Poster for Hamlet, featuring a man in a hoodie sitting on a throne under a spotlight

July 25, 2021, by Peter Kirwan

Hamlet @ Theatre Royal Windsor

A burst of applause unusual in UK theatres greeeted the entrance of the cast of Hamlet, who walked onstage in a line and stood facing the audience in what looked like a premature curtain call. Perhaps the applause was conservative (this was Windsor, after all), a throwback to an earlier time when the arrival of a celebrity actor on a stage was considered reason enough to show approval. Or perhaps this was a more collectively spontaneous acknowledgement of the thrill of being back in an indoor theatre, as part of a full house, with a large cast of actors doing a full theatrical production. Either way, the unusual ovation spoke to the sense of occasion. The production itself, unfortunately, was not up to it.

The production opened earlier this week in strained circumstances, following the departure of Steven Berkoff (who was replaced at last minute by Frances Barber as Polonius) and perhaps also of Emmanuella Cole, who remains credited as Laertes but, at this performance at least, was still being covered by Ashley D Gayle. Rumours of tensions among the production team have been lapped up by the UK press this week. Long before this, though, the production has excited conversation for its ‘age, colour and gender-blind‘ approach, drawing criticism both from those who would prefer to see more conservative casting choices and from those who point out that feigning indifference to race, gender and age (as opposed to a more nuanced approach to working with the semiotics of actors’ bodies) more often leads to the reification of entrenched privileges and prejudices.

The production’s casting choices, explicitly disclaiming any coherent artistic principle, were unsurprisingly a mess, and led precisely to the kinds of issue that, for instance, the contributors to Colorblind Shakespeare warn against. In the programme, Mathias says ‘A woman is a man an old man is a young man the colour of my skin is irrelevant’ (sic), but it is surely only a white man who can say – who can think – that the colour of his skin is irrelevant. In a production with a predominantely white cast, and most of the actors of colour relegated to smaller roles, this kind of principle led to the kind of unconscious normalisation of whiteness that a more coherent strategy towards casting should be designed to militate against. Particularly unfortunate was the moment when Lucianus, played by Gayle – at that point, the only Black actor onstage – announced ‘Thoughts, black. Hands’ – he looked at his own black hands – ‘apt’. The alignment of blackness and evil, performed for the benefit of the mostly white bodies surrounding him, was left uninterrogated.

The director’s note dances around the question of why he chose to do Hamlet, suggesting that the idea of casting unconventionally was in itself the idea: ‘Perhaps Hamlet at Theatre Royal Windsor with its iconoclastic attitudes will help us understand tehatre in this new age’. The ‘perhaps’ is the word that jumps out in retrospect for its passivity, implying that, cast non-traditionally, perhaps Hamlet itself will do the work of making meaning. What emerged from this ‘experimental’ approach was, perhaps inevitably, a production full of choices that felt like accidents.

Central to the production’s confusion was the set. Lee Newby’s set featured a gantry halfway up the stage, bisecting it horizontally, with a staircase down to the centre. The gantry itself had extensions leading up and downstage, creating a large upper level. On the stage itself, additional seating for about fifty on-stage audience members removed about two thirds of the playing space. The net result was a surprisingly constrained playing space that had no spatial logic. Despite the intimate proximity of the on-stage audience to the cast, almost no use was made of this proximity, and indeed the on-stage audience were often left craning their necks to try and see the action on the balcony. The constrained stage space defined only by a metal staircase leading up from it felt like a non-descript basement, and even Claudius (Jonathan Hyde) as king had no stable position within it. Actors seemed to simply emerge from wherever, group themselves in random bits of the stage, and then leave in whatever direction they saw fit.

A similarly fuzzy approach was applied to the textual arrangement. Despite the much-trumpeted casting of Francesca Annis as the Ghost, the whole of the first scene was cut, and the Ghost was only evoked as a one-line voice-over (pre-recorded, by the sound of it) during Hamlet’s (Ian McKellen) confrontation with Gertrude (Jenny Seagrove); left with only the confrontation with Hamlet, the Ghost had little opportunity to make an impression, and with the two actors stood for the entirety of their conversation at different ends of the overhead gantry, the scene was disappointingly static and anticlimactic. The lack of stage time made it difficult for Annis’s Ghost to make an impression, but also left it unclear quite what impact the apparition was understood to have had on Hamlet himself. The voiceover in the closet scene even seemed to pull towards the possibility that this Hamlet was hearing things. The Ghost’s most impressive moment was the arrival via a lift through the trapdoor; at the end of the first half, as Hamlet took his revenge upon himself, he exited via the same route, in a choice that looked cool but made no logical or thematic sense.

The production began instead with the aftermath of the funeral, with cast members holding up umbrellas and McKellen wearing black top hat, shades and an inscrutable expression. The main affordance of having McKellen play Hamlet was to position the character as an unusually stable and intimidating presence, realised in the players bowing and courtseying to him, the absolute deference of Horatio and Marcellus, and in the relatively reverential treatment he was afforded by even more noble characters. This was Hamlet as crown prince: dignified, repressed, and measured. The fragmenting of McKellen’s part contributed to the sense that he was taking time to think at length; his first soliloquy was broken after the first few lines, and then he arrived anew in his own space to get onto an exercise bike as he resumed his thinking with ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’. Later, ‘To be or not to be’ was played as a stand-alone set-piece, delivered to Horatio (Ben Allen) as the latter prepared to shave Hamlet’s head. For all that we saw this Hamlet working out in the gym to prove his vigour, the unique angle here was Hamlet’s ponderousness.

Hamlet’s violence was mitigated, somewhat, by this treatment. During the nunnery scene, Alis Wyn Davies’s Ophelia presented Hamlet with his past love letters, and Hamlet responded by castigating her from a difference, rather than engaging in the more physically violent response this scene often adds. Instead, the production added a moment of sexual assault on Rosencrantz (Lee Knight) as, in the aftermath of ‘The Mousetrap’, Rosencrantz pleaded with Hamlet to remember the love he once bore him, and Hamlet responded by grabbing his crotch. With Gertrude Hamlet showed more violence, physically restraining Gertrude as she shouted out. Oddly, though, the action then slowed down for Polonius’s murder. Barber let out a very brief yelp from behind a rack of costumes, but then cowered in silence while Hamlet slowly and thoughtfully moved towards the arras, only to then suddenly plunge his weapon through the clothes.

While McKellen gave some lovely line readings, particularly of the soliloquies (‘How all occasions’, delivered from the gantry directly out to the audience, was a highlight), I struggled to discern a coherent strategy for this Hamlet, partly because the slow deliberation of much of the delivery seemed to jar with choices that presented him as more action-oriented (and in this vein, it was interesting that some Q1 lines were used, including the replacement of ‘rogue and peasant slave’ with ‘dunghill slave’). Hamlet’s appearance in dishevelled clothes during his antic disposition was an effective contrast to his soberly dressed appearance earlier, and McKellen was at his best when offering his irreverent ripostes to Polonius and Claudius. This was juxtaposed with moments of impulsive sincerity, especially when paired with Gayle as Laertes, whose dynamic energy was a welcome infusion in the second act. Particularly as the two fought over Ophelia’s corpse, McKellen for the first time captured the sense of a Hamlet who might not be in complete control of his actions. But I remained unclear throughout what actually drove this Hamlet, with the Ghost so diminished, other key lines cut or reduced (the whole dialogue with Guildenstern about the flute was gone, which had the secondary effect of giving the great Asif Khan very little to do), and the world of the court so poorly defined.

Indeed, it felt like the cast were mostly doing their own thing. Jonathan Hyde gave a great performance as a Claudius working consistently and rigorously to consolidate his power while also – especially in the standout praying scene – wrestling with his own guilt. But his performance felt like it was taking place in a vacuum, without the spiritual and human structures of the court to play off, and it was telling that it was in soliloquy where he really came into focus. Seagrove struggled to make much independent impression as a Scandinavian-accented (why just her?) Gertrude in the first half, trapped in a trophy wife position adjunct to Claudius. The more interesting choices came in between her speeches, first as she chose to follow Ophelia rather than Claudius offstage after the nunnery scene, and then later as – after Hamlet tore off her wig during the closet scene – she threw the wig down herself rather than replacing it, claiming an independent identity more of her own. During the final scene, Gertrude appeared to be drunk even before the fencing match started, staggering uneasily towards her throne, a choice which could have worked but wasn’t sufficiently prepared for.

Ophelia, too, was doing her own thing, more so than most. Ophelia was seen early on writing a song on acoustic guitar, ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’; when the lyrics of the song were read back to her later, she reacted as if she had been stung. With long red hair and fussy layers constantly slipping off her shoulders, the production worked hard to make her a kind of bohemian artist, in order that it could make her mad scenes a musical set-piece. The problem was that it rendered the mad scenes incomprehensible; while Davies sung and played beautifully as she switched between an angry rock song and more broken laments during her grief, the precision of the songs made her madness look so carefully planned and articulated that it didn’t play as madness at all. And whatever she was aiming for contrasted poorly with Barber’s comically melodramatic Polonius. With Allen playing Horatio as unusually dour and passive, it was really left to Gayle to create focus and narrative drive as Laertes. As soon as Gayle returned to court, all of the energies of the production changed: as simple an act as striding across the stage to directly confront actors made an enormous difference in creating a sense of urgency and danger.

The much better work of the production was done by the supporting cast. Llinos Daniel was not only a great harp player during the Players’ scenes, but was one of the most genuinely entertaining Gravediggers I’ve seen, her irreverent line delivery and comic wisdom justifying the retention of the oft-cut exchange between the First and Second Gravediggers. ‘The Mousetrap’ was beautifully realised, with Alison Halstead doing some lovely physical work as the Player Queen in an extended dumbshow, and the simple stylised sequence was a highlight (though it was a shame that the dumbshow and the spoken playlet matched each other so closely, rather than using the form to do something more inventive). A simple physical sequence of the players setting up for ‘The Mousetrap’ was entirely unnecessary but one of the most fun bits of the production as they threw cushions to one another and exchanged seats. And Missy Malek made a late impression as an oily, polite Osric.

The haphazard final scene drew everything to a deeply unsatisfying conclusion. More bizarre blocking saw Claudius and Gertrude sat downstage in thrones in a corner where they were partially blocked from view as they oversaw the final fight and then died in their chairs. The fencing match was laboriously prepared for, but each exchange was over almost as soon as it began. And the production fell into the trap that so many Hamlets do of filling the stage with people who just stand around and watch politely while their royal family slaughters one another. With Fortinbras cut, the production had nowhere to go for its final moments other than mourning Hamlet, ending with Horatio looking up to heaven and wishing angels to sing Hamlet to his rest. It was a call answered immediately by the audience with a standing ovation. But the enthusiasm for this production – which has had to do an extraordinary amount of work to get to this stage – sat uncomfortably with me. Other than a recurrent motif to do with hair – Hamlet having his head partially shaved to play mad, Ophelia shaving her head in her genuine madness, Gertrude refusing her wig, Horatio untying his man bun – there was little tying this together as a coherent Hamlet. The production’s main idea had seemed to be to co-opt the language of political calls for casting diversity as an aesthetic experiment, but this experiment then took the place of meaningful interpretive engagement, creating something that ultimately reinforced quite conservative ideas about both the play and theatre itself.

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