Sunday, 31 March 2013

"Lenten entertainment": the RSC's Hamlet

It's been a while since Greg Hicks' last RSC production - clearly he's been busy Hollywooding around lately in the likes of Snow White and the Huntsman. This Spring, however, saw him resurrected as the ghost of Old Hamlet and his murderous brother, Claudius. It was a very welcome return - however short a time, it's definitely been long enough for me to miss his talents.

As Hicks' "cousin and son", Jonathan Slinger took up the play's title role with great energy and vivacity. At times, his madness did verge on being a little too extreme for my liking - this was an exceptionally loud rendition of both Hamlet (the character) and Hamlet (the play), featuring all manner of bangs and explosions (which, I fear, very nearly induced a heart attack in the poor woman sat beside me). The tone of Slinger's performance was made to match this, and sometimes risked disregarding his character's own advice:
Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.
Overall, however, these heightened mood swings and exaggerated instability actually made for a highly accessible Hamlet, whose every emotional and intellectual turnaround was laid brutally bare to the audience.

Perhaps my favourite performance in this play came from Alex Waldmann as Horatio: a magnificently subtle performance from a highly skilled young actor. Last year, I saw Waldmann in a new play at the RSC, A Soldier in Every Son. Though that play's pedestrian dialogue completely failed to do justice to the abilities of any of its actors, Waldmann's talent even then couldn't pass unnoticed. Seeing him now in a much more interesting role served to confirm my initial feeling, that we can expect great things of him. I'll be very surprised indeed if we don't see see him crop up in some glossy TV drama very soon.

Unfortunately less impressive was Pippa Nixon as the long-suffering Ophelia. I did feel this role was for her a vast improvement on that of Lady Anne in Richard III, which saw her rather awkwardly upstaged by the fantastic Jonjo O'Neill in all of their scenes together. Here, at least, she displayed a little more passion. But ultimately, she still seemed unable to meet the demands made of her in a production determined to bring her character into centre stage and much closer to the audience - sometimes literally. I must be fair and take my hat off to Nixon that she was able to sustain her deathly stillness, mere inches from the faces of front-row audience members, for the entirety of the play's final act - though quite why this was required of her at all remained largely unclear. Overall, though, one couldn't help but wonder why she'd been chosen for the part over the considerably more compelling and charismatic Natalie Klamar, who was sadly wasted on the few bit parts she was given.

There were some interesting, if not all entirely successful, things done with Ophelia in this production. The first unusual choice was dressing her up like a student. Along with the play's setting - in what looked like a school gymnasium, with its wooden chairs and balance benches, and Horatio's similar garb, this helped to make Ophelia blend in better with Hamlet and his friends, seeming to elevate her to their status by making her, too, a scholar. This was also the first production of Hamlet I've seen where the "Get thee to a nunnery" bit seemed to be genuinely about her and their relationship - he did seem angry that she'd blown him off with no explanation, rather than just making her the victim of his frustration with her father and his uncle. Yet, for some reason this didn't hold out. Later, as Hamlet watches Ophelia being laid in her grave - typically a fairly emotional moment, in which Hamlet seems genuinely aggreived and remorseful about his earlier behaviour - he instead came across as cold and distant, jumping into the grave only out of a desire to compete with Laertes. I can't be sure if either or both were deliberate choices or just the impressions that I happened to come away with, but if it's the former, then it was certainly an odd way round of doing things, portraying a wholly erratic Hamlet, rather lacking in the supposed method behind his madness. Perhaps more problematic than this, however, was Ophelia's (lack of) relationship with her father. Undeniably, Robin Soans made a great Polonius, but Ophelia neither seemed to be bitter, over-controlled and abused by him in the usual way, nor, if you were looking for a more unusual interpretation, to have much in the way of loving or amicable feelings towards him. This had the effect of making her eventual madness seem bizarrely inexplicable, unless you assume that she's more upset about the fact that Hamlet killed someone than that her father has been killed.

For all its problems though, this was an extremely well-directed Hamlet, with a lightning-fast pace that never once flagged, despite the show's going on for over three and a half hours. Actors entered for the next scene before the current one was ended, shifting us along and, like the ghost, constantly driving us onwards and reminding us that there must be further action. This was a very kinetic Hamlet - people were always moving and doing, except during monologues, where everything seemed to sharply and suddenly stop, including the audience. I had a young girl sitting behind me who was quite chattery-whispery for much of the show, but even she seemed to feel the weight of these extended mental excursions, falling utterly silent whenever the characters spoke alone. Time flew past us at the same time as it slipped through the ever procrastinating Hamlet's hands - a fact we were reminded of right from the start by the skulls around the edges of the stage. Later, the gymnasium's floorboards would be lifted and carried away by soldiers, revealing the graves that had been all along concealed beneath the actors' feet, ready and waiting to swallow them up. "If it be not now, yet it will come..."

Much of the set was brilliantly designed in this way. The flourescent tubes that framed the stage, eerily lighting up whenever the ghost appeared, were amazing, as were the strange sound effects that accompanied their ethereal glow. However, as interesting and convincing as it all looked, the school sports hall appearance - used, presumably to emphasise the director's interest in fencing and swordfighting in Hamlet - added very little, in the end, to our understanding of the play. I didn't really understand the deal with all the fencing gear constantly shoved in our faces, and I know that this is a feeling that other reviewers have shared. Sure, duelling was a significant thing in Shakespeare's time, and there's nothing inherently wrong with either the essay in the programme describing it, nor the take on the play itself. But it did feel rather like a molehill had been made into a mountain, and the whole thing was somewhat distracting from more important and exciting elements of the play.

Nevertheless, this was overall a thoroughly enjoyable Hamlet - clear, bold, full of spectacle, and perfect for RSC newcomers. 

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