It’s surely the most well-known play in the English language. If not in its entirety then from its conglomeration of famous lines. By its very nature, Hamlet needs no introduction – as a play or as a character – yet each successive staging seems to require a justification, an explanation of its resonances and relevance. Virginia Woolf once said that “to write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments on what we know.” Perhaps taking a leaf from Woolf’s sentiments, director Simon Stone has fashioned a compelling new interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, and turns it into a chamber piece for eight actors, a pianist and a singer.
Belvoir’s Hamlet, as with all of Stone’s production, is set upon a plane of dark and light, black and white. Costumed by Mel Page in variations on formal attire, these inhabitants of Stone’s Elsinore seem to inhabit the background of each others’ scenes, giving the play an oddly disconcerting and ghostly presence, which it of course already has, but Stone’s staging concept amplifies it.
Designed by Ralph Myers, Act One is set in a world of darkness – black curtains adorn the corner walls, and the floor is covered with black carpet tiles – and we see Hamlet’s spiral into madness, madness that becomes a mask for something deeper – the anger and loathing at Claudius and Gertrude’s incestuous marriage. Act Two, conversely, is set in a world of lightness – the black curtains and floor are stripped away to reveal a blinding white floor and walls – and it is in this atrium that truths come to light and Hamlet’s apparent descent pulls everyone else into his orbit. The only colour in all of this is the deep rich red of blood. The blood that colours hands, faces, shirts, dresses; the floor.
Having followed Stone’s trajectory at Belvoir over the past three years, from The Wild Duck to this Hamlet, I was prepared for anything he could throw at us; after all, we had more than likely seen it all before, in terms of his aesthetic and stagecraft. Yet, as the focus of Stone’s scenes shifted and collided with each other, the flow of Shakespeare’s text – already truncated from nearly-four-hours to a taught 110 minutes – seemed to jar and ebb, pooling around Hamlet’s fingers and body. Stripped of some of Stone’s trademark boldness and daring, this Hamlet only seemed to find its rhythm as it approached the end of the first half – as the play was indeed proved to be The Thing, and Polonius suffered an unfortunate incident from behind the arras. Stone’s second half, however, was every bit the thrilling downward spiral that Hamlet becomes (replete with quantities of dark red blood across every member of the cast, so they end up looking like something out of Sweeney Todd or Titus Andronicus instead.)
As the Great Dane, Toby Schmitz did what Toby Schmitz does best. But after his turn in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead earlier in the year, his quintessential Toby-ness – the effortless spontaneity with which he delivers lines to make them seem brand new – seemed to be lacking, replaced instead by a red-faced anger, a strained shouting which turned Hamlet’s mercurial wit into a volatile and barely contained rage at points. His performance in the second half was less shouty, but by no means less mercurial. Schmitz also had a strange tendency to ‘honk!’ as my sister described it, make an open-mouthed gagging-kind of sound, when he was frustrated, angry, wounded, dying. If his whole performance was like what he became in the second half, then we could have been in the presence of a truly great Dane.
John Gaden as Claudius had an easy charm which was matched by a suppressed dangerousness, a current of darkness and depth which gave his Claudius a weight which contrasted nicely with Schmitz’s Hamlet. It is hard to not like John Gaden, no matter what character he plays, as his performance and delivery are always wonderful, and his command of Shakespeare’s language is as effortless as it can be. As his now-wife Gertrude, Robyn Nevin was also in fine form, with a character whose confusion at her son’s erratic behaviour is all-too real, whose anguish is real. Her delivery of the discovery of Ophelia’s body, delivered in a quiet and reverent manner, silenced the theatre and was a small gem of poetry in the spiralling descent into tragedy that are the final scenes of the play. As Ophelia, Emily Barclay felt short-changed – the character does not get much stage time, and her scenes were trimmed, so all we really saw was the confusion at Hamlet’s “antic disposition,” his discarding of her, and her descent into madness. Whilst delivering a strong performance, you couldn’t help but feel that she could have done so much more with the role if perhaps she had had more time on stage. As Polonius, Greg Stone was wonderful – every bit as mad and perhaps indecisive as the character should be. While a number of his speeches were trimmed, we lost none of his trademark wit, duffer-ness, or kind-hearted charm; in addition, we also got a rather athletic and younger Polonius than in many other productions, very much a realistic father to Ophelia and Laertes. Polonius’ death scene was made all the more harrowing by the sharp crimson of his blood, in an otherwise dark scene, blood that spread across his shirt and body.
This leads me to perhaps the key distinguishing feature of Stone’s Hamlet, one I think ultimately works to his and the production’s advantage. Following Polonius’ death prior to interval, we resume the second half with him on-stage, bloodied, bold and resolute (to quote Macbeth). Once characters are dead, they stay dead, but instead of staying off-stage, they come to inhabit the stage again, surrounding Hamlet, alongside him every step of the way. We first see this in the opening moments of the play when Anthony Phelan’s Ghost sits to the side of the stage in a bone suit. Phelan barely leaves the stage throughout the play’s two-hour duration, very much a part of Hamlet’s subconscious and reality. And this is the thing – The Thing, if you will – about Stone’s Hamlet: we carry the dead with us, he seems to be saying, in our memories; if we are responsible for the demise of another, we too carry their death with us, as an albatross around our neck. In the final scene, the climactic fight between Laertes and Hamlet, the dead and the living (those few who remain) stand around Hamlet in the corners of the space, every bit a part of his mind as they are the unfolding scene. Gone is Osric, though his presence remains. Gone, too, are the swords or any implement of any kind. What we are left with are a few champagne goblets, lots of scarlet blood, and a white void, perhaps the very “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” As Hamlet reaches his rest of silence, the blood spreading beneath his fingers, the Ghost of his father comes forwards to almost absolve him of his actions, thus concluding the play in a bold and affecting gesture.
You can read any sort of autobiography into Stone’s vision of Hamlet, as is made clear in the notes in the program when Stone says that the “experience of having lost [his] father colours [his] version of Hamlet, rather than the choice to do it.” With Stone’s track-record of rewriting or knocking the dust off classic texts (see Strange Interlude, Death of a Salesman, Miss Julie, and the ongoing new-play vs. adaptations debate), I expected a Hamlet which was more inventive, a Hamlet which was noticeably different to the one we’re all accustomed too; a Hamlet which grabbed you by the throat and told you that ‘this play is The Thing.’ What we’re offered is a more intimate, almost chamber-like Hamlet for eight players (a bit like the version of The Duchess of Malfi produced by Bell Shakespeare last year), one concerned with fathers, sons and daughters, parents and children; the effect the loss of one or the other has upon us, and the challenge of carrying on without them. I disagree with Stone and the daring pretentiousness with which he states “this production is quite close to what [Shakespeare] was aiming for in terms of thematics and sense, the essence of the story and the thrust of human insight;” and while I cannot help agree that this play is indeed a ‘thing,’ it ultimately did not catch the conscience of the king.
Theatre playlist: 32. "When I am laid in earth", from Dido & Aeneas, Henry Purcell