On YouTube until 19 April 2020
There is a fun little moment I look for in productions of Hamlet. It is in the immediate aftermath of the climactic duel scene that follows several hours of simmering chaos. Once it inevitably runneth over, the stage takes about two minutes to fill with corpses. (Spoiler alert: but you’ve had four hundred years or so.) The moment is this: the Norwegian invader Fortinbras’ startled entry. “Where is this sight?” aka, “Bloody hell.” For me, a production of Hamlet’s ultimate pay-off is whether that moment carries with it the darkest of—crucially—unintentional dark comedy.
In this the production succeeds, having maintained an effective undercurrent of gallows humour throughout, and not just in the obvious moments as in the grave-maker scene, exceptional here with Colin Hurley’s cheerful digging. The tragedy’s shades of light are teased out and played with, and much of this owes itself to Michelle Terry’s Hamlet.
Most 21st-century productions of Hamlet seem actively terrified of playing to the clichés that have built up in our collective consciousness of the play: the skull in the hand, the man behind the curtain, to be or not to be… This production and Terry’s Hamlet embraces those moments, and let those moments unfold for themselves. (Though there is no skull-in-hand moment.)
This, together with the decision to reduce emphasis on set and costume, results in a play stripped back to the words and their consequences, with mixed results. Fundamental as that is to theatre, it is sometimes lost amidst the excitement of improving technology. It is interesting to consider, also, that this production is from 2018, and to reflect on how the theatrical landscape may have changed since then, for this to stand out now.
It is good to see that Terry does not shy away from Hamlet’s entitled misogyny. There is nothing at all apologetic in this Hamlet’s cruelty to Gertrude and Ophelia. To him, they have personally wronged him by being ‘weak-willed women’, and flighty as fortune. Hamlet is absolutely part and product of the state’s rottenness, just as the King his father is no guiltless benevolent. Terry welcomes this, and doesn’t try to absolve him of it. That said, the extent to which others come to perceive him as a real danger could have been further explored.
Following on from that, there are some missed opportunities. The Globe’s stage is an extraordinary space, and could have been used more effectively, for one. Most of the background political subplot is cut out, so we lose out on the sense of Elsinore as a place of self-involved decadence and navel-gazing subterfuge while there’s a war on. In a similar vein, while Richard Katz’s Polonius is fun and plays off Hamlet with great humour, the cut material as well as the direction does the character and Katz a disservice, in that we don’t get as much of a feel for Polonius-as-spymaster, so he almost becomes a Malvolio instead. By extension, we lose much of the original play’s general atmosphere of high-octane paranoia, to the detriment of this production. It shows the subtlety of the Bard’s writing, that you don’t notice the lack of it until it’s gone, and it has a knock-on effect on our shifting perceptions of Hamlet’s madness. We never truly wonder whether his madness is genuine before he begins to play with the appearance of being so. He is somewhat too calculated.