May 14, 2011, by Peter Kirwan
Hamlet (Vital Signs) @ The White Bear Theatre Pub
I was surprised to see such a sparse audience for this, Vital Signs Theatre’s new production of Hamlet at the White Bear. While Hamlets are two-a-penny at the moment, it’s rare to get a chance to see a straight version of the first quarto (Q1). While the programme’s claims that it’s the first time the 1603 text has been staged in the UK in a decade need to be slightly qualified (the productions of both the Tiny Ninja Theater and Two Gents Productions were both based on Q1, albeit adapted), it’s a big enough event that I would have hoped the academic audience alone would pack the tiny pub theatre out.
Imogen Bond’s production was part of an MA project investigating audience reactions to subverted expectations, looking at how we respond to familiar texts made unfamiliar. Thankfully, though, this did not prevent her from taking creative decisions and presenting a fully-rounded production. Academic experiments can sometimes be a little dry on stage, but Bond served Q1 well by giving us a full, fast and entertaining Hamlet. This did mean that, at times, the unique features of Q1 were subsumed slightly to the desire to "do" Hamlet, most notably in the interest in character psychology. Where Q1 arguably features less characterisation and stricter adherence to stock figures and plot-driven narrative, one remained very aware of the interior lives of Bond’s cast, who looked for psychological determination for their actions – whether Hamlet leaning wistfully after the departing Ofelia, Horatio building a complex and nuanced friendship with the Dane, or Rossencraft and Gilderstone forming a nervy and insecure partnership. I should stress, I think these were strong and thoroughly enjoyable decisions which served the production well. As an experiment, though, I was interested in how expectations of Hamlet informed the building of rounded characters who behave in psychologically realistic and explicable ways. If a production was trying to underline the differences between Q1 and "traditional" Hamlets, then a reduced focus on character would be a much more effective approach.
While I felt, then, that in certain important aspects this wasn’t fundamentally different to several other productions of Hamlet I’ve seen, the strength of Bond’s belief in the efficacy of Q1 meant that the production stood proudly alongside other versions on its own merits, and I preferred it to the bloated National version of last year. Pacy and well-performed, the company used the intimate space to create a stripped-back production that drew its audience directly into events. Beginning in complete darkness, the opening battlements scene was lit only with handheld torches; actors’ faces gradually became visible as the torches were flung about. The Ghost (Stephen Connery-Brown) rose from the audience and stood silently in a spotlight while Horatio and the guards backed away from it, shaking.
The rough ’40s setting (tuxedos, ballgowns, long coats etc.) made for a pleasant but strained formality to the court, where the moping Hamlet (Jamie Matthewman) sat disconsolately and whined while the courtiers coughed politely. We found ourselves amid the broken family dynamics of the privileged classes, with their games and entertainments: the duel was played with one participant stationary in a circle while the other paced around the boundaries attempting to nick his opponent; The Mousetrap was played as a kind of cabaret, with the elegant Player Duchess (Pamela Banks) singing into a microphone and the dumbshow playing as a competitive dance among smoking hoods. The hint of noir influence was completed by Katie Hayes’s outstanding Horatio. With her long jacket, aloof air, unspoken loyalties and watchful eye, she could have stepped straight out of Raymond Chandler or even Casablanca, and lent the production much of the subtextual subtlety which might have detracted from the features of Q1, but worked wonderfully.
Dialogue was delivered at a rollicking pace, sometimes at the expense of clarity – I particularly struggled to make out Marcellus’s lines, perhaps ironically given the production programme’s acknowledgement of Marcellus’s centrality to the memorial reconstruction theory. Matthewman’s Hamlet handled the language extremely well, however. Speaking with a strong Yorkshire accent, he began much more slowly than the rest of the cast, signalling his melancholy while slouched on a bench next to his mother. When alone, his soliloquies were delivered while seated, leaning towards the audience and shrugging. This mournful Hamlet, however, was also a consummate actor, and sprang to vigorous life when performing his madness or manipulating groups. Tall and strong, he was an intimidating presence in these livelier scenes. When he was challenged over the whereabouts of Corambis, he grabbed and put a knife to the throat of the geeky Rossencraft (Clive Keene) and picked up the diminutive Gilderstone (Lucy Lill), spinning her around as she screamed in terror. He was a physical match for Leartes, with whom he grappled for a long time in Ofelia’s grave, and the Q1 text justified a more visceral approach to violence, including holding his sword against the King’s throat while the latter prayed.
Surrounding this dynamic and unstable Hamlet were several other characters who were defined by their relationship to him. Hayes’s Horatio spoke volumes with her body language, whether lowering her head sadly as Hamlet prepared for the duel or taking his hand in hers as he spoke of his father’s funeral. The air of slight detachment that allowed her to watch events was belied by a deep-rooted affection for Hamlet which didn’t spill over into reductive sexual terms but connected Hamlet to a constant positive emotional centre. Hamlet acted without guile in turning his head to watch Ofelia (Rebecca Pownall) in early scenes, betraying a genuine affection for her which made the nunnery scene surprisingly difficult to watch, as he shouted tearfully and pushed her away. While Pownall made little impact in these early scenes against Matthewman, she was outstanding in the mad scenes. Rattling her lines out at a tremendous pace, but with complete clarity, she showed herself to be entirely unhinged. Copying the Player Duchess from earlier, she tapped at an imaginary microphone and sang her ravings in broken snatches. She broke into wailing when she slipped into mentioning her father, and pulled wildly at her clothes and hair while the on-stage spectators stood, still and shocked. In the small space, these scenes were truly rivetting.
Light relief was provided by Maurice Byrne as a disappointing Corambis, who mugged unnecessarily to the audience in his asides and didn’t add anything significant to the production apart from a well-staged death scene, that saw him attempt to reach through the curtain to challenge Hamlet and pull the arras down on himself. Rossencraft and Gilderstone were surprisingly sober, the slightly awkward classmates of Hamlet and easily subdued by him. The production focussed most of its comic energies instead on the clowns. The Player Clown was eminently watchable in a wordless role that saw him react angrily to Hamlet’s advice to the players and need to be restrained by his fellows. The Gravedigger was also played as a formal clown, with Ofelia doubling as his young assistant. Their sequence began with some odd comic business as they exchanged a series of suitcases, before laying out a grave on the floor by draping a blanket over two benches and creating a dip in the middle. The two were amusingly irreverent, and the Gravedigger tossed skulls carelessly out of his hole. With white faces and red noses, however, they also evoked familiar images of sad clowns, and their formal cap-doffing respect for the body of Ofelia (a piece of clothing borne in by four people) was touching.
Some familiar characters drew less attention. Fortenbrasse was barely present, though Sean Turner provided a strong military presence in his brief appearances. Robert Lonergan’s King was softly-spoken and sententious, and probably suffered the most from comparison to the fuller characterisation of the more familiar texts. His villainy was in his actions rather than in his demeanour, and more often he seemed at a loss in the face of Ofelia’s madness and Hamlet’s actions. He came into his own in conversation with Leartes though, defusing the latter’s anger and quietly planning their subsequent actions. Diana Katis was a strong Gertred, and I particularly enjoyed the chance to see (for the first time ever) the scene between Gertred and Horatio, which established a strong female-female relationship and lent pathos to the Queen’s fate by emphasising her relative innocence.
The play’s closing moments made use of the cramped stage space to good effect, as Fortenbrasse stumbled over the bodies that cluttered the space and a weeping Horatio held Hamlet’s body in the centre of the stage. This tight image accentuated the speed and violence of the play in this version, a relentless and unthinking tragedy. While it may not have been as radically different to conventional Hamlets as I would have hoped, Bond and her cast pulled together a coherent and consistently interesting production that made a strong case for the efficacy of the play even without the familiar touchstones.