What I felt about this production of Hamlet was that when it opened it was a very good production and on the last day I saw it, I thought that it was a superb production. I suppose the question here is, is a form of rehearsal be taking place as a production develops beyond previews and through the run and how might an audience feel about this when they are paying the full price for tickets? In viewing this production at moments through it’s run, I was able to witness its development and it felt like I had observed a company growing together. The idea of a company learning together is what Michael Boyd, Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has discussed in relation to his vision of the RSC ensemble. In an Interview on RSC web site, Boyd makes the point that the ensemble ‘learn and make art at the same time’. The RSC web site also states that ‘[p]roductions never stop evolving as actors continually gain fresh insights that they feed into the work the audience sees on stage each night’ (http://www.rsc.org.uk/about-us/ensemble/about-ensemble.aspx). One of the things that really changed through the run was John Simm’s approach to the early soliloquies in the play, and by the end of the run I thought that he had really nailed them and every word had meaning for him. When I first saw the production, I felt that John Simm and John Nettles’ acting styles were very different and that jarred a little, but when I saw it at the end of the run, I felt that the two different styles were still apparent, but there was much more of a coherence between the two actors and the way they responded to each other.
Another noticeable thing as the production developed was what seemed to be the reaction to some of the reviews. I am not sure if this was intentional but some changes I saw were apparent after the reviews were published. For example, Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian:
Simm’s Hamlet smashes his mother’s framed bedside photo of her second husband in the closet scene; yet when John Nettles’s vigorous and lively Claudius enters, he entirely ignores the shattered glass even though it provides further damning evidence of Hamlet’s visceral hatred of him. (Michael Billington, The Guardian, Thursday 23 September 2010)
I noticed that Nettles started to subtly look down at the broken frame after the first few performances. Billington also asked, ‘Who are all these people? Why are they speaking these particular lines?’ and it felt that there was a much better coordination in the later performances that I saw.
There are lots of successful performances and examples of stage business in this production. The cast tends to use the stage space very well. The stage is monochrome and minimal with a balcony which is used for the battlements. The interior and exterior are represented using the simple device of windows being brought down for the interior scenes and being raised to reveal trees for the exterior scenes. The chandeliers come down to represent the state rooms, as in Greg Doran’s Hamlet. There was some interesting doubling in this production. John Nettles plays both the Claudius and Ghost, and Hugh Ross plays both Polonius and the gravedigger. In some ways this worked well to emphasise the generational differences between fathers/uncles and sons/daughters/nephews. When playing the ghost John Nettles speaks with a very strange ghost voice. His appearance in the first act was through the trap, and as the stage is dark and he slowly appears through the ground. A nice touch is when the ghost is about to speak when the cock crows and this clearly silences him. It’s obviously a very quick change for John Nettles as he has to appear as Claudius in the next scene.
Hugh Ross gives a solid performance as Polonius and Michelle Docherty as a mature Ophelia. Adam Foster and Dylan Brown as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a great double act tumbling on stage and then ending up squeezed into both court life and very ill-fitting dull grey suits. John Nettles delivers a very polished performance in the role of Claudius. Barbara Flynn takes a more traditional approach to playing Gertrude and does not to fill those silences as Penny Downie does in the Greg Doran’s production, and presents Gertrude as a passive observer watching it all go wrong before her. There is one moment that I liked and that is when the Gertrude and Claudius share a joke just before the Mousetrap and this clearly disturbs Hamlet which can been in Hamlet’s face.
Simm’s Hamlet has kind of fidgety twitchy madness. He is on the edge of madness but doesn’t actually fall into madness. I didn’t think this Hamlet has put on an ‘antic disposition’ and what we saw in the production was a Hamlet outwardly showing his emotion as well as internalising it. Simm’s entrance on the stage in 1.2 is a really interesting piece of stage business which really illustrates this approach. Simm ashen face with red eyes, and clearly grieving, flings the doors open from clearly another room as if he is looking for a private space away from the formality of the court. Ophelia follows him, as if she is trying to snatch a moment that they can be alone. Unfortunately the rest of the court are not far behind and we go into Claudius public speech. I’ve only every seen a Hamlet enter like this before when Kenneth Branagh first played the role on stage in 1988. Simm’s Hamlet is partly from the court world, but his smart suit is torn, which suggests some form of rebellion. However, Simm’s Hamlet wants to show his disengagement with the court and lies on the floor and clearly frustrates Claudius who moves to speak to him first, but has to speak to Laertes, because Hamlet is clearly not going to respond.
Polonius works hard to make sure Hamlet and Ophelia are not left alone. As characters leave in 1.2, Ophelia tries to stop back but Polonius blocks her way to make sure she is never alone with Hamlet. Hamlet is clearly shocked to find he is being watched in the nunnery scene. Simm wasn’t really playing to the audience. For most of his performance his Hamlet is living in an enclosed stiffing world. There are two points when Simm’s Hamlet acknowledges the audience. First he suggests the audience might be the ‘guilty creatures sitting at a play’, by gesturing to the audience as he says the line and also notes that the audience are like the groundlings who might have their ears split if the players shout too much. However, in working on his performance through the run, Simm seemed to be aiming for perfection and was clearing showing a wider awareness of how the audience was responding to his overall performance.
Alexander Vlahos on John Simm in his blog, A hit, a very palpable hit, ” I’ve learned so much watching him, a brilliant and generous man who has grown and grown in the sane way we all have.” Clearly working together as a cast for four weeks in a production can only mean that the continual repetition brings polish. What do we want from actors that they company try to retain the same version each night,. Surely it is the joy of watching theatre that a production won’t be the same each night. It is a shame that the reviewers see a production so early and don’t go back at the end as well. The ticket price was very affordable making the going back to see the performance very much part of the theatre going experience.
Reviews and Previews
- Hamlet, Crucible theatre, Sheffield, review – T…
- John Simm will play Hamlet
- FT.com / Arts / Theatre & Dance – Hamlet, Cruci…
- Hamlet, NT Olivier, LondonHamlet, Crucible…
- John Simm on playing Hamlet
- Hamlet – the rivalry’s the thing – Features, Th…
- WOS John Simm on Hamlet
- The Guardian review
- Further Information
- A hit, a very palpable hit (Crucible Hamlet blog)
- Interview with Michael Boyd on RSC web site