On Friday 22 April I treated myself to another Hamlet, at the Cockpit Theatre by Ilissos theatre company. It was based on the First Quarto version, which was quite interesting, and on the whole fairly well done.
I wasn't put off by the fact that the Hamlet I saw there before wasn't great, and this one was better, though as sparsely attended as that one (even on this weekend of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, fewer than twenty people in a sizeable fringe venue, its in-the-roundness emphasising the empty seats). I got a ticket half-price (£9 instead of £18) with an offer code in an email; I looked today to see if they'd tweeted it, so I could retweet it, but they hadn't; and in fact, the theatre and the company had hardly tweeted about the production at all, which seemed rather negligent; a couple of the actors are doing the heavy Twitter lifting.
I had a feeling that I'd seen a production of the First Quarto version before, but if I did I didn't blog it. It's interesting how they reckon it was based on an actor's memory of it from a production, and that they reckon it was Marcellus because the text from the scenes in which he is in is so much closer to the proper version than the others. It's understandable how some of the other characters names (like Rossencraft and Gilderstone) got mangled, but puzzling how Polonius became Corambis.
It's a plausible case that this isn't just a garbled remembering of the whole text but a fascinating example of how the full text would actually have been cut down for a production. Given that, it's fascinating what bits did survive (like the ambassadors subplot and the instructions about acting, which don't always make the cut in many productions).
It does make it a bit difficult to work out whether some of the approaches to characters were taken because that's what they'd have done in a regular production, or because they were following the First Quarto text as if that were the only text they knew. Gentleness and puzzlement seemed to be prominent themes across the performances, I felt, which was interesting.
The staging was just three platforms which they took on and off, moved around, and turned over. This sometimes seemed rather pointless, and it wasn't always obvious if anything particular was meant to being symbolised or represented.
I don't think I've seen any of the actors before; they were mostly people fairly early in their careers, and they mostly did a perfectly good job.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are too rarely played as just nice old friends of Hamlet, trying to help, unconfident but funny, and that worked very well here (one of them in particular - Sam Jenkins-Shaw, so it was G - had something of the Darren Boyd about him, dim and good-humoured; he did a good job of Laertes too); it made Hamlet's turning on them (with the pipe-playing - bagpipes on this occasion) seem mean and baffling, and his offhand dooming of them even nastier than usual.
Alex Scrivens did an interesting job on the Ghost and the King - the Ghost gentle and puzzled, as if he couldn't really understand what had happened to him, the King not dissimilar, but more like he had a constant hangover and wasn't really up to making the kind of decisions required of him now that he was a king. (At the end, he appeared to be just forced to drink the poison, rather than also being stabbed by the poison-tipped sword.)
Ophelia (Maryam Grace) was odd because there was so little text there, especially in the mad sequence; her madness consisted almost entirely of her dressing in a rather cooler way than she had before, and singing songs rather well in a bluesy fashion, and the cryptic handing out of pictures of flowers, all of which didn't add up to the madness required by everyone else's lines and the plot. There was also an odd thing where at the end of the first half - in one of the typical places, just after the play - there was a lot of rearranging of platforms to the accompaniment of an old record (there were a number of old recordings, primarily bluesy, played in the course of the production, which added interest but not in a way that particularly plugged into the play) at the end of which Ophelia stood on top of them in a spotlight looking significant, but I'm not sure why (this is before her father's death; has she realised that the king murdered his brother?). She also, during her funeral scene, is sitting up throughout (possibly to remind us who the boys are fighting over, possibly to give the boys more room in which to fight (on the platform on which she was carried in on), possibly just because the director thinks the more we see of this beautiful young woman the better); and then at the end of the scene, when everyone else has left, she gets up, picks her way along the upside-down platforms, and then launches herself out into the darkness of whatever lies beyond death. Hamlet also does exactly the same at the very end of the play; although my main thought was to wonder why the other final-curtain corpses did not also do this (which would have had a logic to it, and could have been striking - or, on the other hand, daft).
(The priest at her funeral was more sympathetic and less unpleasant than usual, which I liked.)
Polonius (yes, I'm sticking with the usual names and spellings) was also interesting, played towards the 'loving father' end of the spectrum, and also not as a verbose windbag but as an old, wise man who is losing his memory and his ability to think. It was a performance which grew on me, and John Hyatt also did a good job of the Gravedigger, which isn't a doubling one often sees.
Gertrude, on the other hand, seemed a bit too passive throughout, notably taking the murder of Polonius very calmly indeed. Robert Blackwood did well in a range of roles, including Marcellus (appropriately enough), which isn't always a part that you can get much character into. With Horatio (Christopher Laishley) I liked in particular the way that he seemed scared and amazed when a ghost did actually appear. (There was I think a late musical cue on the battlements, when Horatio asks what the noise means and Hamlet explains it's because the king's drinking, and it was while Hamlet was explaining that the party music/noise sound came on - a classic 'amateur production'-style gaffe, but it was fine. There was also a moment when the lighting changed for no reason in the middle of a scene, which made me think it was meant to have changed at the start of the scene, but again little harm done.)
Hamlet himself (Nicholas Limm) starts very low-key, possibly too much so, as his put-on madness seems too much unlike him, very confident and theatrical (and actually, as with Ophelia, not really appearing mad at all) - but then, you just have to take it that that's the way he's putting on. And with the confidence with which he lectures the actors (and directs their performance, which I've seen done a couple of times recently), you have to accept that that confidence was within him - but then does it make his diffidence at the start appear too much, though that could be his grief, but if it is his grief then does this not just look like him returning to normal?
The first players scene (always one of my least favourite, with the theatrical speeches) wasn't too bad (guitar accompaniment, apropos of nothing), and likewise the play itself. Fortinbras not a big element, but did appear to be American, again apropos of nothing.
Reviews. West End Wilma (an interesting though brief review which I broadly agree with; it reminds me that the opening line of this version of the “What rogue and peasant slave am I” speech was "What a dunghill idiot slave am I”, which I rather liked; 'Charles Ward chose a mix of blues and soul for his musical score, which is stirring but does not really help the audience to place the production or to illuminate the text'; Ophelia 'does not appear deranged or insane in any way, which might be intentional'). LondonTheatre1 (one of those ticket agency review sites, and unusually for those sites, this review gives the production an undeserved kicking (yet still gives it three stars, I presume out of five); he hates productions that mess about with the text of Shakespeare (ie all of them, surely); the only thing I really agree with in the review (which he goes on about at great length) is that I couldn't work out if the length of people's trousers was random or significant; I agreed more with the single comment on the review so far, comparing it to hearing an earlier/different version of a Beatles song on Anthology). Lovelondonloveculture (via TheatreMates) ('have opted to keep this production as simple as possible .... This is fine, but it does mean that everything feels a bit too casual to be taken seriously, particularly when you consider the costumes or the use of modern music that confuses exactly what era the production is supposed to be set in'; I didn't agree that it felt too casual, and spent no time at all wondering 'when' this was set; I'd be kinder to the production than this review was in general). Playhouse Pickings (this was true: 'The rest of the cast supported well, playing numerous roles without confusion as to who they were at any point.'). The Stage ('More successfully, the refrain ‘To a nunnery go’ hammers this Hamlet’s point home to a frightened – if not particularly mad – Ofelia' - reminded me that this section had the 'brokenheartedly driving her away' quality of the Oddsocks version; a fair review, and an interesting set of publicity photos, including one with what I take to be the Ghost in a greatcoat and fencing mask, which isn't how it ended up). Theatrebreaks blog (new to me, and as the name suggests, associated with a business, though as they say, this production 'won’t feature on a Theatre Break itinerary any time soon'; 'Imagine if you will a group of enthusiastic youngsters re-enacting Hunger Games as they return home from the cinema. Everything is there… sort of!' - interesting comparison; in fact, the whole review was interesting and insightful, and better than one might expect from a business-linked one; 'This version of the play (or was it the production?) makes it much clearer that Hamlet’s madness is a contrivance. So with that decision taken away from him, Nicholas Limm’s Hamlet, becomes a much less complicated character. In fact it is all less complicated.'; 'A decision was made at some point to make the foolish old man [Corambis/Polonius] an Alzheimer sufferer who would simply lapse into silence half way through a speech. I can’t tell you what this did to the script. Was his part so unintelligible that they felt that this was the only course of action or were his ramblings the creation of a more recent editor? I would really like to know, although not knowing did not spoil my enjoyment of the piece.'; of the King - 'at no time did I worry that we were in the presence of a dangerous man', which I'd agree with; 'This is all part and parcel of the freshness that this production/this script gives to the play. .... It’s not a perfect portrait of one of literature’s most enigmatic characters, but it was a good sketch and I quite liked it.'). Telegraph (didn't much like it; I did agree with this: 'There have been umpteen bombastic Claudius/King Hamlets down the years. Alex Scrivens’s decision to portray the brothers as softly spoken, almost introverted, made a refreshing change'). Lastminutetheatretickets. Londonist ('The performers are all decent but do tend to be quite static as they focus on getting the words right — which is perhaps fair enough as it must be quite galling to have to memorise the "wrong" version of the play.'). The Times (can't see much behind the paywall apart from the 2/5 stars). The Theatre Tourist. All in all, more reviews (and some of them bigger hitters) than I was expecting to find (first few via Twitter, the rest on the first couple of Google pages).
There's an Evening Standard article and video on the version of the text (nb the video autoplays).
Cast: Robert Blackwood, Maryam Grace, John Hyatt, Sam Jenkins-Shaw, Blake Kubena, Christopher Laishley, Nicholas Limm, Lizzie Mounter, Pauline Munro, Alex Scrivens, Ben Woodhall.