Much Ado about Love's Labour's Lost and Won (RST, September 2014 to March 12th 2015)

I thought that the RSC’s idea to pair  Love’s Labour’s Lost with Much Ado About Nothing was an interesting one, and provided an opportunity to explore the two plays together.  The rationale behind this decision was that Much Ado About Nothing must be the lost play, Love’s Labour’s Won, and so the RSC called it’s production of Much Ado About Nothing as Love’s Labour’s Won.  Indeed, there was much that worked well in the juxtaposition between the two plays. The concept allowed the director, Christopher Luscombe  to set the two plays at either side of the first world war.  Love’s Labour’s Lost ended with the four men, now soldiers, going to war.  In Much Ado About Nothing the play commenced with the soldiers returning from the first world war. The pre-war and post-war periods worked well in giving the two households a claustrophobic feel where there wasn’t much they could do but play at being scholars, and lovers.  What also worked very well was that Love’s Labour’s Lost  was set in the Sunmer.  There was a nice touch was the poppies in the background in one scene.  Much Ado About Nothing became a winter play and presented the company with an opportune moment to include a Christmas element in Much Ado About Nothing as it played over the Christmas period. Indeed, Benedick’s gulling scene made much use of the Christmas tree.

The set was stunning.  Modelled on Charlecote close to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the productions took place in different rooms, and the audience was presented with interiors and exteriors as well as the chapel, but the star piece was  the scene on the roof in Love’s Labour’s Lost.  A determination to set up different rooms in the house meant that the sight lines in some places were poor. From the ends of the front rows, chairs often obscured views for whole scenes, and these did not improve during the run. Even though this was a thrust stage, I felt that the whole thing was designed for a proscenium arch stage. Moments from both gulling scenes in Much Ado About Nothing were completely lost for audience members sat in seats that were upstage.

The setting of the plays in a specific location and time period also presented an opportunity to explore Englishness, though the revealing of the French flag in Love’s Labour’s Lost felt strange and out of keeping with the whole aesthetic.

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the women were fabulous, and a lot of the comedy came from their coordinated gestures. Michelle Terry  managed to capture Rosaline’s dry humour, and was able to do this again with her portrayal of Beatrice. The women’s reaction to the men attempting to impress as Russian dancers was very enjoyable.  In Much Ado About Nothing, the pool table trick was impressive, and the masked ball a lot of fun.  There are nice touches such as Costard (Nick Haversham) taking his boots off to enter the house, and noticing the background music.  The duet between Moth and Don Armado (John Hodgkinson) was very funny.  In Much Ado About Nothing, the moving of the furniture in the interrogation of the Watch scene is hilarious and often resulted in applause,  and Dogberry (Nick Haversam) plays up the slapstick.  However, there was a very skillful twist in the scene and the laughter turns to sadness when the audience realises that we are actually laughing at  who is suffering from shell shock.

I felt that more through lines might have been explored. For example, I thought that it might have Sam Alexander playing Don Pedro as well as the king, rather than Don John, which would have given an opportunity to focus on leadership and youth in the two plays. I also thought that and Moth (Peter McGovern) might have returned as the boy and/or Balthezar in Much Ado About Nothing.

Some things changed through the run, such as a comic moment at the start of Love’s Labour’s Lost where the King spins the Globe so that Navarre is visible to the men seemed to disappear after the Live Screening.

It might be possible to say the star of the two productions was the teddy bear in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but Ed Bennett’s stand out performances as Berowne and Benedick were sensational. He mastered the comic timing and draw the audience into the production with him. and perfected the ability to give the impression that he was just about to corpse. His gulling scene in Much Ado About Nothing was the best of slapstick and comedy taking elements from Morecombe and Wise and Some Mother’s Do Have Them. However, Edward Bennett stole the show in the scene where Beatrice is sent to call him in to dinner. Disheveled, Sprawled across the chaise Lounge, covered in powder and Christmas decorations trying to look sexy eating a chocolate. His determination to woo. but appearing to look so uncomfortable, was masterful.

Much Ado About Nothing is becoming one of my favourite plays. It’s funny and it’s dark. Here it was cut and some of the emotional complexity was lost.  That was a shame because I think the production was able to explore those elements in the depth they deserved and could have done that alongside the song and humour that the production gained.

It looked like the RSC struggled to market Love’s Labour’s Won and were constantly having to add the Much Ado tag line for clarity.  The line in Much Ado About Nothing, ‘few of any sort and none of name’ have died, and that line had to be cut because it was just so inappropriate in reference to the first world war.  It was clear that Berowne and Benedick are two very different characters.  What the experiment did for me was show  that Much Ado About Nothing is not the sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Reviews, previews

Storify Link

References

Charlecote Park

Cast

Love’s Labour’s LostSam Alexander – King of Navarre
Peter Basham – Gamekeeper
William Belchambers – Longaville
Edward Bennett – Berowne
Nick Haverson – Costard
John Hodgkinson – Don Armado
David Horovitch – Holofernes
Tunji Kasim – Dumaine
Sophie Khan Levy – Housemaid
Oliver Lynes – Footman
Emma Manton – Jaquenetta
Chris McCalphy – Dull
Frances McNamee – Maria
Peter McGovern – Moth
Chris Nayak – Footman
Jamie Newall – Boyet
Roderick Smith – Marcadé
Flora Spencer-Longhurst – Katharine
Michelle Terry – Rosaline
Harry Waller – Gamekeeper
Thomas Wheatley – Sir Nathaniel
Leah Whitaker – Princess of France
Love’s Labour’s WonSam Alexander – Don John
Peter Basham – Butler
William Belchambers – Conrade
Edward Bennett – Benedick
Nick Haverson – Dogberry
John Hodgkinson – Don Pedro
David Horovitch – Leonato
Tunji Kasim – Claudio
Sophie Khan Levy – Housemaid
Oliver Lynes – Soldier
Emma Manton – Margaret
Chris McCalphy – Sexton
Frances McNamee – Ursula
Peter McGovern – George Seacoal
Chris Nayak – Borachio
Jamie Newall – Friar Francis
Roderick Smith – Verges
Flora Spencer-Longhurst – Hero
Michelle Terry – Beatrice
Harry Waller – Balthasar
Thomas Wheatley – Antonio

'…all hail!' to me? So Judas did to Christ..' (Revisiting Richard II, RST and Barbican, October 27th to Wednesday 8th January 2014).

The post contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this production yet and don’t want to know about some of the production’s surprises, then it is best not to read this post.

Having seen this production again in Stratford after the Previews had taken place and then at the Barbican, I have had more time to think about it and consider some of the detail in the production. The one thing that really stands out for me is how Aumerle, wonderfully captured by Oliver Rix, becomes a constant presence and draws together many of the different themes that this production explores. I wanted to use this blog post to reflect on how the production had developed during the run.

Aumerle is a watcher, a waiverer and an outsider. He is often very emotional and conflicted. He is unsure where his loyalties should lie. He is his Father’s son (Duke of York brilliantly played by Oiliver Ford Davies). In Previews, I found myself drawn to Rix’s portrayal of Aumerle. He is stunningly good looking and contrasts both with the broad brutish group that supports Bolingbroke and also with the more slender Flatterers (Bushy, Bagot and Greene) that follow Richard. Bolingbroke’s followers wear browns and rusts, whereas Richard’s followers wear greys and beiges. In contrast to these two factions, Aumerle wears a rich green cloak that is interwoven with metallic thread. His dress sets him apart from other characters. The director, Greg Doran, has talked about the way that David Tennant brings something of the contemporary to the production, and of course David Tenannt’s Richard is also a character who physically stands out from the other characters. However, Oliver Rix’s Aumerle also has a very contemporary feel. His dark styled hair feels modern, and many of his gestures seem more in keeping with current youth culture than the code of conduct in medieval England.

What is very special about Rix’s performance is the way that he has built up the non-verbal action. His response to Richard’s Flatterers in the first act is one of disgust as they applaud Richard’s witticisms. There’s clearly a rivalry between Aumerle and Bushy (Sam Marks). This is particularly evident in their entrance to John of Gaunt’s house. As Bushy and Aumerle enter, Bushy turns to Aumerle and gives him a look of utter contempt. It’s easy to miss this, because Richard’s and Isabella’s (Emma Hamilton) entrance is rather dramatic and does tend to draw attention to them.

It’s not just Richard’s Flatterers that show disdain for Aumerle. Bolingbroke’s (Nigel Lindsay) burly followers don’t want Aumerle hanging around with them either. After the death of John of Gaunt it is clear that they want Aumerle to leave and he quickly gets the message.

In early scenes, Aumerle comforts his father. He helps him up when York is clearly upset at the death of his brother Gaunt, but this relationship quickly changes. After the scene on the gantry at Flint Castle, York moves to embrace Aumerle, who responds by grabbing his father’s cloak and gives the impression that he wants to throttle him. Both father and son swap sides. York shifts allegiances very quickly, but always reluctantly, from Richard to Bolingbroke, at the same time Aumerle’s allegiances move to Richard.

As the Stratford run was drawing to a close, I had a conversation with Dr Jami Rogers who suggested that there were lots of hints in the production that suggested that Aumerle would become the murderer at the end. She mentioned the Judas kiss on the battlements of Flint Castle as an example. This made me think a little more about Aumerle’s role in this production. I started to watch with fresh eyes. Once the seeds have been planted, then this production becomes a Who-will-do-it, as much as it is a Whodunit. The ‘who killed Gloucester plot’ that runs through the production, is a clever piece of business, and what it does is constantly remind us that Edward’s heirs are not safe. The knowledge that Gloucester has been murdered also plants the possibility of regicide in the audience’s minds.

The key change in the production is that the character of Exton has been cut and Aumerle becomes Richard’s murderer. David Tennant said in the question and answer session after the performance on 8th January that this change made more sense of Aumerle’s character, and I agree totally with this observation.

In this production, the ending becomes a very satisfying ending and this is why.

Aumerle is troubled when Richard banishes Bolingbroke and he embraces Bolingbroke before his banishment. Indeed, he supports Bolingbroke on his way to his banishment.  The sweet that Richard puts into Aumerle’s mouth silences him, as does the kiss on the gantry at Flint Castle. There are other places where Aumerle could speak and is silenced. At the very start of the performance, I am very unsure if Aumerle will also step forward and challenge Mowbray (Antony Byrne), but Richard’s entrance stops him doing so, and of course protocol does as well. During the ‘death of kings’ scene, I have seen Aumerle signal to Carlisle not to speak, and stays silent himself at certain points. Whilst Aumerle’s mother pleads for his life, he shows his annoyance at his father’s interventions through his gestures and facial expressions. Indeed, it is in his non-speaking moments that Aumerle is actually a very strong presence on stage. His expressions and gestures clearly convey his conflicted position and relationships with other characters.

In some performances, at Flint Castle, Bolingbroke looks directly at Aumerle as if questioning him and his loyalty. Just prior to this, Aumerle has just demonstrated his allegiance to Richard on the gantry, and the kiss and embrace between them can be read as a personal human moment. The kiss can also be interpreted as the Judas kiss that Jami talked about. Indeed, in the deposition scene Richard directs the word Judas from the following lines directly at Aumerle.

In thy heart-blood, though being all too base. To stain the temper of my knightly …. Did they not sometime cry, ‘All hail!’ to me? So Judas did to Christ: but he, in twelve, Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thou- sand, none. God save the king ! (4.1.165).

The use of mirrors is very important in Richard II. Greg Doran’s production cleverly sets up pieces of stage business that are mirrored later on in the performance. An obvious example of this is when Bagot (Jake Mann) brings Richard (David Tennant) the mirror it is to emphasise Richard’s vanity and his role as a Flatterer. Later in the deposition scene, it is Bagot who brings the mirror to Richard this time emphasising Richard’s fragility and demonstrating the transience of the support that Bagot had given Richard when he was King. Richard clearly recognises Bagot, and through the repetition of the earlier mirror moment, the betrayal is amplified. However, in both the mirror scenes, Aumerle is also an observer.

The image of the coffin on stage at the start of the performance is a wonderful precursor to the coffin dragged on stage by Aumerle at the end of the production. The production begins with a pre-show and the coffin of the Duke of Gloucester on stage. The Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire) kneels weeping at the side of the coffin. One of the final images of the production is Richard’s coffin placed on the stage in the same spot where Gloucester’s coffin was and a kneeling Duke of York beside the coffin is reminiscent of the earlier pose taken at the start by the Duchess of Gloucester. This final image is overlaid by a strange image of the ghost of Richard, Christ-like in a white gown standing on the gantry. This image is a reminder of the white that Richard wore for his entrance at the start of the play. In the early scenes, Bolingbroke is banished and the production concludes with the banishment of Richard’s other cousin, Aumerle.

Vicster51corner  has written a very interesting blog about the understudy performance in Stratford Upon Avon, where Oliver Rix performed the part of Richard II. It makes sense for Rix to understudy Richard. Bolingbroke offers an opposition to Richard, and Rix’s Aumerle offers a distorted reflected image of both. As I said in my Preview post, this is the story of three cousins, and the production as a whole works because of the strong sensible cast where Rix’s performance is central.

Further Details

http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/richard-ii/

References

Storify page containing links to reviews interviews etc.

https://drjamirogers.wordpress.com/author/shakespearegoddess/

http://vickster51corner.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/yet-looks-he-like-a-king-the-public-understudy-performance-of-the-rscs-richard-ii-29th-october-2013/

http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/bardathon/2013/10/30/23631/

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)

Places and Spaces and the play of two halves. The Winter's Tale (Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Grand Opera House, York)

20130407-180811.jpg

Much has been made of the thrust stage in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST)  and how it would change the way the RSC approached its productions. I was particularly fascinated by the way that a production could be developed for both a thrust stage and a proscenium arch tour. That’s why I wanted to see their latest production of The Winter’s Tale in both York (at the Grand Opera House) and at the RST in Stratford Upon Avon. I was particularly interested in how this production transferred from one playing space to another, and whether it would look considerably different in each space.

The obvious change was that at the Grand Opera House, the actors played out front and at points Jo Stone-Fewings (as Leontes) sat on the edge of the stage to deliver some of his soliloquies.   The set design was heavily influenced by Pre-Raphaelite painting in the first part of the play and seaside postcards in the second half of the play. The programme discussed this idea in some detail, and what struck me was that this idea worked much better watching it in front of a proscenium arch than it did from the side of the stalls in Stratford.  The first half of the production played on a fantasy, and a relaxed recreational way of life that  resembled an early Pre-Raphaelite painting in its detail.  As the production moves on and Leontes becomes increasingly paranoid and jealous, the production darkens and becomes more threatening.  For example, the characters moved from bright clothes into dark suits. In the second half, when the  play moves on sixteen years the action moves to a Northern seaside resort.  I was given the impression that the two places being different aspects of the same country and this is reinforced by Leontes presence on stage, as he looks down from a tower during the second part of the play.

One of the key features of Lucy Bailey’s The Winter’s Tale was the use of a multimedia background. I felt that the multimedia in her production of Julius Caesar was problematic and though in this production the multimedia worked much better,  it did not add much to the production overall and at times became very distracting. On the back of the stage was projected a seascape that presented the changing seasons, locations and shifts of mood. On the Royal Shakespeare Theatre thrust stage the multimedia was not as effective at  all from the sides of the thrust stage.   In some seats it was difficult to see the bear appear.   However, the multimedia worked much better on the proscenium arch stage with the audience in front of it.

In the last RSC production of The Winter’s Tale (dir David Farr), there was a moment, when the bookcases collapsed and as everything unravelled. In this production, a tower grinds upwards from the stage . Was this an image from the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games?  Was  I supposed to think that it represented the Industrial Age in the middle of the Pastoral world? I wasn’t clear about this and I felt that the imagery was a little muddled.

Hermiones of the recent past have appeared in the trial scene in dresses stained with the birth fluid.  In contrast, Tara Fitzgerald’s Hermione was dressed in black for her trial and there were clearly echoes of Anne Boleyn’s trail here.   The swordsman stands in the background. Though this was a very dramatic image, it seemed to be out of place and anachronistic in a production that couldn’t make up its mind about which idea/ideas it really wanted to focus on.

I enjoyed the Bohemia scenes more than I normally do. I think was because I could see how they related to the first half of he play in this production. Peace Quigley played a very dry Autolycus, and Nick Holder was a great stand up Clown’s son.

This was a violent production. Leontes punches Hermione in her swollen pregnant stomach and the audience gasped. When Leontes sat on his ivory tower looking down, there was a real sense of him being in purgatory and undergoing a punishment for his wife’s ‘death’.  The audience was always aware of his presence throughout the second half, and when Polixenes is violent to Florizel, history is repeating itself. The fight between Mopsa and Dorcus became an ironic commentary on the way that the court had behaved in the first part of the play.

Though I enjoyed this production and was entertained by the Bohemia scenes, I felt that overall it played with ideas on the surface and didn’t really get to grips with the emotion in the play. I still think of the image of Greg Hick’s crumpled Leontes being revealed slumped at the back of the stage in David Farr’s production was such a powerful image, and the tower just didn’t have the same effect. Again, I think the set design distracted from the play itself and added little particularly in Stratford on the thrust stage.  I was left wondering whether the set had been designed for the tour, and it had been hoped it would work in the RST as well.

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

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The Independent Interview with Jonathan Slinger

The Guardian Interview with Jonathan Slinger

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Other Blogs

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