Hamlet (National Theatre, 8th January 2011 and; 23rd April 2011, Northern Broadsides, 28th April 2011)

When I came out of the NT Live screening of the National Theatre’s Hamlet last December, my first response was that the director Nicholas Hytner wanted to create a production that was very different from Greg Doran’s 2008 production. Whereas in Doran’s production, David Tennant played up the comedy, I felt that Kinnear’s performance was of a man who was agitated. I’m not saying that I didn’t think that Rory Kinnear wasn’t humorous at points, but he was also more intense than Tennant.  A key image through the National production was the surveillance society.  I know in the TV version Doran added in the surveillance theme, but it wasn’t emphasised as much in his stage production to the same extent as it was in the TV adaptation. Recently, I went to see the Northern Broadsides’ production, and it reflected moments from both the RSC and National productions as well as bringing some new interpretations as well.

The surveillance society was key to the National Theatre production. The security guards  were always closing in on characters as indeed walls did at times. The younger generation were being constantly watched and it was clear that they were feeling really hurt about this. The microphone hidden in Ophelia’s bible during the nunnery scene was a really good example of this, and the photographs Polonius has of Ophelia nod Hamlet together. This was a world in which camera and crews are ever present and Claudius’s public speech in act 1, scene 2 works well as a piece to camera.  Fortinbras speaks the final speech to camera as well.

Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet starts the play as a frustrated young man, because his voice is denied and that his petition to the King to go back to Wittenberg is rejected. Going to Wittenberg was clearly very important for Hamlet and as the play progresses he becomes more agitated. One of the most successful devices for me was the way that ‘Villain’ was empathised through the writing on wall and which became the slogan on the T shirt.  The smiling villain scratched on the wall after Hamlet as seen the ghost becomes a T Shirt, which is given out to the audience at The Mousetrap. Interestingly the younger generation wear theirs, but the older generation hold not sure what to do with them and seem very uncomfortable with them. In the Northern Broadsides production, the idea of ‘setting’ down was also to write villain and this device was used again to start off Hamlet (Nicholas Shaw) ‘to or not to be speech..”

I liked the claustrophobic feel of the National production. The scenery moved in on itself, and seemed to trap characters into confined spaces. I felt that this element came across really well on the NT Live screening, because the cameras focused in on those spaces.

I thought Patrick Malhide’s Claudus was sensational and within this world of spies he was very threatening. I loved the way that the portrait of old Hamlet was changed very quickly to one of him that seemed to dominate the stage at times. Claire Higgins plays a Gertrude who can’t cope with the situation. What seemed like it might be the good life at the start turns into a nightmare in the end. Alcohol plays a big part in the production and the downfall of Claudius. Claudius’ speech in 1.1 was a broadcast, I know this isn’t new and was done to great effect in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film, but it was played very well in this production.  In the Northern Broadsides version Claudius (Fine Time Fontayne) and Gertrude (Becky Hindley) like to party, and contrasted very much with the National Production portrayal of the characters, where the consumption of alcohol moves very quickly from a social act to one of despair.

Seeing the National production well after the previews, I was advised to avoid the spoilers. However, that’s really difficult and having picked up that Ophelia was literally off her trolley,  I was expecting that Ophelia would be pushing a shopping trolley in her mad scenes, and of course this is what happens.

There is always an excitement in seeing another Hamlet, and seeing the Broadsides and National productions so close together was a very interesting experience, again highlighting how different approaches can bring very different readings of the text(s). For me, what helps make a good production on a personal level is that I come away thinking about the text(s) in ways I haven’t done before.

Happy Birthday Shakespeare – On going to see Shakespeare's plays and why I do.

I am writing this blog as part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Happy Shakespeare blog project www.happybirthdayshakespeare.com I decided to join the project, because as a blogger I am often writing about going to see Shakespeare’s plays performed, and felt it appropriate to write about why I enjoy seeing Shakespeare in performance so much.

Charles Lamb, the Romantic critic, wrote about how he felt that Shakespeare’s plays shouldn’t be staged. I once met an academic who talked with great delight about how they would walk out of a performance of a Shakespeare play at the interval and how they preferred to go to the pub instead. I had a friend who had seen Jeremy Irons as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and she said that she could never go to see another production of The Winter’s Tale because she didn’t want to spoil that memory. These stories make me a little sad, because I think that it is a shame that people can often place their own barriers around how they experience Shakespeare in performance. I know what Lamb really meant was that it didn’t want to see a bad production of a Shakespeare play (see Professor Stanley Wells’ article referenced below), and I was rather amazed at the statement about leaving the theatre in the interval because this was someone who was famous for writing academic books about Shakespeare. My friend was a regular at the RSC season in Newcastle, so she didn’t stop going to see Shakespeare on stage, just not The Winter’s Tale again. The critic, the academic, and regular theatre goer may sometimes have different reasons for watching Shakespeare in performance, but we’re all part of the audience, and for me being in an audience watching is about experiencing Shakespeare.

Of course, I want to see a brilliant production, one that will wow me. I felt like that when I saw the Baxter Theatre/Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of The Tempest in 2009. I was amazed by that brilliant opening to the latest RSC production of Romeo and Juliet and I still have the image of Mercutio’s (Jonjo O’Neil) entrance swinging in on the gate and that wonderful performance overall. I saw that production of Romeo and Juliet again several times and enjoyed it each time that I saw it. The anticipation at the start was built up when I could glance Sam Troughton and Noma Dumezweni take their places at the auditorium doors and I knew the play was about to start. However, I just love the experience of being in a theatre, whether it has a thrust stage or proscenium arch. I am just too curious to leave in the interval, even if I felt a production was not going well. I was puzzled by Tim Carroll’s recent RSC Merchant of Venice, but the second half was much more exciting than the first, and I was so glad that I stayed.  I saw this production again and felt I understood what was happening more on the second visit.

I’ve just seen the National Theatre production of Hamlet. It couldn’t have been more different from the Greg Doran’s RSC 2008-09 production of Hamlet, but I enjoyed both equally. I will see another three productions this year – The Gobe’s touring Hamlet, Northern Broadsides’ production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Michael Sheen at the Young Vic- and what interests me most is how will each company will approach the text(s).  I want to see their interpretations, and certainly not my idea of how the play should be performed. I just love seeing something, I wouldn’t have thought about myself.

Watching the development of the recent RSC Antony and Cleopatra was a very interesting experience.  I was unsure about the production at first, and many of the reviews were mixed, but I felt that some of the risks did pay off, and I was so pleased I managed to get returns to see the production go into the Swan theatre, stripped down and with Katy Stephens as Cleopatra.

I think, I’m haunted by the ghosts of the RSC as the RSC is itself is with its ghost wall projecting images of past productions as the audience enter the new RST at Stratford.  I remember Roger Rees as  in Hamlet, Antony Sher as Richard III, Simon Russell Beale as a brilliant Ariel in The Tempest and of course Jeremy Irons as Leontes. As I say goodbye to one RSC ensemble, I become excited by the next one coming into Stratford, and again I am curious about what they will do and how they will approach each play. I look out for productions in the regions, at local heritage sites, at the Globe and even in the West End. I am looking forward to seeing Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate. That was my ideal casting, I told my friends and then when it became a reality I was delighted to get tickets.

I sometimes make attempts to separate my different identities as a critic (blogger), an academic or regular theatre goer, but the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred. Fro me, watching Shakespeare is usually intellectually stimulating, sometimes frustrating, but thankfully often amazing.

Further Information

Well, Stanley ‘Shakespeare in Hazlett’s Theatre Criticism’. Shakespeare Survey, 35 (1982), 43-55.


Standing Ovations & And Furthermore – Judi Dench

Yesterday, there was a standing ovation at the National Theatre for Hamlet. There was something very satisfying about being part of an audience that can show its appreciation for the production they’ve just seen. The standing ovation started as a coy gesture by a few people, but grew to nearly the whole audience. I felt really pleased with myself for being one of the first onto my feet. I was getting some practice being at the las night/matinée of the long ensemble in Stratford and was getting a little less conscious of myself. I had also finished Judi Dench’s autobiography And Furthermore where she talks about the British being more reserved than the Americans and that the Americans are much more likely to show their appreciation by clapping on an entrance and standing at the end of the play. This spurred me on to be less reserved than normal and to stand at the end of a production I’d admired on a previous visit and had, with regret, stayed seated at the end.

Yes, I’ve just finished And Furthermore, Judi Dench’s autobiography. When I say that I have finished it, I have finished the audiobook version read by Samantha Bond. As I was listening, I wasn’t thinking that this was Samantha Bond reading, but Judi Dench telling her story. Bond was able to pick up Dench’s voice brilliantly and there were some ironic moments when Dench is talking about working with Bond.  For example, when Dench talks about directing Bond as Beatrice in Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Company, Much Ado About Nothing.

The one thing that really comes across is Dench’s humour. There always seems to be lots of laughter where Dench works. Dench talks about the surprise walk on parts she has undertaken in other people’s productions as well as the continuing saga of the black glove! As well as the successes and happy times, Dench shares sad moments with us, such as her husband Michael William’s sad death from cancer. What I liked about this book was that Dench was always very reflective, always willing to learn from things that didn’t go so well, as well as the performances which were clearly well received. In the book, Dench talks about the intrusive journalism that goes beyond the professional and pries into the private, and I thought the book struck a good balance between letting the reader/listener know something about Dench’s approach to her work, as well as keeping some things private.

And Furthermore is a survey of Dench’s professional life, her theatre work, her television work and later in her career, her film work. It is therefore, a history of the RSC, the National Theatre and other creative projects such as Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Company. It’s extremely enjoyable, and very informative. I really enjoyed it.

Further Information

And Furthermore audiobook is available from Audible http://www.audible.co.uk

RSC Revealed (The Swan, 27th March 2011)

The vision behind the RSC Long Ensemble was for a group of actors to work together for a sustained period of time to produce work. It seemed fitting then, at the end of the Stratford run and two and half years together the long ensemble got together and put on a Gala in the newly opened Swan Theatre. The event was to support the needs of long ensemble member James Gale and it was a bringing tougher of the company in one place.  The event was organised by company members Kelly Hunter and Hannah Young.

This was a special event, but it was particularly relevant in that it shared a moment with a regular RSC audience in a way that is often spoken about in moving to the thrust stage, but only partially happens  in the Shakespearean productions. The production acknowledged an audience that has followed the work over the two and half years and so there were a lot of in jokes and even mentions of regular audience members.

The Gala started in the foyer with actors collecting money and characters taking on their character roles such as Brian Doherty as Autolycus selling souvenirs from the RSC shop and Sophie Russell as the tap dancing nun from The Comedy of Errors. As the audience entered the Swan, Peter Peverley played his guitar and sang some songs including The Jam’s Town Called Malice. Our compare  for the evening was Eunice the usher who opens Romeo and Juliet, but as the evening progressed, Eunice abandoned parts of her costume to reveal Noma Dumezweni the wonderful RSC actress. At times Noma had a little helper (her daughter), who was not phased at all by being on stage.

Katy Stephens ran the auction of promises and handing out punishments to her son if the auction did not raise enough each time. There were some references to Gloucester’s blinding, but it backfired on Katy in the end as she ended up with a foam pie in her face (and we didn’t see that coming). Promises ranged from dinner for two at the Dirty Duck, and a family pass to Warwick Castle to helping the stage management team put on a production of King Lear and a chance to row Juliet (Mariah Gale) down the river.

The evening was a mixture of comedy and song. There was Christine Entwhistle’s very funny and very rude hunting routine and Richard Katz’s failing magician routine.  We saw characters as we’d never seen them before such as the knights from Morte D’Arthur in a very funny rendition of Lily White and Adam Burton’s hilarious Klauzz with Cleopatra’s attendants Iras (Samantha Young) and Charmian (Hannah Young) performing a German electro pop routine. Jonjo O’Neill performed Mr Bo Jangles and Simone Saunders sang Destiny. There were other appearances from ensemble members including Greg Hicks, Geoffrey Freshwater, Sandy Neilson, Patrick Romer, Sophie Russell and many more.

Gruffudd Glyn’s one man band was a lovely overview of life in the ensemble with some jokes that made sense to anyone following the long ensemble. The evening finished with the long ensemble on stage together.

IMG 0417

Further Information