Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Even for a theatre-lover, seeing in the programme that you have three and half hours' worth of tragedy to sit through can be a slightly daunting prospect, especially if, like me, the last tragedy you saw was a particularly grisly and downright difficult production of Edward Bond's Lear. But when you're in the hands of such a confident production, of such a beautifully written play, and of such an engaging, mad, hilarious Hamlet, you should believe me when I say that three and a half hours can fly by in a moment.
I've never seen or studied Hamlet, (although I knew the storyline - thanks Reduced Shakespeare Company! - and the key speeches, like all good English students) and so I was fully expecting to have to listen very carefully to follow the thread of conversations and soliloquies. In fact, Gregory Doran's production is a breeze to watch and follow, easy on the ear as well as the eye. Much of this is down to the fact that this version of Shakespeare's great tragedy is not afraid to draw out humour from every available source. And why not, when you have a master of comic timing as your lead?
David Tennant's Hamlet, I have no doubt whatsoever, will be remembered as the wittiest, silliest, and most intelligent in years. When we first meet Hamlet, as his mother and uncle celebrate their marriage, he is small, neat, and quiet; stood in the corner of the stage, an audience who is generally here to see him and him alone barely notice him. This is a genuinely depressed man who has been emotionally drained white by his father's death and the perceived treachery of his mother. When he starts his first speech ("Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew"), he is balled up on the stage, howling with sorrow, but sighing the words. He is not angry here, he is just grieving, and broken.
The anger comes when the Ghost of his father (Patrick Stewart, who also plays Claudius) tells him of his murder by his brother's hand. Suddenly, Hamlet is alive again. He jokes with Horatio and the guards, bounds around the stage, animated by the adrenaline caused by fury and a newfound mission. From this point on, we get the impression that this Hamlet is much closer to the one who hung around with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at university than the shadow of a man we met at the start of the play. With an added, mad, 10%, of course. He is cleverer than everyone else in the court put together, funnier too, and more agile in both body and mind. Rather than his madness being tragic, it is here a release for him, and his genius mind flows out, uncensored by etiquette or regulation.
Tennant's quick and witty Hamlet has clearly been taken as a keystone of the production, as humour can be found everywhere. Polonius, for example, far from a wise if doddery old sage, is absolutely a comedy character. His whole demeanour, from the ruffled hair to the teacher-ly cardigan he wears, is one of an academic, whose voice can't quite keep up with his intellect. His speeches trail off into silence, as he tries to unpick his arguments and advice which really did make sense in his head. Hamlet loves debating with Polonius because he can mimic him - and outwit him. When Polonius announces "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't", he delivers the line as if impressed with a particularly gifted student. Which, of course, in another life, is exactly what Hamlet should have been.
This tragedy is not the fall of Hamlet - his progression is too engaging, too active, too much fun to be a fall - but of the collateral damage caused by his own behaviour, and that of his uncle. It is Gertrude's death which is sad, and Ophelia's; Hamlet was on a destructive path from the moment he found out that Claudius had killed his father, but they didn't need to die. Ophelia (Mariah Gale), in particular, is where the real tragedy lies in this production. Her descent into madness is like a horrible parody of Hamlet's - she too bounds around the stage, singing and waving her arms in the air, but this is in no way a release. It's just disturbing and sad.
Claudius, in this production, is the anti-Hamlet. Dull, smarmy, and above all unnervingly calm at all times, he does what he has to out of a desire to cover his tracks. He doesn't hate Hamlet so much as see him as a nuisance, and whether he is killed or sent to England makes very little difference to him. You think that perhaps he really does love Gertrude, but when she drinks from the poisoned cup, he says "it is too late" with little more than a shrug.
It was interesting, however, that Doran decided to keep in the secondary storyline concerning Denmark's constant battles with Norway in his production. It seemed, at first, to have little bearing on the main plot, but by the end we found that maybe the point was being made that while Claudius's coldness was a failing in familial relations, it was exactly what was needed in international relations. We hear that before Claudius became king, Norway was eating away at Denmark's borders, but Claudius sends a pair of diplomats to Prince Fortinbrass and the dispute is settled quickly. It is only when Claudius is dead that Fortinbrass arrives at the palace - and all the courtiers bow to him, quickly understanding where power now lies. Perhaps Claudius is a very bad man, but a very good king.
The set and lighting were impressive and creatively used, too. Great mirrors at the back of the stage are shattered when the first, and most critical death occurs - that of Polonius, which of course drives Ophelia to madness and suicide and in turn Laertes to murder. And right at the beginning, the mirror-like flooring is used to bounce the guards' beams of light onto each other's faces.
But really, this is a production which showcases some outstanding performances. Gale's Ophelia is heart-breaking, Penny Downie's Gertrude is agonisingly torn apart by conflicting loyalties, and Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius is a wonderful comic turn. And Tennant's Hamlet is everything we would expect - energetic, big hair, clever, messy, occasionally bound with fear and anger, and above all very, very funny. Doran's Hamlet is a tragedy you watch with a smile on your face, and that's absolutely no bad thing.