October 27, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Prince of Denmark (National) @ The Cottesloe Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/59868/productions/discover-prince-of-denmark.html

As a prelude to the afternoon’s Hamlet in the Olivier, I managed to catch one of the final performances of Michael Lesslie’s new play Prince of Denmark, part of the NT’s "discover:" programme. Aimed at teenagers, the production’s purpose was to provide a bridge for young people coming to the play for the first time. Yet it achieved a level of sophistication and insight that far surpassed its modest run and claims for itself, proving just what Youth Shakespeare is capable of.

This "prequel", set ten years before Hamlet, covered a day in the lives of the adolescent Danes that acted as a significant turning point in their lives, acting implicitly to determine their characters as encountered in Shakespeare’s play. The main character, fascinatingly, was arguably Laertes, impressively realised by Chris Levens. His servant Reynaldo brought him intelligence of Hamlet and Ophelia’s youthful flirtation and plans to meet. Hamlet, having incurred his father’s wrath by bursting out against Denmark’s warmongering, was under close watch, but engaged a visiting player (the Player King of Hamlet) to exchange clothes with him in order to keep his rendezvous. Laertes engaged Osric, a foppish suitor to Ophelia, to murder the "player", but was thwarted by the revelation of Hamlet’s true identity. A fencing duel between Laertes and Hamlet over the latter’s right to woo Ophelia was fought and lost by Hamlet; but, asserting his rights as Prince, Hamlet then arrested Laertes and resolved to obey his father’s command to leave for Wittenberg, asking Ophelia to wait for him.

The surprisingly involved plot thus integrated a number of different recollective and anticipatory strategies to introduce young people to Hamlet. The plot self-consciously foreshadowed many future events, including a full-scale enactment by the Players of the murder of Priam; the fencing match (which a cowering Osric refereed, howling "I don’t know!" after a challenge); Ophelia musing on the "drowned" reflection of herself in the brook; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s betrayal of Hamlet following his escape; and Laertes’s possessive treatment of his own sister. More sophisticated hints trickled in from reports of the unseen adult action. The production opened to the clanging and hissing of Denmark’s armoury as they prepared for war, and Hamlet reported on the subjugation of Norway and the imminent threat against England, giving a surprising amount of useful attention to the political context. Ophelia’s report of Gertrude, naked and washing herself guiltily in the brook, determined the insidiousness of the plot against Old Hamlet; and, in watching Pyrrhus’s rage, Hamlet saw a foreshadowing of his own future assumption of responsibility, even if he couldn’t yet articulate it.

The adoption of other Shakespearean plot devices in order to couch Prince of Denmark within an introductory framework was also extremely well-handled, the most obvious use being made of Othello in the Iago/Roderigo relationship between Laertes and Abubakar Salim’s entertainingly cowardly Osric. On one level it offered a typically didactic message about not allowing oneself to be swayed by influence; but on a far more sophisticated level, it opened up a complexity in Laertes’s character that read into his later actions a basic emotional insecurity. Almost screaming at Hamlet that "I love her more", his troubled relationship with his sister manifested itself in his exertion of control over her; warning her away from Hamlet while at the same time treating her sexuality as a commodity. He was obsessed with social advancement and the precarious position of his father (newly appointed as Claudius’s servant) and, despite his age, was already attempting to play the games of court politics.

Against this tricky intersection of political, social and sexual confusion, Calum Finlay’s Hamlet raised similarly significant questions over power, honour and rule. His relationship with his father was seemingly irrevocably broken, and Hamlet’s proto-pacifist arguments against the futility of war and the breakdown of European political relations were interspersed with wails about his father’s preference for conquest over time with his son. In such treatments as this, Lesslie’s text really showed its muscle: no easy characterisations here, but selfish and hormonal characters who had not yet learned to distinguish their public and private concerns. The pragmatic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Oliver Yellop and Adrian Chisholm, playing up both the comedy and the insidiousness of the characters) demanded he consider conquest as an extension of honour and a means to immediate gain; Hamlet countered with worries over the problems being stored up for the future in enemies such as Young Fortinbras.

Making up the central trio was Eve Ponsonby as Ophelia. The script displayed more weaknesses in the writing of its sole female character: Ophelia’s complaints about what she was allowed to do as "a girl", and how being "a girl" gave her a different insight lacked the sophistication granted the male characters. Her arc remained a valid and useful one though, the negotiation of the extent of her control over her own life. She reacted particularly aggressively to Laertes’s reminders that she was only a lady-in-waiting, on which she played as she chafed at "waiting" for life to happen. Ponsonby’s performance brought out the character’s less innocent side, however, particularly in an uncomfortable flirtation with James Williams’s Reynaldo – a sly piece of work and Laertes’s spy – as she promised him that she could repay his betrayal of Laertes’s confidence in "feminine ways". Her directness, stemming from the boredom, also manifested itself as she cut through Hamlet’s complaints that she was all he wanted with a "Take me, then".

The lively ensemble clattered around the stage, creating a shadowy impression of a court environment much bigger than, and often inaccessible to, the young people. An early fencing school mixed playfulness – including one acrobatic cast member somersaulting from an upper level onto the traverse platform of the stage – with veiled danger, as one participant got carried away and struck another, at which point the fencers turned on him. The reappearance of the ensemble as the players created a startlingly physical evocation of the Trojan story, with Priam flailing a sword wildly at the encroaching hordes even as Pyrrhus strode in slow motion towards him. The use of the speech as recited in Shakespeare here also served to demonstrate the effectiveness of Lesslie’s central writing conceit. The lines were written in a faux-Shakespearean prose, designed to evoke the patterns and formality of verse speaking but in the simpler mouths of youths who had not yet developed their full rhetorical skill. What sounds deeply problematic actually served the purpose surprisingly well: rather than throwing in ‘forsooths’ and ‘verilies’ for an Elizabethan effect, more straightforward language was employed in a Shakespearean structure. Thus, Hamlet continued to ruminate longwindedly and rhetorically on questions of honour, but with a more accessible vocabulary and linear syntax that allowed the young audience to keep up with his trains of thought. That it segued neatly into the use of actual Shakespearean verse was testament to Lesslie’s skill. It’s an interesting conceit, and not one that I’m convinced would always work, but here it served the purpose of providing a half-step for children to "tune in" to Shakespearean verse that I thought was hugely effective.

The climax of the play, however, offered the most fascinating moments of the production. Questions of honour and love became confused, as Laertes demanded satisfaction and Ophelia threw herself between him and Hamlet. Insisting on his need to prove himself as a man, rather than a prince, Hamlet agreed to the duel, and the two men both staved off Marcellus as he tried to intervene. Laertes won all three points, however, finishing by holding up his foil to Hamlet’s throat. Released, Laertes demanded confirmation of his vow – to leave off wooing Ophelia. Hamlet, however, refused and ordered Laertes’s arrest. As Laertes struggled, Hamlet announced that contracts were to be kept between equals, but that he was Prince of Denmark, above Laertes and therefore above the vow. This final image – Laertes howling against injustice, Hamlet straightening himself up in acceptance of his status and asking Ophelia to wait for him – offered a troubling and unresolved ending to the play, which asked us to share a level of sympathy with Laertes after his overt villainy, and question Hamlet’s own appropriation of absolutist powers.

The play itself, however, closed with Ophelia and Horatio looking ominously towards the future. Joseph Sarrington Smith’s Horatio, a dishevelled and bookish scholar, set himself above and apart from the political concerns of the court, to the particular disdain of the eminently pragmatic Reynaldo. The beginnings of Hamlet’s and Horatio’s friendship were seen as Hamlet reacted positively to the lack of subservience the humble, but irreverent, Horatio showed him. With Horatio imagined as a Jaques-type figure, commenting ironically on the political machinations going on around him, a further relevant Shakespearean resonance was set up that positively engaged the audience with the unspoken aspects of Hamlet.

I was surprised, watching Hamlet in the main house later in the day, how much Prince of Denmark stayed with me, making me attentive to mentions of e.g. England as a Danish tributary that I hadn’t considered important before. That the characters of Prince of Denmark weren’t always entirely consistent with conventional presentations of their older selves was immaterial – this acted as the perfect introduction to the play, not only in providing motives and earlier developments that extended rather than limited meaning, but in exploring the more complicated political background too often lost on audiences. It’d be fascinating to see this paired with the RSC’s current, and similarly unpatronising, YP Hamlet, and it’s a shame the run was so short. A perfect demonstration of what can be created for kids when a theatre properly invests.

Posted in Theatre review