Hamlet (City Screen – Manchester Royal Exchange, 27th March 2015)

I saw Maxine Peake as Hamlet back in September 2014. Seeing the production live was an amazing electrifying experience.  Of course, I was curious to see if Peake would play Hamlet as a man, or as a woman. Actually, she played the part as neither.  The male pronoun was retained and the rest of the characters referred to Hamlet as a man. However, Peake’s Hamlet was really gender neutral.  This production was about the person and not the gender. There were other gender swaps, Polonius became Polonia (Gillian Bevan) and Rosencrantz was played by the incredible Jodie Mcnee. McNee had just played Viola at the Liverpool Playhouse so will have been getting used to gender swap, but here her portrayal of Rosencrantz was very effective and at times gave a hint of a crush on Hamlet.

Seeing the production again in a cinema was a strange one. Manchester Royal Exchange is a theatre in the round, it challenges you to look around you, to be alert to the different entrances and exits.  It’s a dynamic space that puts you close up to the action.

The screening also puts you close to the action, but the camera chooses how you see things.  It directs your eye to look right into faces, and follows characters around the stage for you.  Most of the time you follow Hamlet, when he sits down for the wedding feast, and as she crumples in grief in her to ‘to solid flesh’ speech.  That’s to be expected, but I’m also interested in how the other characters respond, and in a cinema screening those moments can be cut.  There are also shots you just wouldn’t get in the theatre, such as looking down directly at all the clothes that become Ophelia’s grave, and we also got a birds eye view of the laying out the dress to show this was Ophelia’s burial.

I think I am happy watching screened versions of Theatre productions as a follow up to seeing the production myself in the theatre. For me, the screening is not a substitute for being in the theatre and close to the action.

Reviews of the stage production

Cast

Horatio – Thomas Arnold

Player King / Marcella – Claire Benedict

Polonia – Gillian Bevan

First Gravedigger – Michelle Butterly

Lucianus – Dean Gregory

Reynaldo/ Priest/ Francisco – Tachia Newall

Gertrude – Barbara Marten

Rosencrantz/ Second Gravedigger – Jodie McNee

Hamlet – Maxine Peake

Claudius/ Ghost – John Shrapnel

Guildenstern – Peter Singh

Osric/ Second Player/ Barnardo – Ben Stott

Ophelia – Katie West

Laertes – Ashley Zhangazha

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Top Lists of 2013

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Top Shakespeare

1.  All’s Well That Ends Well, (RSC RST and Theatre Royal Newcastle).
2.  As You Like It (RSC, RST and Theatre Royal Newcastle).
3.  Titus Andronicus (RSC, Swan Theatre).
4.  Julius Caesar (Donmar Warehouse).
5.  The Taming of the Shrew (Propeller, Newcastle Theatre Royal)
6.  Macbeth (Trafalgar Studios).
7.  Richard II (RSC, RST and Barbican).
8.  Othello (National Theatre).
9.  Hamlet (RSC, RST and Theatre Royal Newcastle).
10.  Twelfth Night (Propeller, Newcastle Theatre Royal).
11.  Coriolanus (Donmar Warehouse).
12. As You Like it (Globe).
13,  Macbeth (Globe).
14. Henry V (Noel Coward Theatre).
15.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Globe).
16. The Merry Wives of Windsor (RST).
17.  The Winter’s Tale, (RST and York Grand Opera House).
18.  Richard III (York Theatre Royal).
19. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Noel Coward Theatre).
20. The Tempest (Globe).

Top Theatre (Not Shakespeare)

1.  The Effect – Lucy Prebble  (National Theatre).
2.  This House – James Graham (National Theatre).
3.  Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon and Simon Stephens (National Theatre at the Apollo).
4.  Edward II – Christopher Marlowe (National Theatre).
5.  Talk Show  – Alistair McDowall (Royal Court).
6.  A Boy and His Soul  – Colman Domingo (Tricycle).
7.  A Mad World My Masters – Thomas Middleton (Swan).
8.  Jumpers for Goalposts –  Tom Wells (Bush Theatre).
9.  Blink – Phil Porter (Soho Theatre).
10. Chalk Farm  – Kieran Hurley and A.J. Taudevin (Underbelly, Edinburgh Fringe Festival).
11.  There Has Possibly Been an Incident – Chris Thorpe (Northern Stage at St Stephen’s, Edinburgh Fringe Festival).
12.  Same Deep Water as Me – Nick Payne  (Donmar).
13.  Feast -Yunior Garcia Aguilera, Rotimi Babatunde, Marcos Barbosa, Tanya Barfield, Gbolahan Obisesan (Young Vic/Royal Court).
14.  The Victorian in the Wall – Will Aamsdale (Royal Court).
15.  Let the Right One In – John Ajvide Lindqvist and Jack Thorne (Royal Court)
16.  The Weir – Conor McPherson (Donmar)
17.  Wot? No Fish! – Danny Braverman (Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe Festival)
18.  Home – David Storey (Arcola).
19.  Candide – Mark Ravenhill (Swan).
20.  Choose Your One Documentary – Nathan Pennington (Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh Fringe Festival).

Exhibitions

1. David Bowie (Victoria and Albert)
2. Pre-Raphaelites (Tate Britain)
3.  Life and Death in Pompeii (British Museum)
4.  Lowry (Tate Britain)
5.  Elizabeth I and Her People (National Portrait Gallery)
6.  Paul Klee (Tate Modern)
7.  Manet. Portraying Life. Royal Academy
8.  Summer Show (Royal Academy)
9.   Peer Doig (National Gallery of Scotland)
10. Glam The Performance of Style (Tate, Liverpool)

The new RSC Hamlet is out of joint? (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 14th and 15th March 2013)

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Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet and Luke Norris as Laertes in Hamlet. Photo by Keith Pattison © Royal Shakespeare Company

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.

Further Information

Visit my storify page

The Royal Shakespeare Company Website

Jonathan Slinger’s Website

Reviews and Previews

The Independent Interview with Jonathan Slinger

The Guardian Interview with Jonathan Slinger

The Observer Review

Coventry Telegraph

The Stratford Observer

The Daily Telegraph

The Guardian

What’s On Stage

The Daily Mail

The Stage

Other Blogs

Partially Obstructed View

Moss Cottage – Dr Peter Buckroyd

Bum on a Seat

What happened to the RSC's long ensemble?

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The RSC long ensemble gala in the Swan 2011. The gala was to raise funds for James Gale and his family.

Updated 6th January 2013. Thanks to updates from RSC long ensemble audience members.

After I saw Debbie Korley and Dharmesh Patel in the RSC’s young people’s King Lear at the Theatre Royal in York recently, I started to wonder what the rest of the RSC’s long ensemble were dong now. I had seen some of long ensemble working in the theatre over the past year, and heard about other things they’d done since the long ensemble project ended after a residency New York in the Summer of 2011. The long ensemble was made up of 44 actors and started in Stratford in the Spring of 2009 with As You Like It (dir by Michael Boyd) and The Winter’s Tale (dir by David Farr). These two plays were joined in the Summer of 2011 by Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar. For me the success of the long ensemble came the year after with Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet and David Farr’s King Lear. Both plays played with time and space and for me the plays worked well with the transition from the Courtyard theatre to the new RST (via Newcastle and the Roundhouse). It was the long ensemble that opened the new RST and brought the RSC home – so to speak. The partnership between Jonjo O’Neill and Sam Troughton, as Mercutio and Romeo, brought an energy to the project, but also demonstrated how a partnership built up over a period of time could work so well.

I am sure that it was hoped that the actors and directors would move on to other things, and that some would return to the RSC.

There’s been a few long ensemble reunions in 2012. The first was the Duchess of Malfi reuniting Adam Burton and Tunji Kasim at the Old Vic. Another reunion was down the road from the Old Vic, at the Young Vic, where Sam Troughton, Mariah Gale and Gruffudd Glyn could be seen in Three Sisters. As well as Three Sisters it seems that Sam Troughton has been very busy since he left the long ensemble. He was in A Streetcar Named Desire in Liverpool, and Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court, as well as The Town on television. Mariah Gale is currently in Gruesome Playground Injuries at the Gate Theatre.

Later in the year, at the Old Vic, after being in Children’s Children at the Almeida, Darrell D’Silva was in the very successful Hedda Gabler. Forbes Masson will be playing Banquo alongside James McAvoy’s Macbeth Westminster studios. was in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, plating Mr Tumnus, for Threesixty Theatre in Kensington Gardens. The production was directed by long ensemble director Rupert Goold. He also starred in the Belgrade Theatres Crackers. There were also glimpses of Forbes supporting Melanie Masson’s on ITV’s X Factor.

The RSC women seemed to have done well since the long ensemble project ended and I enjoyed, Noma Dumezweni, Katy Stephens and Mariah Gale’s audio performances as the three witches from Macbeth in the Staging Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum. Noma Dumezweni was also in Bola Agbaje’s play, Belong, at the Royal Court in the Spring of 2012 and will be in The Feast at the young Vic from February. I managed to see Katy Stephens, who was excellent in Calixto Bieito’s Forests, but missed her playing Laura in The Father at the Belgrade theatre in Coventry. Katy is currently playing the fairy in the Belgrade Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty. Kirsty Woodward was fantastic in Kneehigh’s Steptoe and Son, which I saw at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and at the start of 2012, I saw her in The Way of the World Sheffield Crucible.

Kathryn Hunter joined the long ensemble in the second year of the project, and made a quick exit in the middle of the Roundhouse season. She went on to revive her as Peter the Red Ape in Kafka’s Monkey, which I thought was a stunning piece of physical theatre and then returned to the RSC in A Tender Thing this autumn.

One thing that has been surprising is how few of the long ensemble returned to Stratford after the long ensemble project finished. Though Jonjo O’Neill returned to the RSC in a very successful Richard III in the summer of 2012, it has taken awhile for a group of actors to return to the RSC to work together. Indeed, it has taken over a year for four members of the long ensemble to work together again in the Swan in Stratford. Adam Burton, Paul Hamilton, Patrick Romer, and James Tucker are now back in Stratford performing in the long ensemble in the Swan and Ansu Kabia is playing Nim in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Greg Hicks will return to the RSC in 2013 to play Claudius in Hamlet. Oliver Ryan is another member of the long ensemble to return to Stratford for the 1013 Summer season, and long ensemble director, David Farr, will be directing Hamlet.

Sadly Peter Shorey and James Gale have passed away.

And what happened to the other long ensemble directors? After directing a very good Taming of the Shrew for the RSC Winter season 2012, Lucy Bailey returns to the RSC for the Winter 2013 to direct The Winter’s Tale. Greg Doran,who directed the long ensemble interlude, Morte D’Arthur, took over the RSC as Artistic Director in September 2012 and I am now awaiting the announcement of his first season. He is currently directing The Orphan of Zhao in the Swan.

And the Artistic director, Michael Boyd what’s he doing now? Well, he left the RSC in September 2012, but his final production as a director at the RSC, Boris Godunov is now in the Swan.

I think some people felt that the long ensemble was too large to work well, and that many of the actors didn’t really get chance to use to really shine. However, the long ensemble did give some actors a chance to play a range of parts. Sam Troughton showed he could play both the lead and bit parts with great skill. Indeed, he produced was exceptional as a Lord in The Winter’s Tale and entertaining as an energetic and angry Romeo in Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s no surprise to see that Sam Troughton has gone on to play a range of parts since leaving the RSC, and his Mercutio, Jonjo O’Neill, has also shown his range and he is getting great reviews at the National Theatre in The Effect,

Other actors, who showed some promise in the long ensemble do not seem to have done other things. For example, Dyfan Dwyfor played a much more emotional Romeo than Troughton, when I saw him understudy Troughton early in the Straford run. I have not seen that Dwyfor has been in the theatre, since leaving the RSC and even the long ensemble has not changed the transient nature of most actors’ lives. I am hoping that Debbie Korley and Dharmesh Patel will go on to do more than the Young People’s Shakespeare. Both have demonstrated through this vehicle that they can do more than waiting women and bit parts and I look forward to seeing them in other things in the future.

I will have missed many long ensemble appearances, so please let me know of any others that are not here, or about anything you’ve seen with an actor from the long ensemble in it.

Update 10th March 2013

I have recently see Noma Dumezweni in Feast at the Young Vic theatre and Sam Troughton in Bull at Sheffield Crucible. Katy Stephens and David Rubin are also returning to Stratford over the Summer to work in the Swan.

 

My Long ensemble blogs

The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It

As You Like It, Newcastle 2009

Katy Stephens’ Hair

Julius Caesar

The RSC ensemble debate

King Lear

Romeo and Juliet

RSC, South Bank Show

The RSC Comes Home

Romeo and Juliet again

Antony and Cleopatra part 1

Antony and Cleopatra part 2

RSC Revealed

New Writing at the Hampstead Theatre

Full details about the long ensemble project can be found here.

Looking forward to Shakespeare in 2013

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2013 will be another year for celebrity Shakespeare. James McAvoy will play Macbeth early in the year. The Michael Grandage season continues with David Walliams and Sheridan Smith staring in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Jude Law in Henry V.  In autumn, at the Old Vic,  Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones will be playing Beatrice and Bendick in Much Ado About Nothing.  Yet to go on sale, but not a surprise, Adrian Lester will play Othello at the National Theatre.

In Stratford, there are lots to look forward to, particularly the Alex Waldman and Pippa Nixon reunion in As You Like It and again in Hamlet with Jonathan Slinger in the title role.  Joining As You Like It and Hamlet on the RST main stage will be All’s Well that End’s Well, and in the Swan theatre there is a Titus Andronicus.

At the Globe, I’m looking forward to The Tempest, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The RSC and the Globe are bringing their Shakespeare  to York with The Winter’s Tale and  a Henry VI season.

There has been a taste for concept Shakespeare recently. The Wyndham’s Much Ado About Nothing and Rupert Goold’s The Merchant of Venice split audiences and the critics, but were very interesting interpretations. Will 2013 bring another surprise?  It looks like the Globe will continue with its original practice approach, and there is talk that the RSC Hamlet might return to renaissance dress.

With most of the summer and autumn mapped out, I am waiting with anticipation, and excitement, for the announcement of Greg Doran’s first season as artistic director of the RSC.  What will be the RSC’s winter season be like?  I doubt we’ll see another long ensemble project, but I think we’ll see the return of the ‘celebrity’ actor to the RSC. I’m sure we’ll know soon.