Sunday, August 10, 2008

Who's there?

(picture credit: RSC/Ellie Kurtz)

Hamlet, that's who.

Sorry, couldn't resist fairly feeble joke. Last weekend N and I were in Stratford to see "Hamlet" at the RSC, with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius. The tickets of the year, apparently, but not even the possibility of £500 on ebay was going to prise them out of our hot little hands.

[just before we proceed - spoiler alert - if you don't want to know any details about the production, stop reading now]

It's the measure of a good production, I think, that you're still thinking about it days and possibly weeks later. One reason I haven't blogged a review until now is because I've been thinking about the play all week, and am still reflecting on it. It's a fabulous production, Shakespeare just as I like it - modern dress, bare stage. There are really only two pieces of stage furniture - thrones on a pedestal and a carpet for the players' show, and some gilt furniture for Gertrude's bedroom (was the tackiness deliberate? I like to think so). The stage is almost a mirror, and the backdrop is a mirror which is both one and two way, depending on the scene, and the sense of being overlooked and overheard pervades the play. I loved the opening scene, the theatre entirely dark until the officers of the watch arrived with hand held torches pointing at the floor, which, because it was reflective, served to light their faces, and at times the audience. In this near darkness broken only by narrow shafts of light arrives the ghost of Old Hamlet, and it has to be one of the most chilling ghosts ever.

Patrick Stewart, as both Claudius and Ghost, was just awe inspiring. He makes Shakespeare sound so natural that it seems almost effortless. With his little looks and slight glances, his body language alone suggests that this is a man who is politician through and through, and he is not going to let anyone stand in his way, certainly not his capricious and moody problematic nephew. And up against him, David Tennant as Hamlet more than held his own. He seemed physically to inhabit the role, capering about the stage barefoot in jeans and T-shirt when in the grip of his madness (if, indeed, he is ever mad - this was a Hamlet where I completely believed that he put his antic disposition on), but also completely capturing the man's despair. The moment early on where he collapses to the ground, clutching his head and crying when he's alone after the rest of the court have left to celebrate his mother's o'er hasty marriage, is incredibly moving.

There were one or two things about that production that I didn't like - the placing of the interval is odd, coming half way through a speech, and I didn't like the ending. For Fortinbras to appear and not say anything seems peculiar - after all, he's mentioned several times but prior to the end is only on stage for a tiny moment when he and his captain talk, so for anyone who didn't know the play, I could imagine them thinking "who's that, then?" at the end, because he'd only been on stage for a "blink and you miss him" moment up until then. I also really like his speech which closes the play, and my feeling is that we don't really know what we've lost by Hamlet's death until we hear Fortinbras say "Let four captains bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage; for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royally". And this is the real measure of how an actor plays Hamlet - do we believe, at the end, that he could have been a king? And as far as David Tennant's Hamlet is concerned, yes. He would have proved most royally.

I was very happy that Greg Doran kept "How all occasions do inform against me" which is my favourite speech, but isn't always included in the play because it isn't in the First Folio. For me, this is the speech where Hamlet finally gets himself to an answer - he's been contemplating for a long time, but now he asks himself why yet he lives to say this thing's to do, when he has means and cause to do it - and he makes the decision to act. I love that speech, and I loved how David Tennant did it. His was a "talking to myself" approach to the soliloquies rather than a "quizzing the audience" approach, and for "How all occasions..." it really worked.

We saw the play in preview before press night, so things may well change as time goes on. Reviews this week seemed to be pretty good, with Michael Billington giving it four stars, an assessment I'd agree with. Often I find I like the stuff that Billington likes, and hate the stuff that Lyn Gardner likes. Not always, but it's a general indicator for me. So I was very happy that Mr Billington gave this Hamlet four stars. I'd say, out of the 9 or 10 productions of Hamlet I've seen in the last few years, this one, and David Tennant in particular, is now equal first.

And best of all, I get to see it again in October.


Blogger Viv said...

Sounds wonderful!

Can't wait to see it too!!! :)

3:30 am  
Blogger Stacie said...

Ditto what viv said!

4:17 pm  
Blogger Amanda said...

Equal first with which other? SRB or SW or...

5:56 pm  
Blogger Sal said...

Equal first with SW. SRB follows close behind. Wouldn't really want to put most of the rest in rank order, except for the worst one.

9:46 pm  

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