On Friday 27 February - the others being at a church ladies' outing to Zizzi's - I went to The Cockpit Theatre near Marylebone to see a production of Hamlet by The English Repertory Theatre.
I'd seen earlier that it was on, but the tickets were £30, which I wasn't prepared to spend on a fringe production in a theatre I hadn't heard of before. But then a day or two earlier - I can't remember if I was specifically looking at it again, or just for something for Friday evening, as I had a potential night out - I saw a tweet with an offer code for £10 tickets, so I went for it at that price.
I think they made two big mistakes in their promotion of the play, and the first was definitely setting it at that price. They were ill-advised to so do, because not many would take a punt on a fringe Hamlet at that price, even such a regular Hamlet-goer as myself. On the night I went - a Friday night - there were between fifteen and twenty-five in the audience, in an in-the-round space that looked like it would seat a couple of hundred. I wonder how many of the others paid £30. I think they'd have sold a lot more tickets at full price if that full price had been £15 or £20.
The other was to make such a big deal about this being the youngest female Hamlet ever in a professional production (they didn't always remember to say the professional bit in the places I saw it - including in the programme). This made it sound a bit gimmicky and desperate, and, worse, that it was the key selling point of the production, as opposed to anything else the production had to offer.
It was not the worst Hamlet I've ever seen, and in fact it wasn't actively bad, it was just unremarkable, and certainly in the lower third of productions I've seen.
And I have actually seen a female Hamlet who I remember as seeming younger than this one - or at least a similar age - and who was very much better, in a much better all-female production at the White Bear. In fact, here's what I wrote about it. That Hamlet - Sian Roberts-Grace - I see was still a student, so certainly younger.
I think they were still playing Hamlet as male, rather than female; Rosencrantz/Guildenstern, condensed into one character, was also a female actor. Apart from a woman playing Hamlet, the main big idea of the production was emphasising the younger generation's youth (a primary feature of the Ben Wishaw Old Vic production, of course, though what was more striking there was actually therefore the youth of their parents, in particular Gertrude). They pushed it even younger, though, for no good reason, so that instead of university age they were school age; the permanent set was what started as the schoolroom, where Horatio was the teacher/tutor to Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes and Ros/Guild, all in school ties. It was quite cut, with a small cast without doubling (the five mentioned, plus Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius). There was no Ghost (instead a letter to Hamlet from his father), no Norway or England or graveyard (a skeleton in the classroom, with two fencing swords inserted, sufficed). Often people stayed on the stage, very close to and appearing to watch, other scenes and soliloquys, and it wasn't clear whether the characters were indeed meant to be seeing/hearing those speeches/exchanges.
It would be a poor Hamlet indeed, however, which had nothing to interesting to offer or reflect on. Hamlet certainly had the petulance of a teenager sometimes, as did the other 'schoolchildren', but the moving down in age didn't work for much else of the text, staging and relationships. Horatio in particular had a quite thankless and pointless task of delivering - at start and end - dialogue as if being delivered by a teacher 'putting it on'. Hamlet started pretty full-on sarky, angry and aggressive, which I felt left her nowhere else to go but to remain so throughout, which lacked nuance and got a bit tedious.
Ros/Guild had an approach which I'm not sure I've seen completely, where she was in no way afraid of or intimidated by or felt inferior to Hamlet, but gave as good as she got, and that was interesting. (In another production, I don't remember which, at the end of the 'play upon this pipe' scene in which Hamlet gets stuck into R/G, the other one - G/R - takes the pipe, in front of Hamlet, and plays upon it very well, making his own point.) Although I thought it was a bit too 'naughty schoolgirl' at first, it ended up my favourite performance of the evening. She was Charlotte Ellen; she was billed as Rosencrantz.
Similarly I don't remember - though I surely must have, surely - ever seeing Laertes, when he sees the mad Ophelia, taking his beloved sister in his arms, as you instantly realise surely every loving brother would do. Yet I only ever remember seeing him watching her from a distance.
Those were the two most interesting things. Hamlet seemed to see perfectly well that it was Polonius he was stabbing, but if that was the case then I'm not sure what the point of that was.
It was very much one of those cut-down versions that I think would have been very hard to follow if you weren't already familiar with the play; not one for first-timers.
I guess a measure of how good I thought it was, was that after I'd seen it I didn't even tweet info on the £10 offer as making it worth going.
This is the blurb about the production on the ERT's own website:
'Horatio teaches Modern History to four privileged teenagers in Elsinore; Laertes, his sister Ophelia, who is in love with Hamlet, Hamlet himself and his slippery friend, Rosencrantz. Life could not be worse for Hamlet. He is late for class. His father has been murdered by his uncle and his mother has married him. Everyone knows of course, including Hamlet who holds the proof in a letter written to him by his dying father. Never paralysed by the task ahead, Hamlet rages against the impossibility of his predicament with matters getting completely out of hand and everyone dying a very nasty death.
'Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most iconic work. Completed in 1601 and now brought refreshingly up to date, the play explodes with modern ideas and is the ultimate story of loyalty, love, betrayal, murder and madness. In this stripped-back, fresh and fast-paced version, emerging actress Rachel Waring, at the age of 26, the youngest women ever to play the eponymous Prince, creates a deliciously ferocious and devious protagonist delivering some of the greatest soliloquies in the English language.
'With a running time of just one and hour forty minutes, none of the elements are missed in this hugely entertaining, fast paced black comedy that ends in utter tragedy. Following their sell-out season at Oxford Castle, English Rep come to London with this unique and critically acclaimed production of Shakespeare's tragedy.'
- Forgetting again to say 'professional' there in their 'youngest woman' line.
Some links, mainly reviews (from first couple of pages of results, mostly blogs, some new to me). English Repertory Theatre. The Cockpit Theatre (which turned out to be part of City of Westminster College; a nice space, with a nice lobby bar area). Everything Theatre. London City Nights. Rev Stan's blog. Culture Compass (interestingly, thinks Horatio is the teacher, Polonius the master, and Claudius and Gertrude the headteachers - I guess thinking, as someone else says, that it's just wholly set in a boarding school, rather than a private tutor in the castle; if that's meant to be the case, then I didn't get it and it would make even less sense than it does). The review does however remind me that either RosGuild disappeares and the actor doubles as Osric, or RosGuild survives). OfficialTheatre.com. GrumpyGayCritic blog. There Ought To Be Clowns. Laura Peatman blog (the one I agree with most so far in this para... and I see by the end of this process too; will be interesting to see in future if we are generally like-minded, or this a one-off). BritishTheatre.com. Ginger Hibiscus blog. Bargain Theatre. Marylebone Journal. Although they didn't appear on the first couple of results pages, I sought out the reviews from Time Out and The Stage, since they got quoted on the ERT website; interestingly, I couldn't find the one in The Stage; I did find a link in an ERT tweet, so it obviously existed, but that goes to a 404 page not found.
So, most of those reviewers liked it more than I did (some praising it to an extent I really find baffling). I certainly didn't think it was radical and daring, as some of them did (and as I think perhaps the ERT did too). I'm reminded that Ophelia's mad songs were contemporary pop songs (including Tainted Love) rather than the originals, which felt gimmicky rather than adding anything I thought.
I also increasingly wonder whether the increase of professional-looking review blogs is attributable to some (not all) of them hoping to get enough of a profile to start getting free tickets for stuff. Well, good luck to them, but some of the ones I see are in danger of sounding a bit too pompous and quote-baity and trying too hard to achieve that authentic/weighty/serious/analytical/professional tone. (Not unlike the reviews people email in to the Mayo/Kermode film review programme on Radio5, trying to sound like 'a film reviewer' rather than themselves.) The ones that sound like they're writing for themselves, and perhaps their friends, are the best ones.