‘I call this leading from the front’: HAMLET – Shakespeare’s Globe ★★★

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Shakespeare’s Globe – until 26 August 2018

Here’s a vulnerable Hamlet: a lonely lad in proper tearful grief and disappointment at his mother’s remarriage. A Hamlet who, in feigning madness, loses his grip for a while on sense and kindness; whose treatment of Ophelia we can wince at but understand. Above all it is a Hamlet whose progress through the switchback of grief and anger and self-doubt and superstition and affection is diamond-precise, driven by the text. His final brief adult nobility where “readiness is all” is all the more effective for that. I have seen more spectacular Hamlets and more arresting ones, but few with such intimate, credible accuracy in the arc of his suffering and resolution.

This Hamlet is a woman, Michelle Terry. Horatio is female too, as is Marcellus, and Laertes is the tiny, sparky Bettrys Jones. On the other hand Ophelia is a man: Shubham Saraf, with a delicate and touching performance but also an uncompromisingly schoolboy short-back-and-sides above the ballgown, standing a head taller than her brother or Hamlet. Rosencrantz – looking a bit old to be a schoolmate – is a conventionally bearded Pearce Quigley, but Guildenstern is Nadia Nadarajah, who is deaf: she communicates with sprightly good humour in BSL – British Sign Language – to which Hamlet responds skilfully and Rosencrantz sometimes translates.

This production is a key moment in Michelle Terry’s new role as artistic director of the Globe, after the less than happy departure of Emma Rice. And power to her: not only kicking off with two plays (often running on the same day) but using a hefted, identical company for both, and in the second playing Hamlet. I call that leading from the front.

I missed the As You Like It, in which she took a smaller part. But towards dusk saw Hamlet. Terry has made it clear that in casting she plans 50:50 gender equality and greater diversity; she also runs rehearsals more startlingly open to outsiders than most actors have ever known. The actors, composer, choreographer, two directors (Federay Holmes and Elle While)   and the designer Ellan Parry are equal partners, she says, and use rehearsal as a “test tube” of experimentation. With Parry, by the way, we are instructed to use only the pronoun “they”, though there is only one of they. Fine but confusing: I prefer “xi” myself…

Do not flinch. Gender politics are in the air, women do need a better break in theatre, and there is a place for free thinking collaboration.  As a fine and seasoned actor and scholarly Shakespearean  – but not a director  – Michelle Terry  might as well rattle the cages of the old school “auteur-director”  with a personal vision of  a classic. That, after all, has lately led to a couple of quite tiresome  Macbeths.   But  as an  audience we too are in the experiment and collaboration.  And for all the engagement and skill, for all the leader’s strong Hamlet, the fine blaring trumpets and stellar performances like Helen Schlesinger’s Gertrude,  Colin Hurley’s Ghost  and a wonderful, slyly funny Poloniusn from Richard Katz,   there are moments which jar.

For, this  humbly collaborative audience member ventures to say,  it jars when the physical casting and mixed costumes impede the storytelling, slow us down, make the watcher  think “ah, another 21c sensibility there!” rather than feeling the line of the tragedy.    Honestly,  get rid of that bobble hat in the battlement scene, tone down the clown suit sooner,  restrict some of the BSL moments.   We need to be transported and the Globe, with the pulsing energy of the groundlings , can do that better than many.    Interestingly, there was far less interaction with the groundlings than we are used to here, and that matters  ( Terry’s Hamlet is better at it than anyone else. She knows how to Globe-it from earlier performances).

And  one should not have to feel sheer relief when the gravedigger is not another modishly diverse gesture but just Colin Hurley again,   curmudgeonly male in  a hi-vis vest, 100% proof traditional as Shakespeare would remember.     Terry does no arms-length skull-work but just  hops into the new-dug muddy grave beside him.  The prince’s memories of Yorick are properly affecting. Moments like that stay with you as strongly as the jerky 21c devices.  May there be many more .

Libby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.