'…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/

Richard II (RST, Preview performances 10th, 11th, 12th October 2013)

The Summer RST Company have left, and the barriers have appeared around the stage door. Tweeters twitter about how wonderful David Tennant’s performance is. It’s an ‘enthralling performance’, ‘just extraordinary’ and ‘mesmerising’ they say.

Richard II enters the stage and is at the centre of his court with his flatters whispering in his ear.

The casting of David Tennant was an important move in setting out Doran’s future strategy for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tenannt’s presence on stage, and as part of the Company, signals a change in direction form Michael Boyd’s ideas around ensemble. On stage, he is supported by a very strong company, and it is interesting that David Tennant’s presence on the RST stage adds something to the reading of his character.

I saw the first three previews of the current production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II. I realise that previews are a work in progress, and that the production may have changed during the other three performances leading up to Press Night. Previews give the creative team time to try things out before the Press Night and drop anything that just isn’t working. It was clear that there was some work to be done, but I felt that there are real positives about this production, and I was really confident that what I was seeing in previews would be the basis for an excellent production.

The first thing that struck me when I walked  into the auditorium for the first preview was both the stunning set and the that the stage had been lowered. The set  looks like a hologram and is set in a cathedral that seems to go back into the depths of the theatre. It is a very innovative use of the old proscenium arch space to create the image of gothic columns. I was delighted to see that the stage used for the summer season has been replaced by a much lower stage which is much better than the chin high stage which caused some sight lines to be problematic. Indeed, the height is much more like the height in the Courtyard Theatre, and I hope the RSC keep the stage at this height. I felt the set had been designed both for the RST and the Barbican, and I think it will work so well on a proscenium arch stage as well as on the RST stage. What I really liked about the set was  the way the light reflected on  the set and changed colours, so the garden became golden. There was a little of  Greg Doran’s Hamlet set here in that the audience were mirrored in it at points which was very effective. There was an innovative use of a platform across the stage that appeared and descended at different points. As the musicians were at the sides of the dress and upper circle, both the horizontal and vertical space of the theatre was being utilised.

The pre-show is a little clumsy. On all three nights the audience was unsure how to respond. Had the play started? Could they continue to settle into their seats. Over the three nights the pre-show had been cut from about 10 minutes to five minutes.

I felt David Tennant did a great job at getting at Richard in previews and it is a performance I could see really developing during the run. When I first saw it, I wasn’t sure if the awkwardness at the start was Tennant’s nerves or because he was trying to reveal an unease in the character. In the first preview, Tennant’s clothes were dishevelled, his cross askew, and his hair (with extensions) a mess.  Tennant is very good at using his physique to play an awkwardness and there was something of that here. At times, he overstressed the RP accent which gave the sense of a person uncomfortable with the role he was inhabiting. At one point on the metal platform, with Aumerle (Oliver Rix), Tennant looked as if his shirt had got caught, but that was because he had a wire on for health and safety reasons, and this felt odd as Tennant was playing a vain king that looked at himself in he mirror often.

Tennant played the transformation from king to broken man very well and I really loved the metamorphosis into a Christ-like figure at the end of the play. What wasn’t working when I saw the production was that there felt like there was anxiety in Tennant’s performance as if it didn’t quiet connect with the audience. It was as if he lacked the confidence he demonstrated so well when he played Hamlet. Maybe this was because of  the physical closeness of the performance to the audience and that made him very conscious of the audience around him. The full house standing ovations are yet to come. I am sure they will. On the first preview some people stood, and the audience clearly enjoyed the production.

The audience gasped when the  identity of the murderer is revealed and this is a  lovely touch.

I felt that the end was marred slightly by the sack in the coffin, which I am sure they borrowed from the Titus set and will have to give back. I hope this changes and that there is a real sense of the earthly body and so this can be contrasted to the spiritual in a way that I think the production is trying to get at. Another thing that didn’t work for me was the ghost of Richard clanking across the metal bridge and supposedly having to open a  gate, when ghosts walk through gates. The effect might have been better if Richard had been revealed rather than having to walk onto the platform in full view.

In previews there were some stunning performances. I was particularly impressed with Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and Oliver Rix as Aumerle. Rix really fleshed out the character and gave the production a sense that this was the story of three cousins not just Richard and Bollingbroke. I felt the scenes between Aumerle and Richard were really strong.  The stand out performance of the previews for me was Nigel Lindsay. He played a bully, Bolingbroke, who only seemed repentant in the last moments of the play.

It was great to have seen the wonderful John Heffernan as Edward II recently. Both Richard II and Edward II explore leadership and what happens when personal emotion takes over, and I felt that the RSC production achieved this well.

For me, preview viewing is very much part of the excitement of live theatre. In a first preview you just have no idea what approach will be taken. It was exciting to share the experience with other passionate theatre goers. The excitement is also about being able to go back again on future dates to see how the production has developed. I intend to do that soon.

Reviews and Previews

Storify page with reviews, interviews and blogs

Hamlet (BBC2, 26th December 2009).

In the Doctor Who two parter, ‘The End of Time’, the time is clearly ‘out of joint’ for the Doctor.  He has been having fun instead of being there to sort out the Master’s usurpation of the human race.  In trying to set this right, the tenth Doctor hurtles towards his own death.  Does this remind us of  the fate that befalls the Prince of Denmark?  With the scheduling of David Tennant and the RSC/Illuminations/BBC Hamlet over Christmas and New Year, making some connections between the two roles will be inevitable (see Mark Lawson in The Guardian). 

Part 1: Space and place

As Hamlet ‘lugs the guts’ of Polonius ‘into a neighbour room’ through the corridors of Elsinore, I was reminded by Turner’s interior of Durham Cathedral which is exhibited in the Tate’s Turner and the Masters’ exhibition.  Sun streaks through the windows in the gothic scenes.  Greg Doran’s production is a modern dress production, but not specifically set in a particular place or time. Like Turner’s image it deceives us into thinking it is about a specific time, but it is actually timeless.

I wrote at length about the BFI screening of the RSC/Illuminations/BBC Hamlet, where I discussed the occasion and my first responses to the screening.  Here I wanted to spend a little more time in thinking about some of the production decisions.  The move from stage to the film location  made me think about how a sense of place and space are so important in this interpretation of Hamlet.  The mood of the production is set from the start and we realise that this is not a pleasant place when we become aware of the CCTV cameras zooming in and out.  The play opens in the bowels of Elsinore and this is a semi private moment.  The watch are nervous and jumpy.  The viewer is directed by the camera and follows Francisco along the corridor.  As in the stage production, we hear clanging and clashing of the munitions factory at work in the background.  The reminder that the country is at war and the sound of weapons being manufactured continues throughout the scene, could be one possible reason for the nervousness of the apprehension of the men on the watch.  At 1.1.9 Barnardo emphasises the word ‘had’ as if they expect something to have happened, but it is quiet and ironically at that point ‘not a mouse [is] stirring (1.1.10)’.  We view the scene through a mix of the RED camera and the CCTV cameras which creates a feeling of foreboding and preparing the viewer for the entrance of the ghost.  The CCTV cameras don’t pick up the ghost, but the audience is also made to wait for its appearance at Horatio’s line, ‘ but soft, behold, lo where it comes again (1.1.126)’.   

In contrast, in the next scene we move from the cold dark corridor to a very public scene and to the extravagant main throne room (1.2).  This room seems to be about the same size as the Courtyard stage, and much of the blocking in the scene seems to have been transferred from the stage production.  The chandeliers, which were in the stage production, and the mirrors frame Gertrude and Claudius who are supposedly the focus of the first part of the scene.  In the stage production, it was much easier to watch Hamlet’s entrance as he gently brushes Ophelia’s hand as he walks by her and takes his glass of champagne.  Here the main focus for the first part of the scene is on Gertrude and Claudius with shots of Hamlet looking sadly on.  In this very public scene we see Patrick Stewart’s master politician Claudius at work, and Gertrude is clearly at Claudius’ side supporting him.  She prompts him to remember that Hamlet studies at ‘Wittenberg (1.2.113)’,  and she looks nervously as Claudius toys with Hamlet, and pretends to address him but turns to speak to Laertes (1.2.51).  Hamlet stands to the side in his formal suit and slicked back hair.  He will also be in the same place for the ‘Mousetrap’ later with his hair is spiky, he will be barefoot, and actively goading the king.  Where the film differs from the stage production, as I noted in my BFI posting, is that the camera directs to particular points in the scene.  The Polonius family have clearly worked together on the response that Laertes will give to Claudius and as Laertes pauses at ‘and bow’ (1.2.56), he is promoted by Polonius who stands beside him mouthing the words they have agreed to say.

In the third scene, we move again into a different place, and another private moment, as the Polonius family goodbye scene is in the hall at the bottom of the stairs.  The Polonius family have  their own in joke mouthing Polonius’ words as if they have heard them so many times before. Ophelia draws attention to her brother’s dual standards when he requests that she protects her chastity, by revealing two condoms packed in his case.  I always felt that Mariah Gale set up the scenes of Ophelia’s madness very well in this scene on stage.  I felt that could really believe that the woman who falls into madness was this feisty woman, who is so close to her brother and father in 1.3.  There is clearly a difference in the way Polonius responds to his daughter than he does to his son.  Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius is curious to know what Laertes (Edward Bennett) has said to Ophelia and his tone is sharp as he asks, ‘what is’t, Ophelia, he hath said to you (1.3.88)?’  Oliver Ford Davies is a really funny Polonius.  At times forgetting what he is about to say, and having to be prompted by those around him, but also truly loyal to Claudius.

The other space which is very significant in this production is Gertrude’s bedroom, and of course the bed is central to this scene (3.4).  Gertrude is clearly frustrated and annoyed by Hamlet’s behaviours in previous scenes.  Penny Downie plays the part at this moment as if she is at the end of her tether with her naughty child and takes the crown from Hamlet’s head.  Hamlet’s language in this scene is full of sexual punning and innuendo.  The scene is played with passion and anger across the bed in what is supposed to be the queen’s most private space, but again Hamlet is being spied on and when he realises he shoots Polonius through the glass.  I felt that in a way this was much more dramatic on stage because I wondered how it was done at the Courtyard.  I think the scene in the closet comes across well in the film, because the camera is able to give us that extra layer of intimacy.  I think this scene shows Gertrude as an enormously powerful character in the play.  This view of her is later supported  when she attempts to disarm Laertes, as he enters the palace in a fury on hearing his father’s death (4.5).  She is finally rejected by Claudius at Ophelia’s graveside.  Claudius turns his back on her as he delivers the line  ‘good Gertrude set some watch over your son’ (5.1.292) with such distaste because of the havoc Hamlet has caused.

The gravedigger scene and the burial of Ophelia is the only one of two external scenes in the production.  The other is the egg-shell scene (4.4).  The gravedigger scene is a scene has been cut and is slightly different from the stage production as the joke about who builds the stronger has been lost.  One of the questions, that is sometimes asked is why doesn’t Horatio tell Hamlet that Ophelia is dead and so most likely the grave they witness being dug is for her.  In this film, we see Horatio (Peter De Jersey)comforting and restraining Hamlet as he works this out for himself.  Here we realise that Horatio knows he couldn’t tell Hamlet the truth, because he know how deeply hurt Hamlet will be.   

Part 2: Metatheatre and Mirrors

In the stage production there were many references to the stage  and in the film this has taken further with the references to film and filming.  In the production, as the action then moves between the corridors and rooms of Elsinore,  Hamlet realises that the CCTV cameras observe his every move.  He tears down the camera placed in the throne room and ironically makes the statement,  ‘now I am alone (2.2.551)’.  I felt that this was nice touch, but this is a pivotal moment, because from now on Hamlet starts filming everyone else. 

It is a further irony that Hamlet films the play within a play, turning the reference to theatre to a reference to film at the same time.   The player king (John Woodvine) is well-practiced in performing the Priam’s slaughter speech  (2.2.446).  The actors can chant along with him as if they have heard and seen this so many times before.  The players  take their craft very seriously, and the player king and queen dress so extravagantly for the Mousetrap.  Ryan Gage’s player queen gives such a look of distaste at Gertrude’s ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’ (3.2.240) remark and this is highlighted in the film version.  Hamlet has clearly written some of the lines and we can see which ones they are as he mouths them in the ‘Mousetrap’ scene.  I felt that there were lovely shots of  the player clowns, played by Ricky Champ and Jim Hooper, as Hamlet tries to persuade the  player king not to let the clowns say too much (3.2.37).  In the dumb show the joke of the murdered king parodies the death old Hamlet in turning into a ghost with a white sheet over him, and leaving the scene making ghost-like noises (in the stage version he was hoisted into the flies which was very funny).  Hamlet, watches Claudius watching the play, through his video camera and we see what Hamlet sees.  Claudius is clearly disturbed, but he acknowledges Hamlet is playing a game by walking past him and shaking his head to signal that he is aware of what Hamlet is doing. 

A key metaphor in both the stage and film productions is the mirror.  In the stage production, Hamlet uses the actors’ mirror and reflects it across the faces of the audience in the theatre.  In the film, he can only reflect the faces of the players in the mirror.  There is some humour when Hamlet proclaims ‘well, god-o-mercy’ (2.2.172)’ when he notices the two-way mirror. In the stage production he is able walk round the mirror, but in the film he looks into it, and we see him from the other side. In shooting Polonius through the mirror, the mirror shatters.  The fragmented mirror then becomes a metaphor for Hamlet’s state of mind, but also for the court breaking up and falling a part from the well rehearsed show in the second scene.  By the time we reach the final scene, it feels like all the mirrors in Elsinore are fragmented and broken.

Patrick Stewart said in the question and answer session at the BFI screening that he made it a condition of playing Claudius that he would also play the ghost.  This seems to make sense as the two characters are brothers.  As Claudius though, Stewart is also acting two parts.  He is the calculated polished performer in the public scenes, but we are also privy to his anguish in a private moment as he attempt to pray.  I love the way he wretches at the moment he recognises that his offence is ‘rank (3.3.36)’.  At the end of the play, Claudius realises the game is up, and just shrugs his shoulders as he drinks from the poisoned cup.  Here Claudius is no longer acting, or is this his best performance of the play?   

Though it makes sense to double up as the ghost and Claudius in both stage and film productions.  However, taking a stage production and making it into a film means that there is the issue of all the other characters who double up.  Kenneth Branagh Hamlet (1996) took the opportunity of the film to bring in large crowds and even extra characters such as Ken Dodd’s Yorick.  Doran’s production stays fairly close to the stage production with using all the Courtyard/Novello cast. In the stage versions other actors doubled up as well, such as Ryan Gage playing both the player queen and Osrick and the film version did well retain some actors playing several parts. 

Part 3: Hamlet

In using film references, there are echoes of  Michael Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet.  However, Tennant’s Hamlet is not like Hawke’s Hamlet, who is filming the court scene (1.2) from the start, and plays a moody teenager throughout.  There’s an enormous amount in the blogs and on the comment boards (see The Guardian’s What did you think) about the way that David Tennant played Hamlet.  I felt that David Tennant made a good job of playing Hamlet both on stage and in the film.  I enjoyed the comic, energetic, and the thoughtful prince.  I felt that Tennant’s strength was that he was able to bring some clarity to speeches which are sometimes difficult to understand.  A very good example of this is his conversation with Rosencrantz (Sam Alexander) and Guildenstern (Tom Davey) when he compares the playing of the musical instrument to the way the two characters are attempting to manipulate him  saying ‘you would play upon me (3.3.372)’.  I felt Tennant was able to work through the soliloquies and pick out the changes in tone, such as in the first ‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt’ (1.2.128).  Here, Tennant says ‘solid’ instead of ‘sullied’ here, but  there is a real show of grief  in the way he delivers the soliloquy.  I felt that performing the speech this way might be an enormous risk,  because he falls to his knees and instead of speaking the lines clearly to the audience, he speaks them to the floor.  In taking this approach there is a real danger that the words may be lost, particularly in the theatre.  This is very early on in the play as well and he could lose his audience.  However, he works through the shock and grief and at  ‘frailty, thy name is woman (1.2.146)’, he stands up and we see his anger and frustration.  From moving to a position where he does not acknowledge the audience he moves to one where he speaks directly to the camera when he talks about his ‘poor father’s body (1.2.148).

I was particularly interested in Greg Doran’s idea (see Learning Zone comment below) that characters constantly reach crossroads in the play and have to make decisions about which way to go.  It’s really interesting to think of the moments when Hamlet does this.  For example, the moment Hamlet chooses to put on an antic disposition on (1.5.173), when he realises that Ophelia’s father is not at home in the nunnery scene  and is spying on him (3.1.115), and the example given by Greg Doran when he thinks he might kill Claudius at prayer – ‘now might I do it… (3.3.73f)’.

There are different sides to Tennant’s Hamlet.  At times he could be very intense and physical.  This was evident in Gertrude’s closet and as he directs the Mousetrap.  Most Hamlet’s get their notebooks out to write down the ghost’s words, but this Hamlet cuts his hand  at  ‘set it down (1.5.108).  I felt that Tennant’s Hamlet on the whole a very funny Hamlet.  He is able to demonstrate how he will put on the antic disposition by  changing his tone at  ‘well, well, we know’ (1.5.176).  Hamlet is obsessed and disgusted by female sexuality we see this in several place such as Gertrude’s closet, in the Nunnery scene, and we see this in public as Hamlet, watching the mousetrap with Ophelia, Hamlet still emphasises the first syllable of ‘country matters (3.2.125)’ as he does in the stage production.  This is both crudely humorous but shocking that he could publically humiliate Ophelia in this way.   He can be very cruel to Polonius and after Polonius is murdered, he behaves in the same way to Osrick.  However, he is disappointed and shocked to find his two school friends ‘have been sent (2.2.274)’, and starts to mock them as well.  One of the funniest moments is when  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive before the play within the play with champagne and glasses  and are dismissed by Hamlet 3.2.60).

Part 4: Summing up

The three hours do move very quickly and the film production we choose if we have an interval and when it will be.   This means we lose the effect of placing the interval after  ‘now might I do it… (3.3.73f)’.  It does seem to end a little abruptly and this is probably because Fortinbras’ entrance has been cut. 

I realise watching the BBC’s second and third The Learning Zone programmes, which were broadcast before the screening of Hamlet on Boxing Day, may have influenced the way I think about this production. I missed the first one and am hoping that I will be able to catch up with it at a later date. The two programmes were enormously helpful insights into the making of this production.

I do think that there were moments when it was possible to make connections between Hamlet and Doctor Who through the viewing of the Tennant’s two performances over the Christmas and New Year period.  I don’t think that this is a bad thing at all. I am writing about this in other places ao won’t elaborate here.   

For Tennant’s Hamlet and Doctor –  ‘The rest is silence (5.2352) –  that is until John Simm plays Hamlet in September at the Sheffield Crucible and Matt Smith takes over the role of the Doctor in the Spring.

References

All references to the Penguin edition of the text which is edited by T.J.B Spencer (of course the production doesn’t follow this text).

Reviews

BFI question and answer

The Guardian – what did you think ?

The Guardian on the ratings

Other Information

My post on the BFI screening

BBC web site tie in

Hamlet BBC Open Learn with reference to the production.

George Entwistle’s BBC Blog on the BFI screening

Illuminations – reviews blogs tweets etc about the production

Illuminations Blog

Interview with David Tennant in The Observer

Mark Lawson on the TV version in The Guardian

Mark Lawson on Hamlet for The Guardian discussion about the Doctor Who Hamlet?

Mark Lawson again, but liking the comparison to Hamlet this time.

RSC Countdown to Hamlet site

The Times on Hamlet at Christmas

Hamlet (BFI, 14th December 2009)

I felt that I was privileged to be able to attend the premiere of the Illuminations/BBC TV film version of Greg Doran’s RSC Hamlet at the BFI  (British Film Institute).  This blog is about the experience of being there at the screening, and I’ll wait until after the Boxing Day, when it is aired on TV, to blog about the detail of the production.  Here I am interested in discussing the evening, the atmosphere and responding to seeing the film version for the very first time.

My initial thoughts are around how the film and stage versions might differ and whether the memory of the film version might start to erode that of the stage version.  I thought that the stage production of Greg Doran’s RSC Hamlet (2008-09), was particularly engaging  because I felt that the audience was part of the production itself.  As the audience entered the auditorium, they could see themselves in the mirrored set and as the play progressed audience members became  guests at the funeral/wedding, and the audience for the ‘Mousetrap’.  I was lucky to see the stage version five times through the run, and I was fortunate to see it in the different theatre spaces at the Courtyard and Novello theatres.  What made revisiting the production and sitting in different parts of the Courtyard really interesting was to be able to see the production from lots of different perspectives.  Following experiencing the stage version in Stratford, seeing it at the Novello presented another perspective as it was viewed through the frame of the proscenium arch.   So when I watched the film version, I was fascinated in the way that the camera seemed to direct he viewer to watch characters in specific ways rather than let the eye wonder as it does in the theatre.   It felt that watching the film was the antithesis of watching on stage where the eye can wonder to look at character reactions, watch actors waiting to come on stage, watch the action from behind, above or in front.   The film becomes very directive in the way the viewer is positioned closing down possible viewing options available in the theatre, but emphasising others.  The camera directs us to moments that maybe became noticeable after a second or third visit to the theatre.  For example, Polonius mouthing Laertes lines in 1.2  to make it clear that this is a staged Polonius family moment, or replicated later when Hamlet mouths the Player King’s lines making it really clear this is the bit her wrote.  What I found fascinating was that the film version  takes us onto the set and we become part of the court.  In 1.1, I thought the camera was using all those conventions of horror film and we were looking through the ghost’s eyes, but it was us that looked over Horatio’s shoulders.  In the Q&A session after the screening, Greg Doran talked bout how he found editing and had made a conscious decision to direct the viewer in certain ways.

The other thing that was so different from the stage production ws the way space was used.    The stage is so open at the Courtyard, there is just the back wall, and it’s the language and a few chairs etc that creates the sense of place,  but in the film we have a sense of a building and the action moving from room to room.   I felt at the end of the film, I could actually find my way round this building.  In the Q &A session, Mark Lawson commented that the location was clearly important and Greg Doran talked about getting the sense of a place that felt claustrophobic.  It felt strange suddenly going outside for the gravedigger’s scene, but this does reinforce that idea of the building and space smothering Hamlet.  I think it has been a good decision not to just film the stage version, but to move the play onto location and to think about the kind of place that Hamlet has to deal with as well as the psychological torment that he was dealing with.

The stage version was concerned with metatheatre and this is still very present in the film with the entrance of the player, John Woodvine’s wonderful Priam speech with the actors joining in as if they’d done this so many times like this before and the hilariously funny dumb show as part of the play within the play.  In the film, Greg Doran has also introduced lots of references to film and there are echoes of Michael Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet all the way through including the dramatic moment of Polonius’ death which is retained from the stage version.   In contrast to the film version, there’s an interesting shift in mood at ‘Now I am alone’ and a twist which I’ll discuss after Boxing Day, but this is an aspect the film could take forward that the stage production didn’t.

David Tennant plays Hamlet as a self harming, hot-tempered intellectual, and it is very unnerving that he carries such sharp knife around with him.  As well s being so intense,  David Tennant’s Hamlet is very witty and funny.  However, it was  Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius got the most laughs of the evening.  I think that this was highlighted by being able to bring the camera right up to him as he presents his view of the events which is often at odds with everyone elses .

Mark Lawson chaired the Q&A session really well and asked some very perspective questions.  The session will be on the BFI website soon, so we can all watch again.  I asked the first question which was about the camera placing he viewer on stage.  There wasn’t a Doctor Who question and maybe this was a relief to Mark Lawson, especially as had he’d written on the problems of seeing Hamlet through the lens of Doctor Who at the end of last year.  For me, part of the interest in this production is making connections between these two  roles, and that is why I am writing on length on this in other places.  However, the film both distanced  David Tennant from the Doctor Who role, while on the other hand reinforced some of those readings of the two texts.

In the Q &A session, Greg  Doran admitted to cutting the entrance of Fortinbras at the end.  This did lead to a rather abrupt ending.  Maybe we did need a little time to ponder on Hamlet’s death even though we had been watching for over three hours by then.  After the screening, there was a discussion about whether Hamlet was mad or not in this production.  I don’t think he is mad, but I think that Greg Doran’s point about Hamlet going over the edge in Getrude’s chamber was an interesting one.  The reason that I don’t think that David Tennant’s Hamlet has gone mad is because he manages to interact so differently with the different characters.  We see him play the clown in scenes with Polonius and then turn to Horatio and have a serious conversation.

When I decided to go to the screening, it felt a bit extravagant booking to see a film that would be on television in a week’s time.  However, the experience of being there was just an exciting as seeing the film.   I found it absolutely fascinating to be sat behind Patrick Stewart watching himself playing Claudius watching Hamlet who is watching Claudius in the ‘Mousetrap’.   Even though this was three hours and three minutes long, it  felt that the time went by really quickly and the audience clapped at the end of the film expressing their delight in what they had just seen.

Greg Doran talked about productions he’d seen years ago still being in his head.  I think that I worry a little that the stage memory will be eventually erased from my memory by the film version as I can still keep watching the DVD.  However, that’s the transience of theatre, the joy of being one of many  who saw and felt that they were part of the stage production, in contrast to the possible millions who will experience the watching this on DVD.  The great thing about the film version is that it is different from the stage production, but it does retain so much of the blocking from the stage versions.  Some to the key elements of the stage production are there in the film such as the ‘real’ skull, the red T shirt, the two-way mirrors, and the player king’s crown. 

As Patrick Stewart said in the Q&A session, the cast had been ‘rehearsing’ this for a year, so the film can only be a very polished performance.   Yes in the film there were jerky moments and bits were cut and it does end a little abruptly, but it is a lovely version of Hamlet, which presents an engaging interpretation of the text and I think will make Shakespeare more accessible to a wider audience.

The BBC spokesperson said the BBC wanted this to have a long life after the production had been screened on Boxing Day and after seeing the film production, I think it will.

Further Information

BFI question and answer

BBC web site tie in

Hamlet BBC Open Learn with reference to the production.

George Entwistle’s BBC Blog on the BFI screening

Illuminations reviews blogs tweets etc about the production

Illuminations Blog

Interview with David Tennant in Observer

Mark Lawson on the TV version in The Guardian

Mark Lawson on Hamlet for The Guardian discussion about the Doctor Who Hamlet?

RSC Countdown to Hamlet site

The Times on Hamlet at Christmas