A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

At last a young Hamlet!  Although the text so indicates, by appending the adjective  every time he is addressed as “young Hamlet,” and the plot bears this out, most actors who play the role are no longer young.  Only a teen-ager could be so upset over a mother’s remarriage. That he  returns from university to attend his father’s funeral is Shakespeare’s addition to the Danish legend.  Making him a student also testifies to his age: records of Oxford University in Shakespeare’s day indicate an admission age of thirteen to fifteen. His being young and vulnerable makes the odds against Hamlet seem even greater, and his achievement of his goal even more admirable.

At London’s Old Vic Theatre Trevor Nunn has directed an excellent modern dress production, with two twenty-three-year-old Hamlets who look sixteen.   This dictates that his schoolfellows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friend Horatio, Laertes, and Ophelia be the same age, while Gertrude, enacted by Imogen Stubbs, is in her thirties.  And we might reflect on the fact that when Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” in 1600 or 1601, his own son Hamnet, who died at eleven, would have been fifteen or sixteen, the age of his surviving twin sister Judith.

As impressively played by Al Weaver, his lean, lanky, curly-haired Hamlet is witty, kind, and intelligent, and in turn tense, excitable, sarcastic, moody and nearly hysterical, although never over the top.  He gains and holds our sympathy, even when he is so accusatory in the scene in his mother’s bedchamber, being “cruel only to be kind.”  Ms. Stubbs is excellent as Gertrude, going from empty-headed enjoyment of her celebrity status as queen to grief when Hamlet confronts her with his disgust at the sexual implications of her marriage to Claudius, her character deepening after the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia, with a moving account of the drowning.  She and Claudius (Tom Mannion) make no secret of the physicality of their attraction to each other.

Mr. Nunn has imaginatively created a production that is clear, fast-moving, and well-spoken, while modern dress contributes contemporary relevance.  He has judiciously but sparingly cut the text and shifted a couple of scenes.  He also solves a “crux” that has worried scholars. When “Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester” is dug up, the gravedigger  claims he’s been there since “young Hamlet was born” and later adds that he has been sexton “thirty years.”  In the current production the time is amended to “a dozen” years, because Hamlet remembers that Yorick had borne him as a youngster “on his back a thousand times.”  Most likely Mr. Nunn is just following an earlier emendation to make the years conform to Richard Burbage, the star of Shakespeare’s company, and middle- aged when he first played the role.