras himself.

Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet Prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
(sound of drums) Why does the drum come hither?

Give order that these bodies
(She faltered in grief at the phrase “these bodies” as she leant over Hamlet: she raised his hand, still firmly in her grasp, to her mouth and kissed it, then clasped it to her heart)
High on the stage be placed to the view,
[intervening lines] All this can I
Truly deliver.

Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal.

Hamlet was slowly carried away on the shoulders of four people to a choral version of “And will he not come again?” while Horatia stood stiffly by and watched.

Once Hamlet had been carried offstage, the lights went down.


The reimagining of Horatio as a female Horatia was a simple switch that added an extra dimension to the story and new meaning to otherwise unremarkable lines, transforming this character from best mate to lover.

Despite the involvement of a director and principal actor who could easily have sold out a much larger venue over a considerably longer run, this production was perfectly tailored to its small studio theatre space.

It could have survived a transfer to somewhere like the Almeida or Donmar. But had it transferred to a bigger theatre, it would have lost its essential features which were a simplicity of staging and ultra-close audience proximity.

However, it seems unlikely that Tom Hiddleston will leave his Hamlet ambitions behind in Malet Street. At another time and in another place, he will retread the path from “A little more than kin, and more than kind” through to “The rest is silence”.

But improving on this performance and making as close a connection with the audience will be a really difficult task.


The production was directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Ayesha Antoine – Rosacrantz / Bernarda

Lolita Chakrabarti – Queen Gertrude

Eleanor de Rohan – Guildastern / Marcella / Priest

Nicholas Farrell – King Claudius

Sean Foley – Polonius / Osric

Tom Hiddleston – Hamlet

Ansu Kabia – King Hamlet / Player King / Gravedigger

Caroline Martin – Horatia

Irfan Shamji – Laertes / Player Queen

Kathryn Wilder – Ophelia


This Wooden O2

The opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in 1997 marked the start of a revolution.

The revolution was against the then firmly entrenched idea that actors and stages should be lit, while audiences were required to sit pacified and unengaged in darkness.

These were not the conditions in which popular theatre in this country had begun and not the conditions for which Shakespeare had written most of his plays.

The revolution was intended to restore these original conditions of performance.

This is a different concept to what became known as original practices, where costume and all-male casting attempt to recreate some of the visual detail of Elizabethan performances.

The original conditions of performance are recreated by the basic physical architecture of the reconstructed Globe theatre, its lighting and acoustic. These conditions apply regardless of whether an individual production is original practices or modern dress.

The manifesto of this revolution has been proclaimed in different ways by different people during the Globe’s history, but perhaps the most succinct expression of it is currently right there in the Globe’s description of itself on its website.

The Shakespeare’s Globe website About Us page describes the theatre as: dedicated to the exploration of Shakespeare’s work and the playhouse for which he wrote.

This phrase neatly summarises how the recreation of the original performance conditions that existed in the playhouse for which he wrote has always been integral to the Globe’s exploration of Shakespeare’s plays.

The environment of the original Globe theatre was the essential framework that shaped the playwright’s dramatic works.

He wrote most of his plays for daylight and the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe was purpose-built to recreate that experience. This simple fact was the core of the Globe experiment.

As an article in The Economist put it in 1999:

Actors and audiences are discovering anew the real conditions for which Shakespeare wrote—a daylit outdoor amphitheatre, with a thrust stage and no stage lighting to mark a division between them.

This was a revolution directed principally against stage lighting and lighting design because these things played no part in the creation of Shakespeare’s plays.

The experiment yielded results. Practitioners and audiences alike discovered how shared light made a difference to how the plays worked in performance. This growing body of knowledge was incorporated into the curriculum that Globe Education imparted to students.

It rapidly became apparent that the recreation of the original Globe environment and the shared light uniting stage and audience unlocked a quality in Shakespeare’s plays that otherwise remained hidden.

Shared light created a powerful bond between actors and audience to the extent that the spectators became an integral part of the performance rather than passive bystanders.

Audiences were able to appreciate the Henry IV plays in which Falstaff used shared light to make the spectators part of his gang. Shared light enabled King Henry V to address the assembled horde of groundlings as the English army, effectively making the whole theatre yard part of the performance space.

Shakespeare’s dramatic works had finally returned to their natural habitat. And they flourished.

This season’s introduction of stage lighting and sound amplification was therefore completely counterproductive.

In the same way that original musical instruments are used to recreate authentic sounds in an orchestra, so the Globe was seen as a reconstruction of the original instrument for which the music of Shakespeare’s plays was written.

This explains why one founding donor of the Globe, having seen Emma Rice’s production of Dream, was quoted as comparing the use of lighting design in the theatre to “screwing an electric pickup to a Stradivarius”.

The parallel was a precise one and the comparison of Shakespeare’s Globe with a Stradivarius violin was deliberate and telling.

Shakespeare did not write for lighting design or megawatt sound systems. The introduction of this technology defeats the purpose of building the Globe in the first place.

The Globe management would not get away with removing the candles from the candlelit Playhouse next door, because its mode of lighting is obviously integral to its function and purpose.

In Sam Wanamaker’s vision for the main Globe theatre, daylight (and artificial daylight for evening performances) was considered equally essential and non-negotiable.

If audiences want to see Shakespeare performed with stage lighting and sound amplification, they can do so anywhere in the world. The Globe has spent nearly two decades offering something different and more authentic, true to its founder’s vision and proud of its revolutionary distinctiveness.

Emma Rice described her changes as “a bit of TLC” – tender loving care. To which many people have reacted “Love? Her affections do not that way tend.”

How can anyone claim to love the Globe when they are undoing what makes it truly special?

It was quite saddening to see an actor in the subsequent Wonder Season production of Shrew spotlit on the Globe stage trying to connect with an audience he mostly could not see.

Using lighting to tell an audience where to look instead of having actors earn audience attention is a disservice to both audience and actors, as shared light advocate Ralph Cohen of the American Shakespeare Center has explained.

Where once shared light created a democratic space binding actors and audience together into one unit, now lighting design separates the two in a way Shakespeare would not have recognised.

Sound amplification was also used in Shrew to absurd effect. All the musicians in the gallery were miked up, so that when two of them played down on stage during the preshow, the music appeared to be coming from the giant speaker stacks and not from their instruments.

Musicians at the Globe have never needed amplification, indeed the Globe to Globe Festival in 2012 had positively encouraged all the visiting companies to bring their own musical instruments, which most of them did and they all worked perfectly without amplification.

How can these new developments be described as progress?

Sam Wanamaker was a revolutionary and what is being touted as progress is in fact a reactionary step backwards.

Globe has been a success because it has offered something different. It has spent the past 19 years building an audience and a brand based on its founding principles with continuity across two artistic directors who both accepted the basic outline of the Globe project.

That consensus has now been ruptured.

Dispensing with Sam Wanamaker’s vision for the Globe is not a good place for them to be as they approach their 20th anniversary in 2017.

Next year will provide an opportunity to look back at the project’s achievements.

Does the Globe want to celebrate that anniversary by terminating the experiment to whose fulfilment Sam Wanamaker devoted decades of his life?

Now that there’s a gap in the market for a replica Elizabethan theatre devoted to exploring Shakespeare in original conditions of performance, will someone, a visionary, have the courage to build one?

Or are we expected to acquiesce in the transformation of ‘this wooden O’ into ‘this wooden O2’?


Update: On 25 October 2016 Shakespeare’s Globe announced that Emma Rice would be leaving the post of artistic director in April 2018 and reasserted the primacy of Sam Wanamaker’s original shared light project

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:

I think I saw him yesternight.
Saw? Who?
Your father.
You saw my father?
Season your admiration for a while
With an attent ear till I may deliver
This marvel to you.
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 be there to comfort him.

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.


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.


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”.


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.


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.


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:


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]


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



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.


Royal Exchange Manchester




The Best Cleopatra

Antony & Cleopatra, The Globe, 1 June 2014

The decorative tiring house of the Globe was covered in upright planks of wood painted red. The stage pillars were left untouched, while the luxuriousness of Cleopatra’s court was suggested by blankets and cushions ready on stage for the first scene.

But it was the long pre-show with its increasingly frenetic dancing that created the required atmosphere of decadent exoticism into which wandered the upright messengers from Rome.

As the play proper began (1.1), the messengers commented on how Antony was in thrall to Cleopatra, something the audience soon saw for themselves as the Egyptian queen (Eve Best) entered wearing knee-length trousers and a man’s shirt, brandishing Antony’s sword with the air of a pirate. Antony (Clive Wood) wore a loose-fitting gown topped off with a floral coronet. The two of them scampered around wearing each other’s clothes, something that would be referenced later in the text.

There were bored groans for her entourage when the messengers from Rome were mentioned. Cleopatra continued her skittish sarcasm about the latest instructions from Caesar.

Antony’s sense of fun continued to assert itself. When he commented that “The nobleness of life is to do thus…” he kissed Cleopatra passionately, demonstrating that his idea of true nobility was rather more Egyptian than Roman.

He approached the messengers and snapped to attention causing them to respond obediently in kind, before undermining the martial rigour of the moment by insisting in a camp voice “Speak not to us” followed by a swift, tripping exit with a delighted Cleopatra.

The Soothsayer (Jonathan Bonnici), his face painted blue, told both Charmian (Sirine Saba) and Iras (Rosie Hilal) that they would outlive their mistress (1.2). This prediction would not prove accurate for Iras who would in fact die before the queen.

Cleopatra entered with a sheet wrapped round her, indicating that she and Antony were in mid act when he had left her after being struck by “a Roman thought”. Once he entered, Cleopatra and her women turned and left in a tight group, pointedly and slightly comically looking away from Antony as they passed him.

Antony learnt from the second messenger that his wife Fulvia was dead.

Phil Daniels’ lugubrious Enobarbus greeted the news of Fulvia’s death by looking on the bright side with his smock/petticoat analogy, while a still pensive Antony sat on the steps down into the yard.

Eve Best portrayed a wonderfully petulant Cleopatra making her pretend sickness, a game at Antony’s expense, much more than a silly girl’s prank (1.3). She doubled over in feigned illness when Antony appeared. Her sarcasm and bitterness about Fulvia were an expression of her assertiveness rather than a indication of weakness.

Cleopatra’s satisfaction on hearing of Fulvia’s death was instantly replaced by her complaint that Antony had not wept for her. Her restoration to health with the words “I am ill and quickly well” was both comical but also a positive demonstration of her ability to adopt moods and conditions as and when it suited as if by royal prerogative.

The first scene set in Rome (1.4) showed the Romans in vaguely Jacobean costume. Caesar (Jolyon Coy) was young-looking with well-groomed blond hair. His neatness of appearance indicated a certain puritanical asceticism.

Back in Egypt, servants used ropes to pull a platform from the tiring house (1.5). On the platform was a bed on which Cleopatra lounged, her white outfit matching the white sheets of the bed. The servants who had brought the bed on stage then pulled on ropes that caused fans in the stage to canopy to waft back and forth. Cleopatra lay on her stomach and asked Mardian (Obioma Ugoala) to stop singing before joking with him about his affections.

She envied the “happy horse” that might at that moment have been bearing Antony’s weight in her place. She imitated Antony mockingly when she imagined him asking “Where’s my old serpent of Nile?” adopting a vaguely working class London accent. Her delivery of the following phrase “For so he calls me” was equally telling because it showed that Cleopatra loved the fact that Antony had this particular name for her. This fitted well with Cleopatra’s subsequent praise for Antony’s “well-divided disposition”.

Pompey (Philip Correia) and the pirates learnt that Antony had joined the other Romans and was coming after them (2.1).

For the big meeting in Rome the SPQR banners were unfurled from the tiring house (2.2). A long table was placed across the stage with Caesar and Antony taking up opposing positions at either end. The distance between the two rivals along the length of the table matched the frosty atmosphere.

Octavius claimed that Antony had ignored his letters and had thus “broken the article of your oath”. This accusation was the trigger to release Antony’s suppressed anger: he lifted up his end of the table and banged it down forcefully and noisily onto the stage in response to his honour being questioned.

Enobarbus commented cynically that the opposing parties could feign friendship and then return to their dispute afterwards.

Agrippa (Daniel Rabin) proposed that Antony should marry Caesar’s sister Octavia, and she appeared on stage so that we could see her cold disposition. But despite the apparent amity engendered by the forthcoming marriage, Antony made it plain that he still harboured a grudge. When Caesar offered his hand to seal the deal, Antony gripped it powerfully and pulled Caesar forcefully towards him before moving away. What could have been a gesture expressing amity and impending familial connection became instead a power play hinting at future conflict.

Enobarbus was left behind with Maecenus (Ignatius Anthony) and they began to talk about life in Egypt. Maecenus asked if the rumours of their gargantuan feasts were true, to which Enobarbus replied that they had had “much more monstrous matter of feast” in a coarse, suggestive tone that hinted at sexual activity in addition to the gourmandising.

Enobarbus’ famous description of Cleopatra beginning “The barge she sat in…” was wonderfully delivered and, coming from Phil Daniels, brought home how this most poetic and majestic of descriptions was written to be spoken by a simple soldier who is otherwise earthy and cynical.

Octavia (Rosie Hilal) demonstrated her cold-blooded nature by refusing to kiss, so Antony bade her goodnight by patting her hand (2.3). Antony asked the Soothsayer “whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar’s or mine?” Underling the foreboding nature of the prediction, when the Soothsayer replied “Caesar’s” the SPQR banners lining the back wall all fell to the ground simultaneously.

Antony realised that he should return to Egypt. His instructions to Ventidius were cut, allowing scene 3.1 to be cut later.

Scene 2.4 was cut allowing Antony and Cleopatra to stand on stage next to each other as the end of 2.3 overlapped the start of 2.5. This allowed the production to dramatise the strong connection between these two eponymous characters.

They spoke alternate lines: his ending of 2.3 “I will to Egypt.. I’ the east my pleasure lies” followed by her start to 2.5 requesting “music, moody food of us that trade in love”. Although dramatically separate, Cleopatra leant towards him as if able to smell him, pointing to her more sensuous and instinctive nature, another difference between Rome and Egypt.

Cleopatra fancied a game of billiards with Charmian, but she passed and suggested the queen play with Mardian (2.5). Cleopatra warmed her hand and was just about to put it down Mardian’s trousers, when she changed her mind fearing he might “come too short” all of which indicated an ulterior meaning behind the intended “play”.

The queen fancied fishing instead and, continuing the theme of games as sexual metaphor, looked around the front of the yard for likely men. She held out her crooked finger like a hook with which she was angling, before descending the steps to kiss one saying “Ah, ha! You’re caught!” She commented on some cross-dressed fun she had had with Antony in which he wore “tires and mantles” and she wore his “sword Phillipian” which we had seen at the start of the performance.

This playful frivolity set the tone for the sequence with the messenger from Rome.

On seeing the Messenger (Peter Bankolé) approach, Cleopatra panicked that this meant that Antony was dead. She gratefully offered the Messenger gold when he reassured her that this was not so. The gold she offered was in form of her own bracelet and anklets, which she removed and piled on a stage pillar ledge as a visual reminder of her generosity.

Her reaction to the Messenger’s caveat “But yet…” was as wonderfully comic as could be expected. When he finally divulged that Antony had married Octavia she slapped him hard on the face with an audible crack, then slapped him with her hands some more. She forced him down onto his back and pulled on his head to hold him upright as she promised him riches if he said Antony was not married. When he confirmed Antony indeed was, she threw him backwards to the ground and then grabbed a fruit knife to threaten him. The terrified Messenger ran off and Cleopatra would have pursued him had she not been restrained by Charmian.

The still angry Cleopatra wanted the Messenger to return. She checked herself and realised that she had to put on a pretence of calm. She offered a not very convincing “Though I am mad, I will not bite him”. She dug her knife into the stage but Charmian found this insufficiently reassuring. Cleopatra subsequently acquiesced and handed it over.


Charmian escorted in the apprehensive Messenger who threw himself prone on the ground. She once more resented hearing his bad news and scared him away, but gave Alexas (Kammy Darweish) instructions that the Messenger should be employed to report back on Octavia’s appearance.

The Romans agreed a peace with Pompey and arranged a feast to mark their concord (2.6). Menas (Sean Jackson) thought that the marriage of Antony and Octavia meant a firm alliance between Antony and Caesar, but Enobarbus concluded that Antony had “married but his occasion”.

The staging of the party scene took advantage of the large expanse of the Globe stage (2.7). A big vat of drink was brought out and the men danced vigorously in a circle to the tune of the text’s “Cup us till the world go round”. Caesar sat at the side refusing to join in the festivities.

Antony once again showed his contempt for Caesar. He spoke drunkenly to the reticent Caesar ostensibly on the subject of Egyptian agriculture. But at the phrase “scatters his grain” Antony’s supposed imitation of the grain scatterer was clearly a wanking gesture, which then at “comes to harvest” culminated with a mock ejaculation directed at Caesar’s face.

Menas, critical of the peace deal, drew Pompey aside and the pair conversed while Antony drunkenly described a crocodile to Lepidus (James Hayes). This action froze allowing Menas to tempt Pompey with the idea of killing the three triumvirs. But while Pompey would have applauded the assassinations had they been carried out without his prior knowledge, he could not in good conscience give prior approval for them.

The riotous company had been drinking healths to all and sundry, especially to Lepidus who became so drunk that he had to be helped away. They now turned on Caesar chanting his name repeatedly to cajole him into some revelry. Despite their warm enthusiasm, he replied coldly “I could well forbear it” to which Antony wearily countered “Be a child o’th’ time”.

Antony then roped Caesar into the next drunken dance that ended with Caesar being carried on their shoulders as they chanted his name. But they stumbled and Caesar was sent sprawling onto the floor, an indignity that he did not appreciate: he protested angrily “What would you more?”

This brought the festivities to an end. Pompey was so reconciled to Antony that he was able to feign aggressive indignation at Antony’s seizure of his father’s house but then assure him with joshing familiarity that they were now friends.

As Enobarbus departed, he announced “There’s my cap” putting his tankard on his head to show it was empty.

The brief scene showing Ventidius and Silius in victory was cut (3.1).

After the farewells and departure of Octavia and Antony from Caesar (3.2), the action returned to Egypt (3.3).

Cleopatra’s messenger, again afraid to enter her presence, lay prone on the ground. The queen had been working on a sampler and as she stood to listen to reports of Octavia’s appearance the sampler became a stress toy on which she vented her anxieties, particularly after hearing that her rival was only 30.

She stood downstage facing the audience looking over her shoulder to enquire after Octavia, foregrounding both herself and her fretful sewing. She paused for a particularly long time and sewed extra nervously before asking about Octavia’s age.

But she was able to put her worried behind her when she exuberantly greeted the messenger’s account of Octavia’s unattractiveness.

Antony and Octavia agreed that she should return to Rome to make peace between her new husband and her brother (3.4).

Eros told Enobarbus that Lepidus had been taken prisoner by Caesar after having outlived his usefulness in the war against Pompey (3.5). Lepidus was marched in chains across the stage, down into the yard and outside to illustrate this plot point.

Caesar’s complaints about Antony and Cleopatra’s behaviour in Egypt were interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Octavia on the stage right walkway (3.6). Caesar regretfully informed her that her new husband was not, as she had assumed, in Athens but had taken advantage of Octavia’s absence to return to Cleopatra in Egypt.

At end of the scene Antony and Cleopatra processed out through the tiring house centre doors in magnificent ceremonial costumes and proceeded down into the yard where they were showered with gold confetti by audience members on the front row of the middle gallery (who had found envelopes containing confetti and bearing instructions on their seats when arriving in the theatre). The gold theme linked back to the reference in Caesar’s speech at the start of the scene describing them as sitting “in chairs of gold”.

This spectacular display of pomp heralded the interval.

The second half of the performance was preceded by a pre-show. The Soothsayer muttered incantations to himself as he cut open a dead goat and examined its entrails, the smoke of incense wafting about him. He evidently foresaw trouble: he became agitated by what he read in the entrails at which point Caesar and Antony appeared and faced off against each other as if dramatising his forebodings.

A tattered map unfurled on the back wall showing the Mediterranean as the Egyptians laid plans (3.7). Ready for battle, Cleopatra wore an armoured breastplate, the same one worn by Frances Barber in the Globe’s 2006 production.

Antony insisted on fighting at sea against Enobarbus’ recommendation to fight on land. Cleopatra became bored with Enobarbus’ insistence and leant against a stage pillar and ho-hummed. A Roman soldier allied to Antony remarked that they should fight by land and that the Egyptians should be left to “go a-ducking”, which produced an outraged look from Cleopatra. She drew close to Antony, who was defensive of her.

The two opposing armies appeared side by side so that the very brief successive scenes 3.8 and 3.9 could be run together with Antony giving battle orders immediately after Caesar.

The sea battle took the form of two men bearing the flags of the armies swinging around on ropes, the centrifugal force of their rotation separating them as they were lifted high above the stage (3.10). As they descended the SPQR flag fought off the Egyptian banner: a woman representing Cleopatra left the stage and the bearer of the Egyptian banner followed . This was a schematic and balletic way of representing a sea fight, and certainly a better solution than using model ships.

The scene ended with a verbal description of how Cleopatra had left the battle and Antony had followed her.

A downcast Antony spoke to his men and told them to take his gold and flee (3.11). Cleopatra nervously observed at the side with her entourage before speaking with him. He was angry at her, but they kiss and make up.

The Ambassador to Rome (James Hayes) requested that Antony be allowed to live a private man (3.12). Caesar refused but was willing to be lenient with Cleopatra if she handed over Antony. Caesar sent the Ambassador back and also dispatched Thidias (Jonathan Bonnici) to win Antony from Cleopatra.

Hearing of Caesar’s refusal from the Ambassador, Antony sent message back that he wanted to fight Caesar (3.13). During this scene Enobarbus stood far over on the stage left side separate from the others so that his cynical asides became the justifications of an outsider for his subsequent defection to Caesar.

Cleopatra agreed to accept Caesar’s terms as conveyed by Thidias. She offered her hand for the envoy to kiss. He went down on one knee to do so, where he was caught in flagrante delicto by Antony. The jealous Antony flew into a fury and had Thidias taken offstage to be whipped. Antony furiously berated Cleopatra for her alleged inconstancy.

Thidias was brought forth with vicious bloody stripes on his back, which Antony made a point of striking to exacerbate the pain. This callous act was even more shocking than the unseen offstage whipping.

Cleopatra looked in sorrow at her companion and asked dolefully “Have you done yet?” In those few words Eve Best managed to convey the idea that the game was indeed up. Cleopatra’s reticence was not just a comment on this immediate situation and Antony’s outburst, but showed that she realised that Antony’s reaction to Thidias was a symptom of his weakness not a demonstration of his strength.

This episode meant that their power was finished: Caesar had effectively won. Cleopatra had the insight to realise that the bright day was done and they were for the dark, as Iras would subsequently put it. She had seen that Antony was weak, because, like Leontes, only a weak man is capable of that kind of jealousy.

Cleopatra protested that she was not cold-hearted towards Antony in her flowing, eloquent speech about the discandying of poisoned hail. The force and evocative imagery of her assurances caused Antony to be reconciled with Cleopatra and he folded his hands around her. Cleopatra remembered that it was her birthday and they agreed to have a party. Enobarbus meanwhile decided that he definitely had to leave them.

A brief return to Rome saw Caesar decide to fight against Antony (4.1). But his resolution to make war was undercut by the plaintive tone in which he whined “He calls me boy”.

Antony gathered servants, who stood in a line as Antony bade them a kind of gloomy farewell (4.2). Denying his sorrowful mood only made Antony seem more morose.

The night before the battle some soldiers heard music under the stage (4.3).

Cleopatra helped Antony strap on his armour, but mistakenly attempted to fasten his wrist guard round his ankle (4.4). He kissed her warmly before going off to battle.

Antony heard that Enobarbus had deserted to join Caesar and sent his treasure after him (4.5). As Antony ruminated on his absent comrade, Enobarbus made an early entrance for the following scene turning his presence in this scene into a vision experienced by Antony. This also meant that Antony’s cry of “Enobarbus” was directed at him.

Caesar made ready and ordered that those who had fled from Antony should be at the front (4.6).

Enobarbus emerged from the back and was left alone to rue his treachery. His sense of wretchedness worsened when a soldier informed him that Antony had forwarded his treasure to him. Only a ditch was good enough for him now.

The second battle also involved the flag bearers (4.7). The soldiers of the two armies ran back and forth at each other, but then the stage cleared leaving the flag bearers once again to spar at each other. The SPQR colours were eventually chased away by the Egyptian standard. The schematic representation of the battle contrasted with the attention to detail in its aftermath as soldier Scarus (Obioma Ugoala) sported, exactly as he described, a scar on his arm in the shape of an H.

Antony celebrated victory with Cleopatra, who emerged from a party within the tiring house in a white dress and floral garland (4.8). In a comic touch commensurate with their upbeat mood, Antony made his soldiers turn away before he kissed her.

Enobarbus appeared by himself with no guards or soldiers observing his final moments (4.9). This increased the power of the scene because Enobarbus seemed more helpless for dying alone and unobserved.

When he called on Antony to forgive him, his former master appeared from the stage right side door and walked like a ghost in a straight line right past Enobarbus without acknowledging him, then off at the other door. The appearance of Antony to Enobarbus here mirrored Antony’s earlier fevered vision of Enobarbus. The staging of this vision was made more credible by there being no one else on stage. The soldiers only appeared once Enobarbus had collapsed to carry him away.

The armies of Antony and Caesar appeared side by side on the large stage enabling the two brief scenes 4.10 and 4.11 to be delivered rapidly before the armies headed off.


Another battle of the flag wavers resulted this time in victory for the SPQR banner as the Egyptian flag was dropped (4.12). Antony declared “All is lost” at which point the map of the Mediterranean that had adorned the back wall all this time fell ominously to the ground.

Cleopatra walked up the stage left slope in a long white dress, her eyes full of tears, but left after Antony roughed her about, blaming her for the defeat.

Cleopatra and her women headed for the monument and she instructed Mardian to tell Antony that she had killed herself (4.13).

Antony hinted to Eros (Peter Bankolé) that he wanted to die (4.14). When Mardian brought news of Cleopatra’s supposed death, this only encouraged Antony further in his desire to “overtake” her.

He asked Eros to strike at him with his sword. Preparing for the fatal blow, Antony shielded his face with his arm. This enabled Eros to draw his own sword, but then at the decisive moment he drove it into his own stomach.

Antony was full of admiration for Eros’ noble action and tried to follow his example by dying on his own sword. He cut at his stomach with the blade, but the movement was drawn out and jagged, not swift and decisive.

He crouched looking despondently at his stomach waiting for the blood to spout, but nothing much happened. He had injured himself, but at this rate death would be a long time coming. Antony waved his hand in front of the wound as if inviting the blood to issue forth. This looked like the impatience of an actor at a failed special effect, but was in fact Antony’s frustration at his poor handiwork, the quality of which was confirmed when the guards entered and Antony told them “I have done my work ill, friends.”

Alexas, not Diomedes, told Antony that Cleopatra was still alive. As he took in the news, he glanced down at his wound and laughed, before turning skywards to shake his head at the heavens in scorn. He asked to be carried to Cleopatra.

The main stage was used to represent the monument rather than any of the upper spaces above the stage (4.15). This had the advantage of keeping the action of the scene close to the audience.

Cleopatra, dressed in white, gathered with her women to observe Antony being carried by his soldiers through the yard. He was deposited just below the top of the stage left ramp. This enabled the final ascent into the monument, often involving a direct vertical lift, to be staged by having a rope attached round Antony with Cleopatra and her women dragging him the final few metres onto the main stage.

This was an ingenious way of having the scene take place on the main stage, but using ropes to drag him such a short distance up a shallow ramp looked odd. However, this was preferable to a more realistic staging that would have then positioned the couple somewhere in the tiring house gallery.

Once on the stage, Antony repeated that he was dying. But his immediate request “Give me some wine” felt comically inappropriate for someone near death.

Any questions about the staging were soon forgotten as the production went on to deliver one of its most powerful effects.

Cleopatra’s tight embrace of the bleeding, dying Antony meant that her pristine white dress became smeared with his blood, creating garish stains which would remain distinctly visible for the remainder of the play.

Antony died, slumping lifeless in Cleopatra’s arms after a final audible exhalation just as she reached the word “melt” in her summary phrase “the crown of the earth doth melt”. But she was soon on her feet holding her women close by her exclaiming “Ah, women, women! Come, we have no friend/But resolution and the briefest end” with a plaintive expression that lent the moment an air of poignancy. The scene ended with the dead Antony being dragged offstage by Cleopatra and the others.

Although the seizure of Antony’s sword by Decretus was cut from 4.14, he now brought this sword to Caesar who eulogised his dead opponent (5.1). Caesar sent Proculeius (Sean Jackson) to accept Cleopatra’s surrender and to arrange for her to be brought to Rome.

The stage was set for the final scene with the entry of Cleopatra’s golden throne (5.2). It was wheeled in from the tiring house on a platform. Its eagle’s wings were so wide that they folded back to pass through the tiring house doors and unfolded to their full impressive dimensions once the platform was in position.

Proculeius met with Cleopatra, who was washing her hands in a bowl to clean off Antony’s blood. He was all diplomatic unctuousness, giving her vague assurances that Egypt would be given to her son as she wished.

But then the ambush was sprung: other soldiers rushed in, one descending by rope from the tiring house in the equivalent of a special forces raid and took her prisoner despite her attempt to flee.

Cleopatra grabbed a knife and gestured with it at her wrist and then towards her stomach, but was disarmed. She would rather die in a ditch than be carried to Rome and have Octavia laugh at her.

Sat on the throne plinth talking with Dolabella (Philip Correia), Cleopatra went into a rapturous description of Antony, which was delivered very effectively. Dolabella admitted that Caesar intended exhibit her in Rome like so much war booty.

Caesar entered stage left, prompting Cleopatra on the far right side of the stage to crouch in obeisance face down on the ground together with one of her women, while the others crouched similarly stage left. Caesar could not distinguish which of these identically dressed bowed figures was Cleopatra, prompting his question “Which is the Queen of Egypt?” She eventually revealed herself by tentatively raising her hand while still facing downwards.

Caesar was polite but warned her of the dire consequences for her children if she killed herself. She looked appalled at this prospect, which Caesar noticed and quickly reassured her that her compliance would ensure their safety: “To that destruction… [Cleopatra panics], which I’ll guard them from…” This minor detail should be born in mind when admiring her nobility at the end. Acquiescing in her capture, she accepted that she would become a “scutcheon” for Caesar to display.

Interestingly, the entire sequence involving Cleopatra’s list of treasures as well as the false testimony and fake outrage of her treasurer was cut. This removed a relapse into levity from the final movement of the production so that a sense of impending tragedy was maintained. The lines from roughly 5.2.135-185 were cut.

Caesar departed offering more reassuring words.

In view of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse transfer, Iras’ line:

Finish, good lady. The bright day is done.
And we are for the dark.

began to look like something deliberately designed to take account of the late-afternoon indoor playhouse gloom. It certainly did work late on an early summer evening at the Globe.

Cleopatra did not whisper to Charmian, so that Iras’ request that she “finish” interrupted Cleopatra’s preceding complaint about Caesar, silencing her with a gloomy image invoking the twilight of their glory and pacifying her annoyance at being “boyed” by Caesar.

Dolabella confirmed that Caesar intended to send Cleopatra and her children away in three days. She imagined out loud what their capture would look like. She looked down at the groundlings when referring to the “mechanic slaves” that would breathe over them, a delightful nod to the constituents of the original audience. The reference to “some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness” was another reminder of the original performance conditions.

She asked Charmian to fetch her best attires. But this only involved her serpent crown and cloak.

The snakes were brought by the simple rustic man (James Hayes) who provided some comic relief with his user guide to “the worm”.

Cleopatra donned her robe and crown adjusting it on her head. She looked up into the air as she wistfully uttered that great line “I have immortal longings in me” and then “I am fire and air” etc. She kissed Iras who immediately collapsed in her arms and fell to the ground dead roughly stage right.

The queen feared that Iras would meet dead Antony first, so hastened to the throne and put the asp basket in her lap. She sat upright and clasped the asp to her, in a very subtle and delicate sequence that in a large outdoor theatre was not particularly grandiloquent, but which would have been ideal for a smaller indoor venue where such small-scale actions would be easier to observe.

No second asp was applied to her arm. After just the one asp bite, she sat bolt upright with her hands rigidly placed on the arms of the throne and died remaining firmly in position without slumping. Her eyes stayed open until Charmian shut them.

Her dead figure was still wearing the dress stained with Antony’s blood, which added something earthy and real to the gilt spectacle of her own suicide. She wore the stains like a badge of her attachment to her dead lover.

The guards discovered that “Caesar hath sent… too slow a messenger” as Charmian took the asp herself and died stage left.

The guards, Dolabella and then Caesar discovered the grisly scene. Caesar paid his final tribute to the Egyptian queen.

At the start of the production’s run there was no concluding jig, just curtain calls. But the jig was included later on, but with Clive Wood not taking part.


The production managed to evoke a sense of Antony and Cleopatra’s world falling apart, with Cleopatra recognising in sorrow that Antony’s whipping of Caesar’s messenger was a symptom of his impending downfall.

Eve Best made a welcome return to the Globe stage and managed to combine Cleopatra’s uber-femininity with sufficient steeliness to suggest a warrior queen. She was flighty but also fighty.

With the production subsequently transferring to the indoor candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, viewing it outdoors became an exercise in spotting moments that did not quite work in the Globe and would be played differently indoors.

If the Globe’s Titus was a clanging empty vessel, this was a production of lasting substance.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse transfer, 31 August 2014

The production transferred into the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for two performances on 31 August and 1 September 2014.

The staging of the battles had to be altered which meant that the performances lost some of the aerial work that looked so impressive on the outdoor stage. On the other hand, exploring the indoor space offered new staging possibilities that enhanced some moments in the production.

The lighting scheme was initially simple with six candelabras at the standard height of 8ft with the shutters closed for the whole of the first half.

The preshow was fitted onto the smaller Playhouse stage with the advantage that Charmian and Iras were now able to dance in the pit aisle and flirt was audience members there, while still being connected to the onstage action. This was not practical on the Globe stage, where the party was kept firmly on the main stage.

Antony and Cleopatra entered through the pit aisle onto the stage as they engaged in their horseplay. Cleopatra jumped over the balustrade into the front row of the lower gallery and then stood on the balustrade for her first lines. These opening moments demonstrated that there is great scope for audience interaction in the Playhouse.

That the Playhouse audience is so easily accessible by the actors both in the galleries at the side and in the pit, makes the Playhouse a better space for audience interaction than the Globe where steps into the yard are not always present and the distance involved in making a trip among the groundlings is that much greater.

Another instance that demonstrated this point was when Cleopatra sat on a spare seat in the pit and looked at Antony like an expectant spectator as she ordered him to “play one scene of excellent dissembling” by crying for Fulvia and pretending his tears were for her.

The cast also used handheld candles for practical and symbolic purposes. Cleopatra used a four-candle handheld when reading her book; Octavia carried a single candle for her silent walk around the stage front, introducing her character when Antony’s marriage to her was first suggested.

Cleopatra occasionally played with candles in sconces, an action which made her appear skittish and playful. This was an instance of Playhouse fittings providing an opportunity for character exposition.

For practical reasons the large banners that adorned the back of the Globe stage were completely absent.

Pompey and his associate appeared in the musicians’ gallery for their first scene and the rear two candelabras were raised to their highest level in order to illuminate them.

Cleopatra fished for a lover in the pit and found a somewhat reluctant fish.

The big party scene was crammed onto the comparatively small Playhouse stage. Caesar was still born aloft on the shoulders of the revellers and dumped onto the stage despite all the candelabras remaining in their standard position just 8ft off the ground.

The first half ended with the same gold glitter shower as Cleopatra and Antony paraded out the pit aisle.

Keeping to the pattern of the Globe staging, the Soothsayer and goat were on stage as the audience returned for second half.

The back four candelabras were raised to their highest position for the first battle. The front two ascended for the night-time watch scene (4.3), with the guards carrying handheld sconces.

The battles were reduced in scope. There was no aerial work for the first battle. The opposing flags were waved at each other to represent the fight. Interestingly, the part in which the siren lady representing Cleopatra circled around the flag bearers and led away the Egyptian flag appeared clearer in the Playhouse because the action was tightly focused.

Antony’s admission of his final defeat “All is lost” did not trigger the collapse of the absent banner, so their submission was indicated solely by the troops collapsing to the ground.

Enobarbus had Luna on the Playhouse roof to address when imploring the Moon (4.9).

The back four candelabras were lowered for the monument scene (4.15) and they were all lowered for the arrival of the throne minus its wings (5.2).

The main stage of the Playhouse was used to represent the interior of Cleopatra’s monument just as in the Globe. Antony was brought through the pit aisle to the stage front and shoved up onto stage, then dragged across it a short distance.

The soldiers that seized Cleopatra rushed on to the stage from the aisles of the adjoining lords boxes. None of them abseiled down on to the stage.

Disappointingly, the lighting did not reflect the supposed darker conditions in an indoor playhouse towards the end of an afternoon performance. This meant that “Finish, good lady…” was one of the production’s brightest moments rather than being a nod to the fact that gloom was descending.

The presence of candlelight allowed Cleopatra to look up at the candles when remarking “our lamp is spent” (4.15).

The smaller, at times slightly cramped, Playhouse stage caused a slight problem for Eve Best as she approached the throne for the play’s climatic suicide sequence. Iras had collapsed dead on top of the end of Cleopatra’s train, which meant that when Eve Best started on her final steps, she was obliged to tug on the train in order to free it. She tripped and fell back onto the throne knocking it slightly sideways, the angle of the throne detracting somewhat from the geometric simplicity of Cleopatra’s upright, still figure.

Eve Best

Not boring

Titus Andronicus, The Globe, 25 May 2014

This revival of the 2006 production replicated its key features: a fabric roof was stretched over the yard; the tiring house and stage pillars were covered in identical dark cloth. Billows of smoke generated under the stage and meant to intensify the atmosphere, quickly dissipated into the air.

Extensive use was made of the yard for scenes like Titus’ (William Houston) triumphant return to Rome with his Goth prisoners. Steel towers on wheels were deployed to create mobile stages for sequences such as the attempting hanging of Aaron (Obi Abili).

The towers were wheeled rapidly into position, careering around the yard, forcing groundlings to move out of their way, their crew occasionally dousing those below with water. At other times the framework was struck repeatedly to create a loud metallic din.

While some of this worked, the overall impression was of a production that didn’t understand the Globe space. With good acting and direction the colourful tiring house melts into the background and is unobtrusive despite its gaudy decoration. Attempts to cover it up actually draw attention to it and away from the actors to the detriment of the overall experience.

The production added a character “Bacchus, a Roman drunk” (David Shaw-Parker) who joked with the audience in modern English and who was eventually killed in a clumsy attempt to recreate the shock of Polonius’ death in Hamlet. This also jarred with the professed intention to create a dark abattoir atmosphere.

The reveal of the mutilated Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) was played too far upstage and would have been better in a prominent position at the stage front. The moment was also slightly spoilt by some people choosing to laugh at the spectacle of Lavinia thrashing around under a net before the reveal.

Tamora (Indira Varma) at times verged towards the comedic, with a similar vibe coming from her partner in crime Aaron. This tended to counteract the darkening of mood purposed by the space redesign.

But all was not completely bleak.

The stage towers did work well as an alternative to the main stage for the threatened hanging of Aaron. The use of actors to portray hunting dogs was very nice. A net temporarily slung down into the yard to serve as the pit was an ingenious solution, but involved much herding of groundlings.

The concluding dinner scene was excellent, particularly when Tamora gestured approvingly at the pie and continuing to tuck in. She met her end with her face thrust down into the pie and stabbed. Saturninus (Matthew Needham) had his head banged down onto the same table and was also cut.

But the most pleasing moments in the production came when the actors’ skill and the text’s momentary brilliance became the focus of attention, rendering the play’s attention-seeking wrapper superfluous. This hinted that directorial design concepts were alien to the original staging and equally have no place on a recreated Elizabethan stage.


The trend for refashioning the Globe interior reached its absurd peak in the 2010 Macbeth production. Since then there has been a move away from such remodelling. This revived production took us back to a time when such alterations looked like progress.

A satisfied customer was heard to tell a companion that this production proved that “not all Shakespeare is boring”. This was indeed a loud, banging, crowd-pleasing spectacle. But most of the writer’s dedicated fans are glad he eventually moved on from being “not boring”.

Banishing John Falstaff

Henry IV Part One, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 3 May 2014

The production began on a very sombre note in a candle-lit chapel with Henry (Jasper Britton) prostrated before a large crucifix (1.1). As he began his complaint, the distinctive figure of Richard II appeared briefly on the stage left balcony, indicating that the source of Henry’s malaise was his guilt at usurping his predecessor. This also implied that his self-characterisation as “shaken” referred to his bad conscience about Richard rather than the “civil broils” that were his immediate concern. Henry was immediately brought to our attention as psychologically complex and with depth of feeling and conscience.

However, over in the Prince’s apartment the mood was somewhat different (1.2). The dark chamber contained a large bed, on which Hal (Alex Hassell) bade goodbye to two wenches who had just finished servicing him. One was already visible sat astride him, while a second emerged from under the sheets. Hal went to open the chamber shutters, the sudden noise of which woke Falstaff (Antony Sher), who popped up from under the bedclothes at the foot of the bed. This sudden intrusion of daylight prompted Falstaff’s question about the time of day and his insistence that he was one of the “gentlemen of the shade” rather than a daytime person. Hal opened the window and eventually put a shirt on.

Antony Sher’s Falstaff sounded like the kind of upper-middle class gentleman that haunts the expensive seats at the RSC. It was possible to imagine him preparing for the role by drawing on decades of memories of rubbing shoulders with the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire bourgeoisie.

With the arrival of Poins (Sam Marks), the three agreed to rob at Gad’s Hill (pronounced “Gade’s Hill”). Hal was very excitable throughout the conversation but this changed when he was left alone at the end of the scene.

Hal’s soliloquy was framed in dramatic spotlight centre stage as he addressed the audience in a particularly portentous way with his master plan to live dissolutely and then abruptly revert to virtue. This was first indication of the emphasis that Part One would place on Hal’s change of attitude to Falstaff, together with Hal’s general transformation. Rather than an explanatory footnote to the scene, the speech was a foreboding of dark events to come.

Henry met with the rebels (1.3). The staging emphasised royal power with Henry facing the audience sat on the throne backed by his supporters while the northern insurrectionists kneeled before him. This created an obvious imbalance of status and power quite unlike the semicircle of chairs used in the Globe production.

The bleached blonde Hotspur (Trevor White) immediately looked like trouble. Anger and aggression boiled to the surface. A letter was thrown back into Hotspur’s face and the king rudely shouted at him that he did “belie” Mortimer.

This roughness and tension continued once Hotspur was alone with his relatives. When Hotspur would not stop talking he was wrestled to ground, forcing from him an apology “Good uncle, tell your tale; I have done”. Hotspur insisted on pursuing a course of revenge until he was pulled by the hair on the back of the head and told by Worcester (Antony Byrne) to follow his letter-borne instruction.

The action switched to Rochester as the carriers (Nicholas Gerard-Martin & Robert Gilbert) gathered in the darkness with their lanterns (2.1). A neat piece of technology allowed the turkeys inside their baskets to make realistic gobbling noises. The character usually known as Gadshill was here called Rakehell (Jonny Glynn) and received confirmation from the Chamberlain (Simon Yadoo) of the movements of the intended targets of the robbery.

The more active robbers ran around hiding from Falstaff and teasing him as the heist was prepared (2.2). Hal fell to the ground to listen for approach of the victims, prompting Falstaff’s joke about the levers that would be required to lift him from that position.

The nuns and the carriers were assaulted. The robbers took the money chest and tried to open it with a hacksaw, while Hal and Poins crept up on them in hoods and facemasks. The robbers were surprised and ran off, with Falstaff not even attempting to fight.

Hotspur was annoyed at a weasel-worded letter refusing him assistance (2.3). He threw it to the ground and shouted at it before being intercepted by Lady Percy (Jennifer Kirby). She was a good match for her husband, with the vague air of a tough man’s wife.

She wanted to know why he had been ignoring her. He began to leave but turned back when she mentioned that she had watched over him while he was asleep. She continued to talk sweetly to him and he almost fell for her charms, but then suddenly pulled away to question a servant.

Lady Percy then tried a more direct physical approach and went to grab his little finger, but he wrenched her arm and forced her to the ground, so that she was lying there when she asked him “Do you not love me?” He responded to this by picking her up and holding her aloft with one arm.

The Eastcheap set (and those of other locations) slid sideways onto the stage rather than using the basement trap doors (2.4). This was to make them compatible with the Barbican theatre and other touring venues. It seems that the RST has been fitted with basements and fly towers that cannot be used with its major productions that transfer to London and beyond.

Hal told Poins about his mixing with the common people, whom he jokingly referred to as “Tom, Dick (Harry) and Francis”, the extra name being thrown in case we had not realised what the expression meant.

Returned from his ignominious failure at Gad’s Hill, Falstaff began his fantastical account of the robbery and its aftermath. Hal raised a drink in cheers to the audience, indicating that he would indeed contradict Falstaff’s story for our imminent amusement. Hal stood on the money box to demand Falstaff’s excuse for his arrant lying.

Doll (Nia Gwynne) was present in Eastcheap in Part One, and touched Falstaff affectionately on occasions, preparing us for the full display of their relationship in Part Two.

Moving on to the play extempore, a chair was placed on a table to serve as a throne, while another chair was placed on a table just opposite. Falstaff repeatedly asked if Hal was afraid of the impending fight with the rebels and repeatedly put his hand on Hal’s shoulder, which the prince brushed off.

The comical role play between Falstaff and Hal moved to portentous conclusion. Hal said of Falstaff’s banishment “I do; I will”. At first he was jovial, but then placed his hands firmly on the armrests of the chair and appeared to have a change of heart, brushing a hand through his hair as if regretting his pronouncement. This was followed by Macbeth-like banging at the door.

Hal slapped the Chief Justice (Simon Thorp) when he came looking for Falstaff and Bardolph (Joshua Richards). This served to underline the animosity between the two. This invented business was included because of the subsequent references to the assault in Part Two.

Over in Wales, Hotspur thought he had forgotten the map on which the rebels were to divide their spoils, but Glendower (Joshua Richards) had pulled the huge map in behind him as he entered (3.1).

Glendower looked and sounded just like Sam Cairns’ version of the character at the Globe in 2010.

The King had summoned Hal for a serious talk (3.2). Hal began his excuses for his behaviour, but was pulled by the ear by the King towards the chapel kneeling pad. This marked the turning point at which Hal realised exactly how seriously his father took the issue of his behaviour. If the idea was latent when he had spoken to us earlier in soliloquy, this was the moment that he decided to act on his intentions.

In Eastcheap, Falstaff emptied dregs from abandoned cups into his own, displaying mild signs of delirium tremens (3.3). The speech in which Falstaff described his virtue but ironically undercut each statement with a humorous caveat was here divided between Falstaff and Bardolph so that his companion was the source of the more honest version rather than Falstaff himself. The advantage of this staging was questionable.

A running joke extended across both productions in which all references and allusions to Quickly’s husband and her married status were followed by communal coughing. In Part Two this accompanied references to Quickly (Paola Dionisotti) being a widow.

The inconsistency of the production’s modernisation of language could be seen in the way that the reference to “dowlas” was changed to “muslin”, but the price reference “eight shillings an ell” was left in. An audience trusted to work out that an “ell” is a unit of length could also be trusted to determine that dowlas was a cheap fabric.

Despite his realisation in the previous scene that his relationship with Falstaff had to change, Hal was here still in a good mood with Falstaff as he gave him his battle orders.

Falstaff’s last words in the scene “I could wish this tavern were my drum” were rounded off with the sound of drums heralding the entry of the more reliably martial Douglas (Sean Chapman) and Hotspur (4.1).

Hotspur continued his manic preparations for war brushing aside any concerns that their forces were underpowered.

On his way to fight the rebels, Falstaff asked Bardolph to fill a bottle of sack for him, which when handed over was seen to be comically enormous (4.2).

In an initial sign of his displeasure with Falstaff, Hal was visibly appalled at the condition of his pressed soldiers. Hal could also be seen taking exception to Falstaff’s callous attitude to these men deemed merely “food for powder”.

Hotspur was still raring to attack the King’s forces (4.3). Blount (Simon Thorp) brought an offer of pardon but Hotspur responded by lecturing him at length about the severity of their grievances.

Blount asked “Shall I return this answer to the King?” In a clever tweaking of the text, the following lines, in which Hotspur appears to relent “Not so, Sir Walter. We’ll withdraw awhile”, were given to Worcester. The sequence turned into Worcester being conciliatory, holding back Hotspur and calming his rage, while the young rebel continued to glower with frustrated anger.

This created consistency. Given how eager Hotspur was, the text’s version in which he made the concession looked out of character. It also created a parallel with events in the next scene.

At Shrewsbury Worcester met with the King and his party, including Hal (5.1). In a parallel with the Hotspur/Worcester sequence in 4.3, the King had to restrain Hal from offering to fight with Hotspur in single combat.

Hal showed a new censoriousness towards Falstaff by ordering him to be quiet and refrain from his inappropriate wisecracks. This textual indication of Hal’s changed attitude fitted in well with the other more subtle indications of Hal’s transformation created by directorial decisions.

Hal maintained that the peace offer would not be accepted, exuding an air of foreboding and intimating that the King’s judgment was wrong.

Given his previous pronouncements it was possible to detect some wishful thinking in Hal’s parting words to Falstaff: “Say thy prayers, and farewell” and “Why, thou owest God a death”. His wish was truly father to those thoughts.

This led into Falstaff’s “honour” soliloquy in which he showed us the scutcheon on his buckler to illustrate one of his metaphors.

Worcester decided not to tell Hotspur about the peace offer, realising that the King would inevitably find a way to punish their disobedience (5.2). Hotspur predictably whooped with delight when he heard that the fight was on.

In the midst of the raging battle a desperate Hal asked to borrow Falstaff’s sword (5.3). He offered him his pistol instead, handing over a leather container. Hal discovered that it held yet another bottle of sack, which he angrily discarded, building on his previous animosity to become truly outraged at Falstaff’s inappropriate antics.

Douglas fought the King to the ground, but Hal rushed in to stand over his father, threatening the Scot with his sword, after which Douglas skulked away (5.4).

There was a fantastically fast double sword fight between Hal and Hotspur. Hal lost both his swords and ended up defending himself with his buckler. He regained a sword and was given a second one, continuing to fight without a buckler. Hal eventually dealt Hotspur fatal blows to the stomach. Just before, Falstaff had apparently been cut down upstage and was lying motionless.

Hal honoured Hotspur in death, holding his sword hilt over him and paying him his due respects. Then Hal found Falstaff and did the same but with a subtly different emphasis.

Hal’s contemplation of the supposedly dead Falstaff culminated in him raising his sword over his body, looking as if he would honour Falstaff with praises as he had just done with Hotspur. But he hinted that he was not displeased to see his companion dead, saying: “O, I should have a heavy miss of thee if I were much in love with vanity”, which was crucially caveated; speaking of the battle dead he referred to those other than Falstaff as the “many dearer”.

This was undercut when Falstaff rose up. At first he struggled to right himself, wobbling like beetle on its back. When Hal saw Falstaff alive he took a step backwards in shock and pointed his sword at him as if he were a demonic illusion. Hal ordered Falstaff to carry Douglas away on his back.

This was a very interesting trajectory for the Hal/Falstaff relationship because it effectively cleared the way for the friendlier rapport between them at the start of Part Two.

The concluding scene saw a large map spread out on the stage on which the King, victorious over his immediate enemies, was planning his further campaigns against the rebels (5.5).


Henry IV Part Two, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 3 May 2014

The “switch off phones” announcement merged into an exhortation to “Switch off your phone… open your ears”, the latter phrase being the first three words of the Induction to Part Two. The remainder was spoken by the character of Rumour (Antony Byrne), a man looking like a member of the stage crew complete with a Rolling Stones tongue logo t-shirt, picking up on the line “upon my tongues continual slanders ride”.

Rumour used his phone to photograph the audience and the set, then began his speech as multiple copies of the #rumour hashtag were projected onto the back wall, establishing a connection between traditional rumour mill and contemporary social media. The phrase “Open your ears” was also flashed across it and spoken in several languages.

After Northumberland (Sean Chapman) had digested the news of his faction’s defeat and the death of Hotspur (1.1), the mood and location changed.

Falstaff was proudly displaying the medal he had won for his services at Shrewsbury when his Page returned with his water pot (1.2). The boy was very small, justifying Falstaff’s description of him as “fitter to be worn in my cap”. The Page mentioned that Hal had struck the Lord Chief Justice, which to create consistency across the productions had been shown in Part One.

Sher continued his impression of the kind of upper middle class gent so common in the audience at Stratford.

The boring, featureless exposition of 1.3 quickly gave way to some more London-based comedy as Quickly gave Fang (Youssef Kerkour) and Snare (Martin Bassindale) their last-minute instructions about arresting Falstaff (2.1).

There was a brilliant moment of textual awareness. Mistress Quickly mentioned in all innocence her “case so openly known to the world” upon which Fang and Snare each gave a brief downward glance to bring out the sex joke in that line. In keeping with that theme, Quickly was also referred to as “Quick Lay”.

The fight in which Fang and Snare failed to detain Falstaff was not very convincing and was interrupted by the arrival of the Chief Justice, the ensuing dealings with Quickly providing another outing for the running joke about her marriage, this time with everyone coughing at her being a “poor widow”.

Hal and Poins returned from playing tennis and stood around shirtless for a while before getting dressed (2.2). Hal’s reminder of a point already made briefly by Falstaff, that the Page had been a gift from Hal to him, was a sign that their friendship had been rekindled. But the first mention of Falstaff’s name caused Hal to look down at the ground grimly, hinting that all was not completely well.

The arrival of Bardolph and the Page was the occasion of some more winsome child acting. Bardolph was paid money for his silence about Hal and Poins’ trick on Falstaff, but the Page stole the cash and ran off, turning his last phrase in the scene “I will govern it” into his bold statement as he snatched the money bag away from his companion.

The scene showing Lady Percy’s misgivings about Northumberland’s intention to return to war was remarkable for the fact that Nia Gwynne (Doll Tearsheet) played Lady Northumberland in a change to the usual doubling of this role with Mistress Quickly (2.3).

The action returned to Eastcheap, where once again Francis (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) popped up out of the trap door hatch, calling “anon anon, Sir!” to an impatient, unseen customer (2.4).

The private room where Falstaff was being entertained was laid out on a small platform. This looked like another concession to the requirements of touring the production. On first sight, it looked cramped and would prove so later on. The confinement of the scene’s action within such a small space on the large RST thrust looked very odd.

Nia Gwynne’s Doll was sick into a bowl and comforted by Quickly. Falstaff insisted that Pistol (Antony Byrne) be admitted, confirming “It is mine ensign” rather than “ancient”.

Pistol was wide-eyed and with his hair on end to create an alarming look. He entered with a bang as his pistols went off and engaged in his sexual innuendoes.

Doll forced Pistol down onto the ground, but he soon overcame, putting a knife to her throat exclaiming “Have we not Hiren here?”

Seeing that Doll was in danger, Quickly disarmed him as he commented “These be good humours”. Pistol went from the threatening to the ridiculous. He dropped his trousers and after Doll suggested he should be thrust downstairs, he lewdly asked “Thrust him? Downstairs?” looking at his bulging underpant codpiece.

Pistol wrapped the Eastcheap crew up in a curtain and pulled on it like reins to curb them like “pampered jades of Asia” before being forced out the back of the small set.

Doll questioned Falstaff about Hal and Poins: each of them popped their head up over the rear curtain when mentioned.

They eventually played their trick by pretending to be servers. The first meeting between Hal and Falstaff contained a slight undercurrent of animosity, but nothing to overt dislike on Hal’s part.

Falstaff was called to the court and left the room platform, but paused on the main stage to cry silently with his face in his hand, an extratextual moment. Bardolph saw this and returned to the room to fetch Doll, which is part of the text. She comforted Falstaff in his distress, providing additional weight to the tenderness of their relationship as well as highlighting the vulnerability behind Falstaff’s boasting. The whole sequence provided a neat explanation for Doll’s summons.

Mistress Quickly fell asleep in a chair and the room fell dark and silent.

The third act followed on seamlessly from the previous scene. Wrapped in a dark sheet and looking distinctly unwell, the King entered through the back of the Eastcheap platform as Quickly dozed. His lines to the Page cut.

Henry entered the world of Eastcheap so that when he spoke to us saying “How many thousand of my poorest subjects are at this hour asleep!” he was able to point to Quickly as an example as she snored.

The King walked off the front of the platform to move downstage, which differentiated him from the others who had all left the room through its back door. This suggested that his presence here was illusory: that he was theatrically but not physically inside an Eastcheap tavern.

The interval came at the end of the scene after the King had spoken with Warwick and Surrey about defeating the rebels.

The second half began in Gloucestershire, the refreshed audience encountering the delightful Oliver Ford Davies as Shadow conversing with Silence (3.2). Silence (Jim Hooper) was wearing mittens like a child and was equally childlike in his ignorance, or rather forgetfulness. Shadow asked various questions about their mutual friends and relations, but senescent Silence did not seem to know whom he was talking about.

There was a running gag involving Shadow’s leg shaking whenever he became excited. He first began to tremble when reminiscing about the “bona robas” of his student days, and subsequently when remembering Jane Nightwork a little while after.

The pressed men appeared: Mouldy (Simon Yadoo) was diseased, Wart (Leigh Quinn) crept along the ground and Bullcalf (Youssef Kerkour) was predictably big.

In another annoying textual change, Mouldy said “If it please you” rather than the equally comprehensible “an’t”. If a production starts running scared of the language, then where does it stop?

Bullcalf’s self-correction of his illness from “cold” to “cough” was made to sound like the actor correcting a misremembered line, an effect that was cleverly rendered.

Falstaff managed to leverage the full quotient of innuendo from his exhortation “No more of that Master Shallow…”

Wart was given a gun but could barely hold it upright. Shadow demonstrated its correct use and charged around brandishing it threateningly, ending his display of martial prowess by striking the butt firmly on the ground, at which point the gun went off.

Falstaff communed with the audience, telling us about Shadow’s youth when he was known as “Mandrake”, a remark which prompted a ripple of laughter that Falstaff gratefully acknowledged. He appeared to have found the audience’s level when they snickered at his comment that “he came ever in the rearward of the fashion” with more chortling and Falstaff relishing his apparently unintended double entendre.

Westmoreland (Youssef Kerkour) tricked the rebels into thinking their demands had been met and that they had won (4.1), only for John of Lancaster (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) to confirm the deal, watch the rebel army disperse, and then arrest the traitors (4.2).

Coalville (Robert Gilbert) had been mentioned by name in an earlier scene to give more credence to his sudden appearance in 4.3 as Falstaff helped mop up the remainders of the fleeing rebel forces.

Falstaff called out after the departing John of Lancaster “I would you had but the wit”, making plain his dislike of Hal’s cold-blooded sibling.

This thought led Falstaff into his great paean to sack and its warming, inflammatory effects. He took a deep draught from a clay pot before expounding on each element of its “twofold operation”.

Antony Sher revelled in exploring the physicality of Falstaff’s reaction to sherry. This portrayal was different to that given by Roger Allam in the Globe version, which was slightly more clinical.

The text’s “sherris” was emended rather disappointingly to “sherry”. Sherry is something that is drunk at Christmas, usually in a modest, restrained way. Gourmand Falstaff should really drink something more exotic and tinged with his characteristic wildness, and the word “sherris” fits the bill perfectly.

To add insult to injury, the culmination of Falstaff’s fine speech was also pinched and clipped to deprive it of its full glory. We were left with:

If I had a thousand sons, the first [humane] principle I would teach them should be to [forswear thin potations, and to] addict themselves to sack”.

A beautifully balanced phrase was spoilt by the clumsy hand of the editor.

The King looked very ill and was helped in by his entourage. His surprising reaction on hearing the good news of the rebels’ defeat was to collapse sideways, before being carried to rest in another chamber (4.4).

The King was put to bed with the crown next to him (4.5). The scene provided an efficient but predictable staging of Hal’s appropriation of the crown and his subsequent contrition.

Shallow continued to entertain Falstaff and friends (5.1). Shallow’s repetition of “no excuse” was accompanied by the repeated unloading of money bags, presumably either their pay for recruiting men or bribes paid to them to be excused from military service.

News that the King had “walked the way of nature” was soon followed by the new king being revealed on his throne (5.2). This dramatic reveal was very effective, much more so than having him walk onstage. The text added a reference to the Chief Justice being assaulted: he stated that Hal had “struck me in an Eastcheap tavern” rather than the original “my very seat of judgment”.

Mad Pistol delivered the news of Hal’s accession which was received with great joy by Falstaff (5.3). There was a touching moment at the end of the scene once the stage had emptied of those keen to get to London, Pistol sat with Silence and began to sing “Where is the life that late I led?” and Silence, who had previously been on good singing form, joined in with him.

The arresting officers crudely snatched and discarded the red cushion that Doll had stuffed up her dress to fake a pregnancy and thus escape the law (5.4).

Falstaff readied himself centre stage as the regal procession entered via the stage right walkway and proceeded upstage (5.5). The King entered and walked on past the entreating Falstaff, but then turned round, looked back at his old friend and denounced him. Falstaff showed no sign of upset or shock. Possibly this was recognition and he was just saving face in front of the others.

As we were left to take in the culmination of the subplot, the Page wandered onstage at the end as the lights went down.


The overall trajectory of the Hal/Falstaff relationship was determined by the relative lack of interaction between them in Part Two, so that Hal’s overt statements in Part One were heavily reinforced by subtle hints throughout both parts, preparing the way for his renunciation of Falstaff at the end of the second instalment.

Neither production made use of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s fly tower or basement lift, possibly to facilitate Barbican transfer. If this is to be the pattern for major productions, which have to fit the Barbican, then what was the point of these impressive capabilities?

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.


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.