Monday, 19 October 2015

Plenty of Ham - no let

Well, I've seen it now. Only the cinema relay of the National Theatre's production inevitably known as the "Cumberbatch Hamlet." But I'm glad I didn't scramble for tickets online last summer.

We've been here before. I don't know if the "celebrity Hamlet" began with David Tennant but it was when I became aware of it, of an audience full of teenage girls. I was there in the flesh that time but, paradoxically it was Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark in one sense, since DT had succumbed to back pain and Edward Bennett was substituting for him.

We bought the DVD.

By celebrity, I mean an actor who is better known at the time for his work on TV or film, not a famous stage actor, like Simon Russell Beale or Rory Kinnear. And it must be one with a huge female fanbase. Maybe the rot set in with Jude Law?

Both Benedict Cumberbatch and David Tennant are good actors - the latter was an excellent Berowne in the RSC's Love's Labours Lost, which I saw in Stratford. The problem is with Hamlet as star vehicle. Of course a good performance at the centre is crucial but you need a good ensemble too. In the "Tennant Hamlet" Penny Downie was the best Gertrude we had ever seen and Patrick Stewart won an award for his Claudius (though he was surprisingly discombobulated the night we saw it and fluffed his lines). Oliver Ford Davies was an excellent Polonius.

But that was directed by Gregory Doran, who knew what he was doing with the text. The teenage girls at the performance we attended didn't get their hero but they did get Shakespeare's Hamlet. The same can't be said for anyone who saw this new production.

Director Lyndsay Turner's attitude to the text seemed to be "good first effort - I could make it better." This tends to be an unwise approach to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about the theatre. I found myself largely in agreement with Michael Billington's review in The Guardian. And if that makes us both old farts, so be it.

My beef is not so much with the performances as the direction and the cuts. Though while we're on performances, the best came from Ciaran Hinds as Claudius (I'm beginning to think that Claudius is an actor-proof role). The worst were Sian Brooke as Ophelia (I have never seen a good Ophelia, so maybe that part is the opposite of Claudius's?) and Karl Johnson as the Ghost, which he played a bit like Sylvester McCoy - I expected him to get some spoons out any minute.

The play, in Turner's version begins with Hamlet listening to LPs on an old record-player and looking at old photos. He misses his dad. So we lose the first battlements scene and with it Horatio's "the morn in russet mantle clad ..." speech, though other of his lines are relocated.

More importantly you lose the eerie feeling of bluff soldiers on watch being unmanned by the apparition of the king. The point that Hamlet is missing his dead father is made rather well by Shakespeare in the first court scene. That however is here a dinner party, at which no food is consumed, a very unconvincing setting for the giving of a diplomatic mission.

It is easy to say both "don't be such a purist!" and "the text is disputed anyway." I'm aware of the problems with the Hamlet text and famous cruxes (not Horcruxes, note) like solid/sullied, bad dreams/had dreams etc. BUT Turner's slash and burn attitude must come from a desire to make the action and emotion of the play to come across to a modern audience of young fans who love the sharp cheekboned one in Sherlock.

And here is an example of how this is quite unnecessarily. In Act One, scene iv, when his friend and the soldiers are trying to stop him following the Ghost, Hamlet says, "By Heaven I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!"

You can see Turner thinking "Oh dear, 'let' now means 'allow' - people won't understand." So the line is changed to "By Heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that stays me." (Why not go the whole hog and say "stops"? It is half-baked). But Hamlet shows by his actions what he means, so the text change doesn't help the innocent ear of someone seeing the play for the first time and it jars for those who know the play well.

It's a long play. You get the whole of it in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film and that had to have an interval in the cinema. Most people accept that cuts will be necessary in a stage performance. We can live without the "eyrie of little eyasses" or "the vicious mole." And cutting the Polonius/Rinaldo subplot makes some sense, since it is never returned to, but it does rob Polonius of some of his devious character.

But these are some of the small, meaningless cuts: we lose "hugger-mugger," "chaste treasure," "unhouseled, disappointed, unannealed," "stockings foul and down-gyved" (too infra-dig for a sex god?), "vile phrase, " "caviare to the general, " "miching mallecho," "long purples," "Imperial Caesar dead and turned to clay," "get thee to my lady's chamber,"etc. etc.

Speeches are reassigned to different characters, as when Horatio says "something too much of this," "but not by [me]" is taken from Gertrude and given to Claudius. The part of Osric and the funny business with his hat is cut, there is no mention that young Hamlet is thirty years old, we are not told that the play-within-the-play is called The Mousetrap, the recorders Hamlet calls for after the play scene are represented mysteriously by a soprano saxophone and, worst of all for me, the Prince says "except my life" only twice, not three times.

Soliloquies are blessedly not cut but they are moved around. I say again, that Bill Shakespeare knew a thing or two about how to structure a play. What makes Lyndsay Turner so sure she can do it better? She can't.

It's lovely that young people are drawn in to see a Shakespeare play because one of their heroes is in it. They do deserve not to be patronised though and be given the real thing. As Benedict Cumberbatch could have done had he been better directed. 







7 comments:

Marjorie said...

I'm glad I wasn't the only one who didn't like the Ghost.
I think Ophelia is very difficult as she is such an inconsistent character. In this production, I thought her madness was convincing, as she seemed halfway there from the start of the play, but it was much harder to see her and Hamlet as being in love, certainly to the extent that their behaviour suggests!

I found the size and scale of the set and props distracting, although less so in the broadcast than live, as in the broadcast they zoomed in on the actors (which mostly annoys me, as you miss subtleties of you aren't allowed to see what is going on on the stage as a whole)

I enjoyed it, but I agree that the Tennant/Stewart one was a much better production taken as a whole. I'd like to see Cumberbatch try it with a different director - maybe Josie Rourke - did you see Coriolanus?

Sue Purkiss said...

The best Hamlet I ever saw - by far - was Kenneth Branagh at Stratford. He didn't lose the poetry of the lines, but he spoke them so naturally - no bombast, just - perfect. Horatio was very good too. Can't remember who Ophelia was - but I do think that's such a dreadful part. The poor girl doesn't have a clue what's going on - no wonder she goes mad.

Mary Hoffman said...

I saw Coriolanus on cinema relay too, Marjorie, if you mean the one from the Donmar. We are watching the old BBC TV one with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart is Claudius in that one too! It is very soothing to hear the verse given well, even though Jacobi sounds a bit XRP now.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I saw Derek Jacobi as Hamlet way back in the 70s, when the Old Vic came to Melbourne. :-) I remember him doing the "to be or not to be" speech while sitting at Ophelia's feet! Very strange, but this was Derek Jacobi, and he is wonderful, no matter what role he plays or how. In more recent times, I was lucky enough to see Ian McKellen as King Lear, with Sylvester McCoy as the Fool, when they appeared at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. Oh, it was amazing! Ian McKellen was born to play Lear, he just had to be old enough. And Sylvester McCoy was a brilliant Fool and no, I wasn't imagining spoons. ;-) The director decided to interpret "my poor fool is hanged" literally and had Mr McCoy hanged on stage by Cornwall's men, just before intermission. How he managed to hang there so still I don't know.

I take your point about celebrity Hamlets, aimed at the teenage fan girls. But the ones you mention are fine actors anyway. The directors may make wrong decisions about the script - the otherwise excellent Bell Shakespeare company did a version of Hamlet in which he's shown as a teen rebel and Gertrude as Tina Turner(and yes, the recorder was a saxophone!) but the cast can still be great and maybe the kids will get an interest in Shakespeare?

Mary Hoffman said...

I saw that Lear at Stratford and hated the Fool! I thought spoons all the time and disliked the literal hanging. I wasn't bowled over by McKellen, as I expected to be.

For me no Lear could beat Paul Schofield in Peter Brook's version.

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