Hamlet, presented by Northern Broadsides at the Arts Centre, University of Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth. 9 April 2011.

Kevin De Ornellas
University of Ulster

Kevin De Ornellas. "Review of Hamlet, presented by Northern Broadsides at the Arts Centre, University of Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth. 9 April 2011." EMLS 15.3 (2011): 13. http://purl.org/emls/15-3/revham.htm

Directed by Conrad Nelson. Assistant direction by Andy Cryer. Designed by Lis Evans. Lighting design by David Phillips. Ghost manipulation by Lee Threadgold. Fight direction by Philip d’Orléans. Musical direction by Rebekah Hughes. Tour production/management by Kay Burnett. Technical management by Jennifer Harris. Wardrobe supervision by Dawn Outhwaite.

With David Colvin (Rosencrantz), Richard Colvin (Guildenstern), Phil Corbitt (Gravedigger), Andy Cryer (Marcellus and Osric), Natalie Dew (Ophelia), Richard Evans (Polonius), Fine Time Fontayne (Claudius), Alex Gilbert (Cornelia, Player Queen and Fortinbras), Becky Hindley (Gertrude), Tom Kanji (Laertes), Guy Lewis (Horatio), Andrew Price (Barnardo, Ghost, Player King and Priest) and Nicholas Shaw (Hamlet).

  1. This touring Hamlet had all of the traits associated with fine regional Shakespeare: an impeccable ensemble cast who worked for each other; clear direction; imaginative use of economic sets and props; and, above all, a clear sense that the focus was on the story and the words, not on some celebrity actor’s ego. The stage remained almost bare throughout. The only furniture was a high platform at the back (used mainly for appearances by the Ghost) and, towards the front of the stage, a multi-levelled wooden contraption that was made of several horizontal but gently sloping planes that ran in jaunty angles from left to right and front to back. This black-painted board had many functions: it was a makeshift stage for the travelling players, an undulating garden that the maddened Ophelia would traipse through, a low-lying cupboard which a small keyboard slotted into and a chalk board on which Hamlet would write various tags that illustrated his thinking. This board that faced several directions, as well as serving meta-theatrically as a stage-on-a-stage, also served succinctly as a physical companion piece to the multi-faceted nature of the public roles Hamlet manifests: like the many-sided board he must present different faces to different people; Nicholas Shaw, spry and young, managed all of these ‘faces’ with aplomb. He was a convincing, disenfranchised young student in earlier scenes; a loyal and dutiful son during the Ghost scenes; a sarcastic satirist and then emotive confidant during scenes with Horatio; a brutal misogynist in his scenes with Gertrude and Ophelia; and a convincingly lithe warrior during the final, gripping fight scene.

  2. The play started off in ominous blackness. After a slightly distracting blast of a bagpipe two soldiers crept onto the stage, lit only by low-power, self-held battery torches that gave their faces a nervous, disembodied effect. The confusion was enhanced as another sentry shouted from the back of the auditorium: as well as disorientating the audience (used, of course, in what is basically a proscenium arch theatre, to looking only forward) the confused shouting and clamour suggested both the upcoming chaos of war and the more general unpredictability of night. When we got to see their faces, the soldiers were weathered and weary. They had seen war before and knew that it was coming again. This suited the temporal setting of the play: although there was little that was pernickety about the costumes, they suggested a mid-twentieth-century milieu: we were in a world of uneasy power politics, shifting borders and vulnerable, seen-it-all-before troops. The audience was shifted further out of its comfort zone in Act One, scene two. A lively jazz tune was struck up by musicians on stage as a young woman confidently belted out a song about Valentine’s Day: the young woman turned out to be Ophelia, played with vulnerability by Natalie Dew – she would sing the song with less jocularity later on. The keyboard player, Fine Time Fontayne, turned round to the audience and basically bullied us all into applauding. This actor soon revealed himself to be Claudius: a would-be band leader, who reminded me a little of the Emperor Nero who would force subjects to attend his risible musical performances. This Claudius was a better musician than Nero, but being coerced into applause is grating: this simple conceit introduced this Claudius for us: dressed in an easy, casual brown suit, he was a good-time lad, a middle-aged party man, a fast-mover, not an intellectual or long-term thinker, but an opportunist who lived largely in the moment. Meanwhile, Hamlet was stage-left, unobtrusive, brooding – and, very quietly, scrawling the word ‘strumpet’ onto the board. At this stage, Hamlet sought no overt trouble. He was not aggressive towards Claudius and his agreement with Gertrude that death is ‘common’ was spoken without rancour or sarcasm.

  3. The Ghost, manifested by a number of puppets, confused the audience as much as the sentries it appeared to in Act One, scene three. This Ghost would materialise in tangible form only for Hamlet. Andrew Price (who played four different roles – all of them superbly) showed himself in very corporeal form to the young Prince. Stiff in his much-decorated military uniform, this dead King was as formal as Claudius was informal. In an original touch, the Ghost handed Hamlet a serviceable sword: one that Hamlet would use in the final scenes: taking revenge was a physical imperative for Hamlet was well as a philosophical necessity. Polonius was played with distinction by Richard Evans who managed to both look and sound feeble. Marvellously, when lecturing Laertes (Tom Kanji) about his conduct in Paris, he read his aphorisms from a well-thumbed notebook. The siblings exchanged temeritous, know-it-all glances at each other, even mouthing along as the old man parroted out his pithy advice. But their attitude towards their father visibly softened as he put away his notebook and, seemingly from the heart, spoke sincerely about the perils of borrowing and lending. In this battle-of-the-generations play, young people learned to think twice before definitively dismissing the words of the old. But Polonius has his devious side: this is seen as he prepares to spy on Laertes. Doubling and trebling of roles can be a bane to the perennially under-funded business of modern Shakespeare, but when done imaginatively it can sometimes be a boon. It was a boon to have Reynaldo doubled up with Osric. Although it wasn’t quite doubling: more conflating. Reynaldo became Osric. So, Osric, played with unctuous credibility by Andy Cryer, not only arranged the fight in Act Five but had also been hired by Polonius to spy on his son. This expanded Osric’s role and underlined the importance to corrupt regimes of integrity-free factotums who will do anything for their paymasters.

  4. Polonius, of course, also energetically spied on Hamlet. The Prince mocked the old man loudly during his antic disposition with his calculated nonsense about grey beards, wrinkled faces and animal-shaped clouds. But although appearing ridiculous in his fishing hat and dangling an angling rod (a Shakespeare rod?), Hamlet mocked Polonius quietly too. This quiet mockery was signified by the book Hamlet misquoted from: Nineteen Eighty-Four. Polonius, Hamlet seemed to suggest, was no more than an O’Brien-type figure, a Claudius Party functionary and a perpetuator of state surveillance. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spies too: it was a masterstroke to have two identical-looking brothers (Phil and Richard Colvin) playing the roles; it was refreshing to sympathise with Claudius’ inability to identify them as individuals. Polonius did his best to mar Hamlet’s enjoyment of the visiting Players; his self-congratulatory remarks about playing Julius Caesar were as annoying to the Prince as his fussy inventory of dramatic genres. The Players’ dumb show involved lots of horseplay (including a sort of trick where flowers seemed to grow instantaneously from a wheelbarrow) but the ‘real’ business of The Murder of Gonzago was dealt with efficiently and pointedly. Claudius’ reaction to the killing of the supine King told us much about his character: although clearly discombobulated he didn’t collapse or rant or over-react, but seemed to realise that things had changed and that he would have to pursue new tactics to keep his ill-gotten crown. A mediocrity who changed with the wind, this Claudius was at least flexible and able to think on his feet.

  5. The second part of the show began with the closet scene. Becky Hindley played Gertrude with restraint. Her persona was either disingenuous or genuinely unknowing. It was useful that the audience was not able to decide whether or not she was ‘in’ on Claudius’ plot to assassinate old Hamlet. This ambiguity facilitated a fascinating enigma in Hindley’s performance. Although Hamlet made one obscene thrusting gesture he projected his hips away from his mother as he did so: Oedipal aspects of the scene were downplayed. The focus was on the complaints of a disappointed son: a young man who was genuinely disheartened at the loss of prestige caused to the Danish royal family through Gertrude’s passive acceptance of Claudius’ romance and rule. This scene marked a change in Hamlet’s behaviour: hitherto, he had been introspective, quiet. His soliloquies were marked by calm outlining of problems rather than depressive indulgences. With superb originality, he used the chalk to write pros and cons of suicide during the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. He wrote some of the words from the speech down, ticking off phrases that appealed to him. So, we had a textual representation of the workings of a troubled mind. The speech, then, was a refreshing expression of personal disillusionment and indecisiveness rather than some rhetorical or scholastic conceit. Hamlet’s newfound dynamism came in the killing of Polonius – he wasn’t a bit sorry about it. The audience laughed very guiltily as Hamlet dragged his victim off-stage, wrapped hoist-by-his-own-petard style in the very arras he had hidden behind.

  6. On his travels, Hamlet met another old soldier: a grizzled employee of Fortinbras. With her neat, tight-fitting uniform (think about how Edward Woodward’s one-size-too-small West Highlands Police Sergeant’s uniform gives his character an uptight, humourless appearance in the 1973 film, The Wicker Man) and her tight curls, Alex Gilbert’s Fortinbras looked like a cross between a 1940s Land Girl and early 1980s-style Margaret Thatcher. Like Thatcher in her Malvinas-era pomp, this was a militaristic, action-first leader was who happy to launch into any war that would enhance her nation’s perceived prestige. The anonymised, grizzled solider was pointedly bitter as he spoke about the paucity of material gain that Fortinbras’ adventures could acquire. Such an occasion informed against Hamlet: already resolved to be more pro-active in his vengeance, Hamlet would now hasten back to wreak havoc in Elsinore. Havoc had already mushroomed there. Rejected and grief-stricken, Ophelia traipsed about in a long white gown that might have served as a wedding dress. She appeared like a cross between Miss Haversham and a rain-sodden child, oblivious to the water dripping from the dress as she sang her Valentine’s Day song (now bitterly and, without the lively musical accompaniment of earlier, tunelessly and deflatingly) and handed out herbs to an appalled Gertrude and Claudius. She did not scream or rave in a hysteric way; she seemed more like a pre-Prozac, existentialist depressive than a Victorian attic-dweller. She also used her chalk to draw a rectangle on stage. Scholars of symbolist plays such as Yeats’ Death of Cuchulain may read all sorts of meaning into an empty rectangle. For me, the empty rectangle was simply meta-theatrical: for Ophelia, her once-crowded life was a now-empty stage, a rectangle bereft of companionship or appeal; for her, the music and love had ended.

  7. By this stage of the play, the only happy people in Denmark were the Gravediggers, who happily danced and sang in music-hall style before irreverently sticking a skull on top of a pole and putting a helmet on top if it. Predictably, another skull, Yorick’s, was literally hurled at Hamlet who needed good, safe hands to catch it. In one of his several roles, Andrew Price really impressed in what is normally an understated cameo role: the Priest. Languid almost to the point of callousness, Price virtually sneered as the coffined body of Ophelia was lowered into the grave: he didn’t approve of her (reported) means of death and was not going to dignify her or her suicide with anything like gravity or sincerity. Throughout, we watched Hamlet watching the burial. Touchingly, Horatio kept his arm around Hamlet’s shoulders throughout; although he was a lonely cove, at least Hamlet had a friend who was supportive though tactile fellowship. Little needs to be written about the fight scene: suffice to say, although promoted by the uninspiring, lickspittling Osric, it was gripping. Members of the audience both audibly gasped and visibly flinched as the sharp-looking swords (including the one handed over by the Ghost many scenes ago) were flailed by the ultra-motivated Hamlet and Laertes. As well as displaying technical virtuosity, this served the actors well because our visceral involvement in their physical travails underlined the empathy that we had for the difficult situations that their young minds needed to contend with in this treacherous, unpredictable court.  Forever one to eschew over-reaction, Claudius just looked regretful when he realised that he could not stop Gertrude drinking the poisoned wine. A life without Gertrude was just a new reality for this uninspiring but adaptable politician to negotiate. He didn’t seem to panic even as he was breathing his last breaths; death was something that just happened to this Claudius. Fortinbras entered the scene with a disposition that was more business-like than triumphant. Aloof and supercilious, confident in absolute power, she barely condescended to lower her gaze under her nose to survey the auto-destructed Danish court. Horatio’s genre-defining speech about carnal deeds and unnatural acts received little interest from her; like Horatio the audience, I think, felt rather dismissed as the Norwegian invader ushered in a new era of imperial domination over Denmark – and ushered us out of the theatre into a cold, post-Hamlet and post-Danish independence world.              


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).