Review of Hamlet, the Young Vic Theatre, London
The Shakespeare Institute
Barker, Roberta. "Review of Hamlet, the Young Vic." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.2 (September, 1999): 13.1-8: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-2/barkrev.htm.
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Directed by Laurence Boswell. Design by Es Devlin. Lighting by Adam Silverman. With Paul Rhys (Hamlet), Donald Sumpter (Claudius / Ghost), Suzanne Bertish (Gertrude), Robin Soans (Polonius), Megan Dodds (Ophelia), Christopher Bowen (Laertes), Richard Lintern (Horatio). Young Vic Theatre, London. April 1 - May 15, 1999.
The deconstruction of the liberal humanist subject -- the 'individual' characterized by a coherent, traceable, yet irreducibly personal interior life -- has been one of the most significant influences on recent Shakespeare criticism. Studies such as W.B. Worthen's Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance and Susan Bennett's Performing Nostalgia prove that the trend has reached that most character-centred branch of Shakespeare studies, performance criticism. Still, as Worthen argues, most major Shakespearean actors and directors work within a Stanislavskian paradigm that presupposes the existence of a stable subject. Few, I suspect, would seek an exception to this trend in a nearly 'full text' Hamlet staged at a major (albeit off-West End) London theatre. After all, the uneasy amalgamation of quartos and folio we know as 'the full text of Hamlet' is a high culture icon. It is often read as the quintessential portrait of the humanist individual, as in Kenneth Branagh's recent film. Yet Laurence Boswell's Young Vic production quietly challenged received ideas about character, acting, and subjectivity, and asked a mainstream theatrical audience to engage with Hamlet anew.
Boswell's visual choices created a compelling, unsettling space for the play. The traverse staging denied spectators a clear point of focus and forced their eyes to shuttle back and forth between actors. The designer Es Devlin set platforms at either end of the traverse, occasionally linking them with a retractable bridge. This arrangement frequently had actors speaking to each other across a considerable divide; even when the bridge was in place, it often pulled back to reopen the gulf. Denmark emerged as a constantly shifting place inhabited by desperately isolated people. The sense of instability and alienation was enhanced by eclectic costuming: Horatio (sporting a very Generation X leather jacket), Gertrude (in Queen Mary corset and choker), and Ophelia (whose brocade gown was straight out of medieval tapestry) seemed to inhabit separate worlds. Meanwhile, Adam Silverman, Boswell's superb lighting designer, courageously created substantial pools of darkness onstage. He often chose to illuminate actors' faces with only one or two lamps. Such half-light suited a swift, austere and lucid production that presented no clear, ready-made interpretations to the audience. Everything demanded that each spectator piece together a personal synthesis.
I had occasional problems with Boswell's approach. The brief appearance of the ghost as a masked Samurai on stilts seemed needlessly disjunctive. The rows of tiny terracotta soldiers that guarded the stage throughout the second half began by offering a nice, quirky image of Fortinbras' army, but became distracting in later scenes. The extensive doubling in the cast often yielded fascinating insights, but was merely confusing when Laertes (Christopher Bowen) and Horatio (Richard Lintern) reappeared, thinly disguised, as members of the players' troupe.
For the most part, however, the work of a gifted ensemble interrogated the familiar images of Shakespeare's characters to great effect. For instance, Megan Dodds -- tall, slender, glacially blonde and porcelain lovely -- initially looked a very conventional Ophelia indeed. The surprise was that she cultivated stillness in a part that often sends actresses into Stanislavskian overdrive. Her economy of gesture emphasized the girl's frozen obedience to patriarchal authority, while refusing to explain away her madness with glib psychologizing. At Ophelia's last appearance -- her skirts saturated with water and mud, her hands full of dripping weeds - Dodds' restraint was more heartrending than a clinical demonstration of insanity could have been.
Suzanne Bertish's Gertrude also began as a study in strict composure: a risky choice, for it failed even to hint at the reasons for the Queen's "o'erhasty" remarriage. But in the 'closet' scene her dignified persona dissolved under the weight of Hamlet’s accusations. Sobbing violently and clutching her beloved son for dear life, Gertrude seemed to take on the self he offered her. At such moments, Bertish’s portrait of the Queen's constrained, contingent identity was deeply moving. Playing her husbands both past and present, Donald Sumpter triumphed in one of the most fascinating of all possible Shakespearean double-acts. He ignored Hamlet's insistence on the polar opposition between Claudius and his murdered brother, and chose instead to explore their parallel agonies. Sumpter's Claudius, a soft-spoken and fatally self-absorbed politician, was touched with the Ghost's guilty pain. Its ravages transformed him into a frighteningly sympathetic figure.
Paul Rhys' Hamlet dominated even such formidable company. Rhys is best known to cinemagoers as the devoted Theo Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo; English theatre audiences will remember his acclaimed Royal National Theatre appearances as Edgar in King Lear and the young A. E. Housman in The Invention of Love. Since his hallmarks are intelligence, nervous intensity, and diffident charm, I expected a conventionally fragile, noble Hamlet from him. His first entrance, smiling shyly through a flood of tears and clutching a battered Penguin paperback, threatened to confirm my expectations. But closer observation revealed that his face, though pale and half-swallowed by improbably huge dark eyes, was no Romantic cliché. It was in a state of constant and violent metamorphosis, which, over the course of the evening, suggested by turns an aloof aristocrat, a frightened public schoolboy, a society beauty, a clown, an idiot and a death’s head. Multiple Hamlets were stalking the stage.
The first encounter between Hamlet and his father's ghost confirmed that here was a performance of breathtaking daring and volatility. At the sight of the ghost, Rhys' Hamlet flashed from elegant mockery of his uncle's drinking to hideously drooling shock. His mouth wide open in a soundless scream, his long arms stretching out as if across the river of Lethe itself, he seemed a man sunk in an irrevocable breakdown. Yet the ghost had scarcely exited before the same mouth was pursed into a mocking moue and the arms produced a flamboyant shrug, sloughing off Horatio's sympathy, the audience's assumptions and the whole weight of Romantic tradition with a deliberately camp flourish. This was Hamlet without a through-line.
- The familiar sense of text and actor as discrete entities was absent from Rhys' performance; it was supplanted by an unpredictable and totally committed dialogue between player and role. Rhys proved himself an attentive reader of Shakespeare's text yet did not scruple to play with it, as when he informed Lintern's adoring Horatio that there were more things in heaven and in earth "than are dreamt of in our philosophy." He refused to stand outside his part or to squeeze himself into a step-by-step argument about it. Rather, he explored the implications of his own range. His quiet wit, his finicky refinement, his physical grace, his often embarrassing openness, and even his Welsh vowels were all pushed to their limits. The result was a tour of Hamlet's endless contradictions as well as of a particular actor's personality. It formed the strong heart of a production that indicated how much more there is in heaven, earth and Hamlet than is dreamt of in our bardolatry.
- Bennett, Susan. Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past. London: Routledge, 1996.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. T.J.B.Spencer. London: Penguin, 1980.
- Worthen, William B. Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).