A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet at the National Theatre captures the character’s keen intelligence and biting satire, as well as his versatility, going in a flash from the emotional first soliloquy (“O that this too, too solid flesh”) to the conviviality of greeting and joking with Horatio, to concealed agitation when he hears of the ghost.  Each of the soliloquies is brilliantly thought out and delivered, that is,  “All but one” (to quote Hamlet).  The important  “How all occasions do inform against me” has been cut.  On his way to England, under guard, this is Hamlet’s response to seeing Fortinbras and his army marching across Denmark to attack Poland.   No soliloquy, no Fortinbras.  And thus an abbreviated ending last seen when Henry Irving brought down the curtain as he expired on “Good night, sweet prince.”  

In a set more fitting the Viennese opera version of the Hamlet story, director John Caird sacrifices not only Fortinbras but also important exposition to make way for confusing stage “business.”  Maybe he should have listened more carefully to Hamlet’s epitaph for  Polonius, whom he has just killed, “ Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger.” (III, iv, 34)  When the curtain rises on chandeliers stretching as far as the eye can see, one senses that they will be raised and lowered ad infinitum; the surprise is that they come down to near ground level for the mad Ophelia to spin them as she plays hide and seek amidst them in her interminable and embarrassing concert of Elizabethan ditties.

It seems unconscionable that in a production by England’s Royal National Theatre, scheduled to tour the continent, the text has been so butchered. You ask how carefully the director read the text when he decided to begin the play with a procession of all the characters, instead of Shakespeare’s sharp question asked by the nervous guard, “Who’s there?” Scholar Harry Levin points out that more questions are asked in this play than in any other by Shakespeare.  The scene and mood set themselves: “tis bitter cold/ And I am sick of heart.”  By line 21 we are intrigued by a “thing” that has appeared; a few lines later it is a “dreaded sight” and an “apparition.”

 All this opening on a note of suspense is thrown away by beginning with the court procession that is supposed to follow the stark opening: Shakespeare again carefully prepares the way: “Let us impart what we have seen tonight/ Unto young Hamlet.”  The Folio text spells out the court procession that immediately follows: all the major characters, probably in colorful robes to contrast with Hamlet in black, and heralded by a “flourish of trumpets.”

 Cut from the first scene is the theory as to why the ghost is walking: a possible invasion by Norwegian Fortinbras,  for which Denmark is arming itself.  Later in the play, Fortinbras appears as a contrast to Hamlet – a young prince whose uncle is on the throne but who unlike Hamlet is Getting Things Done. Hamlet’s missing soliloquy is one that adds another dimension to his complex character, as he realizes that war is folly – they are fighting “even for an eggshell,” a tiny parcel of land.   It was okay for Olivier over fifty years ago in his film to cut Fortinbras and the soliloquy, but today?

 In the current production, because so much time is taken up arranging and rearranging trunks – what is their symbolism, if any? --  and in dragging out Ophelia’s mad antics and songs, important lines of exposition are cut.  When Hamlet fails to ask the First Player to perform “The Murder of Gonzago,” plus a few additional lines Hamlet himself will write, it seems too coincidental that the play-within-the play exactly mirrors the death of Hamlet Senior.

This busy production seems fascinated with the up-and-down chandeliers, and with colored lanterns that keep reappearing, to no effect, as stage footlights, then in Claudius’s chapel, and next in Gertrude’s “closet.”  Perpetual motion suggests that a director does not trust the dialogue: the trunks that litter the stage are constantly being shifted about.  Distracting are such added actions as Gertrude rummaging through her trunk to find her white wedding veil (anachronistic) and a framed picture of husband No. 1.   Now Hamlet, uttering “look upon this picture and on this,” must run back and forth from framed picture to the miniature of Claudius she wears.

 Not satisfied with the real laughs Beale’s Hamlet evokes by his clever reading of the satiric lines, director Caird stages as a comedy riot Polonius’s advice to Laertes.  More time-wasting that dictates cuts in the text:  instead of following one of the few original directions for a single musician, a concert of recorders precedes and follows the interval, all to point up Hamlet’s punning warning to schoolfellows R and G, “Though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.” Here the Folio, which prints the playhouse or acting version of the play is quite specific: “Enter one with a recorder.” (Italics mine)

But the worst offense is to distract the audience by having Ophelia, spotlit, wander all over the stage during the “To be or not to be” soliloquy with the result that its sequence of thought, although brilliantly interpreted by Beale,  is difficult to follow. 

Along with Beale, the principals are excellent.  Sara Kestelman is especially effective as Gertrude, portraying a women whose heart is “cleft in twain,” with divided loyalty to son and new husband.  With Peter McEnery as Claudius, the two evoke both the devotion of this pair to each other and their bewilderment at Hamlet’s antics.  McEnery conveys the intelligence as well as the guilt and villainy of the king.  Denis Quilley is a triumph as Polonius; and then doubles his triumph as the gravedigger.

 This is a rare opportunity to see and hear a Hamlet who really understands the character and in turn, helps you understand him.  After touring in August to Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark, where the Hamlet legend is set, the production returns to the Cottesloe at the end of August, and in October appears at the Gaiety Theatre for the Dublin Festival, visiting Norway and Sweden in the winter and touring internationally, hopefully including the U.S.  Let’s hope the chandeliers get misplaced on the journey.