I saw the latest Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet in previews and I am sure that by the Opening/Press night, the production will have changed considerably since I first saw it. What struck me was on the two nights that I was in the audience was that there were standing ovations on both nights which suggests that audiences are really enjoying the production. However, the critical reception has been mixed and there have been some negative reviews. I am interested in getting a sense of why some of the reviewers do not specifically like a production that seems to engage its audience.
It seems that it is the set design and the director’s creative choices that irked some critics the most. Charles Spencer makes the point in his The Daily Telegraph review that “[David] Farr is the kind of director who has 20 bright ideas before breakfast and bungs them all on stage to prove how clever he is”. Furthermore, Clare Brennan in The Observer reflects this with the comment that a “set should not be so distracting”, and concludes that “Jon Bausor’s design, like so much of this production is an infuriating mix-up of self-regarding concepts and sharp ideas”.
David Farr works with the designer Jon Bausor to create busy and elaborate sets. Last year’s RSC shipwreck season presented a stage that became the docks in The Comedy of Errors, a hotel for Twelfth Night and Prospero’s Island. Indeed, there is something about a David Farr production that makes you think that the stage-play world is just not quite right. Time periods jar against each other and things seem out of place on the stage. For example, in his recent RSC King Lear there was a mixture of modern and old English dress suggested that the Gloucester family existed in another time dimension from the Lear family, and the stage was a eerie industrial scene that didn’t seem to fit in with an ancient Britain setting. So knowing that David Farr was the director, I was not surprised to be confronted with a cluttered stage and a hall that resembled a fencing school or gym in a public school rather than a palace or castle that is normally expected as the setting for Hamlet. Under the floor of the hall, earth and skulls are clearly visible and a reminder that death underpins this play. In the second half, parts of the stage are removed to represent the piece of land that Hamlet crosses on his way to England and to reveal the earth for the gravedigger’s scene, and the body of Ophelia is left visible on the stage after she has been placed in her grave.
A fencing trope is woven through this production and has an unnerving effect which adds to the feeling that the world of this Hamlet is out of joint. The ghost is first scene in a fencing mask. In 1.2, characters enter in fencing masks to hear Claudius’s speech on the death of old Hamlet and reflect the image of the ghost that we’ve just seen. The fencing suit that Hamlet wears to play his anti disposition can also be seen as a straitjacket. Throughout the production there is a sense of Hamlet fencing and playing with other characters. All these fencing images of course culminate in the final scene with the death of Hamlet.
Michael Billington in The Guardian comments:
Although the emphasis is on Hamlet’s fractured sensibility, the other characters come strongly into focus. Pippa Nixon’s Ophelia is outstanding: a passionate schoolgirl fatally besotted by Hamlet. Greg Hicks, doubling as Claudius and the Ghost, wittily suggests that the former is the practised politician who can never allow the mask to slip, and there’s strong work from Charlotte Cornwell as a conscience-haunted Gertrude and Robin Soans as a sinisterly officious Polonius (Michael Billington in The Guardian).
There are some very strong supporting performances. Pippa Nixon’s Ophelia is very determined. She snatches moments of passion with Hamlet in secret, but also shows her annoyance and anger after she has treated her so badly in the nunnery scene. In her mad scenes, this determination is evident as she enters in a wedding dress looking as if she truly believes she is about to marry Hamlet and shows her annoyance and impatience when she realises that he isn’t going to turn up. Not only is Nixon great at playing Ophelia in sanity and in madness, she has to take on the very difficult task of being motionless on stage for such a long period of time as she lays in the grave.
Like Patrick Stewart in the previous RSC Hamlet, Greg Hicks plays both the ghost and Claudius, and there is a suggestion that the brothers might be twins, which adds a complexity to the way that Hamlet responds to his uncle. In this out of joint world Hamlet can embrace the ghost of his father.
The age difference between Alex Waldmann’s Horatio and Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet is utilised well and it is clear that the younger man is besotted with his older University colleague. Waldmann’s Horatio is there beside Hamlet throughout. In his performance there are reminders of Waldmann’s Catesby standing beside Richard III in last year’s Swan production in the way Horatio clearly decides where is loyalties are in a world where it would be dangerous to be seen to be plotting against Claudius.
Though there are generally positive reviews of some of the supporting roles including, Hicks, Nixon and Waldmann, the reviews of Slinger’s performance are mixed. Simon Tavener in his whatsonstge.com review feels that Slinger, ” employs so many ‘actorly’ tricks, both verbally and physically, that it is hard to see through to the emotional truth of what the character is experiencing”. Michael Billington in The Guardian also commenting on Jonathan Slinger’s performance declares that it “is compelling to watch: he mines every phrase, utters heartwrenching cries of desolate grief and, more than any Hamlet I recall, is obsessed by Ophelia, whose corpse remains visible to the last”.
I felt that as well as some very strong performances from the company, it is Slinger’s performance that dominates this production. He puts himself out at the front from the very start of the production, sitting on the edge of the front of the thrust stage and mumbling the first line of the play as he starts to take notes in his notebook. Maybe we are supposed to think that the rest of the play is a dream or in his mind’s eye. That we don’t know is important because that’s the point. Many of the creative decisions are left unexplained and maybe that leads to some of the frustration expressed in the reviews.
I feel that Singer’s performance is mesmerising. His Hamlet is grief-grief-striken passionate, physical, emotional and intelligent. He’s also thoughtful, manic and funny. However, I felt little empathy with this Hamlet, because he is also extremely violent. He is covered in blood when he has killed Polonius reminding the audience of the brutality of the act he has just committed and he is particularly violent to Ophelia in the Nunnery scene stripping her down to her underclothes and covering her face with mud. In taking the play away from its Renaissance context, the thirst for revenge feels out and place and unwarranted. As Claudius drinks the poison at the end of the play, he is not like Patrick Stewart’s Claudius who realised that the game is up and that the drinking of the poison was his own last moment of having the upper hand, but because he is the victim of a revenger. In a strange moment of triumph in the final scene, Slinger’s Hamlet puts on the crown and we realise that for a short time he is king.
When I saw this production, Hamlet returns from England wearing a grey suit having ditched his dark crumpled mourning suit. Not only was his dress a contrast to the rest of the court because they were now in mourning, but there was a suggestion that Hamlet returns as the bridegroom with an expectation of marrying Ophelia. This made his despair at finding himself at Ophelia’s funeral more poignant. I have heard that this has been changed during previews, but I felt that this worked well.
There are lots that has been said about the RSC’s approach to ensemble, and in this company there are several reunions of actors working recently with the RSC. Joining Nixon and Waldmann, are John Stahl, David Fielder, Mark Holgate and Natalie Klamer from last year’s Nations of War Swan season and long ensemble members, Greg Hicks and Oliver Ryan, are making a return to the RSC. I think seeing how these actors interact in new and established combinations, and in different productions, adds to some of the interest in this summer season.
The last RSC Hamlet (directed by Greg Doran) experimented with mirrors and the audience could see themselves reflected in the set throughout the performance. In this production there is an opaqueness in the earthy set and the appearance of fencing masks, that makes this a very different aesthetic for the audience to engage with. Maybe there are mixed reviews because Slinger takes risks in the role. He is older and it does seem strange that an actor who has just played Prospero and Malvolio returns to the RSC to play Hamlet. Yes there are lots of ideas and the production is a little fussy and cluttered at time, but that meant that I felt that I was being constantly surprised. I felt that there is enough in this production to make it well worth seeing. I will be interested in seeing how it develops and grows during its run.
The Royal Shakespeare Company Website
Reviews and Previews
The Independent Interview with Jonathan Slinger
The Guardian Interview with Jonathan Slinger
Moss Cottage – Dr Peter Buckroyd