Hamlet (Act 1)

So what did I think of “Hamlet”? Weeelll….

A couple of moments were pure Doctor. When he was on the run from the Court damage-limitation agents just after he’d accidentally killed Polonius and he appeared upstage with a chirpy, “Oh, here they come!” When he was wheeled away, restrained in an office chair, and he chirruped, “To England, then. Whee!” There was a lot of playfulness there, and I’ve never seen a “Hamlet” with quite so many laughs in it. This was, indeed, a manic prince, covering his psychological disintegration with an “antic disposition”. Others may wish to argue, but I saw little that was feigned about Hamlet’s madness here.

There were darker reminders of the Doctor, too – most clearly in his brutal and inexplicable rejection of Ophelia. The tortured, “I love you but I hate myself so much I despise you for loving me back,” dynamic will be familiar to admirers of the Tenth Doctor. And, in true DW tradition, we finish Part One on a cliffhanger with old Claudius at prayer and Hamlet poised to murder him. (I won’t spoil you).

But this “Hamlet” is his own man, very much more than the sum of his Doctor-like tics. He may not be up there with the great Hamlets of theatrical legend (though it’s early days yet, and there’s time enough for the depth to develop) – but he’s undoubtedly the right Hamlet for my kids’ generation. Effortlessly convincing us that he’s twenty-three at most, a moody student whose Philosophy degree has been interrupted by family troubles, he reminds me strongly of my seventeen-year-old son, and I don’t think I’d be alone in that. This prince is torn apart by grief and confusion, very uncertain of his ability to live up to what he believes (probably correctly) is his father’s definition of the ideal son, simultaneously overjoyed and terrified to see his dad’s ghost, vicious towards his mother because he can’t work out how he feels about her having a sex life that he defines as “incestuous” and covering it all up by behaving brilliantly but also very badly, compulsively drawing attention to himself and attempting to convince himself, if nobody else in his world, that he has all the answers. He loves to shock – he’s rude to people he ought to respect, shows up barefoot in a DJ at state occasions, pinches the crown to wear it at a jaunty angle, delivers the most famous soliloquy in theatrical history wearing jeans and a red T-shirt with a fake six-pack printed on the front, and waggles his cock at Ophelia in public to remind us all that there’s a “cunt” in “country pleasures”. This is, after all, a play written by a bloke who knocked up a 26 year old woman when he was 18 and had to be bailed out to the tune of £40.00 (a fortune in those days) by family and friends to purchase a marriage licence.

It’s probably the mother in me, but I adored a moment in the closet scene where Gertrude wearily puts down her cigarette and removes that crown from her silly, dangerous son’s head. This is a family drama first and foremost. We’re seeing a Hamlet in the process of growing up, painfully and in public, and DT plays him quite wonderfully. It’s riveting – I couldn’t believe it when my watch said 10.50 at the curtain call – and it’ll turn an entire generation on to Shakespeare. For that alone, Tennant deserves to be the darling of the RSC.

Having said that, it would be unjust to single him out for praise. As you’d expect from the RSC, this is an ensemble piece with everyone giving their all. Look in the programme and you’ll see all the players listed alphabetically with no concessions made to Tennant’s pulling power, and that’s as it should be. There’s particularly strong support from Patrick Stewart as a creepy Claudius who makes his intense dislike of Hamlet clear from the outset, and Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius – control freak, fixer and pompous windbag, but underestimated at everyone’s peril. It’s striking how rapidly things fall apart once Hamlet bumps him off.

Of course, we’re dealing with a royal family here, and some of Shakespeare’s most nuanced creations. He was too subtle a writer to make things completely black and white. There’s compelling evidence that it’s actually better for the state of Denmark to have Claudius running things, and this adds another layer of ambiguity to the moral imperative that Hamlet must avenge his father’s death. Something is indeed rotten in the State of Denmark, but it’s not necessarily Claudius’s fault. It could just as easily be the inevitable consequence of the old king being the type who’d rather throw his ice-axe around and keep the armaments factories running 24/7 than resort to the logical device of sending a diplomatic mission to Fortinbras to sue for peace. It’s a highly unpleasant atmosphere at Court, resembling a police state, with everyone spying on everyone else. Privacy is impossible, something that Tennant could no doubt relate to very well.

I’m aware that this review is pretty lengthy already – I’ve more to say about the revenge plot and the political background to the play, but I think it’s time for an interval now, so more anon.


5 thoughts on “Hamlet (Act 1)

  1. and waggles his cock at Ophelia in public to remind us all that there’s a “cunt” in “country pleasures”
    This is still something kids can watch, isn’t it? A jerky hip thrust in a woman’s general direction? Or is there a more hands on delivery?
    Royal families do my head in, especially with Shakespeare. After I saw all the Histories, I did some factual research and discovered that while the manner of Henry IV getting the throne wasn’t nice, once Richard II had been killed he was the next man in line.
    Now, I assume that even in Denmark in the 1600s (or 1200s when the events the play is based on took place) follows the pattern of succession as in England: Men first, sons after fathers but before uncles. Henry VI illustrated that while the 9 month old baby needed his uncles to run the state on his behalf to begin with, once he turned eighteen he was King outright. I assume Hamlet views things this way, that his throne has been taken. It doesn’t matter how fast his uncle married his mother: As long as Hamlet is alive when his father dies it is his throne. But I suspect this to be … complicated.
    I haven’t actually read Hamlet fully yet. But I did read the notes at the back which refers to the historical events Hamlet is based on. Shakespeare has completely changed the ending to his liking. So when people write AU fanfics they can say if it’s good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for me.

  2. He kept his trousers on but little else was left to the imagination. It was…memorable.
    There was very little indication that Hamlet cared about his own claim to the throne being displaced. It was very much a personal tragedy, looking at the moral problem of whether revenge is justifiable. One point I hadn’t appreciated in other productions I’ve seen – the old King claims to be suffering in Purgatory until his murder is avenged, giving his son a very specific task and responsibility.
    It’s a play very much about the Catholic worldview giving way to the Protestant doctrine of each of us having to work out our personal salvation with fear and trembling. At least in this production.
    Seemed to me that the statecraft was generally played down by Doran – one controversial cut at the end meant that we actually end on “Goodnight, sweet Prince – may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” The entrance of Fortinbras and the setting of the tragedy in its political context is glossed over almost completely.

  3. Thanks for the partial review…needless to say, it filled in what a two minute phone coversation couldn’t do justice too 🙂
    Although I’m hoping to get the full review from Lissa in a week or so. That’s if she’s at all coherent for the first few days back 🙂

  4. It’s a pity none of the performances will be filmed (or at least I haven’t heard that any of them will be.) A filmed version of a play on stage is very different from a play done for filming, and probably only hints at the full effect of seeing it in a theater, but it would be nice to capture some of this for those of us who can’t attend a live performance.

  5. I certainly wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a filmed version completely – it would be a goldmine for the RSC, wouldn’t it? I guess the problem is getting everyone together and available to do it.

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