I have spent 69 years, 5 months and 13 days on this planet and have only just seen my first live Shakespeare play. I watched Macbeth on television a few years ago but that is it.
The reason I broke my duck was that Leeds Playhouse was staging a production of Hamlet and, as I have seen some brilliant productions there lately, I thought that it would be worth a visit. I had the advantage of the company of my esteemed colleague and academic, Mr Charles Eager, whose knowledge of Shakespeare’s work is more than comprehensive, he having written a Master’s thesis on Cymbeline, who I always thought was a female drummer in a punk band. Our equally esteemed Copy Editor thought that it would be a bit of a wheeze for us both to attend and give our combined verdict on the play. So, there you have it: Eager, Shakespeare and Graham – the good, the bard and the ugly.
I must own up to the fact that I am not totally unfamiliar with Hamlet as we were given it to study for GCE ‘O’ Level English Literature. We only got round to a couple of lessons on the piece before it was swiftly whipped away from us when the master discovered that we should have been doing Macbeth! My hopes were high, then, for a good evening and a broadening of the theatrical knowledge so cruelly stolen from me all those years ago. I had also seen an item on Look North featuring Director Amy Leach, and Tessa Parr, who takes the lead role, in which they said that it was aimed equally at those with a knowledge of the work and the first-timer like myself. The fact that Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was to be played by a woman was deemed only to broaden its appeal. On the night it transpired that Horatio and Polonius had also been subject to gender reassignment. The other USP was that it had been cut from the original’s four hours to two and a half.
Did it work? In a word, no, at least not for me. The plot as presented was that Hamlet’s father is killed by his brother Claudius, who not only takes his crown but also marries his widow, Gertrude, even before rigor mortis has had a chance to set in. This annoys Hamlet more than somewhat and when she is visited by the ghost of her father and told to exact revenge on Claudius it drives her to madness. Hamlet breaks up with her lover, Ophelia, who later kills herself, for which Hamlet is blamed by Ophelia’s brother, Laertes. She then stages a play (The Mousetrap) which she has adapted to reflect her situation, so that she can judge by the reaction of her uncle as to whether he really did kill her father. When it becomes obvious that he did, the whole thing ends with a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, in which they both die from the poison placed on the tip of his sword by Laertes, Gertrude drinks some poisoned wine meant for Hamlet and before Hamlet meets her maker she stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword, leaving the final stage littered with four bodies, thus making Hamlet 2 – The Sequel a total non-starter.
OK, I admit I have trivialised this in a mischievous way, but that is how I felt that the play was treated by the production team. I was taught that Shakespeare was all about the language but a lot of the actors were inaudible, including Tessa Parr in most of her lines. I know that the acoustics of the Pop-up Theatre are less than brilliant, but Joe Alessi as Claudius managed to make himself clear without any problem. Any chance of catching a lot of the dialogue was also stifled by the obtrusive sound effects. Straining to hear throughout the first part, I am afraid that I gave in after the interval and just picked up on what I could. The actors playing the soldiers were particularly hard to hear, which was a disadvantage as I think that their monologues were meant to fill in the events during the missing hour and a half of the original play.
Speaking of monologues, everybody, whether Shakespeare buff or not, knows a lot of them, such as, ‘Alas poor Yorik, I knew him well.’ It appears that this Hamlet was not as big a mate as the original as she only ‘knew’ him – the skull was not the subject of a gender switch. I did manage to catch that bit but, like all of the other familiar passages, it was delivered quickly and with no feeling, a bit like going to see a band who do a swift medley of their hits and then go on to sing obscure stuff for an hour.
I am obviously not a purist when it comes to Shakespeare and anything which makes it accessible to a wider audience has to be a good thing, but I really didn’t think that the gender change worked at all. As was pointed out in the programme by Jacqui Honess-Martin, Literary Associate, the part of Hamlet has been acted by women several times before but they have usually played it as a male character. I can get over the now lesbian relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, but Tessa Parr’s voice was just not up to the job in hand. During the quiet parts she was inaudible, especially if facing away from the listener, and when summoning up her rage it sounded like the scolding of a naughty child by its mother. The part demands the gravitas of a baritone voice which makes us feel threatened by death rather than being sent to bed with no supper. To compound the effect, the dialogue was delivered in a ’Northern’ accent which we all know is inherently friendly. I began to crave the appearance of an over the top Shakespearian luvvie.
The set and costume design was by Hayley Grindle and I thought that both worked well. The costumes were those of the present day, so there was a preponderance of trainers and backpacks, even a set of funky headphones. This did mean, however, that the duel at the end in which the combatants were in fencing outfits complete with masks didn’t work, as the object was to draw blood from the opponent, a fate which this garb is specifically designed to prevent. The set comprised a raised large rectangular box with runways down both ends which facilitated the action very well. There did seem to be an inordinate amount of smoke throughout the piece.
As I have already pointed out, the play seemed rushed and incoherent in its language. In the final part, it lost the plot totally, if you will pardon the pun. Just before the duel, Laertes suggests that he puts a deadly poison on the tip of his sword so that when he grazes Hamlet she will die from its effects. Claudius, who has arranged the confrontation, says that this is not a good idea as the seconds who supervise the duel will spot the stunt and suggests that he poison a glass of wine instead, so that when Hamlet calls for a drink after the sword fight, she will die from that. What do we see in the very next scene, is Laertes lacing the tip of his sword with poison. I must have missed something there as it is key to the ending. This is also where the casting goes really awry. Hamlet is five foot four, if that, and Laertes is over six feet tall, both having a reach to match their height. Not only does Hamlet win the contest which appears to be the best of five rounds rather than first to be cut, but, after the event, she is also pursued by Laertes, brandishing a sword around the stage, down the runway, along the front of the auditorium and back up the other runway to the stage in a Benny Hill type chase.
Full marks to Leeds Playhouse for trying something different. I am just mightily disappointed that it did nothing for me and I am really sorry that I decided to make this my first taste of Shakespeare as it might very well put me off my second for another 69 years, 5 months and 13 days.
Mr Eager adds some thoughts and nerdy observations:
Although this was Mr Graham’s first Shakespeare, it is a testament to his seasoned critical abilities that I have very little to add and that there is nothing about which I can disagree with him. The production’s issue was, in a word, I think, pace. What does one do with a four-hour play of some 4,000 lines? Even with cuts it is ungainly, and usually rendered somewhat incoherent, as it was in this case. The real howler here, for example, was the removal of one of the few really striking dramatic moments in the play, namely Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, his (or her, in this production) lover’s father, which prompts Laertes’ rage, and so in large part causes the duel between Hamlet and Laertes which rounds off the play. I wonder whether it was because it was a female Polonius that we were disallowed the play’s famous mistaken stabbing?
On that note, Polonia might have been a more grammatically accurate name for Ophelia’s mother. If you were to change a male character, say, Steve or Burt, in a modern play to a female, you would probably make her name Stephanie or Bertha. Polonius/Polonia would be the Latin equivalent, and the lack of any such thoughtful change summarises in a word the production’s failure to think through all the implications of its rather heavy-handed interference with the text.
Language was generally an issue in the production, too. Though I don’t have the whole play off-book, I noticed that in Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech, several old words had been changed: fardels became burdens; bourne became boundary; and ’tis became it is. Changing fardels to burdens is okay, since I don’t think anyone has used the word fardel in conversation since before Shakespeare wrote the play, and it is anyway not the most beautiful sounding word (although part of what makes Hamlet the character so engaging is the richness and sometimes ugliness of his language). Changing bourne to boundary, however, destroyed the iambic pentameter (by making an alexandrine) and was a completely unwarranted change since we all know more or less what a bourne is—at least, from the context:
“But that the dread of something after death
(The undiscover’d country from whose bourne
No traveller returns) puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear the ills we have
Than fly to those we know not of.”
Changing ’tis to it is was simply unforgiveable. Another language problem I detected came immediately after the famous soliloquy when Ophelia walks on stage praying, whereat Hamlet speaks some of his most beautiful lines:
“Nymph, in thy orisons [pronounced like ‘horizons’ in Shakespearean English]
Be all my sins rememb’red.”
Here orisons was changed to prayers, which made the speech prose—and bad prose at that. Again, the stage direction is in the speech: Ophelia is to enter praying (which she didn’t), or at least in a prayerful attitude, and we derive the meaning of orisons from this, if we don’t already know the word. Of course, this only works in a careful, considerate staging, with unhurried speech.
I was having a drink with a scholar from Leeds University on Saturday evening, who, as it happens, said to me, “Hamlet is a [expletive deleted] play”. This is an old view, and originates more or less with T. S. Eliot’s famous and fine essay “Hamlet and his Problems”, which interested readers can find online easily and freely. The idea expressed by Eliot and my comrade (and with which I basically agree) is that the play is full of beautiful poetry and philosophy, but, dramatically, it is a bunch of people hanging out in a castle, going gradually insane, and so is not so different from watching Big Brother. Certainly, next to the masterful dramatic writing of King Lear or Pericles, Hamlet seems a little ponderous.
However, looking over the 1623 Folio text of the play a few days later, one sees how the page simply has an electricity and wonder: this is the English language working at its utter expressive best. It would be nice to have a production which respected this aspect of Hamlet, and which simply allowed the language to do the work over the four hours required, treating it respectfully, as we do with Wagner’s Ring: we simply make time for the vast masterpiece every once in a while if we can, and make sure there are two intervals.
Or, if we are going to ‘reinvent’ the piece, why not do something really courageous and original, such as turn it into a one-man show?
I would like to second Mr Graham’s complimentary remarks on Joe Alessi’s Claudius, who was intelligible, audible, authoritative, and charmingly corrupt. I’d also like to add a few words of praise for Simona Bitmate’s truly sorrowful and melancholy Ophelia. The scene in which she drowns herself (which is not in Shakespeare’s text), lit only from below, was a brilliant moment of theatre, and her sadness against Hamlet’s merriment in the ‘play-within-a-play’ scene was truly moving. Additionally, Crystal Condie, who played Hamlet’s confidant, Horatio, spoke clearly and made the best of what is not perhaps Shakespeare’s most interesting character. Darren Kuppan’s Rosencrantz and Jo Mousley’s Gertrude were also strong additions. Although Mr Graham and I could not hear most of Tessa Parr’s Hamlet, she certainly played the difficult part with unfailing energy and passion.
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.