By unofficial consensus, Hamlet is theworld’s most famous play. Listening to it is like reading Bartlett’s: It seems to be made up of not so much lines as quotations. This is a problem for the actor playing the Dane: how to make the familiar sound fresh without perverting the sense or incurring charges of preciosity. Especially since jaded spectators go less for Hamlet than for the Hamlet.
What a part! Every actor’s (including most comedians’) dream or nightmare; has there ever been a great performer, male or even female, who hasn’t played it or tried everything to get it? For Hamlet is (to quote Humbert Wolfe in another context) “to each the face of his desire.” Oh, to be so brave, noble, eloquent, intellectual, impassioned, romantic, torn, and heroically dead! As a result, this very long play, almost always cut, is usually reconceived and fiddled with by its Nero-ish director while Rome or reason burns.
In the visiting Royal Shakespeare Company modern-dress Hamlet, as directed by Matthew Warchus of Art fame, we start with Hamlet’s scattering his father’s ashes while behind him, on a screen spanning the entire stage, are home movies of the child Hamlet gamboling in the snow with his beloved daddy. We gather that he had a happy childhood. But why must the snows of yesteryear be rerun at play’s end? Is redundancy the soul of wit?
Next comes a seeming nightclub scene – actually Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding reception at Elsinore. Numerous dining tables dot the great hall as guests dance to Gary Yershon’s featherweight music. Several young women seem candidates for Ophelia; too bad that the one who turns out to be she (Derbhle Crotty) is a largish, raw-boned, charmless actress, interesting in name only, and nearly inaudible. We see Alex Jennings, the Hamlet, slinking around while Claudius (Paul Freeman), small and snarling, rattles off his speeches fiercely but indistinctly. A tiny girl is being waltzed around by Ophelia while a bespectacled little nerd (Colin Hurley), who’ll turn out to be Horatio, informs the Prince that his father’s ghost has been sighted by Marcellus and Barnardo. And who the hell are they, since the castle-platform scene has been cut? Pronto, stage left, a gent in impeccable evening attire, his face spotlit, appears.
The Ghost (Edward Petherbridge) leads Hamlet to what must be the castle chapel, judging by a huge projected rose window that comes and goes at will. The set’s main solid element is a large, square black column, thick enough to be Ophelia’s chamber, among other things. Equally important is the trapdoor through which a number of scenic features ascend, e.g., Polonius’s office, complete with filing cabinets. But for a while we are in what seems to be the nightclub’s inner sanctum, the place where in old B movies dirty deeds were hatched. More and more, Hamlet becomes the Leslie Howard figure who’ll set things right by shooting up the Stork Club. The Queen (welcome back, Susannah York, under whatever auspices) sports a Mary Astor coiffure that any movie buff recognizes as boding no good.
Jennings’s Hamlet is a smart-ass. Smart Alex is gifted and handsome but plays here a moping wise guy, a comic – or tragic – cutup, a fellow of funny hats and accents, with a pistol in his brown paper bag. Watching The Mousetrap, he wears whiteface and a loud red ringmaster’s jacket; earlier, he receives the players crowded into a garret full of old trunks, perhaps befitting a truncated production. He speaks individual lines fittingly but rarely conveys any feeling. David Ryall is an acceptable Polonius, William Houston a tolerable Laertes. Petherbridge comes into his own as the Player King, and, as the Gravedigger, Alan David is amusing enough.
But what absurdities in the staging! The play-within-the-play is done in silhouette behind a sheet for no good reason, and watched by only the main characters (no court!), including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in periwig and lackey’s garb, which they shed as casually as they donned it. And would people confuse which of them is which if one of them is played by a black actor? Fortinbras – and, with him, Hamlet’s great “How all occasions” soliloquy – are cut, but Ophelia’s narrative of how Hamlet crazily courted her is acted out in grotesque supererogation. The dead Ophelia, dumped out of her coffin for burial, is pulled out of her grave and waved about by contending brother and lover. And much more. Or less.
It makes one wonder. Why is the musical world so much smarter than the theatrical? No one messes around with a Beethoven symphony or Chopin concerto the way Hamlet keeps being mercilessly improved. To be sure, it exists in three texts, allowing the director some leeway; but must the liberties taken be worse than what befalls an orphan in a Dickens novel? A fine account of what has been perpetrated on Hamlet between 1922 and 1987 can be found in the British drama critic J. C. Trewin’s Five and Eighty Hamlets. Reading this short and savvy book is more rewarding than watching most productions – certainly than this one.