Monday, June 28, 2010

Hamlet (Spinebreakers). Edited by Dr. G B Harrison.

Who's There?

Spine Breakers from the Puffin Books imprint is an online book community for teenagers between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, with editorial control and content produced by people from within that age group. Penguin are now using the initiative to publicise some classic books, Pride and Prejudice, Dracula, Jane Eyre and Hamlet giving each the trappings of a modern novel with a day-glo cover and a zeitgeisty quote on this back, in this case, David Tennant saying that it’s “Probably the most famous play there’s ever been.”


The motivation for choosing Hamlet (for which a review copy was supplied) is right there on the cover. Penguin are refreshingly taking the logical assumption from the first Folio as explained by Steve Roth in 'Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country' that based on evidence in the gravedigger scene, the Danish prince is a teenager, just sixteen years (and not thirty as theatrical tradition has it), which means that the play has a better chance of resonating with the target audience. So there he is, a fresh faced Justin Bieber lookalike, clutching Yorrik’s skull. The synopsis on the back emphasises this by describing Hamlet up-front as a “young prince”.

The Text

Open the cover, though, and after the title page we find a reprint of GB Harrison’s original Penguin edition from 1937 which I previously reviewed at this link under its other guise in the Penguin Popular Classic edition. Short of a whole new editorial, this is a fairly good choice because of its simple but detailed approach to Shakespeare’s biography and Elizabethan staging. In this context, the handy glossary at the back of the book also reads like the Urban Dictionary and included words which would be no less unusual in teen speak now: “drossy: scummy”, “fordo: destroy” and “milch: moist”.

How is it, my lord?

My few reservations about the text are carried over as well, if not moreso since in this context its more likely to find use in an educational context were the information being given to a student and what they believe could effect their exam marks. Plus, however lush the cover, this is still the repackaging of material which is available for five pounds less elsewhere. Nevertheless, the philosophy behind the Spine Breakers editions is to be applauded and I’m sure Harrison would be pleased to see his work still being used to help introduce Shakespeare to a new audience all of these years later.

Hamlet (Spinebreakers). Edited by Dr. G B Harrison. Published by Puffin Books. £6.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780141331836 (for which a review copy was supplied)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hamlet: The Game

Independent game producer mif2000 have produced an old school shareware point and click version of the play. A time limited version is available at this link, as well as a trailer. Author Deins Galanin has been interviewed by Joystiq:
One thing I'm proud of is the unique puzzles you won't see in any other game-they are very hard and extremely simple at the same time. However, my greatest pride is the way we managed to adapt the Hamlet story to the game's setting. At first glance, you may think that all the game and the play have in common is the title, but if you take a closer look, you'll realize that the game has all of the key events of the famous tragedy, as well as its main characters-although they're transformed nearly to absurdity.
I've not had time to play it yet, but the graphics bring to mind Ren and Stimpy and those other 90s Nickelodeon cartoons.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hamlet (Penguin Shakespeare). Introduction by Alan Singfield. Text edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer.

Who's There?

There’s something rather legendary about The New Penguin Shakespeare editions of his plays (for which a review copy was supplied). In nearly all of the television documentaries I've seen across the years, when actors are projecting at each other in rehearsal rooms they’ve almost all had an RSC now NT endorsed Penguin paperback sitting tightly in their hands or folding over by the spine. They’re very tactile, with their soft covers and thin paper, which make it possible to roll them up like scrolls and toss lightly to one side when the words are finally flowing from memory.


Clare Melinsky is a British illustrator specialising in lino-cuts in colour and black and white following the style of traditional woodcuts. She's provided elements for all of the new series of Penguin Shakespeares and reproductions are available through her website, hand printed at the cost of £90-£120. As an aside Melinsky's recently been asked to produce covers for a new edition of the Harry Potter novels.

Publication Data

Penguin originally published a slender edition in the pre-post World War II (which still survives in reprint I reviewed last week). The New editions arrived in the 70s and 80s, with a simple rendering of the text, uncluttered by the footnotes of more academic additions – which is probably what made them so attractive to actors. The commentary was at the back, ready for consultation when a disagreement develops about the meaning of the words, or as a starting point for the director’s interpretation.

The Text

Those elements are continued in this 2005 edition and indeed the play is exactly the same text, account and commentary edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer that is also in print as part of the four tragedies omnibus I wrote about the other day. With other publishers rushing out new versions of the text, it’s interesting that Penguin are happy to stand behind a version from three decades ago for their main edition, though perhaps after four hundred years it’s the reading of the play which is important less than textual matters.

General Introduction

And an excellent introduction this provides. A new General Introduction brings the scholarship of Shakespeare’s biography in line with research into the mid-part of the past decade, happy to emphasise his work as a collaborator early and later in life and in the ensuing chronology though Edward III and Sir Thomas More are mentioned (at least as far as to point out that they don’t feature in the Penguin edition), Arden of Faversham isn’t and Cardenio is stated as being lost without allusion to Double Falsehood.

What sets Stanley Welles’s general introduction apart from others I’ve read is its willingness to go beyond Shakespeare’s death. The Restoration period of adaptation and veneration is covered and then his critical development from Coleridge through Hazlet and Granville-Barker. Such matters are covered only briefly, but Welles refreshingly makes plain that Shakespeare did not write books but plays and for the proper sense of the characters to be understood they have to be seen in performance.


Anne Bilson’s original play introduction is replaced now with far longer, more intellectual rigorous piece by Sinfield. But like Bilson, this new writer understands that readers may already have a wealth of criticism to hand, not least in the play’s commentary, and so decides to instead present their own individual impression of the text. Emerging from these dense pages is a writer who has a more holistic approach to criticism and who’s very willing to ignore or actively battle against orthodoxy.

Sinfield begins with arguments for and against Hamlet’s religious persuasion, and the extent to which that effects his ability to kill the king. Bilson went into similar areas, but Sinfield then cleverly turns it on its head by suggesting that actually Shakespeare doesn’t give enough evidence either way and may simply be relying on “us” or to put it more prosaically than he does, each individual audience member to decide with the young prince’s actions compare favourably or otherwise with our own world view, spiritual or otherwise.

He then turns that on its head by suggesting that actually, the “character” based approach to the play – as begun by A.C. Bradley – in which themes are developed through a character investigation, doesn’t work in Hamlet because the playwright seems to actively battle against making specific judgement in that way. Of course directors and actors must in order to make sense of a performance, but Sinfield argues that Shakespeare almost offers too many choices (which no doubt reflects the richness of the critical industry).

In other words, to attempt to apply a psychologically coherent expectation of character to Hamlet as we do with modern drama is a fools errand; whole books have been written about Gertrude’s attitude when in truth like many other characters (Angelo in Measure for Measure for one), after the closet scene it’s almost as though Shakespeare loses interest in her, like Ophelia she exists merely to demonstrate some aspect of Hamlet’s forward narrative motion rather than exist within her own being.

Play in Performance

A quick step through a mix of production history and dramatic choices, what to cut, how literal to make Elsinore, how to stage the Ghost and how casting choices effect characterisation. As a firm believer in Fortinbras and the political dimension, it’s shocking to me that all of that was cut well into the last century. Hamlet as a “simple” family drama can become a bit airless unless done well – Claudius the politician seems harder to kill just some murderer, underscoring the difficulty of Hamlet's mission.

Further Reading

A breezy look at the other editions available and some of the wilder excesses of criticism from across the decades which underscores the introduction’s reminder that by the play’s end because some it’s greatest mysteries, not least the origin and proper motivation of the Ghost are not explained, dozens of academics have felt the need to fill the gap in understanding. The tone is suitably mocking when required and the added context makes this rather more useful than the version from 1980.

How is it, my lord?

The newer Penguin edition will be perfect for someone intimidated by the nerdier excesses of the Arden or Oxford. My only suggestion, for future reprints, would be for the return of the original Bilson introduction alongside the Sinfield. Neither covers the same ground and though it would inevitably make the edition fatter, it feels important that these Penguins in particular should retain a sense of chronological critical continuity, especially considering their ongoing place within theatrical history.

Hamlet (Penguin Shakespeare). Introduction by Alan Singfield. Text edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer is published by Penguin Books. £7.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780141013077.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Antony is emasculated by his love for Cleopatra.

Chrissy McKeon is attempting to read all of Shakespeare's plays or at the very least cover what hasn't been through already. On Tony and Cleo:
"Throughout the play, there are times when Antony is emasculated by his love for Cleopatra, and times where Cleopatra is, well, masculated, for lack of a better word. As a result of his love for Cleopatra, Antony becomes impotent in war and the ruling of his state. As a result, Cleopatra arguably becomes more potent as a ruler. In some ways, Antony and Cleopatra are epitomes of their respective genders. Antony is a renowned ruler, logical, and he broods male sexuality (I’m thinking…. Russell Crowe?) Cleopatra is seductive and powerful, but also emotional. But at the same time, they both embody very feminine and masculine traits.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (Penguin Classics). Introduction by Anne Barton. Text edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer.

Who's There?

A thousand page slab of a volume, the Penguin Classics Four Tragedies (for which a review copy was supplied), gathers between two covers Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth and the (according to a note towards the front “accompanying editorial apparatus” which is “faithful reproductions of the original New Penguin Shakespeare editions”, although the “text has been reset, with the textual notes placed at the bottom of the page for ease of reference, the text itself is unchanged”.


The section of stained glass window on the front is from the centre of the Betley window which is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum and portrays a hobby horse from a popular morris dance that may have been contemporary with Shakespeare, although the closest connection is in notes about the window jotted into an edition of Henry IV, Part One by George Tollet who lived in Betley Hall where the window found its second home (the first having been demolished).

Nevertheless, its depiction of daggers positioned straight at the man’s head is emblematic of these four plays and of Shakespearean tragedy in general where few characters die noble deaths, generally murdered, often suicidal usually with daggers. In fact, Hamlet is one of the few plays in which daggers aren’t (as far as we can gather depending upon the stage directions) the weapon of choice other than when Hamlet almost takes Claudius’s life.

Publication Data

All four presentations are as detailed and incisively edited as you’d expect if a touch dated; the Hamlet commentary is from 1980, but Othello’s was written in 1968, Lear in 1972 and Macbeth in 1967. This collection was originally published in 1994.  The following review will concentrate on the Hamlet section, for obvious reasons. For a look at other aspects, please refer to the alternative versions of this weblog that I like to think exist in parallel universes.


The introduction offers a good general survey of Hamlet’s themes with an emphasis on the revenge aspects, opening with a short history of its antecedents followed by a discussion of sources for retribution. Whilst I don’t agree with everything writer Anne Barton (current Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge) contends, especially in relation to exactly how intimate Ophelia’s relationship is with Hamlet (which I think Shakespeare leaves open to greater interpretation than Barton suggests), she does point to something that I hadn’t noticed before.

To wit: Hamlet is a fan of the theatre and has an expert knowledge of its works, especially the revenge tragedies, and now he finds himself the main character within one, his realisation presumably at the heart of the “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I?”. This is an extremely post-modern reading of the play which is worth pursuing, especially in light of the mountain of other criticism which has been published in relation to exactly why Hamlet dithers in his mission.

Hamlet is effectively Randy from the Scream films; he knows the ultimate fate of “heroes” within these kinds of fictions, and aware of the rules governing the plot in which he finds himself but unable to do much about the ensuing carnage. You could even compare the video night scene in which Randy enunciates said rules to Hamlet’s outbursts during The Mousetrap, pointing out the features of the revenge tragedy. Once he kills Polonius, his fate is sealed: “The readiness is all…” etc.

Further Reading

A good survey of criticism, covering a period from the 1930s through to the late 70s, stalking everyone from Jenkins to T.S. Eliot to Wilson Knight and A.C. Bradley. Stored in paragraphs, my preference would have been for a more bibliographic approach and lists though I can understand why that might not have been quite as useful in terms of space in the book’s original edition which would have already been lengthy because of the need to reproduce the play.

An Account of the Text

Neatly outlines the chronology of the early editions which runs similar to the one which has later appeared in the Arden combined edition of Q1 and F, but stops short of considering each of them to be a complete play in their own right, preferring to see them all as raw materials for an editor to put together what they think is the best approximation of what Shakespeare meant (which as I’m discovering can be very mutable depending upon the sensitivity of the relevant academic).

The Text

The resulting main text then, is a conflation, based heavily on Q2 but pulling in omitted passages and readings from F and Q1, though not the latter's exposition scene between Horatio and the Queen, preferring the pirates. Shifting the textual notes beneath the verse brings it in line with the Arden and Oxford, but concern themselves with enlightening the textual richness with a thread of sardonic humour than bringing in literary influences and other critical readings.

How is it, my lord?

Which is the main reason for recommending this edition; like every production of the play, every published edition has its own quirks and the New Penguins is to try and look at the play from a less orthodox perspective. It knows it is part of an eco-system of criticism and that it won’t be the only copy of the play that people, even students will read. So rather than being exhaustive, this Penguin offers the reader a chance to look at it from a slightly different perspective and succeeds.

Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (Penguin Classics).  Introduction by Anne Barton, edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer is published by Penguin Classics. £10.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780140434583.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

29 Anton Lesser

Hamlet played by Anton Lesser.
Directed by Neville Jason.

Since brevity is supposed to be the soul of wit, I will be brief. As well has having the budget classical music market sealed up, Naxos also have a list of drama audiobooks that covers most of the canon and that includes two different Hamlets – the early Gielgud (coming soon) and this 1997 recording with Anton Lesser in the title role. Lesser first professionally played the role on stage under Jonathan Miller in 1982 at the age of thirty (having previously attempted it at school at sixteen) for the Donmare Warehouse. The full story of that production is in Mary Zenet Maher’s Modern Hamlets and their soliloquies which does a good job of mythologizing their efforts.

With that in mind I was rather looking forward to this recording and indeed it starts out well enough with some unidentified classical music on the soundtrack which works as a dramatic score. But it doesn’t take too long to realise that director Neville Jason isn’t interested in providing a too radical interpretation of the text and within a few scenes a strange lethargy breaks in as the drama falls out of joint and I was left enjoying this and that small bit of business but unable to really become fully engrossed. By the time of The Mousetrap, I was actively disappointed.

But I’m willing to admit it doesn’t sound like it’s all the cast’s fault. Rather the cast all seem to be appearing in different versions of the play, as though in turning up for the recording, they’re doing the version of the character they may previously have offered on stage. Lesser certainly has that deliberately unlikeable adolescence and I certainly agree with the reviewer (quoted in Maker’s books) who said that it was the first time that they’d wondered by Claudius doesn’t simply off the boy too since we know he has the wherewithal. The answer is of course that then we’d only have half a play.

But generally, if indeed this was directed in the traditional sense, Jason – perhaps guided by Naxos – was most interested in producing a conventional reading of the full text, with a musty Polonius, panto Claudius and indeterminate Gertrude. Only Emma Fielding seems to break with tradition with an Ophelia who’s a very modern woman of the kind that appear in BBC nine o’clock dramas, quick witted and slightly naughty. When she agrees to her father’s request to stay away from Hamlet, she gives the impression that she’s only telling him what he wants hear, fully intending to raid the prince’s bedchamber again that night. Sadly, obviously, events conspire against her.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hamlet (Penguin Popular Classics). Edited by Dr. G B Harrison.

Who's There?

The Penguin Popular Classics edition of Hamlet (for which a review copy was supplied) is something of a publishing classic as well as a cheap way of picking up the play. From the mid-30s onwards, Penguin pioneered the production of inexpensive copies of contemporary fiction, the familiar three band, two colour coded cover filling news stands which had previously only carried newspapers and magazines. Penguin Classics sprang out of that spirit, offering quality presentations of great literature from around the world at a relatively inexpensive price making them accessible to an audience outside of academia, in some cases, for the first time.

Open the florescent green cover of the Penguin Popular Classics and after the title page we find a reprint of Dr. GB Harrison’s original Penguin edition from 1937. Harrison was the general editor of the Penguin Shakespeare between 1937 and 1959 and one those old scholars who oscillated between action in both in both world wars (working for army intelligence) and years spent in academia, writing seminal books, in his case about the Elizabethan age. On my own shelf I have Harrison's Introducing Shakespeare, produced for the Pelican imprint at around the time of this Hamlet edition.

General Introduction

This edition opens with a succinct but surprisingly detailed biography of Shakespeare and his position in the theatrical life of the London from Henry VI to the ultimate publication of the plays, the tone of which suggests that as with most artists, even he was outpaced by youngsters like Ben Johnson with new ideas. That’s followed by a few pages on Elizabethan theatre emphasising the bareness of the staging, illustrated with the rather nice wood-engraving of the Globe Theatre by R.J. Beedham, the image of which will now be familiar to anyone whose visited the reconstruction.


Those same sections appeared in all of the original Penguin Shakespeares edited by Harrison before he provided an individual essay describing the origins of each individual play. In Hamlet’s case that means a lengthy synopsis of what was believed at the time to be the source text Shakespeare would have used, Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques (skipping over Belleforest's own source Saxo Grammaticus) and some consideration of the textual confusion between the three printings of the plays and the decisions Harrison therefore had to make in preparing the text.

The Text

Harrison notes that while the tradition is to conflate the texts (as happened later with Penguin’s New Shakespeare editions) or to employ the second Quarto with Folio corrections, this edition prefers the Folio with Q2 as the basis “correction obvious mis-readings by the Folio”. Having said that, Harrison has still followed the Theoboldian tradition of adding to the main text such Folio omissions, Q2 additions as Hamlet’s Act IV soliloquy “How all occasions do inform against me..” but with square brackets around them, which still suggests conflation through the back door to a purist like me.

Notes and Glossary

At the back of the book are notes and glossary sections with in some places lengthy expositions about the text, explaining contemporary references, offering commentary on the action and extrapolating the historical underpinnings which with contemporary eyes demonstrate the change in educational expectations. At one point Harrison says that “centre” means “the centre of the Earth which was regarded as the absolute centre of the universe” without mentioning Ptolemy or explaining why, something which would have to be done now.

How is it, my lord?

At £2 this is a bargain. However, I still have some reservations, not least that Hamlet scholarship has moved on in the seventy years since this volume was originally published. Some of Harrison’s conclusions, especially about biographical dating and the origins of Q1 have become antiquated. Perhaps a future edition might include a couple of pages putting the main text into some context or at the very least reprint the author’s note which appears on the back of Introducing Shakespeare, thereby underscoring the great contribution Harrison originally made to our national understanding of this play and its writer.

Hamlet (Penguin Popular Classics) edited by Dr J B Harrison is published by Penguin Classics. £2 paperback. ISBN: 9780140620580.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford at the Liverpool Playhouse

In the programme for Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford, Simon Callow (in an excerpt from his autobiography available in the theatre foyer) offers a rather nice anecdote. Early in his career, he was asked by the National Theatre if he would like to be part of a show that offered all 154 sonnets in a single reading, presented as a kind of autobiographical show. In the “full flush of (his) youthful meglomania” he noted that if this was a single man’s life, it should be presented by one man – him. And so a series of shows ensued culminating in a sell out afternoon performance in which, as he stepped onto stage, he noticed Sir John Gielgud sat prominently, the veteran’s no doubt hawk-like gaze scaring the life out of him.

Instead of the sonnets, The Man from Stratford is, like his earlier The Mystery of Charles Dickens, a mad old mix of biographical lecture and rehearsed scenes, this time written by Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate. My admiration for Bate’s work washes over this blog like the waves on Prosporo’s island and in truth if you’ve already read his book Soul of the Age and any of his other writing on the subject you’re not going to find much new here. The script even replicates that book’s device of structuring the chapters of Shakespeare’s life about Jacques’s speech from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage…”. But like the Bard’s plays and any good story, it’s worth hearing again and especially the capable hands and voice of Simon Callow.

Bate’s mission is to flesh out the details of the great man’s life to an audience who might not necessarily realise how much detail we have on him, from his parent’s years in Stratford to his schooling to his early marriage to London and how he ended up working in theatre to stardom to royal veneration back to Stratford to obscurity again and death. For all his genius, Shakespeare was a working man, pre-eminent certainly, but still one of dozens of writers functioning in that period, not in some ivory tower, his words drifting into the Globe like gold dust, which is the impression that has too easily developed across the century as his reputation has increased at the same exponential rate as our ignorance of his contemporaries some of whom haven't even been granted Complete Works collections.

Bate’s approach to scripting all of this is, like Shakespeare himself, to popularise things a bit. He calls Henry VI a “historical blockbuster” and “franchise” and when he talks about John Shakespeare’s financial problems it becomes an “Elizabethan credit crunch”. That’s smart, offering a vital link between the modern age and what can seem sometimes like a fictional land with little connection. He does fudge the chronology of the plays and often uses generalities like “he collaborated later in life” without always explaining with whom on what. But the writer also cleverly steers clear of the more obvious anecdotes like the destruction of the first Globe via canon during the premiere of Henry VIII in favour of the story of its construction (which I’ll not spoil since its one of the funniest moments in the evening).

What Callow brings as he dances about a relatively bare stage which includes just a chair and a few illustrative props, is his actorly ability to draw the audience in especially to the human moments; the death of Shakespeare’s son, the effects of disease, the glow of success. But its in the moments when Callow becomes a man possessed and enters the lives of Shakespeare's characters that the show is at its most entertaining, as we're gifted with a greatest hits of most of the main characters in the canon with the actor, age, gender and race hardly a barrier.  From Falstaff to Juliet, Callow just about manages, with the aid of some lighting effects and projections to suggest that we’re suddenly seeing excerpts of some other production.

In terms of Hamlet interest, that means the prince’s request for The Murder of Gonzago and extra lines to be inserted helps to explain how it's possible that the whole of Richard II could be revised overnight and an extra scene written ready to “inspire” the Earl of Essex’s rebellion and Polonius’s genre list demonstrates the scope of Shakespeare’s writing. But do not turn up expecting to hear Callow’s “To Be Or Not To Be”; for whatever reason Bate has decided to leave out arguably Shakespeare’s most famous speech which is probably just as well since it leaves room for Shakespeare's contribution to Sir Thomas More and it is a grand opportunity to hear something only recently canonised given a theatrical airing.

Even in these tiny excerpts of plays his whole demeanour changes and he tenses his facial muscles in an attempt to convey the nuclear emotions trapped within Shakespeare's text. He thunders red faced through Claudio’s fearful plea from Measure for Measure “Ah – but to die and go I know not where…” and becomes a symbol of nobility for Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach…”  It's impossible not to get caught up, and I did, almost in tears.  His Prospero is particularly powerful, the stage reduced to the glow of blue light, his Macbeth evoked by a shard of blood red and predictably by the close, amid the partial standing ovation, I was already making plans to dive back into the canon again.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Eyewitness: RSC, 1988

Mark Rylance has been interviewed by The Guardian about his life in theatre:
""When I played Hamlet," he remembers, "I added the word 'Ah!' five times after what are usually Hamlet's final words – 'The rest is silence.' And Ian McKellen sent me a letter to the stage door, saying, 'Now, now, darling, you really do have to be silent after those words.'" Sir Ian did not leave a return address, so Rylance was unable to write back to him and point out that the five dying susurrations are in the folio edition of the plays, printed seven years after the writer's death. Rylance believes that they were added in performance by Richard Burbage, the first Hamlet."
The Arden version of the folio has "O, O, O, O. Dies." But his point is made.

The modern equivalent of what he proposes are those printed editions of film scripts which are often transcripts of what occurred in the actual film rather than the screenplay even if an actor has paraphrased the words of the original writer and wrecked the sense.

But it does go to show that when you're playing this part, you don't have to just deal with the audience, there's also you're predecessors quietly judging you. Or not in McKellen's case.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

28 John Gielgud

Hamlet played by John Gielgud.
Directed by Michael Benthall *.

Listen to enough audio Hamlets in quick succession, as I have in this past week or so, despite the decades between recordings, and indeed despite the subtle differences in performance amongst the primary cast members, certain patterns, presumably due to theatrical tradition do emerge. Osric is usually effeminate. The Gravediggers mainly have outrageously rich regional accents, favouring cockney, sometimes welsh. Most often, when Fortinbras bids the soldiers shoot, they rarely do, the gunpowder replaced by a drum beast lest it damage the speakers.

So whenever something outrageously different happens, you really sit up and take notice. I’ll delve into the guts of this classic Old Vic production in a bit, but for a moment lets play with the packaging. Firstly, it has a narrator. John Rye appears throughout orientating the listener to the action to wit, the Gravedigger “Throws up bones and the occasional skull” (nice detail that) and listing the players in each given new scene “Meanwhile, Claudius and Laertes consult”.

The effect is rather like listening to some ancient recording of a radio commentary for a football match or if you’re that way inclined those cd releases of lost except on audio Doctor Who stories where a former companion fills in the gaps. Now and than Rye will even provide some extra context. In the early “council meeting” we’re advised that Hamlet is the “late king’s son. His claim to the succession has been overridden and he is not part of the council.” Between Acts One and Two we're told “Two months have passed.” That’s the first bit of excitement.

The second and indeed the one which led me to shout out happens at the top of Act 4, scene 5 when Rye intones, “Ophelia enters carrying a lute”. “A lute!” I shouted and having just read the recent Arden edition about the first Quarto and how the stage directions have impacted on later production, I shouted again “Q1’s lute!” which doesn’t sound syntactically possible, but it really is. Welcome to my world, right now. And sure enough Yvonne Mitchell’s otherwise fairly shrill Ophelia gives us a song or two which is close as the play gets to being a musical unless it's been recomposed by Ambrose Thomas.

A taping of the 1957 Old Vic Company production which is generally ignored in favour of the 40s recording done from the stage (the one featured in the Michael Almereyda film with Ethan Hawke and released by NAXOS). This is the version which is available on Spotify although the cassette I have sitting in front of me was released by Listening For Pleasure in 1977 and says misleadingly “playing time approx 2 hours” which it is give or take another couple of hours being a complete recording of an augmented Folio. Perhaps whoever did the art back then was under the impression it was an abridgement.

Either way, initially it seemed as though I was going to feel every one of those hours. The RP delivery kicks in within moments of the howling wind on the battlements and yet, even though this a production done for clarity rather than raw emotion (or perhaps because of it) the three and a half hours passed far more quickly than for the Renaissance Branagh. That left me an emotional wreck. This on the other hand left me noticing all kind of textual idiosyncrasies and seemed more like an intellectual journey.

There’s nothing wrong with that. I hadn’t considered before, for example, that no one actually tells Hamlet that Claudius is sending him to England even though he mentions it to his mother in the closet. Presumably the message has been passed in the meantime, but by whom, and when? Similarly, Claudius is very concerned about how his family’s trials seem to the general public. The initial reason he’s sending Hamlet to England is to convalesce and even after Polonius’s manslaughter, he’s keen to continue that impression:
I have sent to seek him, and to find the body.
How dangerous is it that this man goes loose!
Yet must not we put the strong law on him:
He's loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes;
And where tis so, the offender's scourge is weigh'd,
But never the offence. To bear all smooth and even,
This sudden sending him away must seem
Deliberate pause: diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all.
That’s the cult of celebrity right there, and the reason why VIPs seem to always receive less punishment in the eyes of the law. And this is a very regal family; the actor’s voices alone lay on the trappings of royalty and the impression of a once great household eating itself from within.

Gielgud’s performance does nothing to dissuade that. Having already played the part on a number of occasions since his debut at the Old Vic in 1929, he was already in his fifties at the time of this production (which was made when he’d just been engaged as leading man at the theatre) and the recognisable lispy antiquity has already begun to develop. If someone becomes synonymous with a role, does it change with each production or do the rest of the cast simply react to the star turning up to do their turn? Initially it seems as though he’s simply keen to go through the expected motions, the unhurried verbiage, the shaky trill during the set speeches, everything that’s expected of this Shakespearean who straddled across generations of different acting traditions.

He doesn’t even seem much madder after he’s met the Ghost than before and indeed he’s much the same figure even during the Fishmonger. Then, electrically, from almost nowhere, he finally bursts with passion during “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave” barking “Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!” with breathtaking vigour. Gielgud’s been modulating his emotion. He knows that if he begins with despair (as both Branagh and Tennant do later) if you’re not careful, you have nowhere else to go. Best to save it and frighten the audience (or in this case listener) out of their wits.

I think in this case he's taken the same view of the character as John Caird (who directed the 2000 RSC Simon Russell Beale) who suggests in the recent RSC edition that purely on a script basis, Hamlet's the sanest person in Elsinore, and any actor that begins to act the madness is working against the text. As everyone about him finds themselves in mad situations and react madly too, Hamlet is rational and becomes saner and saner as the play progresses and Gielgud's performance almost proves that. Even when Hamlet kills Polonius it's a defensive manoeuvre. He doesn't kill Claudius because is moral code forbids it. Laertes says he would kill someone in a chapel in an instant.

As for to the rest of the cast, Peter Coke (best known as Paul Temple on the radio) gives an emotionally complex Laertes who’s genuinely touching as he watches his sister’s sanity fall away. As Horatio, Jack Gwillim (Poseidon in Clash of the Titans) presents the stand up bloke, good in a fight, loyal. But the most fun are John Woodvine and Derek New as a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are Claudius’s lapdogs from the start, tersely dealing with Hamlet without a hint of loyalty like they’ve walked in from a Le Carré novel, entirely impatient when Hamlet breaks off from their passage to England to have a chat with the Captain and obviously clear about what their mission is about. When Hamlet has them killed, for once, you share his lack of remorse . . .

* The box neglects to mention who the director is. Michael Benthall directed Gielgud in a number of plays at the Old Vic at the time so I'm *assuming* it was him, but if you know different please correct me.

Monday, June 14, 2010

27 Kenneth Branagh

Hamlet played by Kenneth Branagh.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and Glyn Dearman.

When a radio production opens with the sound of Francisco pissing up a wall, giving his line “For this relief much thanks” a double meaning, you know you’re going to be listening to something rather special. A 1992 recording for Radio 3 by The Renaissance Theatre Company of a version of the 1988 staging, directed by Kenneth Branagh in conjunction with radio producer Glyn Dearman, this presents the full text and has one of the greatest casts I’ve seen outside of Branagh’s own film, including Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Judi Dench, Sophie Thompson, John Gieldgud, Michael Hordern, Michael Elphrick and one Emma Thompson.

Though this has similarities with that film, especially Branagh asking long term collaborator Patrick Doyle to offer some orchestration (though the music cues would not be carried over), Dr. Russell Jackson’s engagement as the text consultant and with some very cinematic audio design, this is by no means an audio animatic. With mostly a different cast and alternative thematic underpinnings, within moments it’s entirely possible to put the celluloid imagery to one side and simply allow this alternative version to wash over you or as happened in my case strike me in the guts. Audio productions rarely move me, yet by the end of these three and a half hours I was despondent, depressed and even teary. Job done, then, Mr Branagh.

Whereas in the film, Hamlet’s generally sane and regal and angry rather than even feigning madness, here we find a much more visceral presence apt to shift off into moments where he's entirely unhinged ("the conscience of the king" is a particular showcase). But there are moments of intimacy with the listener and in the booklet that accompanies the cassettes which includes interviews with all of the main players, Branagh says that he’s trying to create the impression of the prince thinking the set speeches. He achieves this by removing the background sound effects -- except during “To Be Or Not To Be…” in order to show that, as in the later film, he’s performing for Claudius and Polonius, secreted nearby.

Branagh takes the most relish and particular care during The Mousetrap. The extended text allows him to enunciate Hamlet’s disdain about how the visiting theatre company is being set aside in town in favour of the new fashion for child acting companies (a real issue in Shakespeare’s day). Michael Hordon’s Player King gives full richness to the text from Pyramous (bringing to mind his turns as Prospero). The whole duration of the dumb show is included with explanatory sound effects and audience reactions – though I wonder how clear this sequence would be with someone new to Hamlet. Either way this is one of the richest treatments of the players I've heard so far. Not least because ...

Emma Thompson is the Player Queen. In the booklet interview, she notes that usually the play within a play “is acted very hammily” which its inferred has the knock on effect of making it comical (perhaps to approach head-on boys playing girls as suggested by Shakepeare in the text), distracting us from what the scene is about. “Claudius" she says, "has to be touched and frightened by what he sees”. This is a rare occasion when the emotional truth of The Murder of Gonzago is fully explored and their arcane predicament almost becomes as compelling as the play outside the play, which means that the King's later confessional is all the more truthful.

This is a production replete with such excellent choices. Gieldgud’s Ghost, whose ancient voice suggests that he’s being broadcast live from purgatory, his disembodied monotone at odds with Branagh’s emotional reaction, Hamlet heard whimpering throughout. In the closet scenes, when Polonius cries out he actually sounds like Claudius making Hamlet’s mistake all the more plausible – usually we have to trust that the Prince just isn’t in his right mind which is why he’s stabbing someone who plainly doesn’t sounds like some old duffer. Doyle’s music plays at length between acts allowing the listener a moment to consider what they’ve just heard, the audio equivalent of the scene changes in the theatre.

The recording even makes its presence felt by appearing on four cassettes, eight sides, despite only being about half an hour longer than the ’77 Jacobi version. Listening to the two in quick succession as I did, its possible to hear the progression in technique, perhaps a small increase in psychological complexity, but now and then I did get a feeling of déjà vu as the Jacobi's influence asserted itself in a line reading (“The cup, the cup”) or playing of a scene (Laertes storming the castle, the rabble cascading through the speaks). But mostly this a chance to catch one of those watershed moments with three generations of Hamlet in one production this s a great theatrical event and a celebration of the play.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

26 Derek Jacobi

Jacobi closeup 16

Hamlet played by Derek Jacobi.
Directed by Toby Robertson.

I’m signed up to the local Freecycle service and a couple of years ago someone was giving away bags and bags of old theatre programmes and posters. I had thought before visiting that they would be for the local area but they turned out to be from the West End and outer London and to my great pleasure for this legendary Old Vic production of Hamlet with Derek Jacobi originated in 1977/8, put on tape in 1979 and released by Argo on cassette a couple of years later.

The programme itself is a treat, but you can see that for yourself because I’ve uploaded photos of the pages to flickr (albeit using my rubbish digital camera). There’s a celebratory feel, perhaps because this was seen as a triumphant return, with photographs of Hamlets from previous Old Vic productions stretching as far back as Ernest Milton in 1921 and a history of the theatre itself. The advertising too offers a microcosm of the life of theatre-goers in that period:


As with the recording of the RSC production with Tennant, reading the programme beforehand certainly put me in the right mood, helped by the fact that as with many of the programmes she gave me, the previous owner has written a short review of the show in the back along with a note about the audience. This was a return appearance after an international tour and her words suggest that some elements had changed in the meantime:
30th Jan 78

Performance dulled a little. Jacobi not quite as carefree (colourful?). Directorial difference only. Humour more masked. Ophelia back to traditional portrayal. Wymark the besotted girl, as opposed to Bertish the sophisticate. Not so interesting. Bertish added extra level to the play. […] Audience were more responsive. Picking up all the humour quickly. Small house but a relaxed audience.
Reading these contemporary professional reviews and the account from the book Modern Hamlets and their soliloquises reveals that the show had a messy stage history, beginning as a truncated version (the programme suggests the Folio text with cuts suggested by the first Quarto) with a much praised Ophelia in Suzanne Bertish and a clear indication that she and Hamlet were very much having a sexual relationship – it’s this version that Kenneth Branagh saw and convinced him that theatre was the life for him.

A few months later the production, retaining most of the same cast, was extended to a fuller length (reinstating amongst other things “How all occasions” according to director Tony Robertson), with Jane Wymark, who appears in this audio version, replacing Bertish and offering a much more subdued, chased version. My donor was obviously keen to compare and contrast and obviously preferred the earlier production which seems to be the reverse of the audience she was sitting with! Without a point of comparison I will at least propose that Wymark’s Ophelia is a bit traditional but not bland.

What is notable is how physical this audio production is. Though this obviously can't be a complete replication of the stage production, what we have here is a well rehearsed cast giving a performance rather than simply rehearse/reading from a script which often happens with audio productions. Care has been taken to place the characters within a definite space, with some scenes conducted some way from the microphone forcing them to offer theatrical projection making this a very visceral listen. Only during the soliloquies do the actors take advantage of the intimacy reducing their timbre of their voices to a whisper.

Perhaps its because of that Jacobi is a more passionate Hamlet than the man he became in the later 1980 BBC Shakespeare production, his voice shifting constantly between octaves as if to indicate the frequency of his madness (for he doesn't just fein madness, he nudges off the cliff) through sound alone. After discovering the reality of his father’s death, he offers a gutteral scream which made my tape player tremble and one can only imagine the physical power he must have had on stage. His Hamlet bawls as he drags away the guts of Polonius, well aware that his moral code is broken and that he's now no better than the man he despises.

Only in the late scenes, when Hamlet knows the moment has passed and there's little he can do does Jacobi rightly sober up, as if to indicate that he understands that he can no longer fight against the inevitable, “The readiness is all”. But by then the rest of the cast have shifted up a gear to join him. Timothy West’s Claudius (which is new to this audio replacing John Turner) is an impatient, irascible figure unable to keep his true emotions from cracking through the surface. If his treatment of Gertrude after the death of Polonius is any indication he must be horrible company.

Frequently with productions, especially on audio, a fatigue sets in during the latter stages, especially if I’m listening in one session, which is usual. Not so here. Even as Hamlet began to describe his relationship to Yorrick I began to question what I was hearing and for the first time I noticed – Horatio knows about the effect Polonius’s death has had on Ophelia – it is he who convinced Gertrude to meet Ophelia -- but has he told Hamlet? The Danish prince’s good, if melancholic humour just before the funeral suggests not, in which case, why now? I asked Metafilter and along with some of the criticism I've subsequently looked at, no one seems to have a definitive answer.

Also keeping my interest in these late stages are Laertes’s proper mob, the room suddenly filling with dozens of voices which is rare. Barbara Jefford’s regal Gertrude who appears to tell Hamlet what he needs to hear but breaks down just after he leaves her. And the other casting interests which include Trevor Martin as the Norwegian Captain, the older version of whom I saw in As You Like It at the Globe last year and one Oz Clarke, future wine critic, then actor, offering a rather good aristocratic Oscric neatly holding his own against Jacobi's sarcastic wit.

Given the historical elements of the programme there is one other notable moment. As I intimated, much of the play betrays the influence of the method and despite its age, none of these performances would be out of place now. Except for during The Mousetrap, when both actors revert to the style of an earlier age (which I’ve previous heard in the Paul Scofield starring version) of the emotional trill as if to demonstrate how far they’ve come. This proved to be an influential production (full story), and perhaps part of that is because it already understood its place within theatrical history.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Extract from Jennifer's Body (2009)

A generally disappointing and derivative teen horror film, especially considering it's from the keyboard of Diablo Cody who always struck me as far less generic in her ability to gather pop culture references, Jennifer's Body does nevertheless have one good Hamlet related joke, delivered with excellent timing by Megan Fox (surprisingly) as the titular, not exactly bright, main character. She is addressing a possible date:
Hi, Colin.
Can I borrow
your English homework again?
I forgot to read Hamlet.
Is he gonna fuck his mom?

(clearly unimpressed)
No I don't ... I don't think so.

Letters: When Hamlet Met Juliet

Keith has emailed with news of what sounds like a rather fantastic theatrical experiment:

I've been reading your Hamlet weblog again recently - I guess your review of Tennant's Hamlet pricked my interest in the blog again and I've been enjoying all the posts since then.

It occurs to me that I should draw your attention to the existence of a play called "Romeo & Hamlet", which I saw at GayFest NYC when I was in New York recently. Now the premise (and the fact it was presented at a LGBT Festival) sounds like some kind of literary fan fiction and, in a sense, it is - but it's all really well executed. It takes the text from Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet and mashes them together, basically - to form a play where Juliet flirts with Hamlet and his is distracted by the entrance of Romeo.

My friend Rob has review it here:

The play does a really great job of putting certain lines from each play in a thoroughly new context. For instance, Hamlet's "what a piece of work is man" speech is partly in reaction to Romeo's "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks" moment.

It's difficult to know how far high concept queered texts will travel, though I think the play is smart and funny enough to have a life outside of New York - it was actually written by two Canadians, so it's already travelled a little. I thought you should know it exists, just in case you hear the name floating around - because I think it would make a great blog post, if you were ever able to see it. Trust me, it's much smarter than its high concept conceit makes it sound - I honestly thought the show would just be making fun and bare no resemblance to the Bard at all, but the show actually works not because it's a mash up but because it respects it sources so well.

Keep up the good work at The Hamlet Weblog!

Judging by that linked review it really does sound like an intelligent treatment -- the Ophelia/Tybalt mash-up especially. Thanks Keith!

Friday, June 11, 2010

25 Brad Yates

Hamlet played by Brad Yates.
Directed by Ned Rogers.

I’ve talked before about the methods that have been used to try and introduce Hamlet to audiences which might not necessarily have been in contact with the play or Shakespeare or even theatre before.  From my own experience, my preference would be to offer up a very good production – the RSC with Tennant, the Branagh film and throw the viewer right in.  But I appreciate that for some, three or four hours of blank verse can be daunting prospect so they want begin with something shorter and sharper to take the edge off.

That’s what Telemedia Productions had in mind in 1993 when they produced a small selection of tutorial videos covering four tragedies – Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet.  As they suggest on the inlay to the video “Everyone should be familiar with the timeless works of Williams Shakespeare.  Now with Understanding Shakespeare, everyone can!”  It’s a worthy mission, the only problem is that they pretty much fail.  In almost every respect.

The video is initially introduced by William Shakespeare, or a genial American accented lookalike:

Mister Shakespeare offers some random biographical particulars about himself (including a very detailed Curriculum Vitae for his father) then a short synopsis of Hamlet using stills from the ensuing dramatic reconstruction.  This is then followed by a shortened version of Act 1, Scene 1, the Ghost’s first visit after which Horatio, still in character steps forward and it become apparent that we’re about to watch a truncated version of the play with him filling in the gaps in the plot:

Then just as events are gaining some momentum, we cut to what looks like the old Play School studio and three slightly nervy Shakespearean scholars who with the aid of presenter/director/writer Ned Rogers (that's Ned Rogers) will it seems be offering commentary on the action rather like the pundits on Match of the Day:

If you've been counting you will have noticed that this video has the kind of redundancy seen in Submarine Command Systems, with three sets of presenters interjecting at various points to help tell the story as well as the video'd theatre and as events proceed the demarcation between their various departments slowly breaks down, with Horatio sometimes offering commentary and the experts providing a synopsis, to such a degree that it's a surprise that ACAS aren't called in.

The problem is that the experts rarely have a chance to say anything interesting.  A typical example is the agreement that Polonius advice to his son and daughter – which we’re not shown -- is a “throwaway scene”, though one admits that it is at least “setting him up as a duplicitous SOB”.  Much is made about the double revenge plot, contrasting Laertes’s approach with Hamlet’s, but Fortinbras, with his own motive for revenge is barely mentioned other than a veiled reference to “Norwegian ambassadors” very early on.

The commentary is also replete with the kinds of contradictions likely to confuse a newcomer.  Before the accidental murder of Polonius, we’re told that “Hamlet shows no remorse” yet afterwards, Horatio steps forward and says “Hamlet does regret the death he gave poor Polonius” (not forgetting that Gertrude says as much herself in the text). No mention is made to the various versions of the play other than to note that “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I…” only appears in one of them.  They’re clearly conscious about not trying hand too much baggage to the viewer, in which case, why bring it up at all?

If I was viewer new to play, I’m also not sure what I’d make of Horatio’s interjections anyway. He's sometimes silhouetted on set when Hamlet is supposed to be alone and it's only really inferred (which is never enough) that he wouldn’t ordinarily be eavesdropping.  Every now and then, I'm sure I can detect a certain passive aggressive restlessness from amongst the expects because Horatio's stealing some of their best linking material.  They certainly don't have a proper answer when Ned asks: “In terms of the play, The Mousetrap, it does trap the mouse doesn’t it?” I’m not sure how that educates anyone.

What of the production itself?  Events don’t begin well when Hamlet Snr arrives with his voice treated via a ring modular which makes him sound like a Cyberman.  The sets are minimal, the costumes mock Elizabethan.  All very old fashioned and shot for clarity rather than finesse.  Eventually everything settles down into a greatest hits collection which, as is often the way with these abbreviations, emphasises the soliloquies and most notable incidents with each of the main characters given their most prominent scenes.

For the purposes of this mission, I'll admit this is on the edge of being counted as a complete production, but since Brad Yates is quite good in the main role and I did feel as though we’d been through an experience together, it seems fair to give him some due prominence.  Yates has something of the Kevin Kline about him especially in the eyes, but perhaps not quite the fire.  When Eva Loseth’s Ophelia talks at the close of the nunnery scene of “the things I’ve seen” we can’t quite match the horror in her eyes with the preceding action.

Loseth is clearly the best actor in the piece.  In her few scenes, Ophelia comes across as a complete person.  In the aforementioned nunnery scenes she betrays a very controlled fear which breaks only when Hamlet has left and she is gifted the whole of her soliloquy.

Her later appearance in madness is suitably heartbreaking and I couldn’t keep my eyes off her and neither can the other actors who are generally only ok, but really raise their game in these brief moments.  I had hoped she’d gone on to have long and fruitful career, but despite some guest spots in the likes of Quantum Leap and Star Trek: Deep Space 9, she was last seen as Check out girl in Lakeview Terrace (2008).

I'm conscious I've been very harsh on a eighteen year old instructional video which had the best of intentions, . but I wonder about the kids and even adults for whom this was their first and perhaps even only experience of Shakespeare, quietly fulfilling any prejudices they may have and wonder if they know what they’re missing.

But perhaps there is just the chance that they saw the humanity in Yates and especially Loseth’s faces, some of the poetry touched their imagination, and decided to seek out a longer, better production to see if some of that emotional truth was be carried over.  But as the video closes with three good-byes, from Horatio, from the experts and from "Shakespeare" himself, it's really difficult to tell.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

24 Ronald Pickup

Hamlet played by Ronald Pickup.
Directed by John Tydeman.

On sale in many good and some bad charity shops and ebay a lot, this BBC Radio Collection release with Ronald Pickup in the title role is something of a mystery. It must have been broadcast on Radio’s Three or Four at some point in the 1980s – © 1988 BBC Enterprises Ltd is written on the back of the inlay – but after hunting about online I can find little else. Inside it’s revealed to be one of four contemporaneous releases along with Sir Alec Guinness as Lear, Denis Quilley as Macbeth and Paul Scofield as Othello. Either there was a season or Enterprises were consolidating material from the archive.

As is often the case with radio productions this has clear straight-shooting storytelling which adapts a full length copy of the second quarto, but what I’d like to know is if this was created directly for radio or adapted from a stage production and when. Given that the music is provided by Malcolm Clarke of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, my instinct is that it’s a radio premiere. Clarke is best known amongst some of us for his experimental scoring of Doctor Who episodes, especially the random noise of The Sea Devils. He’s not called upon to do anything special, though the pipes of Fortinbras’s army do have an electronic twang.

Pickup (presumably in consultation with the director John Tydeman) gives us a Hamlet that flip-flap-flops between controlled sanity in public and genuine madness – sparked by the news of his father’s death – in private. It's this weird (for him) geniality that cause’s Claudius to draw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore and when they arrive, though the prince coaxes from them that there’s was not a spontaneous visit, it's not until very late in the play that he begins to treat them with much malice (just before he orders their death). He’s as pleasant as Cary Grant in North By Northwest and perhaps even moreso at the end when he knows all hope is lost.

The cast is filled out with a range of experienced stage and radio actors. Martin Jarvis’s Horatio has an unusual independence, loyal to Hamlet but leading his own life. The most disconcerting performance is from Robert Lang, the timbre of whose voice sounds almost but not exactly like Derek Jacobi. Angela Pleasance (Donald’s daughter best known at the time for playing Catherine Howard in The Six Wives of Henry VIII) is an initially extremely aristocratic Ophelia whose tip into madness is chilling, her voice skipping restlessly through the listener's ears, breaking through indiscriminate emotions by the second.

Something I did notice for the first time during the equally unsettling ghost sequence (underscored by Clarke using what sounds like an exterior space ship engine from the Troughton era) is how Hamlet Snr is under no illusions about his wife. Amongst other things he says:
"Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.
Gertrude was already cuckolding him before his murder, in marrying his brother she’s essentially continuing the "slight" but Hamlet Snr still admonishes Hamlet against hating her and not revenge against her directly because fate will do the work for him, the (sometimes deadly in real life) thorns perhaps prophesying her poisoning.

23 Updated. 12-Rating.

You might remember I said I would contact the BBFC in relation to the 12-rating given to the blu-ray of the RSC production with David Tennant. Much to my delight they've replied:
Ordinarily, very strong language would not be permitted in a '12' rated work. However, with HAMLET, it was recognised that the well-known wordplay upon the phrase "country matters" said by Hamlet to Ophelia would be familiar to most viewers. Emphasis is often given to the first syllable of the first word (as in this case), and the conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia carries a double meaning.

HAMLET is obviously widely known and studied, and the text and numerous theatrical productions of it - as was this one - are available to all ages. Some versions of the play have been rated 'U' or 'PG'; however, it was felt the deliberate emphasis given to the first syllable in this version warranted a '12' and would not confound public expectations at this category. Our Consumer Advice also gave warning of the potential offence that some viewers may take to the wordplay.

Such comic wordplay on very strong language is not unprecedented in '12' rated works, eg THE LOVE GURU and a episode of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.
Which is about what I surmised and absolutely understandable. Again, I say, amazing. Not just for the RSC risking it, but for the BBFC to give it this level of care and attention.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Hamlet: The Texts Of 1603 And 1623 (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson.

As part of a more inclusive approach introduced in the third series of The Arden Shakespeare is this fine publication of the first quarto (Q1) and first folio (F1) of Hamlet to accompany their more formal version which relies on the second (Q2). The folio hasn’t entirely been out of circulation, but this Q1 is a valuable addition, a rare occasion to read a carefully edited version of the actual text rather than the discussion of it. The cover acknowledges its unusual nature with a negative version of the image that appears on the 1604 text.

Though initially thought to be an early first draft, Q1 is now generally believed to be the misremembering of earlier production of the play by the actor who played Marcellus also doubling some of the other smaller roles. It’s most accurate in and around their appearances (perhaps because as was the practice then that the players would only be given the sections they were in) but elsewhere strays from the other versions considerably, generally toward the climax which is most heavily truncated.

In the play’s most famous speech becomes “To Be Or Not To Be, - ay, there’s the point” and is spoken definitively to Ofelia (as she is here) at the opening of the nunnery scene rather than as a soliloquy and appears very early in Act II. The three scenes covering Hamlet’s period abroad are replaced with a short extra covert moment between Horatio and Gertrude covering much the same ground and the text is almost half as long as Q2. Polonius and Reynaldo even find themselves given their character names from the earlier Ur-Hamlet – Corambis and Montano.

Given its adjunctive nature, with the exception of a brief discussion of the philosophical choices that underpin this edition, such textual analysis is developed in footnotes and left to the main edition. Instead, the introduction by editors Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor offers an extensive and fascinating production history of Q1 from some early eighteenth century attempts through to recent rehearsed readings at the RSC and Globe and beyond, describing the challenges involved in presenting this unfamiliar text.

How is it, my lord?

As Thompson and Taylor authoritatively demonstrate, Q1 is no longer dismissed out of hand. A Red Shift production at the turn of this century chose to emphasise these differences by showing Claudius “rehearsing” those speeches which were most jumbled emphasising those passages with the most clarity. Actors and directors are relishishing the chance to look at the play from a different perspective, turning the textual deficiencies to their advantage.

Hamlet: The Texts Of 1603 And 1623 (The Arden Shakespeare) edited by Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson is published by Methuen Drama. £12.99 paperback. ISBN: 9781904271802.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

23 David Tennant


Hamlet played by David Tennant.
Directed by Gregory Doran.

When I first heard about this production, I almost exploded. Already some way into this project, the idea that the then star of my favourite franchise would be appearing in my first or second favourite Shakespeare play (yes, still osculating with Measure for Measure) was almost too heady to contemplate. Yet somehow, because of this and that, fear and finances, I missed David Tennant tramping about the Courtyard stage, and regretted it ever since. So when it was announced that the production would be filmed for the BBC, I was elated, yet still because of the usual family related responsibilities on Boxing Day and then realising that I’d like to see it first on blu-ray (it sparkles!) that I only finally sat before it yesterday afternoon. As expected, I squeed. A lot. Do not expect this to be a deep textual analysis. If you'd like to read a deep textual analysis, there's a very good one here.

I do at least have a programme for the stage production. When I visited Stratford last year, the wonderful staff at the RSC made a special arrangement to have one delivered to the venue within a couple of days for me to buy so that I didn’t have to mess about with mail order. It’s a wonderful thing; I read the booklet just before watching the blu-ray and though it obviously wasn’t a substitute for the real theatrical experience, it certainly helped to increase my anticipation if not participation. In a change from what seems like the usual format of short essays about various aspects of the play, this is has a production scrapbook (now available for download) which outlines the work of the director and the various production department such as costume and stage management.

Apparently, to help her get into character, director Gregory Doran took actress Mariah Gale to the spot in Stratford where in 1579 a girl called Katherine Hamlet died in similar circumstances to Ophelia. They found that no girl attempting to pick flowers at that river bank could leave without having been scraped and being covered cuts and bruises. Her dress would be dirty. Which is why in the production Gale looks as though she’s been through a war. Similarly we discover that even with the understudy process, the play can’t be interpreted and rehearsed twice and since one actor can’t mimic the work of another, it’s not simply the person stepping up – as Edward Bennett did when Tennant hurt himself during the West End run -- who’s flying by the seat of their pants. The rest of the company must react on the hoof to the changes being wrought.

But to the point: Tennant is extraordinary, the reviews did not overplay his achievement. It is impossible for me to watch this consummation without five years of his performance in Doctor Who jangling about my head and indeed, it’s my impression that his approach to extrapolating Hamlet’s feigned madness is to tap into his Doctorish tendencies, the gurning, the rapid diction, his entire physical presence springing and elasticising about the rest of the household, rubbing the back of his neck as he offers a long drawn out thoughtful “Weeeelll…”, his accent almost but not quite the same as the terrestrial John Smith figure the timelord became in the story Human Nature. This was photographed just weeks after he left his role as the timelord (June 2009), and its perhaps fitting given the context that the ghost of the tenth Doctors still hangs in the air.

Arguably he is even more compelling during those moments when these tendencies are in check, when the sober version of the character is to the fore. This is most clearly apparent in the opening wake as we see the weight of his father’s death across his sagging shoulders and right through to the apparition’s appearance. There follows a compellingly lucid moment, as he addresses us through the lense, his eyes piercing like a sword, when we watch him first take the decision to become “mad” and then after a jump cut change his entire attitude. He, if you’ll pardon the expression, regenerates.

To an extent, Tennant is so strong, he threatens to overpower everything else. This might have been less likely on stage (especially at the Courtyard were actors are easily obscured) and whilst I’m willing to admit that it could simply be caused by this fanboy’s obsession, a huge percentage of Gregory Doran’s “film” (this was shot with digital cameras) is in close-up and does seem to favour Tennant above the other actors. Despite its three hour running time, this Hamlet is by no means an ensemble piece. The prince seems to spend to time at all in England with no mention of pirates, no letter sent home, which curtails Horatio’s part somewhat (he is indeed more like Hamlet’s “companion” than in independent figure).

None of which should be seen as a criticism – perhaps aware that the star power will be bringing in an audience less aware of the play’s intricacies, Doran’s has rightly decided to keep the story relatively linear. His Frankenstein-like text is mainly F, but as is the fashion, some of the structuring, notable the placement of “To Be or Not To Be” favours Q1. Fortinbras was apparently originally cut when he was preparing the original stage script yet was reinstated during rehearsals because the actors believe that the play works best with this extra political angle. Nevertheless, that presence is still minimal on-screen; we are gifted with the meeting between Hamlet and Fortinbras’s Captain from Q2 (and the ensuing soliloquy) however he’s missing from the finale which chooses to cut away just before the Norwegian prince storms Elsinore.

Doran has also decided to enunciate Claudius’s "reconciliatory" speech about how the “common theme / Is death of fathers”. Patrick Stewart plays both Hamlet Snr and Claudius, the former retaining a very real, very physical presence in the murder exposition. Oliver Ford Davies’s Polonius is permitted to dominate the first half of the running time. He's clearly loved and shares a good relationship with his children, who complete his authoritative advice for Laertes, having probably heard it already dozens of times. Even in the scenes were Claudius appears, when Tennant isn’t in the ascendancy, Davies’s deft performance has the focus in a way which I’ve rarely seen before.

Until he’s shot. Then Stewart’s Claudius emerges and it becomes immediately apparent through the crook in the actor's lips, that the new king is of the kind to sit back and watch a game play out amongst his subjects. From the opening scenes of the play, Doran cuts away to footage of the action from he perspective of a CCtv camera – he’s very interested in surveillance culture and that was demonstrated by a set of two way mirrors in the stage production (perhaps influenced by the great hall in Branagh’s film). At first it seems tricksy and irritating because we aren’t sure who is watching, and that’s especially true in the nunnery scene when it become the trigger for Hamlet turning on his former girlfriend. Later, after The Mousetrap, the prince reaches up and angrily pulls it from the ceiling, wires and all. “Now I am alone” he says.

In these closing stages, it’s almost as though in this production Claudius has been aware of Hamlet’s “performance” and of the visitation of the ghost from the beginning because, its inferred, he’s been watching this CCtv footage. When he rises and approaches Hamlet with the lamp during The Mousetrap it’s as though he’s saying “You haven’t beaten me yet!” (at which point Hamlet too realises he’s being spied upon leading to his later vandalism). When the king rises after Hamlet fails to run him through on the way to Gertrude’s chamber, even if the prince’s speech appeared as voice over, his uncle clearly knew of his presence and was quietly willing him to send him to heaven. He grins broadly, manically even, during Ophelia’s funeral, enjoying the spectacle. If this Hamlet is feigning madness, this Claudius is just psychotic.

The setting is a modern stately home that brings to mind Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish Dogme film, Festen. Interiors are mainly shot on a single set inspired by the stage version, columns and mirrors and ebony fittings intact. There are a number of exteriors, including some atmospheric tunnels and Doran makes good use of silhouettes and shadows. Despite the dinner jackets and silk dresses, this is clearly the royal family and Claudius and Gertrude are regal figures ahead of rest of the household. When Polonius describes to his boss Hamlet’s treatment of his daughter, Ophelia stands somewhat in awe and there’s a lovely moment when Gertrude approaches and falters over the girl’s name because this is probably the longest time they’ve spent in the same room together.

Despite all of that, the infamous “one thing”, I’ll be remembering this production for is the 12-rating. A glance at the back of the box reveals that the show “contains one use of very strong language and moderate sex references”. Given that this was first broadcast between four and seven on Boxing Day I couldn't quite understand what could lead them to this conclusion, especially considering that this isn't some eccentric modern adaptation. It didn’t take long for me to realise that it has to do with country matters or rather “cunt-ry matters” as Tennant’s stress pattern has it during the run up to The Mousetrap, which let's agree, amazing. The BBFC website doesn’t confirm that this is the one use. I have been in touch and will update this entry should a reply be forthcoming.*

Illuminations, the production company behind this television adaptation blogged their way through filming, though I’ve so far studiously ignored this diary and the BBC's official website (spoilers!) which is why this review probably just impacts on the surface. But I suspect I’ll be returning to this production again. Given my fan gene, I’m very much aware that because I was focusing on Tennant, I didn’t pay enough attention to Penny Downie’s Gertrude. As yet I haven’t quite decide how much she knows, when she knows it and how much of a performance this version of the queen is giving for her husband at the end. But it’s a measure of the complexity of this production that I’m desperate to find out.

* The BBFC have offered this full and frank reply.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Eyewitness: Shakespeare in the Park, New York City 2008

Matthew Carlson played the Danish Captain in this performance which starred Michael Stuhlbarg, featuring Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose as Ophelia and Sam Waterson's Polonius. On his blog, he describes one electric performance:
"The weather is always part of the performance when acting outdoors, but on one night in particular something remarkable happened. We found ourselves in a windstorm, which began slowly but became increasingly violent. At first the trees simply whispered in the wind, but as the night wore on they began to move and sway. Eventually, leaves and branches began to break from the trees and blow through the theater and across the stage. Now doing a play like Hamlet, which centers around a prince visited by the ghost of his murdered father, you can imagine that a windstorm like this might begin to take on a strangely supernatural feel. The weather began to affect the performance in subtle ways, as Michael incorporated the wind and allowed it to affect him."
Matthew also mentions that he shot Horatio at the end, which gives a whole new meaning to "Go, bid the solidiers shoot".

Double Falsehood (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by Brean Hammond.

One of the thrilling elements of my amateur scholarship of Shakespeare is the ever present sense of discovery, which might have its nucleus in Hamlet stagecraft but reaches much, much further. The controversy surrounding the lost play, Cardenio stands large in literature academia but my eye opening first experience of it was during Michael Wood’s superlative 2003 documentary In Search of Shakespeare, in which he tasked the Royal Shakespeare Company to recreate a fragment surrounding one of the extant songs.

Two actors portraying the title character and a friend stood in a spotlight at the edge of the stage listening to Woods, Rocks & Mountaynes and at the close they looked on in fear as it magically seemed as though their tiny pocket universe had reached a premature implosion. The mystique of that moment was enough that when I later read about the “discovery” of a text for Cardenio, I was eager to find out more.

I was disappointed to discover that the heralding of this new play into the canon wasn’t cut and dry. This wasn't some new text, but the refurbished provenance of a known play, Double Falsehood. As Brian Hammond, editor of this handsomely put together printing of the play explains in his thorough introduction, scholars have argued about this old play's authorship for centuries, as to whether it's purely Shakespeare, a collaboration with John Fletcher, Fletcher with Middleton and someone else, or if indeed as has been the main assumption, due to the absence of a source text it was a forgery perpetrated by Lewis Theobald, its eighteenth-century editor.

Given these odds, there has been some criticism of Double Falsehood appearing The Arden Shakespeare range alongside Hamlet and Macbeth because of the legitimacy that confers. But with a clear awareness of that Hammond meticulously unpicks each of the arguments against this having any of Shakespeare’s verse within and though he’s careful to add a few qualifications, largely convinces us that after uncovering some new documentary evidence, Double Falsehood is indeed the Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration that was premiered at court in 1613 via a restoration adaptation through to the Theobald text we have in our hands now. Hammond himself outlines the guts of this argument in this University of Nottingham vodcast:

He offers a strong argument that Shakespeare has to have written a large proportion of the first half of the play, in which case it has as much right to be canonised, venerated as a lost text now found and given the Arden treatment as Henry VIII or Two Noble Kinsmen -- and Edward III or Sir Thomas More, both of which are to be published next year. Some academics, like the rebuttal witness Hammond's appearance on the Today programme, seem very reticent about inducting new plays into the canon which is understandable considering the addition baggage they may have in terms of rewriting and disproving existing theories about his life.

But for this layperson, the idea of a whole new play to enjoy is breathtaking even if, as Hammond is keen to stress, he’s not resurrecting gold. An adaptation of a sub-plot from Don Quixote created as reaction to the massive contemporary popularity of Cervantes and all things Spanish, even in its original form, Double Falsehood/Cardenio would have seen both authors falling back on some of their more familiar tropes of chivalry and revenge, transvestism and masquerade, though of course their inclusion is one of the reasons "we" have been able to crystallise its authorship.

As it stands, Double Falsehood is interesting but has clearly had some of the complexity knocked out of it across the years to fit the taste in later century more linear, less thematically complex storytelling. An initially grim tale of a domineering prince taking sexually violent advantage of the girl his brother is romantically interested in which spins of into a more pastoral adventure in the style of The Winter’s Tale, there are more logic breaks and inconsistencies in characterisation than an episode of Flash Forward. Plot strands begin, never to be tied up.

I’m cautious about reviewing it too closely as a piece of drama. Without an actor's interpretation and despite the staging plan in the appendixes it's near impossible to get a sense of such things as pacing and emotion. But in the current absence of that (bar fractions), simply on a poetic level there is much beauty here. Some of the descriptions of Leonora, the object of both brother’s desire, rank alongside those connected with Juliet and Rosalind and it's impossible not to take the view, confirmed by the footnotes, that a brain as complex as that behind Hamlet (which is alluded to throughout) has to have had some hand in these passages.

With that in mind, I can't help feeling some sense of melancholy that due to the egotistical rivalry between Theobald and Alexander Pope over who had best rights to Shakespeare’s legacy (described in gossipy detail throughout this volume), general snobbery to Elizabethan and Jacobean work which hasn’t previously been verified as Shakespearean and the fact that it's not until recently that textual analysis has gained the scientific rigour such that it can offer authorship suggestions based on the syntax of a line, that the play has been outside of the repertory for long enough that its mostly only been treated to amateur productions in the past half century.

Hammond’s extensive production history mentions shows based on the text as it stands, on supposed recreations of the original Cardenio scholarly and otherwise and even how a completely different play, Hamiton/Middleton’s The Second Maiden’s Tragedy has erroneously been produced under that name due to the misunderstanding of an influential academic paper. Though that’s due to be rectified by its appearance as the premiere production at the newly refurbished Royal Shakespeare Company, there now seems to be a hole in the BBC’s 80s canon series where this play should be. Perhaps if Arden's valuable perhaps even miraculous volume had been published earlier, we'd now be able to enjoy a Jonathan Miller studio production starring Graham Crowdon as the old Duke and Mary Tamm as Leonora.

Double Falsehood (The Arden Shakespeare) edited by Brean Hammond is published by Methuen Drama. £65.00 hardback, £16.99 paperback. ISBN: 978-1903436776.

Vortigern and other hoaxes.

In the 1790s, William-Henry Ireland, the son of an antiquarian, perpetrated one of the great literary hoaxes when he managed to fool many of the contemporary literary with a range of "lost" documents which he purported to be in Shakespeare's own hand. They included letters, poetry and a whole play, Vortigern, which even received a premier with John Kemble. The Smithsonian has the whole story, including a blow-by-blow account of this major theatrical event:
Vortigern was obviously not a theatrical masterpiece, regardless of who had written it. The first hint of disaster came in the third act, when a bit player—a skeptic, like Kemble—overplayed his lines for laughs. The crowd grew more restive in the final act, when Kemble as King Vortigern addressed Death with mock solemnity:

O! then thou dost ope wide thy hideous jaws,
And with rude laughter, and fantastic tricks,
Thou clapp’st thy rattling fingers to thy sides;
And when this solemn mockery is ended—

The last line he intoned in a ghoulish, drawn-out voice, which provoked several minutes of laughter and whistling. Kemble repeated the line—leaving no doubt as to what mockery he was referring to—and the crowd erupted again. The performance might have ended there, but Kemble stepped forward to ask the audience to permit the show to go on.
The full text of the play with a preface by Ireland's father, who was still convinced of its authenticity years after his son had confessed, is available elsewhere on-line.