Why You Can’t Bugger Up Hamlet
How many ways can you perform it? And why does it periodically take such a grip on Britain?
The furore over Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet grew to fever pitch this summer, ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ shunted to the front of the play, then back, and tickets changing hands for absurd amounts. ‘Cumberbitches’, for God’s sake; the word makes me think that all those marches we went on for our sisters’ feminist recognition were utterly wasted.
So, the latest ‘Hamlet’ could only have resulted in a let-down, and so it has proven. The reviews have been at best middling for an apparently overblown production that twists the action into a matinee idol’s star turn, rather as ‘Blithe Spirit’ did last year in order to fete Angela Lansbury’s two scenes as Madame Arcati. So the reaction of Gertrude and Claudius is lost during the play-within-the-play, and Hamlet is priced out by unnecessary props and bits of business. Although by all accounts Cumberbatch brings his usual stony-faced gravitas to the role.
But it’s always been like this, and there are a thousand ways to play the play, most of which don’t damage it much because, you know, the writing. Sarah Bernhardt’s performance opened the way for female Hamlets and why not? A woman should be good at playing a callow youth lost in the adult intrigues of Elsinore. Willowy Ben Wishaw did exactly that by playing Hamlet at the age of 23 as he held a jar of sleeping pills and showed us a frightened student dealing with depression.
Michael Redgrave and Simon Russell Beale both played Hamlet as a middle-aged man in crisis. Olivier’s cut-glass tones were too crisp and dry for you to be able to see beyond Olivier the Actor, and the less said about Kenneth Branagh’s cheery everyman Hamlet the better, although he released a star-studded film of his full-text version featuring Elsinore as a kind of overlit Edwardian hall of mirrors, without depth or shadow.
I would have loved to have seen John Gielgud at 25 playing the role. He returned to the part in more than 500 performances and six different productions. It’s still worth tracking down Gielgud in his eighties as a magical Prospero in Peter Greenaway’s ‘Prospero’s Books’, a film I’d like to hit Greenaway with a stick for, because he almost produced the perfect ‘Tempest’ only to ruin it by multi-tracking the sound and overlaying too many effects.
In 2010 alone we had John Simm, Jude Law and David Tennant playing Hamlet in the West End, but for me, Rory Kinnear nailed it best in a production by Nicholas Hytner that was thrillingly precise as cameras, bugging equipment and ever-lurking government agents turned the castle into a place of danger, making each appearance by Hamlet fraught with tension.
In that production Polonius was no befuddled old man but the head of Elsinore’s MI5. And when Ophelia returned her love letters, a microphone fell out of her bible. What’s more, she was clearly murdered by Claudius’s secret service agents, which made a lot more sense following a mad scene that embarrassed the palace.
But the key was Kinnear, a scruffy, bipolar student prince whose room was a mess, who chainsmoked through ‘To be or not to be’, who scrawled on walls and whose resolve wilted precisely because he was young and lacking direction.
‘Hamlet’ is hard to bugger up; I even enjoyed Mel Gibson’s fighting two-fisted Dane from Franco Zeffirelli. What’s interesting now is to see how mixed audiences for Shakespeare have become. In London if you have any interest at all in the arts (and how could you not given the weather? It’s an indoor sport) you deal with Shakespeare early on and the visualised language quickly clarifies its meaning.
It’s even nice to have a few difficult bits you don’t quite understand; who wants to know everything at once? When people say they don’t understand the language it simply means they haven’t had enough experience of it. Shakespeare is like opening a series of elaborate gift boxes, each one revealing a bit more of the treasure within.
But ‘Hamlet’ remains a bit too much of a star turn, so there’s still a tourist element to the London productions, wherein ‘doing a Shakespeare’ seems a part of a bucket-list itinerary; I remember sitting behind a block-booking of Californian beauticians, one of whom stood up twenty minutes into ‘Macbeth’ and called to the others, ‘Do we need to see any more of this or can we go eat?’
It seems the tragedies and histories play better in Britain than the comedies, and even the problem plays often work well. Oddly, the one play I’ve never seen a good production of is ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, mainly because it always gets programmed at the height of summer in London open-air theatres, ie. it gets rained off. ‘Hamlet’ though, now you’re talking; rich, meaty, endlessly fascinating. It’s the bollocks.