Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ham/let

I sat next to an odd young gentleman at Hamlet last night. (No, not Edward Bennett kicked out by David Tennant, back from his sickbed.) He arrived 15 minutes late, which is understandable since it started at 7.15, not 7.30, but didn't come back for the second act. Who comes for the Ham but not the let?

I slightly feel this way about the play, which Greg Doran and the cast had trimmed down, losing Claudius' speech about the subservience of England, Hamlet's piracy narrative and a lot of the jokes about lawyers in the gravediggers' scene. 'To be or not to be' was also reassigned to the nunnery scene, making him (to me) far too introspective too early.

These subtractions feel like they were there to speed the second act along, making it more palatable to the public, and I get this sense from other choices: interjecting the interval just as Hamlet stands over Claudius with a dagger (a dubious position - is he really on the verge of striking?) is a cliffhanger, not a wholly credible character choice.

The programme too is perhaps less wordy and thoughtful than for other productions - nothing on the issues of the play, just on the rehearsal process (which is certainly interesting). If this is all to please the public drawn to it because of David Tennant, it is rather patronising.

This aside, the acting was excellent. Edward Bennett was raw and youthful, almost childlike in some of his cruelty and buffoonery. Patrick Stewart's Claudius is a calm diplomat, whose occasional cracks are soon papered over by a supercilious assurance. I particularly enjoyed Penny Downie as Gertrude, because her role seems to have been enhanced in this production - rather than being the typical underwritten cipher, she was played with passion and prominence. (I did spot Tom Davey's Laertes being fed his lines by a priest at the beginning, but this is understandable as another link in the understudy chain.)

What really struck me in this performance was how important a theme unquestioning obedience is: servants obey royals, the queen her husband, Polonius the king. The smooth operation of the world is predicated on an almost mechanical principle - the king is the wheel, of course, in the famous phrase - of obedience. It is the struggle for freedom (of action and thought) which traps Hamlet in his uncertainty, which is at least authentic. This is the void Hamlet seems to stare into: a certain servitude or an uncertain freedom.

Quite a brief exposition of a rather complicated theory, but I know some people I shall be able to argue this with for hours.

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