Madness nay, Grief: “Hamlet” at the Barbican

There seems to me two ways in which playgoers assess whether they liked a production or not. The first is based on whether they agree with (or were moved by) a claim or perspective of the performance—if it was “relatable” in some way. The second is based on whether the production made good on a claim they believe the play to be about. While the former is a common metric, it seems quite unfair to me. How can a production mean something to everyone? If it does, surely it can only mean a little something. Rather, I like the challenge—as I attempt to explore in the reviews I post here—of identifying what it is the play is after, and then how convincing that perspective, that claim comes across. Such a metric makes room for amateur student theatre, like this past summer’s WYW’s Othello capable of rattling you to the bones as much as a big-budget professional production like the Barbican’s Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and streamed across the planet through NT Live. (The star power of both the play and its leading man got the performance two additional screenings at our local independent theatre, the Art, on top of the initially scheduled three.) Lyndsey Truner’s interpretation of William Shakespeare’s script was to take grief as a form of madness, to argue that this Denmark is plagued by a dearth of coping mechanisms for familial loss.

Hamlet sorts his father’s things while he listened to Nat “King” Cole.

Such a claim is gutsy because it takes the flash of insanity out of the plan. It also took the ghost out of a great ghost story. The first scene and encounter with the ghost of Lord Hamlet was skipped entirely. Instead their is a slow fade, with Nat “King” Cole’s rendition of “Nature Boy” seemingly wafting from the record player on the floor next to which Hamlet sits. He longed against crates of clothes, and we are led to assume he is packing up his father’s belongings. He is clearly struggling to keep back tears as he pulls out an old, black crushed velvet sport coat. Horatio (Leo Bill) interjects here to summon him to dinner, and Hamlet wears this “suit of woe,” his father’s coat, for the rest of the production. It is a rather brilliant bit of collaboration between set and costume direction to materialize and give meaning to a line from the play. From the start, then, the production puts pressure on not ghosts, but the effects and palimpsest that ghosts leave behind—the after-shocks of haunting rather than injustice of the haunted.

In the apocalyptic rubble, it dawns on Gerturde (Anastasia Hille) all too late that Ophelia (Sian Brooke) as fled to drown herself.

Of great debate in the reviews and blogosphere were the placement of soliloquies. The six big ones were moved around a great deal during previews and afterwards, and critics not used to reviewing theatre were thrown, uncertain if the revision was evidence of a weak production or what. Notably, “To be or not to be” but placed before the “Nature Boy” opening sequence, but was put back into place quickly. Let me be clear that I do not have an issue with moving or cutting texts. Certainly Renaissance dramatists did this all the time, depending on venue and actors available and time allotted; these plays were designed to be modular and amendable in just this way. But the movement has to do something. No doubt using “To be” are a kind of prologue may have been too heavy handed and perceived as didactic, making the entire production about suicide. The majority of the other soliloquies were done as a kind of interior monologue out-loud, as if Hamlet speaking to himself while others were present on stage but could not hear him. While I think these choices underscored the long and constant suffering that is grief, they also undermined the job of a soliloquy. As private meditations expressed with no others present, the soliloquy gives us the impression of a character not merely telling us how they feel, but verbally working through a problem or frustration. It is as close to palatable stream-of-consciousness as you can get on stage, I think. They lose the luster of interiority if soliloquies come off too pre-meditated, too contrived and artificial. With so many school children made to memorize those words round the world, it is additionally impossible to achieve this effect for Hamlet.

Ciarán Hinds as a convincingly fallible and dangerous Claudius.

The most compelling aspect of the production was the apocalyptic fall-out preceding the break for intermission. Claudius (Ciarán Hinds, my favorite Caesar and hot from his death as Mance Rayder on Game of Thrones) has just realized he is irredeemable, Hamlet just squandered his best chance to kill him. Hamlet exits the stage from a balcony above as Claudius turns his back to the audience, catching his nephew-son from the corner of his eye. At this point the lights dim a bit and the eight-foot double doors stage right blow open with impact, filling the stage with a grey soot or volcanic ash that continues and piles up. The entire stage is covered an inch thick, with a rise up behind to a door directly center of the stage eventually about two feet high. The entire second half of the play is performed on this post-apocalyptic landscape, although unacknowledged by the characters. For me it highlighted the “other world” in which Hamlet and Ophelia (Sian Brooke) feel to be living, where they are perceived as to be responding unnaturally (or unmanly) to grief, when it is in fact everyone else who is unnatural in their behaviors. It also helps to align the Ophelia’s grief with Hamlet’s, both comrades in loss by the end of the play. The production smartly rethinks the episode Ophelia reports to her father that Hamlet burst upon her room “with his doublet all unbraced.” During an earlier large set change we see Hamlet and Ophelia off to stage right, and she dresses him in a marching band uniform from her trunk of quirky items (she carries a camera throughout the production, plays the piano, and is a kind of artsy-hipster-Zoey-Deschanel version of Ophelia) to help him dawn the mask of madness. She is in the ruse all along, and the tale to Polonius is just that—until she is unexpectedly made a pawn in the other direction. With the death of her father they are both made mourners, but Hamlet cannot see his all-consuming grief matched in others.

Hamlet (Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes more rather than less straight-laced in feigning madness.

You cannot have a version of Hamlet without a clever bit of doubling involved. Here the ghost of Hamlet’s father, played with wry verve by Karl Johnson, is also the gravedigger. It is also really the only wry and roll moment of the play, which I appreciated. I am rarely convinced that Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildernstern (Rudi Dharmalingam) function effectively as comedic relief. They seem more suited, as the text suggests, as evidence of Claudius’ increasing power and control over Hamlet’s friends and life. Johnson as dad and gravedigger does double-duty as momento mori. Perhaps the ghost’s function (regardless of his request) is not to spur Hamlet to revenge but rather to startle him not recognizing his own mortality, as that is certainly the gravedigger’s end, achieved not with fear but with comedy. With this doubling, again the pressure is placed on grief as one entirely separate state from madness, or a state that produces madness. The post-Freudian tradition, certainly on film anyway (perhaps the best being David Tennant), of emphasizing the slippage between grief and madness as closer kin is overtly rejected by the production and Cumberbatch’s performance. It would have been more convincing if the interpretation of Ophelia’s flowers speech was treated in a similar way. What might be revealed from a cool, collected Ophelia, not bedraggled with torn hair and clothes, but prim and patiently handing out flowers as if in complete control of her faculties?

Sian Brooke as a hiper-than-thou Ophelia, tinging the character with a bit of madwoman-in-the-attic.

The Barbican production of Hamlet is a mediation on coping with death and the limits of the psychological mechanisms we use to deal with out own mortality. What is compelling about the claim is the production suggests their are communal stakes: the people surrounding Hamlet and Ophelia reject and cast as aberrant their forms of grief and so they can never heal, never move to the next stage because the current, natural on isn’t validated. In so doing it stresses the large ensemble that Hamlet the play requires rather than its figurehead. Perhaps casting a mega-celebrity in the title role doesn’t exactly do that position service, however. While I am not sure that this particular question is the one I find most compelling about the play, or the aspect that makes it “relatable” to me, the production more than convinced me of the perspective.

  • For availability and screenings of this production near you, click here.

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