I watched an actor draw his own map on Saturday.
The RSC’s production of Hamlet, held at the Courtyard Theatre whilst their complex is, in essence, rebuilt, has attracted a lot of press due to the casting of both Patrick Stewart as Claudius and David Tennant as Hamlet. Whilst not all of that press has been positive, most notably the RSC’s refusal to allow the actor to sign Doctor Who memorabilia, the production has been getting very positive word.
The reason for that is simple, because that’s exactly what this production is; simple. The Courtyard is a wonderful theatre, designed with absolutely no artifice so every wiring track and support strut, every light and even props are on display, the carpet the Players enact their scene on being stored, unobtrusively, by one of the exits. It’s an appropriate location too, as this Hamlet is a bare-bones production, the cast finding their way back to the elements of the play and creating something which is both devastatingly open and honest and at the same time elegantly crafted.
The stage is a black, reflective square backed by mirrored doors, creating a half square, a right angle that draws the audience in straight away, subconsciously completing it. This also allows for some minimalist but remarkably atmospheric lighting, most notably in the first scene where the primary light is the watchmen’s torches, reflected from the floor and visibly arcing upwards. This first scene not only sets out the stall for the story but also for this production. The watchmen have never felt so real, so human and their blank terror as the ghost splits around them is utterly real. The production serves its everymen very well too with performances from Polonius’ long-suffering servant Reynaldo, played by Ewen Cummins, and the courtier Osric, played by Ryan Gage, both registering later. This is Elsinore as a vast machine of state, one where the first signs of a problem, the first tremors are felt by and affect the smallest cogs first.
This understated approach continues as the Royal Family make their appearance, smiling and waving at a photo call as they walk through onto the stage. Tennant’s Hamlet arrives with no fanfare, a tall, uncomfortable figure standing alone in the corner of the stage and unnoticed for much of this first scene. Only a look from Claudius and a pointed ‘Now, Laertes.’ Shows the audience he’s there and also shows them how uncomfortable the two men already are with one another.
It would have been easy for Tennant to play Hamlet as the Doctor, the two characters have the same mercurial intellect, the same flamboyance, the same wilful lack of social skills. It would have been easy for Tennant to spend the entire play sprinting around with the maniacal energy he brings to that other role and to be fair, there’s more than a hint of the Doctor’s jet black sense of theatre to some of Hamlet’s later adventures, especially the moment where he sets off for England, tied to an office chair. It would have been easy for Tennant to coast through this role, to hit the same marks thousands before him have, to do nothing new.
Nothing Tennant does here is easy. His first soliloquy is delivered in wracking sobs, Hamlet collapsed into a foetal ball of grief and pain that you feel uncomfortable watching. There’s no artifice here, no sense of buttons being pushed, this is a man who lives completely in the moment and the moment is full of nothing but agony and loss. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for him, impossible too not to remember that Tennant lost his mother recently and the end result is a Hamlet who is, in essence, naked, broken and still has a long, long way to go.
Tennant’s performance, if anything, improves over the course of the play and he starts to take an almost wilful delight in not playing to the usual interpretations of scenes. His first meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sees him measure and defeat them in seconds and he toys with his two friends from there on, alternately revelling in their company and despising it. Likewise, the moment where he has the opportunity to kill Claudius and doesn’t is fascinating, firstly for the fact the scene is cut in half across the interval and secondly because of the sheer emotion behind every one of Tennant’s lines.
That emotion is at the heart of this Hamlet’s madness, and it’s a devastatingly smart choice by Tenant and director Gregory Doran. Hamlet clings to his anger and grief, uses them as a weapon to hack his way through life and only when Polonius is killed does he stop and realise what’s happened. Rash action has just cost an old man his life and Hamlet any chance of redemption and the scenes that follow vary from one of the most electrifying confrontations between Hamlet and Claudius in recent years to a moment where, meeting Fortinbras’ sergeant, he sees the future of Denmark and seemingly accepts that he’ll be no part of it.
This is a Hamlet with fierce intelligence who is far too willing to use it, but, again, the production confounds expectation. Instead of the out of control intellectual of old, the inclusion of the scene with Fortinbras’ sergeant brings into focus this version’s willingness to sacrifice himself. Hamlet knows he’s not part of the greater good, of the solution and accepts that. His peace comes here, not so much through vengeance as through the realisation that, at last, he can rest. This is, in short, a Hamlet constructed of complexity and contradiction, a man who defines himself by his death as much as his life. Visceral, emotional and painfully open this is also, I suspect, the definitive Hamlet of the next decade.
Tennant is far from alone on stage, Patrick Stewart’s dual roles proving as electric as Tennant’s. Casting Stewart as both the Ghost and Claudius is inspired, as is the decision to dress Claudius in slightly period formal suits whilst the Ghost is confined to armour and military dress. One man is vital, physical and dead. The other is intellectual, charming, plausible and killed him. Stewart’s Claudius is a man absolutely at home in affairs of state, as bullish intellectually as his brother was physically and all the more threatening for that. His weariness with the verbose Polonius and growing contempt and fear for Hamlet are fascinating to see and his reaction to the Players, fascinatingly, leaves him in absolute control. He walks up to Hamlet, stares at him, shakes his head very deliberately and almost murmurs ‘Away.’ It’s the moment where the two men finally see face to face, finally realise they will destroy one another and Claudius, not blinded by the savage vindication Hamlet feels, sees that straight away.
It’s the quiet moments where Stewart shines however. Left alone after the play he’s wracked with coughs, his guilt spewing from him as bile whilst alone with Gertrude he’s the picture of husbandly concern. Just as Hamlet feels he has no place in Elsinore, Claudius feels he must earn his place through hard work and altruistic gesture, through making Denmark great again. His strength, his control, is all façade and when that’s revealed, when Hamlet is standing over him, knife in hand, the play shifts suddenly. It’s no longer a war for Denmark or a quest for vengeance but rather a battle between two terrified, intelligent men with no semblance of control over their lives. Each defines the other, each controls the other and in the end, each dooms both. Once again, it’s a remarkable, unique take on an old role and once again it showcases an actor at the absolute top of his game. A friend of mine pointed out that Stewart even alters his voice, his Claudius always near the top of his register, always dry-throated as he struggles to hold the bile back and it only heightens the desperation, the sense of danger mentioned above.
Elsinore’s other tragic family are also well served here with Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius embodying the contradictions of the role with humour that never once belittles the mundane, banal evil Polonius does. One part doting father to one part obsessive spymaster he’s blinded in the end by his connection to the great machine that is Elsinore. Hamlet, Claudius, even Gertrude can see the changes coming but Polonius can never see past the walls of the castle and that, in the end, dooms him and his children.
Edward Bennett and Mariah Gale complete the triangle of grieving children in the play, Bennett’s Laertes a ’60s student radical with an axe to grind. He’s a perfect upper-class big brother and when he begins to fall apart, the comparisons between him and Hamlet are inevitable and well drawn. Both are intelligent men driven mad through grief, both are intent on vengeance and both are parts of the machine, neither realising until it’s too late.
Mariah Gale’s Ophelia takes a leaf from Tennant’s book, her grief as real and raw and desperate as Hamlet’s own. However, her death serves not only to complete the pattern of grieving children but also show how lucky Hamlet is. He has vengeance to power him, to distract him whilst all Ophelia has is the knowledge that the man she loved killed the man who loved her, her father. Her final scene, grubby, bleeding and clutching a pile of pond weed is like Tennant’s opening speech, remarkable and, like that earlier scene, extremely uncomfortable to watch.
Penny Downie’s Gertrude and Peter De Jersey’s Horatio are the two quiet stars of the play but no less impressive for that. Downie has few lines but never stops acting and her poise and increasingly brittle, cracked façade break the audience’s heart twice. The first time is after Hamlet leaves her, throwing a cheery ‘Goodnight Mother!’ behind him as, clearly, he always has. The abject joy on her face as she realises that for a few seconds, her son has returned to her, shatters into wracking sobs as the reality of her situation descends on her, closely followed by Claudius’ unwelcome, massaging hands.
The second is at the climax of the duel, a moment traditionally played as Gertrude toasting her newly recovered son. Here, she clearly realises what Claudius has done, clearly realises what’s coming and wants no part of it. She kills herself and in doing so sets in motion the final chain of events, seizing control of her life as her son did before her.
Finally, De Jersey has the most thankless task of all. The stoic Horatio does nothing but react throughout the play but, once again, is well served here. De Jersey’s default costume, a tweed jacket with suede elbow pads speaks to his academic past and this Horatio is fiercely intelligent, a muscular, rebellious presence who supports his friend as much through shared jokes at Elsinore’s expense as assisting his investigation. He’s a dependable, solid presence in the play and provides a sounding board for Tennant’s Hamlet, throwing him into starker relief as well as putting a human face on the closing tragedy of the play.
It’s there, in the final seconds though, that Doran pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet. As Hamlet dies, the doors open and Fortinbras strides in, accompanied by the sergeant Hamlet spoke to earlier. There’s no closing speech, no expression of regret, just a man in uniform who, after a moment, Osric bows to. The great machine of Elsinore rumbles on, but a new controller is at the helm and whether or not his intentions are pure is left up to us.
This is Hamlet stripped bare, the cogs and gears exposed and it’s a revelation. Intelligence, emotion and sheer physical presence combine to create a performance which is both pragmatic and grounded and shot through with equal veins of black humour and tragedy. This is Shakespeare taken down to the essentials and ready to be rediscovered for the 21st Century, a seething powerhouse of a cast and a performance. This is Tennant drawing the map of his future career and, in doing so, showing the way to a definitive new perspective on Hamlet. This is, in short, extraordinary.