Last season, Artistic Director Emma Rice blew into the Globe Theatre with a renaissance of modernity, visual spectacles and (dare we say it) heathen instruments of technology. After a season of mixed reviews – mainly highlighting the divide between the older traditionalist members of the globe and the younger, more postmodern members – Michelle Terry has taken the artistic reigns of the Globe Theatre for its 2018 summer season. Spoiler alert, the postmodern is out the window and – just like Brexit – the traditionalists have won, with varying results.
Firstly, I believe I need to begin by saying that I have seen many adaptations of Hamlet throughout the years. From the most recent Almeida Production featuring Andrew Scott, to Cumberbatch, Tennant, Branagh and *shudder* Gibson. So it was with open arms that I was eager to see Michelle Terry’s gender-blind interpretation of the Danish Prince. Of course it’s no secret that in the patriarchal society that was the Elizabethan Era and beyond, men were the only actors allowed on stage, so therefore a woman – particularly the current artistic director – did not seem like a far stretch for the Shakespearean thespian to embody the “mad” Prince Hamlet.
Directors Federay Holmes and Elle While here present a…well, to be honest, rather plain and not all that interesting Hamlet. It’s clear that Holmes and While have chosen to trust and put faith in the Bard’s words and leave the embellishments on the cutting room floor.
The actors are dressed in typical Shakespearean garbs, from designer Ellan Parry, and the set pieces (i.e. The Mousetrap, Yorick and the inevitable dual) are, to put it bluntly, simple.
It’s safe to say that if this is the first time you’ve ever seen a production of Hamlet, you’ll find this a useful introductory course to the philosophical questions of man, life, death and all that comes in between. However, if you consider yourself a “Hamlet Aficionado”, there’s barely anything here to sink your teeth into outside the text and the acting.
The only new directions which I felt intrigued by were two fold; first, that Guildenstern (played by Nadia Nadarajah) was mute and her lines were mostly interpreted by Rosencrantz (Pearce Quigley on fine form, offering subtle comedic relief when it was duly needed) and the rest left to the audiences imaginations with only Hamlet’s rebuttal to go off. Second, was the subtle changes in actors; the first I have mentioned, Hamlet played by Michelle Terry; the second was Horatio and Laertes played by Catrin Aaron and Bettrys Jones respectively and thirdly that Ophelia was played by Shubham Saraf, a male. These light changes were ideas that were fresh and new, but did not always soar.
There is something to be said for Michelle Terry’s pursuit of a “gender-blind” cast for ensembles at the Globe and I fully endorse this, particularly when it comes to Shakespeare. Although, you have to make sure it pays off.
For instance, Saraf, while the intention and purpose was all there to show Ophelia suffering under the rule of her obnoxiously arrogant father Polonius (excellently played by Richard Katz to comedic effect) and grieving over the death of her brother at the hands of her lover, I never truly “believed” it. I feel that Aaron and Jones found something more in tune with their parts to ground their characters in the “realistic” Shakespearean world that had been created.
Moving to Hamlet’s Father-Uncle and Aunt-Mother, James Garnon never lived up to the villainy that was Claudius (I much preferred him as a Caliban than a Claudius) but Helen Schlesinger as Gertrude came to life in the bedroom scene during Hamlet’s confrontation; her “black and grained spots” delivery was powerful, emotional and full of guilt all at the same time.
As for the Prince himself, Michelle Terry clearly knew the character inside and out. As Hamlet says about the “pipe” to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, she clearly knew his stops and could make eleoquent music at the best of times…but is Hamlet so easy to be played upon than a pipe? At times it felt as if Terry rushed through all the glorious lines that Shakespeare had written. However, to her credit, she dug down deep and found new ground for the character, using the Globe itself as material for the dialogue that the Bard wrote. The play was, after all, written for the Globe and Terry knew this.
In addition to this, I found some of the artistic choices too, shall we say, on the nose for my liking. The choice to have Hamlet literally come out dressed as a clown, or a fool with an “antic disposition” was probably played too straight. In saying this, the symbolism involved as Hamlet stripped back this feigning madness layer by layer until his return to Denmark did showcase Hamlet’s overall resolve to “do the deed” and avenge his father’s death.
So, dare I quote Polonius, “let me brief”. If you are a lover of the more traditional, Shakespearean theatre that is void of the contemporary razzle dazzle and want to reconnect yourself with the bard’s words and his language, then this is the Hamlet for you. If however, you know Hamlet back to front and are dying to see something groundbreaking and new, then I suggest looking up the Almeida Theatre’s production before it disappears off BBC catch-up.
Stin’s Final Thought: It could have been worse, it could have been the Ethan Hawke starring film version…shudder.
Hamlet is now playing at The Globe Theatre, London as part of its 2018 Summer Season. Tickets and information below.