Hamlet, as I mentioned in my last post, is a play that I hold quite dear to my heart, as do many people. It made an impression on me, as it has done with many people. The play has a sort of universal appeal, and this time around I wondered whether I would gain anything new from the retelling of it, which was one of the reasons why I was looking forwards to seeing it again. I was also curious to see whether Northern Broadsides would weave their usual charm and cause my friends (many of whom were unfamiliar with the story) to truly engage with the play. I was very pleased to be proved right on both points, that Northern Broadsides would breathe life into their interpretation of this classic text, and that I would draw new inferences from the experience.
As I spoke of in my last post, as a headstrong teenager, the main aspect of the play that caught my imagination and sympathy was the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, ideas involving spurned love and selfish infatuation. But this time around I found that two other strong themes caught my attention, those being the concept of friendship and that of Hamlet as our hero (or anti – hero I suppose is more accurate!) Aided, I think, greatly, by the interpretation which the director, Conrad Nelson, brought to the text.
In the first instance I was impressed with the setting of the play in the 1940’s, which was inferred in the clothing and the music if not the minimalist set. Upon later reading the program I was informed that the specific year that they had intended to represent was 1949, which fits the backdrop of this tragedy very well. The idea of external powers and pressures having imposed upon and continuing to impose upon the environment is one that persists throughout the play. We are regularly reminded of the politics of foreign parties, in particular those of Fortinbras of Norway, and the effects of these upon the state of Denmark, which in itself seems green and unsteady with the reign of Claudius in its infancy after the loss of, by all accounts, a strong leader.
I liked the use of Ophelia’s song from later in the play, changed into a sultry, jaunty ditty for the opening. This version hints at the joy and excitement that Ophelia feels in the initial stages of her dalliance with Hamlet, cleverly establishing her happiness and enthusiasm. It made for an effective contrast to when the song is used later in the play, in its original context, as a mournful lament of what is to be used and then rejected. It is only then that the audience really hears the more distressing interpretation of the lyrics. Ophelia describes it herself, the effects of Hamlet’s rejection upon her song, ‘like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh’, which is then reflected in her disjointed and agitated performance of it. This juxtaposition really drives home to the audience the harsh reality of Ophelia’s pain. I also liked the use of flowers to symbolise the hope and beauty of love, and the language and meaning of flowers which is spoken of by Ophelia during her laments. In the play that Hamlet stages for his Mother and Uncle, flowers are used to portray the innocence of the Queen’s love for the departed King. Claudius’ wicked intentions are represented by weed killer, his lust and ambition exemplified as the opposite of naturally born love and honour. Another reminder that his actions are not only morally repugnant, but to Hamlet, they go against nature itself.
The actor playing Hamlet truly stole the show. His performance hammered home to me how completely he is the hero, without ever actually doing anything heroic. His dress fits the part, the leather jacket, bringing with it connotations of the renegade son, the proverbial black sheep, in contrast to his suited and booted counterparts, of which, Laertes is the most prominent example . Laertes’ story is in some respects all but the same as Hamlet’s, in that his father is murdered and he is driven to thoughts of vengeance. But Laertes does not capture the imagination like our Hamlet does. Mostly because, well, by comparison he’s quite simple, almost boringly so. He is ruled by Claudius, easily manipulated into pursuing his retaliation in the King’s design. Hamlet, on the other hand, deals with his situation by experiencing a dark night of the soul. He questions everything, from the validity of the Ghost, the motives of his Mother (despite being warned by the Ghost to leave her out of his plans for vengeance), the fate of his immortal soul if he were to take a life, to whether he would even be capable of taking a life. This reaction is very relatable. How many of us could say that we would not go through a similar process of analysis and anxiety were we to be presented with such a situation? Combined with his intelligence, his wit, his poetry, his philosophising and his charm, it’s Hamlet you care about, it’s Hamlet that you long to return to the stage in each scene. All of his indecision and game playing is, in actual fact, fundamental to his appeal.
Friendship is the other theme that shone through for me in this performance. I have never given the character of Horatio much thought in the past (despite always liking the name to the point of naming pets after him!) I always thought of him as more of a plot device than anything else, which I suppose he is to an extent, but he is also the epitome of a true friend to our leading man. Despite them not being close in the first instance, it is clear from the outset that Horatio respects Hamlet, and he knows that it is the right to bring him to Ghost, no matter how difficult or unbelievable the revelation. Horatio perseveres in standing by Hamlet throughout the play, and more than that, through their banter and growing relationship, you get a true sense of their shared experience and developing mutual respect and affection. To the point where, when Hamlet dies in Horatio’s arms, you feel a genuine sense of loss. The line that stood out for me the most was at the end of the scene where Hamlet meets the Ghost and asks Horatio et al to swear to him their loyalty and confidence. Hamlet states ‘The time is out of joint: O’ cursed spite, that ever I were born to set it right’ which in itself is a solemn declaration of the mission that he is undertaking. But Horatio returns for him and says ‘Nay, come, let’s go together.’ For me that line said it all, that whatever Hamlet was going to face, Horatio had no intention of allowing him to face it alone. But when I went back to the text to check the quotation, I found that in the original, this line is spoken by Hamlet, and that Horatio and the others were still with him. Giving the line to Horatio in this interpretation is a very sweet touch, as it really does highlight the fraternity between the two characters elegantly. By contrast, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, supposed good friends of Hamlet’s from the outset, arrive at the behest of the King and Gertrude, to trade on their friendship with Hamlet. They appear to succumb easily to Claudius’ plotting, and agree to attempt to use their influence upon Hamlet to distract him from his discontented thoughts of grief and vengeance. But Hamlet sees through their betrayal. Ironically, despite admitting to their two-facedness, they still appear stunned by Hamlet’s persistence in his course of action. True friends they are not. A true friend would support Hamlet despite their own reservations, rather than distance themselves at his unpalatable and inconvenient ideas. A true friend would stand by him through his darkest hours, as Horatio, Hamlet’s true friend, surely does.
I think that the character of Claudius is a hard one to pitch, and on a note of personal preference I have preferred performances whereby he is presented as a more overwhelming controlling and dangerous character. Whilst he needs to carry the sway of the court, and in it is inferred in the text that he does so through revelry and charm, I always feel that giving him more of a threatening edge works towards making it more congruent when he confesses to the murder of his brother and his dark, dark thoughts. But as I say, that comes down to personal preference, and my penchant for a compelling villain characters always!
Overall, I was impressed with the performances and the production (I liked the use of 1984 as the text that Ophelia is reading when she confronts Hamlet – a nice little nod to Broadsides/ Conrad’s previous production of Orwell’s dystopian nightmare, which also made for powerful viewing.)
All in all, I felt that the performance was awesome. As always, Broadsides managed to achieve what they do best, which is to make Shakespeare accessible and relatable to today’s modern audience. The shame of it was that myself and my friends seemed to bring the age medium of the audience down quite considerably, and I just wish that more young people (or younger I should say, as I’m not as youthful as I used to be!) would take a trip to theatre and check out performances by Northern Broadsides. As they might find, just as I did, connections in experience that span the centuries, and take something worthwhile from the experience.