Monday, December 21, 2009

Extract from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Hamlet is mention in the opening paragraphs of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol:
"The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet's Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot -- say Saint Paul's Churchyard for instance -- literally to astonish his son's weak mind."
It's in the midst of the opening section in which the author is making it clear that Scrooge's old partner Jacob Marley is dead and died before the story began, should the reader, or more specifically the Victorian reader less schooled in fantasy elements, suspect that Marley's Ghost could be anything other than an apparition.

Invoking Hamlet Snr cleverly reminds the reader of another, very famous and at the time still very accessible example of a ghost to prepare them for what the text is about to throw at them. It's rather like Back To The Future being cited in Doctor Who's The Shakespeare Code to explain how time travel works.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Brian Cox's Hamlet masterclass with Theo. A two year old.

'The Mystery of Hamlet: A Solution' by Myron Stagman.

In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a race of hyper-intelligent, pan dimensional beings create Deep Thought, a city-sized super computer, to find the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. After seven and a half million years, the massive computant presents the irrelevant answer “forty-two” on the basis that for all their hyper-intelligence, the pan dimensional beings didn’t really define what the question was going to be. Which is rather my approach to the question Myron Stagman considers in The Mystery of Hamlet: A Solution – why does Hamlet take up to four hours stage time and up to six months narrative duration to kill Claudius? Stagman suggests it’s the “single most famous and controversial issue in Literature”. I'm not so sure.

My prejudice against this line of literary criticism is that if you set aside the play’s literary merit and whatever secret codes Shakespeare (or "playful beguiler" as the cover has it) may have layered into the text and simply treat it as a piece of drama dealing with human emotion, there is no question. Hamlet, an aristocratic prince and scholar (and depending upon which text you're reading a teenager), has been tasked by the ghost of his father to murder his uncle, and though his immediate reaction might be to speak of revenge, a very human reaction, of course he dithers when faced with the reality of process. Instead he fains madness and does everything he can to get Claudius to expose himself and it’s only after, in a fit of oppressed anger, he kills Polonius, that he finds that he has that murderous ability within him.

In which case I’m probably not the best audience for Stagman’s book which spends its time seeking connections between symbols and words and treats the play as a puzzle book that Shakespeare has offered up to be solved like Kit Williams’s Masquerade. There’s no argument that Shakespeare uses metaphor and analogy, but just I’m not sure that the dramatist has deliberately obscured the meaning of his story as Stagman seems to be suggesting, that, for example, ”the time is out of joint” was his way of indicating Hamlet’s reluctance to ram a sword into Claudius’s heart. It would be wrong to spoil the solution. To paraphrase Stagman's analogy when considering the approach of other critics to his problem, it would be like giving away who the killer is in the review of an Agatha Christie mystery. Except to say that if it’s not exactly “forty-two”, I can't completely agree with him.

The book is also oddly structured, opening with forty pages of quotes from other plays to demonstrate the various aspects of “the greatness of Shakespeare” then continues with three shortened versions of the play in varying degrees of detail. Someone picking up this book should already have this material to hand and though Stagman’s enthusiasm infectious as he points out his favourite speeches and lines there’s an element of the Derren Brown magical tv event about the way he’s effectively teasing us with other treats before revealing the final illusion. The summary of his argument appears first in over eight pages then fifty, some of the text repeated with quotes and evidence. Just one quarter of the book really deals with Stagman’s analysis and then feels rushed as though he’s as desperate for us to come to the solution as quickly as he does.

Part of the author's solution is determined by his assumption that “the story takes place in Denmark during the Viking period, 8th to 11th century AD” in approximately 1000 because in the text England is paying tribute to Denmark and he spends most of the book describing him as a “Viking prince”. Shakespeare doesn’t specifically give a period in the work, and though the source legend is from that period, and I’m more persuaded by Steve Roth’s argument that Shakespeare meant for his audience to see the play as happening in contemporary Europe. The text is laced with such assumptions even when the textual evidence seems shaky or open to dramatic choice, such as the exact relationship between Claudius and Gertrude. It’s difficult to concur with a argument when you disagree with the interpretation of the individual data.

The Mystery of Hamlet: A Solution by Myron Stagman is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. £34.99 . ISBN: 978-1443814409.

A sample of the book is available here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

'Playing Shakespeare' by John Barton.

Co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Barton was, with Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall, one of the legendary theatre directors whose work and acting collaborations in the mid twentieth century would effect the course of Shakespeare on stage in successive decades. His biography includes a range of landmark production through the sixties and seventies (including the 1969 Twelfth Night with Judi Dench as Viola, and the 1970 A Midsummer Night's Dream with Patrick Stewart as Oberon), and with his abilities in helping actors through workshops, his presence and influence are felt even further.

In 1984, Channel 4 commissioned Playing Shakespeare, a television series based on such workshops and during twelve sessions, Barton and range of actors including Peggy Ashcroft, Sinead Cusack, Judi Dench, Sheila Hancock, Ben Kingsley, Jane Lapotaire, Ian McKellan, Roger Rees, Donald Sinden, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, Michael Williams and range of other (most still yet to feel the breeze of international fame) worked speeches and scenes and sonnets within a rehearsal situation before a studio audience. Unseen for years, the series has been available on dvd.

The book of the series, Playing Shakespeare, recently reprinted, is a transcript of the sessions, augmented by Barton to clarify material that might not be quite so apparent in the transfer from video to page, and augmented with extra material which had to be cut from the television series for time (and commercials). First published in 1984, Barton still stands behind the material and so rather than updating the text, has been tucked in the back featuring new interviews with Stewart, McKellan, Dench and Lapotaire considering what has changed in Shakespearean theatre between now and then.

Barton's wisdom begins with Hamlet’s “speak the speech” dialogue from Act III in which he reminds the players to project the words naturally and with some truth and not to simply “mouth it as many of our players do” otherwise he might as well get the town crier to do the work. The director’s thesis is that though the characters and themes of the plays are important, it’s vital that the text should be communicated with the utmost accuracy otherwise the audience will not be able to make sense of the story and even the language can seem overwhelming, Shakespeare gives clues throughout as so how it should be spoken.

To this end, throughout these sessions, Barton purposefully ignores what the plays are about and gives minimal direction in terms of the characters. Instead he pulls apart the syntax of the words, the stress patterns, noting when antithesis is being employed and monosyllables demonstrating that though there is poetry in Shakespeare, the playwright is just as interested in pointing the actor towards the emotion he is conveying, which unavoidable, through a handy bit of circular logic, leads the actor to understand to internalise the character they are playing.

In the session on speeches, Barton explains quite correctly that the great soliloquys are about the actor communicating their mood to the audience, something too often forgotten when Hamlet strolls onto the stage then looks at the ceiling. As Barton notes on the dvd (and I hadn’t realised this and neither by the looks of things had Jane Lapataire who's sitting next to him), “To Be Or Not To Be” is not only a series of questions, but also the only soliloquy in the whole of Shakespeare without a personal pronoun immediately externalising the choice that Hamlet has to make.

A set text amongst actors, Playing Shakespeare best serves the layman in its general discussions of acting and Shakespeare’s use of language. The sessions considering what Barton calls the “two traditions” of Elizabethan and modern acting, the use of sonnets as rehearsal pieces, the discussion of different approaches to playing Shylock with Stewart and Suchet and an extended interview with McKellan about the challenges of producing contemporary Shakespeare (well contemporary in 1984) can't help but illuminate our viewing experience.

These probably work best because they’re far more discussional rather than going about the business of working the text. But the book can sometimes be a frustrating experience because though Barton’s intelligence is undimmed, as he acknowledges himself, a few of the sessions hinge on the audience hearing the modifications an actor is making to a speech, and obviously that is lost on the page. Yet it's worth persevering because every now and then you're bound to find a new way of thinking about a character. The section on irony and Richard II has led me to rethink my reaction to the play.

Though the chat with Ian McKellen on the dvd largely reiterates what was said in the text and Judi Dench offers some funny anecdotes about the recording of Playing Shakespeare, Hamlet casts a shadow over the retrospective interviews. Barton has Lapataire workshop “To Be Or Not To Be”, which in isolation she turns from the insecure musings of a teenager into the morbid fears of an older woman and the interview and Patrick Stewart, recorded in the midst of his run as Claudius in the RSC Hamlet, demonstrates, through each their opening lines, the differences between Hamlet’s uncle, the ghost and Macbeth helping to confirm the logic of Barton’s thinking that all you need to know about a character is in the sound of their words.

Playing Shakespeare by John Barton is published by Methuen Drama. £18.99. ISBN: 978-0713687736.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

taH pagh taHbe'

And of course I've checked my copy of The Klingon Hamlet (Pocket Books, 2000) and he is indeed playing the text as translated by the "Klingon Language Institute" or Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader and not just making it up as he goes along. It's not a bad performance. I'm just not sure an actual Klingon would play it that way, with the crying. Worf cried, but he was adopted by human parents. Have I said too much?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Hamlet' by John Marsden.

There’s something a tradition of turning out prose adaptations of Hamlet and it’s only right to investigate these singular interpretations along with the productions of Shakespeare’s text. The author’s analysis of the characters can take full advantage of the novel’s form, removing perhaps the artifice of the soliloquy by spelling out the internal dialogue which Shakespeare hints at when an actor would other stand up-stage and address the audience (or not depending upon the director). There’s also even more room for experimentation, since a reader will more than likely already be familiar with the story even as they turn to the first page leaving room for the writer to offer a different approach to the story.

John Marsden’s novel retells the story as a kind of Elsinore 90210, injecting some of the adolescent longings and leanings which Shakespeare only hints at. Following the same evidence that Steve Roth points to that Hamlet, Horatio and their peers are all of post-pubescent age, he reinforces within them the beating heart of young passion, to the extent that because they’re still becoming used to the changes in their own bodies, they’re emotionally ill equipped to deal with the encroaching requirements of being part of the royal family, and Hamlet in particular with the responsibilities of avenging his fathers death. We visit them during some eye-wideningly sensual moments, in which we become voyeurs, not of the wider psychological motivations of the characters as literary criticism might have it, but something far more intimate, graphic and primal.

Marsden also shifts about Shakespeare’s narrative, placing the discovery of Hamlet Snr’s Ghost up front before the throne room scene, for example, giving the impression of memories, of Horatio perhaps trying remember the order of events and getting it slightly wrong. As the novel progresses, these details seem to snap back into focus and as such the novel becomes less interesting, more like a straight prose retelling of the story. But the book continues to be worth reading (even with a skipping eye), for Marsden’s keen ability to express the details of the Elsinore court, particular the usually forgotten staff from the servants to the cooks who he renders with the kind of Dickensian minutiae that even filmed productions rarely achieve.

Hamlet by John Marsden is published by Candlewick Press. £10.31. ISBN: 076364451X.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Shakespeare Quartos Archive Opens Access to Hamlet

I was sent the following press release yesterday by the communication department at the Bodlean Library for something which sounds and is rather amazing. Which is why I'm simply going to post their explanation in full:
Oxford, 16 November 2009 – The highly-anticipated Shakespeare Quartos Archive has been officially launched today with a complete digital collection of rare early editions of Hamlet. For the first time, all 32 existing quarto copies of the play held by participating UK and US institutions are freely available online in one place ( This initiative is jointly led by the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford and the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, through a joint transatlantic grant from Jisc in the UK and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US.

Controversy surrounds Hamlet as there were several different versions published before the theatres were closed in 1642. The most significant differences are between the first folio, and the first (Q1) and second (Q2) quartos. For example, in Q1 Hamlet’s famous soliloquy appears in a different scene and begins “To be, or not to be, I there’s the point / To die, to sleep, is that all? I all” and the edition documents an entire scene not present elsewhere. Meanwhile Q2 is almost twice the length, with various additions including a new soliloquy for Hamlet.

Now scholars can explore these different quarto versions side by side for the first time on the project website. It features high-quality reproductions and searchable full text of surviving copies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in quarto in an interactive interface. Functions and tools – such as the ability to overlay images, compare them side-by-side, and mark and tag features with user annotations – facilitate scholarly research, performance studies, and new applications for learning and teaching.

The project, which began in April 2008, reunites all 75 pre-1642 quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays into a single online collection. The prototype interface is at present fully functional only for Hamlet, but the Shakespeare Quartos Archive plans to apply this technology to all the plays in quarto, and to seek involvement from new partner institutions.

Richard Ovenden, Associate Director and Keeper of Special Collections, Bodleian Library said: ‘The Bodleian Library has been delighted to lead the UK side of this international partnership. Together with our partner institutions we have brought together all the existing quarto editions of Shakespeare's plays in one place. Featuring a set of innovative interactive tools, this digital resource will also open new ways of accessing and researching the original texts of Hamlet. We are confident that the Shakespeare Quartos Archive will become an indispensable online resource for the worldwide community of scholars, teachers and students with an interest in Shakespeare. It is a valuable addition to the increasing number of Bodleian's digital collections.’

Gail Kern Paster, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, said: ‘The Shakespeare Quartos Archive presents new and innovative opportunities that were simply unavailable before for scholars, teachers, and students to explore Hamlet.’

In the absence of surviving manuscripts, the quartos—Shakespeare’s earliest printed editions—offer the closest known evidence of what Shakespeare might actually have written, and what appeared on the early modern English stage.

Alastair Dunning, Digitisation Programme Manager at Jisc, said: ‘Early copies of Shakespeare's plays are now scattered across the world's great libraries and viewing each one in person would be a monumental task. However, international projects such as the Shakespeare Quartos Archive provide a valuable opportunity for such collections to be reunited and re-examined in their entirety.’

The Shakespeare Quartos Archive contains texts drawn from the British Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Huntington Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the University of Edinburgh Library, in addition to the Bodleian Library. These six institutions worked in conjunction with the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland, and The Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, to digitize and transcribe 32 copies of Hamlet.
You can see the Quarto's at

As an act of scholarship this is immense. Though there are printed facsimiles of these editions are available, together with amalgams which gave the "best" versions of each of the pages, as they say this is really the first time that critics, editors and students are able to properly compare and contrast these different editions and be able to see how our interpretation of the plays change and develop depending upon the version of the text that we are studying. The inclusion of the so-called Bad Quarto, I, allows us to enjoy a kind of alternate reality in which the play is shorter, slightly garbled, but still has its own unique power:
"To be, or not to be, I there's the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an euerlasting Iudge,
From whence no passenger euer retur'nd,
The vndiscouered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd.
But for this, the ioyfull hope of this,
Whol'd beare the scornes and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich curssed of the poore?
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wrong'd,
The taste of hunger, or a tirants raigne,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunt and sweate vnder this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin, who would this indure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which pusles the braine, and doth confound the sence,
Which makes vs rather beare those euilles we haue,
Than flie to others that we know not of.
I that, O this conscience makes cowardes of vs all,
Lady in thy orizons, be all my sinnes remembred.
Just once I'd like to see a production of the First Quarto. Or for a production to substitute some of the text to keep the audience on their toes. You think you know that solliquey? Listen to this ...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Saturday, October 31, 2009

David Tennant on Hamlet

David Tennant only ever gave one interview about his time in Hamlet. Here it is:
"Even if you read a play once you have preconceptions and notions about it. It's hard to be specific about things, because things are so gradual, and also talking about it now at the end of a run, it's quite difficult to work out where you were at the beginning, especially with a play like this that changes from night to night. I do remember being surprised, because I had always assumed that Hamlet and his father had a slightly distant relationship, that his father was a slightly distant patrician, quite a bellicose figure with whom Hamlet didn't really identify. But whilst I do think that they are very different, I remember that once we actually started playing those scenes, there was a sense of the bond that they had and a sense of that paternal connection, and I was quite taken aback by that."
I'm going to save reading this properly until I've seen the film. I don't want to preconceptions. Even productions of four hundred year old plays can have spoilers, I think, even if it's just spoiling the interpretation [via].

Saturday, October 24, 2009

22 Kenneth Branagh

Hamlet played by Kenneth Branagh
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

One of my favourite moments in Hamlet as directed by Mr Kenneth Branagh is the reintroduction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Timothy Spall and Reese Dinsdale, hanging from the side of a steam engine as it sweeps through the Elsinore snow to be greeted by their friend at the platform. For two characters usually at the bottom of the casting pecking order and whose entrance is too often treated less importantly than most others, it’s an expression of the film’s inclusiveness. It says, this film doesn’t just have a script that includes nearly every scrap of coherent text knocking about in which all of the characters are cast as though their the most important figure in the story, but each and every one of them will be rendered in a way which is more memorable than you’ve ever seen before.

I love Branagh’s Hamlet. It’s not just my favourite Hamlet film adaptation, it’s one of my favourite films period. I was already excited by the prospect on its release in 1996; having enjoyed both Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing and adored In The Bleak Midwinter and was so desperate to see it I travelled out to Manchester (a far rarer occurrence then) on the week of release even though the print was going to be moving to Liverpool within seven days. Sitting amongst the small audience in screen five of the now closed Odeon on Oxford Road I was in rapture from start to finish, so much so I almost forgot to eat the chocolate bread I’d taken along for refreshment (we ate some weird foods in the 1990s). It was in those four hours I fell in love with the play.

Which means I’m hardly in a position of offer the usually objective first-impression style review. I’ve seen the film many times since and even own a copy in the Video-CD format (were it’s spread across five whole discs). I suspect many of the prejudices I have about the play (the importance of including Fortinbras whatever the cost etc) were born out of my love for this film. It’s secretly been the yardstick against which I’ve compared all of these productions and watching it again for the purposes of the project (I’ve deliberately stayed away since I began writing this blog), I simply couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I tried, lord knows I did. But look – Ophelia’s in a straight jacket. How cool is that?

I was all prepared to even slam Branagh’s performance having seen or heard twenty other men and one girl say the same words. But I can’t. He’s brilliant. There’s no discussion here about whether the prince is mad. He’s sane. Deliberately so from the moment he first appears in the throne room to the duel. He knows he’s gone a bit too far now and then – the killing of Polonius – but everything is an act. And by eradicating that ambiguity, Branagh creates a skein of tension as thick as an undercover spy thriller as we hope and pray he won’t be found out until he’s able to reap revenge on his step-father.

And it's not just Ken. There’s not a bum performance here. Not one. And in casting, the director seems to have deliberately commemorated different levels and eras of acting. There are obvious contingents from Liverpool and Hollywood, from the RSC old and new. His usual repertory of actors are all there too, many carried over from In The Bleak Midwinter, but none of it is incongruous and over and over we see performers that would not share a scene anywhere else. Look it’s Richard Briers giving Gérard Depardieu orders. Simon Russell Beale joking around with Billy Crystal. Perdita Weeks standing next to Charlton Heston.

On the dvd commentary, Branagh jokes that it’s become known as the eternity version and whilst it's true that at nearly four hours it can be an effort to sit down and watch the thing, the time snaps by and the viewer is rewarded with as clear an interpretation of the story as they’re ever likely to see. Nowhere else have witnessed the clarity with which Hamlet’s feigned madness is attributed to Polonius’s banning of Ophelia from seeing him been inscribed with such clarity. By seeing all of the political machinations we can interpret that once Claudius was a sympathetic figure who may have killed his brother to save the kingdom, the marriage to Gertude a way of suturing the throne rather than simply a power grab.

It’s all there. Indeed, there’s almost an overload of ideas. Most productions get by on a couple of good suggestions, whatever can be squeezed in by the director in the rehearsal period or shooting or recording schedule. Here, in every scene, every character has an angle, every line is laced with meaning. Tiny touches. Polonius dies with a smile on his face and somehow continues to be an active participant in the bedchamber even as the rest Hamlet’s encounter with his mother. It’s perfectly clear from the off during To Be Or Not Be that Hamlet knows he’s being watched, with Claudius and his chief counsellor almost filling in for the audience. The friendship between Hamlet and Horatio with the latter almost his madness valve, pointing out when the former has gone too far.

There have been criticisms too of the interpolations; the flashbacks to Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship before the play (which indeed could be her imagination but I don’t like to think so) including the tender moment post coitus when he speaks dialogue which is otherwise reported by letter. It re-engineers the meaning of the play, “they” say, applies ideas not Shakespeare’s own. Well, firstly, they’re less obtrusive than in Olivier’s version which in the main are generally illustrative and secondy isn’t the play’s meaning up for grabs? Doesn’t every director present an interpretation? Cut the opening battlements scenes and you can imply the ghost, revenge and all that really are just figments of Hamlet’s imagination, that he has been sent mad with grief and that his father died of natural causes.

The film’s also extraordinarily beautiful. Shooting on 70mm, Alex Thomson creates vistas about the exterior location on Blenheim Palace, making full use of the period detailing, underscoring the grand old royalty of the Hamlets. On the commentary, Branagh suggests that the best way to see the film would be projected onto an IMAX screen and he’s quite correct. Seems a tragedy that likes of Transformers 2’s 35mm print is blown up to that size, only really serving to increase the incoherence of the editing, whilst a piece with stately shots that repay extended scrutiny were until the dvd release left to languish on VHS. The clarity of the image helps to weight the actors performance, as even the tenderest of gestures, such as Winslet’s slight holding of Branaghs hand at the end of the throne room scene are magnified.

In those extras, Branagh is keen to point out that the film would not have seen a shiny disc had it no been for the internet campaign. It’s lovely, unstarry gesture, and a recognition that the afterlife of some films, even what seem like big studio productions rest in the hands of the viewers. The tragedy is, that while Hamlet’s out there now (and long enough to be relatively cheap to buy), In The Bleak Midwinter, the comedy he made just before hand about putting on a production of the play in a church (my review here) still hasn’t appeared. That’s a disaster. What do we think it would take for Warner Bros, the current rights holders, to give that the release it deserves too?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Competition Results

Sorry for the lateness of posting this. The answer to question in the competition to win Hamlet and Henry V on blu-ray courtesy of ITV DVD was ...

"Never more than kin and less than kind..."

And the winners were

Neil Perryman and Kevin Anderson.

They have been informed. And thanks to everyone else for entering ...

Friday, October 16, 2009

21 Laurence Olivier

Hamlet played by Laurence Olivier.
Directed by Laurence Olivier.

Olivier’s Hamlet is one of those films which is impossible to approach without a certain level of trepidation, which accounts for why it has taken until now for me to do such an approach (it took this week’s competition to give me the relevant nudge). Like Kean, Kemble, Irving and Gielgud before him and Jacobi, Branagh and (it looks like) Tennant since, his performance is spoken of in hushed tones, synonymous with the role to the point that for a good while, the image people had fixed in their mind of what Hamlet is like, what he is about, was of Olivier. In almost all of the documentaries I’ve seen about Shakespeare and this play in particular, there has been a shot either of the actor looking over a cliff or grasping Yorrik’s skull. The film won Best Picture at the 1948 Academy Awards, with Olivier picking up best actor and nomination as best director (four wins in all with three other nominations).

Few films come with this baggage, let alone a film of Hamlet. Yet, once the credits had rolled and Olivier’s lens swept towards Elsinore’s battlements all of that fell away, and as is usual I found myself thrown back into the walls of the castle and the unfolding text. Unlike Henry V, which underscores its artifice at every stage, Olivier immediately plunges the viewer into a world pitched somewhere between horror and film noir as smoke and shadows fill the frame and old Hamlet descends, totally lacking in humanity, his entrance signalled by the bending of the image as though the apparition only exists because it has found a way to pierce the mind of Horatio and the guards. It’s shocking, scary and totally unlike the impression I'd previous had of the film, of a rather stately, reverential run through of the play. Olivier means to scare the Dickens out of you. And he does. Considering this was the first sound version of the play in the English language, the actor/director does not simply deliver filmed theatre, but a totally cinematic experience.

Eight years out from Citizen Kane and Welles’s influence can already be seen as cinematographer Desmond Dickens treats Elsinore like Xanadu, his use of deep focus transforming the castle into a cavernous, confusing edifice with geography that fractures and bends seemingly depending on Hamlet’s mental state. The camera is forever moving, throughout room, down hallways, up stairwells often in the middle of scenes in an effort to disorientate the viewer, coupled with an editing style that seems totally modern only rarely resting. Late in the film, as Jean Simmons’s post-breakdown Ophelia prowls about the castle, the camera tracks her from behind and we hear the scene in which Claudius spins Polonius’s death to Laertes echo about even before she’s entered the chamber, then continuing as she leaves again towards her death. About the only time Olivier comes unstuck is when he cuts away from performance to show the action which is being reported. So we see Hamlet’s uncharacteristic visit Ophelia as she describes the moment, when his absence from our eyes should be underscoring the mystery of his mental state.

On a textual level one of the big headlines (if you have headlines regarding a sixty year old film) is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't just dead, they're cut altogether, the fishmonger and remembrances scenes shifted next to each other to demonstrate the testing of Hamlet’s madness. All of the politics is removed in fact, save a mention of Fortinbras in the gravedigger scene. This is a domestic Hamlet through and through, a battle of wills between the young prince and his father’s usurper, which does of course mean Polonius really is a “prattling naïve” (and all the more sympathetic for it) but also allows Olivier to glimpse deeply into the marriage of the new king and his queen. From the mousetrap onwards, Eileen Herlie’s Gertrude knows full well what her second husband did and what he’s capable of, the love drained from her eyes, her own sanity drifting until finally, during the duel, she drinks the pearled poisoned wine, knowing the effect it’ll have on her but wanting out of the marriage through any means available. All of that is reflected in Herlie’s sublime performance as in close up we watch her eyes fixed on the goblet and her realisation of the oblivion it will provide.

There’s no doubt that Olivier’s Hamlet is a great performance, with the actor completely aware of when he needs to show the emotion and when he should simply let the other actors and the rest of the film carry on about him. His first appearance, in which he’s clearly been in the scene all along but we simply haven’t noticed him demonstrates the shadowy figure he’s become since his father’s death. He’s also unafraid to take advantage of the comedy in the play, especially as he and Horatio must deal with first the gravedigger then the Osric. My impression is that in this interpretation, Hamlet begins by feigning madness, which tips him over the edge (almost literally in the case of “To Be or Not To Be”) and then he realises what has happened and his sanity returns by the climax. As he says in voice over at the start: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind” and ironically when he finally does decide on a plan and carries it through it’s too late to save his own life. Some have said he was far too old for the role by then (and indeed the actress playing Hamlet’s mother is a full decade younger than her son), but for me on this occasion it’s the quality of the interpretation which is most important.

Of the rest of the cast, Jean Simmons’s poppet like Ophelia isn’t entirely convincing and the opening does drag terribly during her scene with Terrance Morgan’s stodgy Laertes, their clipped RP accents and mannered performance suggesting at no point that they are siblings. If I was a child watching Hamlet for the first time, my heart would sink if faced by this. Still, Basil Syndey’s Claudius is a brooding villain and looks especially creepy next to Herlie’s youthful Gertrude. The other interest is amongst the supporting cast, which is chock full of character actors who would go on to be stars in their own right: Peter Cushing’s effeminate Osric, Stanley Holloway’s Grave Digger, Patrick Troughton’s Player King, Anthony Quayle’s Marcellus and uncredited extras include Christopher Lee, Desmond Llewelyn and Patrick Macnee. In the 1990s, a fantasy convention would kill for this line-up, yet there they all are carrying spears in court or cutlasses during the pirate scene were Olivier allows himself a brief moment of swashbuckling in the flashback.

[Don't forget, the competition to win this on blu-ray along with Henry V courtesy of ITV DVD is still open. You can enter here.]

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Scene Unseen

The Artifice of The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (1944)

My first introduction to Shakespeare, at school, was a bit of a jumble. Each week our class would crowd into a tiny television room huddled about a 26” set whilst the teacher showed us sections of Zefrelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Polanski’s Macbeth, various BBC productions and what most captured my imagination, Olivier’s Henry V. Not the whole film, just the opening section in which the director, underscoring the artifice of the prologue, shows us Elizabethan London and a recreation of The Globe with the opening scenes of the play being performed before the braying crowds by actors (we even see the man about to play Henry just before he steps on stage). Despite being of an age that was distracted by Transformers and girls, I was thrilled and captivated, and understood somewhat, for the first time the world in which Shakespeare was working.

Watching years later with more critical eye, I can see that those opening scenes are more obviously models, the transition from miniatures to sets more apparent. Yet their power hasn’t diminished and Olivier’s motive, to bring the audience into the story through varying layers of authenticity even clearer. The Globe falls away to reveal interior sets modelled on medieval paintings, then exterior sets and then in a thrilling burst of reality the Battle of Agincourt with its sweeping tracking shots lenses at the verdant expanses of County Wicklow in Ireland. If years later, Ken Branagh’s version would take that reality a step further by introducing gallons of mud and blood and shouting, Olivier’s interpretation of the battle is the one I’d like to believe in, with its shiny armour and clearer manners.

Created as a morale booster during WWII, Olivier knew that he had to present the text lucidly, accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Part of his artifice also included cutting many of Henry’s darker moments, no hanging of traitors here, no threat to pillage Harfleur, and the dark foreshadowing of the events in Henry VI are cut. But in these circumstance they’re not missed (though I expect that some Shakespeare scholars would disagree) and it’s refreshing to see a version of the King who can act as a symbol for goodness and must have done in those darker times. Too often these days we’re desperate for our heroes to have grey areas in an attempt to make them more “interesting” when sometimes it can be “interesting” that they lack a moral ambiguity. The director won a special Oscar for this achievement. Quite right too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ten interesting facts about the release of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet

Along with the prizes, ITV DVD have sent ten interesting facts about the release of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet ...
1. Hamlet was the first British film to win both the Academy Award for best picture and the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Award for best picture

2. Laurence Olivier became the first person ever to direct themselves to a best actor or actress Oscar

3. Hamlet cost $2 million to make; this was a very expensive production in its day

4. Laurence Olivier was 41 when Hamlet was released. Eileen Herlie who played Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, was 28

5. According to a book written in 1948, many actresses refused the role of Hamlet’s mother because of age concerns

6. Desmond Dickenson had a very maneuverable Camera Dolly specially made for this film.

7. Christopher Lee, Patrick Macnee and Jean Simmons are the only surviving cast members of the film

8. This is the first of many films that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would do together. Their later roles included The Curse of Frankenstein where Peter Cushing played Dr. Frankenstein and Lee was the Monster and Dracula, Lee played Dracula and Cushing played Van Helsing on three occasions

9. Shakespearean purist Ethel Barrymore criticized Olivier’s version of Hamlet. Complaining that it wasn’t as faithful as the stage version produced on Broadway in 1922, in which her brother John Barrymore played Hamlet. Ethel Barrymore was later to present Laurence Olivier with the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards and was visibly shaken when she read out Olivier’s name as the winner

10. This was the first talkie film of Hamlet in English
Tomorrow? Henry V.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Competition: Win Olivier's Hamlet and Henry V on Blu-Ray

I've always wanted to say something along the lines of the follow:

To celebrate the release of Laurence Olivier's classic interpretations of Hamlet and Henry V on Blu-Ray, The Hamlet Weblog in association with ITV DVD has two sets of both films to give away!

HAMLET (Cert: U, Run Time: 153 mins, £19.99 RRP)

One of Laurence Olivier’s masterpieces and the capturing of a defining moment of his career, hailed as the greatest performance of Hamlet on stage and screen. The film also stars Jean Simmons as Ophelia (Great Expectations, Guys & Dolls), Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who) and Peter Cushing (Dracula).

Having gained widespread popularity in film, Olivier tried his hand at directing and created three highly successful films including HAMLET and HENRY V. Olivier’s definitive version of the Bard’s tragedy won 11 awards including 4 Oscars and was the first British film to pick up the coveted Best Picture honour.

Other actors to make the role their own on stage recently include another Doctor Who; David Tenant and Jude Law whose production has just transferred to Broadway.

HENRY V (Cert: U, Run Time: 138 mins, £19.99 RRP)

Based on one of the most popular historical plays by Shakespeare and made to boost moral of British troops during World War II, HENRY V tells the story of this King of England and the epic Battle of Agincourt.

Devised, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, this film includes some of most impressive technicolour battle sequences in film, making it a must see. 2009 is the 65th Anniversary of this historically important and glorious film that was nominated for five Academy Awards.

The Blu-ray release also includes some fantastic extras such as the Henry V feature commentary, the trailer and three photo galleries which include black and white, original colour and HD comparison images, actor’s portraits and promotional material.

For a chance of winning this fabulous prize, please answer the following question:

What are Hamlet's first words in the play?

Email your answer with the subject line "Hamlet Competition" to to reach us (me) by midnight GMT on 19th October 2009.

Some terms and conditions:

(1) I'll pull two names out of the metaphorical hat on the 20th and be in touch for details which I'll then send to ITV DVD so that they can send you the prizes.
(2) Competition is only open to UK residents. Sorry.
(3) You can win only these prize. There is no cash alternative.
(4) The judges’ decision is final. No correspondence will be entered into.

Keep an eye on the blog over the next couple of days for related content, including ten facts about Olivier's Hamlet and reviews of the films.

Hamlet and Henry V are released on Blu-ray on 19 October from ITV DVD

Thursday, October 08, 2009

RSC 2010

Next year's plans at the Royal Shakespeare Company have been released. Looks like I'll be taking another trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon:
"Hamlet, directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney – this new production will join a revival of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Paul Hunter, in Stratford for a special week of Young People's Shakespeare performances devoted to young audiences.
No word on casting, though it's an interesting choice for director. McCraney has been a playwright and actor in his own right and was RSC/Warwick International Playwright in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company last year. It's a production designed primarily for schools and is set to première in front of the press in London on 26 January. I'm hoping it will end up at the RSC's own venue later in the year.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

'Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country' by Steve Roth.

Someone asked me, not too long ago, how much literary criticism I’d read on the subject of Hamlet, then raised some wonderfully cartoony eyebrows when I told him that I hadn’t. “But” he must have thought “You write that blog…” The problem with much of the criticism that’s been published in the past couple of centuries (at least from what I’ve seen) is that orthodoxy has led to stagnation and too often writers tie themselves in knots quoting from and disproving what has gone before instead of contributing something truly innovative on the subject. Plus it’s usually impenetrable and oppressive to the point of becoming unreadable.

Which makes Steve Roth’s Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country (of which the author was good enough to send me a copy) a rare pleasure because it’s very readable and manages to illuminate at least two aspects of the play that hadn’t occurred, at least to me, to the point that it makes me wonder if theatre has been doing the play a disservice for the past four hundred years. Roth’s persuasive central thesis which for some reason isn’t mentioned on the cover (making the book seem from the outside like just a general survey of the play) is that Hamlet is a teenager, just sixteen years old and that the time scheme of the play spans the six month period from September 1601 and February 1602.

Roth was influenced by L.C. Knight’s 1933 essay, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?”, the setting up of a literary mystery based upon a tiny inference then shaking the whole of the text to see the extent to which it might yield an answer. Using a forensically detailed linguistic analysis of the text and it has to be admitted some disapproval of previous critics, Roth presents a range of evidence from quotes to background material, and does so in narrative style as he talks us through the steps he took and the brainwaves he enjoyed in working towards his answer.

The opening chapter regarding Hamlet’s age is available at the book’s promotional website along with a wealth of background evidential material. It seems only proper to let you read the chapter yourself and enjoy the eureka moment (assuming that, like me, you’re not a textual scholar). Whilst it’s true that “sexton” does refer to “officer charged with the maintenance of its buildings and/or the surrounding graveyard” [wiki] sixteen does seem like a better fit – and indeed Shakespeare always substituted words to create double meaning – his intention could have been to imply both.

If you assume that Hamlet is indeed just sixteen as the text of the First Folio suggests, as Roth goes on to demonstrate in the remainder of the book, all kinds of curious elements of the play begin to fall into place. Hamlet’s somewhat petulant behaviour becomes perfectly natural when we realise that we’re watching the story of a teenager on the edge of adulthood, that it’s a good old fashioned coming of age tale, a tragic teen drama with the cast predominantly made up of youngsters playing Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

I love this. I also love that the gravedigger, far from the being the pensioner that turns up in most productions could in fact be “just” thirty years old, and Gertrude too, which as Roth notes means that she’s still of child bearing age and able to produce an heir to the throne to cement Claudius’s rights, simultaneously removing Hamlet from the accession (and explaining why he wasn't given the crown to begin with). It shows that even when a director thinks they’re stripping away the political dimension by cutting Fortinbras, it’s all still there even if it's refocusing on Elsinore’s court rather than the whole of Europe. This is not just a domestic drama.

In the appendixes, Roth does address why Shakespeare seems to wait until so late in the play to address the characters age. I simply assume now that at time of production, those casting the play would simply have been aware of the playwright’s intentions or the audience would have been aware of the artifice through some other means, something which didn’t filter through in the printing of the text and have been lost since. There is evidence that mature actors like Burbage played the role at the time but like the casting of boys for girls it's simply something else that the audience has to suspend their belief for.

Of course that doesn’t mean that in more realistic times when boys are boys and girls are girls that the various productions of the play in which adults walk around saying these lines are wrong. They’re following the orthodox version of the play in which the gravedigger is talking about his length of service and the prince is thirty years old (even if it also means that he’s a mature student). It’s simply part of whatever overall interpretation they’ve constructed and it certainly has more legitimacy than when Romeo & Juliet are portrayed by thirtysomethings even though Shakespeare isn’t as vague about their age.

The chronological discovery is equally fascinating, though it be would be wrong of me here to give all of that away. Suffice to say that Roth once again shows Shakespeare’s words to be a multi-faceted, clever writer, potentially layering into the play biographical commemorations. There’s an interactive version of his findings on the website, and again when you realise that the play takes place over six months, that far from dithering, Hamlet is playing the long-con, which only fails because of his hot-headed accidental manslaughter of Polonius. If this book gains the large audience it deserves, perhaps we’ll sometime see a film, which, after the Ghost scene features the caption “Two Months Later. Tuesday 5th January 1602.”

Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country by Steve Roth is published by Open House Books. £9.95. ISBN: 978-0970470201.

[Update! 8/10/2009 Writer Steve Roth has been in touch with a corrective: "Knight's "How Many Children..." is actually rather a sendup and denunciation of the kind of extrapolation that I engage in to some (?) extent. "Twere to consider to curiously, to consider so..." I do like to think that Knights would have found a decent dose of value in the book, even so..."]

Monday, October 05, 2009

Julia Styles

New York Magazine interviews Julia Stiles, Ophelia in the Michael Almereyda film with Ethan Hawke. I'd always assumed that her colonisation of the Shakespearean teen films was by design. Seems not:
"The actress has gotten flack for protesting too much, for seeming to imply she’s too good for her fans or her early roles. It’s true that her career-making films had loftier aspirations than your average teen romance, but Stiles claims it’s sheer coincidence that three of them were modern adaptations of Shakespeare: 10 Things, based on The Taming of the Shrew; a very arty Hamlet opposite Ethan Hawke; and O, with Mekhi Phifer as a basketball-star Othello. She also downplays the old profile chestnut that has her 11-year-old self sending an adorable letter to the avant-garde Ridge Theater Company, which promptly cast her in productions at La MaMa and the Kitchen. “I was this precocious little kid. It sounds so annoying to me right now.”"

Kitchen Hamlet

Daniel Elihu Kramer's new independent film Kitchen Hamlet sounds rather good. Stripped to the essential story of parental loss and just seventy-six minutes in duration, it's set not in a castle but a house and apparently has the duel play out in the back garden. The director's note points to an autobiographical interpretation:
"... when I was studying directing at Yale, I began directing my own Shakespeare productions. I felt at home in these worlds, at home with Shakespeare’s language and his ways of thinking and seeing. Immediately after Yale, I got married and went to New York. Now I was ready to do what I could not do seven years earlier, when my father died. I directed my first production of Hamlet, seeing in it the story of a son brought to a stop by the loss of his father. For me the question was not whether Hamlet was crazy; it was how he could continue in the face of such grief. I mourned the loss of my father."

Friday, September 25, 2009

dvd cover for the RSC production

The thrillingly evocative dvd cover for the RSC production has been released:

I love this. Usually it's Hamlet and the skull (see top right for what I was expecting) or the washed out face of the actor. This cuts straight to one of the symbolic heart of the play, the fracturing of Hamlet's personality and how he has to split himself into pieces in order to survive (the irony being that it doesn't work). Plus, look at that certificate. I'm hoping for a particularly bloody duel at the end.

The DVD is now available for pre-order direct from the RSC.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Urgent Appeal.

The roof of Holy Trinity Church, the site of Shakespeare's tomb, is rotting. Work was being carried out in the rafters and masonry came away and nearly fell on visitors, of which I was one not too long ago:

Holy Trinity ChurchShakespeare's tomb at Holy Trinity ChurchShakespeare's memorial at Holy Trinity Church

£50,000 is required for repairs. They're having an appeal and I've already chipped in to save what feels as close as odds to being my parish church. Considering how much the bard has given me, seemed the decent thing to do to give him a structurally sound resting place.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

John Simm wants to play Hamlet.

A lot: "I've asked him about the play he's rehearsing, of course, and he's told me, of course, that it's "a hell of a challenge", and that he was "intrigued" by the script, and the fact that it's "like a split-screen on stage", and that he's playing two characters, a detective (again) and a violent, alcoholic neighbour. And then he announces, casually, that he "wasn't particularly looking to get back on stage again", but was wanting to do Hamlet. Whoa! And he hasn't done any Shakespeare before? "No." And wouldn't it feel a bit like following in the footsteps of David Tennant? "I didn't really think about that." And he's only ever seen one Hamlet? "Yes, at drama school." And doesn't it, um, imply quite a lot of confidence?"

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Macbeth: A Shakespeare 4 Kidz Musical Adaptation

Macbeth played by Jason Lee Scott
Directed by Julian Chenery

Yes, indeed. The Hamlet Weblog is a broad church and with Shakespeare 4 Kidz’s 3D film in production, they were good enough to invite me along to see their theatrical version of Macbeth perhaps to give some idea of what to expect from a visit to Elsinore. So last night I was installed in the stalls of the ornate Palace Theatre in Manchester amid school groups and families watching a child friendly rendition of one of the bloodiest of tragedies. Adapting the Scottish play for a young audience is certainly provocative even at time when arguably kids are being exposed to violence far more than in the past. How would they manage to keep all of the black magic and death without watering down the play's moral message of cause and effect?

The answer is to simplify and modernise sections of the text and add some song and dance numbers and turn the play into a musical. It’s initially quite disappointing that so much of Shakespeare’s verse couldn't been retained and arguably the most powerful moments are when the undiluted text makes an appearance (“Life is but a walking shadow…”). But cunningly, though the iambic pentameter is often jettisoned for clarity's sake, by seemingly taking its influence from Japanese Kabuki theatre in which the characters wear their hearts on their sleeve, the actions are plainly presented, the results generally unsubtle, the performers addressing the audience more than themselves, the overall sentiment is retained.

As is the plot. Done badly, once Macbeth has the Scottish crown, the play can easily descend into a soup of skirmishes and witchery, but adaptors Julian Chenery and Matt Gimblett's script and songs very cleanly set out the consequences of the thane’s actions and how his arrogance will ultimately lead to his downfall. The plot may be simplified but they don’t shirk from showing the more gruesome scenes, including the murder of MacDuff’s household and how that leads to the battle which spans act five. I’m sure I heard a gasp when it became apparent that Macbeth had misinterpreted the witches warning about the circumstances of his death.

In this production, witchcraft is pervasive, the heavily hooded weird sisters (close cousins of the Wraiths from the Lord of the Rings films) never far from and sometimes directing the action. In places they’re genuinely scary simply because of the wrongness of their movements, their speech patterns and the deathly howls which sometimes emanate from their mouths (the voices of the all actors are augmented and projected by speakers on either side of the stage) and it's their incantations that bring the curtains down, suggesting that at any moment their dark forces could break through into the auditorium.

When you add to this the musical element, if you’re an adult and with more than a passing knowledge of the play, Chenery's Macbeth becomes a camp extravaganza, a great big entertaining panto. For much of the duration I grinned from ear to ear even as Thane of Cordor considers the death of first Duncan then his co-captain with songs like “How Do You Murder A King?” and “Banquo Must Go”, not entirely sure how knowing the declamatory acting style is supposed to be but loving each glorious second of it, as the dialogue drift from straight Shakespeare to the modern idiom into the mix of the two which inhabits The Tudors tv series (incidentally the photographs you can see here were taken at Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn).

At the epicentre of all this is Emma Odell’s incandescent sitcom take on Lady Macbeth, who’s reaction on hearing that her husband might have murdered his king but forgot to pin the murder on the guards, is as delicious as one of Sybil’s verbal disembowelments of her husband Basil in Fawlty Towers. It’s not hard to feel sorry for Jason Lee Scott’s chiselled but dominated Macbeth. The deterioration of their relationship is like watching an alternate reality where Prince Charming has married one of Cinderella’s sisters instead and is now suffering the consequences. Odell arguably gets the best song too, “Out, Damned, Spot!” a scat like descent into madness.

But the moment which brings the best response from the children in the audience and when they clearly become locked into the show is Noel Andrew Harron’s Porter. The one deliberately light moment in the play, written by Shakespeare (like the Gravedigger in Macbeth) to give the clown in the company something to do, the Porter can be an opportunity for the show to relax for a moment after the murder of King Duncan. I’ve previously seen his speech replaced by a thematically relevant routine by George Carlin and S4K offers a child friendly version of that as Harron offers the audience some slapstick, knock knock jokes (“Knock knock” “Who’s there?” “Toby…” etc) and a short lesson on duplicity.

The children were wrapt, and that’s the point. At the interval I glanced about the theatre and I think every young face in the place was smiling, eyes glowing. At the end of the show, the deafening applause and cheers as each actor took a bow demonstrates that Chenery, who also directs, has pitched the production perfectly. If kids hate something, you’ll know instantly, through their chatter and toilet visits during the production and general indifference, but that’s not what I saw. If they were talking, it's because they were asking the adults questions, their eyes constantly fixed on the stage and Jaimie Todd’s set design which implies the kind of ruins you might find in a similarly addictive storybook. If any of those children grow up remembering Macbeth as an exciting, approachable spectacle, then Shakespeare 4 Kids’s is to be commended.

Macbeth: A Shakespeare 4 Kidz Musical Adaptation is touring. Click here for venue details.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Dover Thrift Editions.

Who's There?

"Thrift, Horatio, thrift!"

One of the features I always meant to bring to the blog, but failed to due to other distractions, was reviews of the various published editions of the play. Let’s begin. As well as the colouring book and paper dolls, Dover were also good enough to send copies of their version of the play itself, part of their Thrift Edition series, publishing the world’s literature at a nominal price. Already out is a straight reprint of just the play, UK price £1.50, which these days is cheaper than a Penguin.

This is a copy of the text from the 1892 complete works published by MacMillan and Co which combines the Second Quarto with the First Folio and means the gravediggers are still listed as Clowns. Some modern thought suggests that the different versions of the play don’t contain errors but an expression of Shakespeare revising his work later, but as a cheap entry level edition this is very good, drafting in annotations from Alexander Schmidt’s Shakespeare-Lexicon and it’s to Dover’s credit that they take the time to list their sources.

Coming to the UK in November is the Dover Thrift Study Edition (pictured), priced £4.95 which includes the same text married with a reprint of the “literary analysis and perspectives from MAXnotes for Hamlet, published in 2000 by Research & Education Association Inc, Piscataway, New Jersey”. Prepared by Joanne K. Miller from the Department of English, Harrison High School in West Lafayette, Indiana (the United States is a big place) the study guide is split into three sections, an introduction to Shakespeare and the play, a tour of the play noting points of interest and a bibliography (which is really a list of sources).


Since I’m a fan, not an educator, I’m not sure how qualified I am to say whether the guide is detailed enough for today’s students (insert discussion about working to the test). Miller’s text is pitched lower than the nerdier excesses of the Arden editions but less arcane than the Signet Classic from which she has sourced some of her material. In other words, it isn’t afraid to throw about the acronyms (Q1, Q3, F1) and is happy to explain that Shakespeare based the play on earlier works. The rest of the ensuing guide is broken up into summary and analysis of each scene, coupled with quiz questions.

The main element I've noticed is that the play is treated very much as a text rather than a script; there's nothing I can see about how the play might be cut for stage and the implications that has on how we view Hamlet’s personality and for example whether he’s aware that he’s being watched during “To Be…” It’s arguable that this is irrelevant for the purposes of secondary education, which is largely about developing the child’s analytical as well as language skills, but its non-inclusion demonstrates a streamlined approach to this study of the play which also lacks the inclusion of previous critical opinion; Dover Wilson and Leavis are nowhere to be seen.

How is it, my lord?

If I was looking for an introduction to the play this would be good enough. One of the problems I encountered at school was because of the weight of critical opinion, the mass of text that surrounded the plays almost submerging them as entities, I did get terribly confused about the essentials of the story and what each scene is basically about. The slightly confusing York Notes lent a hand but ultimately I failed my English Literature A-Level (N-grade). I’m not saying this kind of straightforward study guide would have been the sticky plaster on the gash in my brain were cognitive understanding was spilling out amid exam pressure, but it might have helped

Hamlet. Dover Thrift Edition. Dover Publications. ISBN: 978-0486272788.
Hamlet. Dover Thrift Study Edition. Dover Publications. ISBN: 978-0486475721.

Monday, September 07, 2009

"Great Characters from Shakespeare - Paper Dolls" by Tom Tierney.

Ever on the look out for unusual ways in which Hamlet can been communicated, I find myself looking at the play in paper doll form. As you’ll know, paper dolls are the two dimensional equivalent of dollies, the way that little girls and I expect some boys played dress up before the invention of plastic. They’re of no fixed origin, with evidence of kimonoed versions cropping up in ancient Japan and Balinese designs dating back to biblical times. They first became popular in Europe during the eighteenth century and Milton Bradley made them popular in the US from 1920 onwards (wiki). Virtual versions have followed.

It says in the introduction to this book from Dover Publications that its been the dream of artist Tom Tierney to create a paper doll set featuring Shakespeare’s characters. Judging by the product list on his website he’s something of an expert and enthusiast and a google search reveals hundreds of examples of his work. Tierney’s the illustrator who created the Barack Obama and John McCain dolls during the presidential campaign last year. His latest publication features Obama and his family, part of a presidential series.

The best way to review a book of paper dolls would be to find a pair of scissors and cut out the figures and costumes. But being practically challenge, I’ve decided to simply look at the pictures. On page three of the book are the dolls themselves, Richard and Elizabeth, or Richard Geer and Julie Andrews or Heath Ledger and Jennifer Garner. I’m opinion oscillating but it’s impossible to see these images and not attempt to assign an identity. Elizabeth Taylor then? Elizabeth Hurley? They're painted in a simple comic book style, with their hands close to their chest presumably to allow for some flexibility in the shape of the costumes.

The rest of the book features those costumes. As Hamlet, Richard finds himself tunic’d all in black, clasping the skull to his stomach and wearing a wig which seems to have been borrowed from Adam, prince of Eternia and defender of the secrets of Castle Greyskull (He-Man). Elizabeth’s Ophelia is already gripped by madness, is draped in a white nightdress with long golden hair and clasping those flowers which are often imaginary depending upon the budget of the production. Of the all plays features in the book, it is noticable that Hamlet is about the only one where the apparel so clearly orientates the characters to a particular point in the play.

At the back of the book is a short synopsis of the plays which manages to offer the plot of Hamlet in about seventy words and confirms which part of each story is being illustrated. As ever, Fortinbras is cut. But if I was of a certain age, as with the colouring book I reviewed the other day, I’d probably find all of this fascinating. The only improvement I might have made would have been to include a short extract to give children to act from, but on reflection the lack of such only means they have to pick up a copy of the play which has to be for the good.

Great Characters from Shakespeare - Paper Dolls by Tom Tierney. Dover Publications. ISBN: 978-0486413303.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Lodestar Theatre Company's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (2009)

Richard Kelly as Rosencrantz.
Simon Hedger as Guildenstern.
Directed by Max Rubin.

Utterly, utterly brilliant.

Before heading off into too detailed an explanation as to why the Lodestar Theatre Company’s production is so utterly, utterly brilliant, it’s important to urge you, if you’re in the Liverpool area and you have an interest in theatre, however vague, to seek out this production before it goes forever on the 13th September. It’s at the Novas Contemporary Urban Centre which you may not have heard of (the taxi driver who took me certainly didn’t), but if you can get to Caines Brewery, it’s opposite (ish) there. Here’s a map and and ticket details. If you manage to visit on 5th, 12th or 13th you will be able to see this show and their Hamlet (previously reviewed) back to back.

Now onward.

Nominally, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is about what happens to these minor characters from Hamlet whilst the rest of the revenge tragedy is playing out, from their summons to untimely death. But rather than simply pouring in more plot, Stoppard wraps these journeymen around a structure heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett’s absurdest Waiting for Godot, unpacking the themes and structure of Shakespeare’s story to discuss the nature of chance, destiny and death and with the aid of the players throw in a meditation on the nature of acting and duality.

The writer isn’t interested in somehow giving G & R inner lives, but instead he creates two figures who find themselves in an impossible situation in which they’re dragged along until ultimately they die, trying to understand precisely what they did and what they could have done to change to outcome. It’s an existential puzzle, which to a degree mirrors reality more closely than a John Osbourne kitchen-sinker since we’re all drowning in a sea of questions which, depending upon your philosophical point of view, are given few answers.

And it’s a comedy. And I laughed like a drainpipe all night, big theatrical belly laughs. It’s to the credit of the actors that they weren’t distracted by my shaking about, head back, gob open, sitting on the front row, right in the middle. But I wasn’t the only one. The whole audience, guffawed and gaped, and oddly at different things. A line that went dead one side of the room became comic gold at the other, but often it was simply because you couldn’t laugh at everything. I’ve had a cold this week and it perked my right up, made me feel like myself again.

Sometimes, it was straight wit of the lines, sometimes the truisms, sometimes the commentary on the acting profession, sometimes the heroic criticism of Shakespeare’s poetry, particularly during Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s first meeting with Hamlet, who as Stoppard points out offers a pack of lies and double talk which doesn’t get them anywhere and leaves them even worse off because the prince knows more about their state of mind than they do of his, proving the old theory from the studenty quiz show Blockbusters that sometimes one head is better than two.

In this production it was also the delivery. In my review of Lodestar’s Hamlet, I gave Richard Kelly and Simon Hedger special mention and thankfully, brilliantly, given the duration of a whole play to work with and these lines, they combine to create a classic double act, with razor sharp timing, and a genuine sense of two people who’s friendship has spanned a lifetime, the Kelly’s empiric Rosencrantz forever undercut by the realism of Hedger’s Guildenstern. There are moments, as they hammer out the dialogue that the words aren’t just simply learnt lines hanging from their lips, but something they genuinely believe.

Kelly and Hedger are one of the best theatrical double acts I’ve seen, at least as tight as Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson were in their classic production of Godot, if not more so since Kelly and Hedger (seemed at least) to lack the fear of doing something approximating classical theatre for the first time, the fear of getting it wrong. Stoppard’s dialogue isn’t easy. This isn’t idle hyperbole. There are sections, such as the linguistic tennis game, which must require supreme concentration, but these two make it look easy. The few occasions I wasn’t laughing, it was simply because I was enjoying the spectacle of two young actors at the top of their game.

The rest of cast aren’t anything to be sniffed at either. The other minor characters to be given feature status in Stoppard’s play are the players led in this production by Liam Tobin. A travelling troupe of tragedians, the irony is of course that the process of them parsing their craft is hilarious. Tobin’s player is a ringmaster, marshalling events, a disruptive influence whenever R & G give the impression of finally marking out an equilibrium in their chaotic world. In fact, all of the players have lashings of pathos; under Max Rubin’s direction their mockable very public under-appreciation slowly gains a poignancy as we eventually understand that if an actor is unable to successfully ply their craft, they are nothing. It’s a kind of death.

When the rest of the cast from the other production do sweep through it’s like greeting old friends. As I suspected, in this space, more intimate than the Concert Room at St George’s Hall, the actors an increased vitality, though in the transfer, the performances are more clipped, slightly caricatured, perhaps as a way of melding them into these slightly different circumstances. The effect of having already seen them in that earlier production is to have the other story, in the other setting, playing at the back of your mind, almost imagining as Claudius and Gertrude disappear from this stage, that they’re reappearing over there, before a different audience.

It must be rather strange for them to get into those same costumes, prepare themselves and then have to wait for a cue to present just a splinter of their previous performance, albeit reconfigured slightly in this new venue. Does Tom Latham, who plays Horatio, wait around all night, or just turn up half an hour before the end to give a reprise of his final big speech? Stephen Fletcher has the most difficult job, because at times he's an on-stage presence, maintaining Hamlet's epic intensity while his fellow cast members clown about, sometimes mocking that thing which defines his character in the other production.

The Wake Theatre at the Novas is a bit of an unlikely space; like the rest of the centre it’s built into an old warehouse, but resembles a cinema screen from the period before multiplexes brought in stadium seating. It’s what you’d expect a dedicated university theatre to be like, large enough to hold a student body greedy to see their classmates acting up, but small enough to hold classes. The props from the previous production reappeared here, a rich on-stage visual reminder of previous events, some, like Shakespeare’s characters, reduced to silhouettes by the atmospheric lighting and dry ice effects. Just another demonstration of how well conceived these productions have been and I look forward to seeing what Lodestar do next.

Any chance of a Measure for Measure?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is at at the Novas Contemporary Urban Centre until the 13th September 2009. Click here to buy tickets.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

'Great Scenes from Shakespeare's Plays' illustrated by John Green and edited by Paul Negri.

The task of bringing Shakespeare to children (or children to Shakespeare) has become something of a theme on the blog lately and Dover Publications have been good enough to send me examples from their Shakespeare lines directed a youngsters. Founded in 1941, Dover were one of the companies to spearhead the growth of the paperback book, republishing works which have fallen into the public domain, and one of their great successes was Albert Einstein’s The Principle of Relativity. Inevitably the wikipedia has a good biography of the company.

First up, Great Scenes from Shakespeare’s Plays, part of the pictorial archive series, a colouring book with drawings by prolific illustrator John Green who looks to have provided an infinite number of similar images on a range of topics, in science, the natural world, well, everywhere. Looking back, I even think he drew the A-Team colouring book I was given on holiday when I was a pre-teen. The format of the book, edited by Paul Negri, marries Green’s illustrations of various scenes from Shakespeare’s plays on the right hand side of a spread with a short synopsis and extract on the left.

For Hamlet, right at the front of the book, that means the gravedigger scene and the duel, the former perhaps because it’s the moment and speech which have become folklore because of the skull, the latter for its dynamism and there’s certainly something of the Errol Flynn about the way the two rivals grimace at each other mid swash. Green seems to have been influenced by a range of sources in creating his images; his Hamlet and Henry V both look like they've stepped out of Lawrence Olivier's films, Rossetti’s Proserpine portrays Lady Macbeth, and his King Lear looks just like a still from The Ten Commandments.

That’s not a criticism. I love the idea of child working tirelessly to fill in these drawings and at the same time building a acquaintance with the images and then later in life revisiting them in their original forms with an pre-built familiarity. And the scenes chosen reflect the sheer variety of different types of incident in Shakespeare’s plays and doesn’t shy away from the darker images, of Othello suffocating Desdemona, of Leontes denying his child, of Caesar’s assassination. Indeed, both of the Hamlet images are about death, and this is underscored by the inclusion of the prince’s final speech.

Hatches, matches and dispatches. They’re all here.

'Great Scenes from Shakespeare's Plays' illustrated by John Green and edited by Paul Negri. Dover Publications. ISBN: 978-0486409603.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Hamlet 2 (2009)

Hamlet played by Octavio.
Directed by Dana Marschz.

Without hopefully giving too much away (!) it’s important to note, right up front, since this (p)review is being published on a blog about Hamlet, that the provocatively titled Hamlet 2 has almost nothing to do with the play. The title of the film comes from the musical that Steve Coogan’s down at heels teacher is producing in order to save the drama department at the athletics driven high school in which he’s marooned following a failed acting career.

Though the story of the musical has the mysteriously resurrected young prince employing a time machine to visit key moments in the play to save Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius and his father, do not watch the film expecting a sharp parody of Shakespeare’s story or themes in the tradition of Ten Things I Hate About You or even Get Over It, other than a very general mention of Hamlet oedipal complex.

That’s part of the joke; in casting about to create a production which demonstrates the power of theatre, rather than actually presenting one of the greatest works in the English language just as Michael Maloney’s similarly out of luck actor did during Ken Branagh’s In The Bleak Midwinter, Coogan’s hack egotistically writes his own version, an “offensive” travesty which also parachutes in Jesus, Einstein and a raft of other real life figures and pop culture references.

So while some of the resultant staging, in which Shakespeare’s scenes are lovingly augmented by a giant video screen, most remarkably with Hamlet Snr’s face looking down on his son, the dialogue is deliberately hammy, the film’s main trump card, the song and dance number Sexy Jesus Sing-Along has more to do with Grease and Jerry Springer: The Opera (and their ensuing condemnation by the religious right) than The Mousetrap.

With director Andrew Fleming’s film just about absolved of disingenuousness then, what enjoyment you dig up from this back stage high school musical probably depends on the extent to which you feel Steve Coogan is a comic genius. I have issues. I think he can be a very clever actor, and at his finest, in 24 Party People, A Cock and Bull Story, Marie Antoinette and the little seen Happy Endings, his work can be outrageous but poignant. Sadly, he also has a tendency, when he’s the focus of attention, to push himself too far, resorting to the worst variety of gormless mugging, as in The Parole Officer or Around the World in 80 Days.

During Hamlet 2, he’s in almost every scene, and Fleming, deep in the genius camp, appears to have given him a certain latitude to improvise which leads some scene to donder on beyond their natural end as Coogan attempts to ring out every drop of the “comic potential”. When Fleming (who in the 1990s brought us the righteous run of Threesome, The Craft and Dick) should be playing up the zanier aspects of the film in preparation for his finale, he’s too busy allowing Coogan to shout, gurn and toss his hair about as though it’s a punch line. That has the effect of stagnating the rest of the film and at worst Coogan becomes the boring one at the party who hogs the conversation but doesn’t realise he’s ruining everyone’s night.

Elizabeth Shue cameos, playing herself, having given up acting for the nursing profession, but much of her contribution is reduced to reacting to Coogan’s hero worship and shouting out of her back catalogue. The mighty Catherine Keener is wasted in the role of his wife, throwing out some good barbs, but generally looking like she knows she’s in a dud. David Arquette plays their “boring” lodger whose turn is to mumble obvious observations about the situation but otherwise has nothing to do. And at the moments when they’re at their funniest, Fleming cuts away to whatever bit of business Coogan is up to. Only Amy Poehler is given space to work as a ballsy civil rights lawyer who doesn’t care about the quality of the production.

Hamlet 2 barely manages to resuscitate when dealing with the teenagers who populate the drama club. There’s some interesting subtext in relation to our perception of the kid’s background, and their ability to turn in a good performance on stage despite the material. At a guess (though the deleted scenes on the dvd don’t reflect this) I’d suggest that there are a couple of sub-plots within this group which are still sitting in the editing software. The director has clearly decided that the film is about Coogan, Coogan and more Coogan, and I take no pleasure in saying this, especially since the film company have been good enough to supply me with a preview copy, on this occasion his timing off, off and even further off.

I will add this. I laughed four times, proper belly laughs, at very good jokes, which it would be a shame to spoil, especially since if you’re in the right mood, Hamlet 2 might just work, particularly in the finale where the population of the town turn up to simultaneously gasp and applaud the final production. The film is co-written by South Park's Pam Brady and these closing dance numbers clearly share some DNA with the productions in the film version of that series (Bigger Longer & Uncut).

But that’s not enough for me. As the first ambassador says in Hamlet 1, “The sight is dismal”. And it really is.

Hamlet 2 was released on DVD on the 7th September 2009.