Hamlet @ Almeida Theatre: This Be Madness

Production spoilers ahoy.

Everyone has an insight into Hamlet. It’s one of the reasons it’s still done; directors and actors want to put their insights onstage, and the audience goes to see those insights. I’d also suggest we go in the hope that our own insights align with those of the creative team, although I’d put money on that being a rare occurrence. I’ve yet to see the Hamlet I want to see, which is what keeps me going to see the damn thing. Yes, I am aware I’ve just stated the obvious.

I’d always thought ‘my’ insight was the politics, the conspiracy in the subtext. I like to think Gertrude is lying through her teeth the entire time (what do you mean she’s the only one that doesn’t see the ghost? How the hell did Ophelia get out to the damn lake!? She’s making it up for Laertes’ benefit etc.) But I saw this production, with Andrew Scott as the Dane and Robert Icke in the director’s role, after seeing two movies in quick succession: ‘Moonlight,’ and ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ both of which are preoccupied with the inarticulacy of men. In both films, inarticulacy leads to violence. I started to wonder whether the reason we, and men in particular, are fascinated with Hamlet, is because he is nothing if not the most wonderfully eloquent articulator. His language dances over ideas, skates over thought then sinks into feeling. That’s what I had started to think.

And then of course, Robert Icke’s production throws a spanner in the works.

First things first; it’s bloody long. The preview I saw clocked in at 3 hours 55 minutes, although I believe the official running time is down to a speedy 3 hours 45 (So lord knows what else has been changed.) It has two intervals, entirely justifiably, even if the second section runs to just 40 minutes. It just makes sense in performance, akin to putting the interval after the third act of The Seagull. Anyway, Icke likes to take his time. I didn’t see Oresteia, but I know from his work post-Vanya that speeches are lingered upon, thoughts are drawn into the space between actors and audience and given the space to breathe. And, crucially, it’s all done as conversation. Proper conversation, at a conversational volume, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen done with Shakespeare.

The first bold choice of this production is to run much of the first act as a single sequence, cohering the locale and making Hamlet omnipresent. We witness the events through his perspective. We are in a little room away from the coronation party, the state’s presence laughing and dancing behind the glass, as Hamlet grieves in front of it, eavesdropping behind a sofa. Icke’s control of this sequence is stunning, shaping and pacing time. I’m desperate to see him take on Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or indeed any O’Neill with that scope and scale.

As for Hamlet himself… bonkers is putting it mildly. Disclaimer: I love Hamlet. The play and character both. Can’t help it. He’s witty and deceitful and quick and I love that. He’s also an ambitious, murderous, seething misogynist. And he’s clever – very, very clever. Which is why I’ve never believed he is truly ‘mad,’ it has to be an act; he wants the throne too much. Icke avoids this problem by cutting “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on.” I think. At the very least, I didn’t notice it, so it was glanced over in a production that is keen not to suffocate the text by speeding through it. There is no act in Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, he is simply mad. Frighteningly so. His voice, so quiet at times, gives the text breath before roaring with rage and frustration, his accent briefly making the language as impenetrable as his anger as he scrambles for composure. It is a fascinating take; where I had expected (foolishly,) a cerebral Hamlet, we get a full blooded emotional one. He is, in many ways, made ineloquent.

Icke also chooses to show Hamlet as predatory. During a transition, we see him sneak into Ophelia’s (Jessica Brown-Findlay) bathroom, from behind, reaching for her. She hardly welcomes this advance. It is not only the first time Hamlet is made a physical threat, it occurs while Ophelia is submerged in water. He is desperate, she is terrified. That is how they exist; they are not lovers, they are predator and victim. Thankfully, the former is becoming less represented on stage. And when I say violator, I mean primarily psychologically. Although Ophelia seems somewhat charmed by Hamlet in the first scene, there does not seem anything sexual in the relationship.

Ophelia is not only Hamlet’s victim, indeed she is used by all the men, Claudius and Polonius ignoring her visible distress (Hamlet, after demanding her going to a nunnery, throws a vase of water in her face and hands her the flowers. It’s an excellent bit of foreshadowing.) and simply continue with the realpolitik. It reminded me that Ophelia never talks of her mother; indeed, in this production, the only female physical contact she has is with Gertrude, while she is mad. It’s also worth mentioning that this is the only time I’ve been properly convinced by an Ophelia, which is a testament to Jessica Brown-Findlay’s performance.

In a similar vein, I’ve never found Gertrude so interesting. Her relationship with Claudius is entirely sexual, and there is genuine physical magnetism between them, (although she doesn’t see the ghost,) she is definitely ‘in on it.’ She remains unmoved during The Mousetrap, and it is only when her son is explicitly threated does she switch allegiance; her drinking from the poisoned glass is wholly deliberate. What we are made aware of, then, is a political world just offstage, repeatedly hinted at. The play unfolds in the sleek domestic wing of Elsinore, reminiscent of a swanky modern apartment. It only briefly moves into the world of surveillance and screens, of exposed brick and of harsh white lighting.

Robert Icke gets a lot of (deserved) credit for his creation and use of concept/mise en scene/whatever, but what is striking about Hamlet is how brilliant he is at directing actors. Nothing is unnecessary, everything exists to support the actors and tell the story. However, he does pull a gorgeous coup at the end. The panels at the back slide away from the bloodbath, the poisoned figures rejoining the coronation party. Only Hamlet is left to die a violent death in the cold light of the fencing arena.

This is Hamlet as family drama, existing at the epicentre of politics, which is possibly what Icke does best. Hamlet, ultimately, is made not so much eloquent, as desperate.

 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ Palace Theatre: The Stories that Stick

SPOILER WARNING: There’s nothing in here about plot (other than generalities,) but I do talk about characters and some of the staging. So if you want to see the play completely cold, buh bye.

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My generation is somewhat lacking in literary phenomena that have left a legacy. Maybe in phenomena at all. Everything has become a quick hit, condensed to 140 characters. I’m not complaining necessarily, but I think it’s true. Yes, there’s Twilight and The Hunger Games, and a whole load of imitations, all of which have appealed to their target audiences and the publishers’ bank accounts. But have they left a legacy? One that ensures subsequent generations exposure to the story?

I doubt it. Harry Potter seems to me the only story that has left a mark, and will continue to do so, most demonstrably in the two-part play that forms the eighth chapter of the Harry Potter narrative, currently sold out a year in advance in an enormous 1400 seat theatre in the West End. It manages – in an age of short attention spans – to enthral its audience for almost 6 hours over a day, or over two separate nights if preferable. It is a story of epic scope, size, ambition… a whole 10 years (or thereabouts) after the last novel was published; ample time for hype to subside and for Harry Potter to be left on the shelf.

Except that is not what happened. A new generation has arrived in the gap, one that is either unaware of Potter, or has been introduced to the books and/or movies by older siblings, parents etcetera, with the luxury of seven whole novels to devour in quick succession. I still haven’t forgiven my Dad for not letting me go to the midnight release of Deathly Hallows.

There is a double effect then; there is new material for the old guard to sink their teeth into, and a brand new introduction to the wizarding world, in a new medium, for a new generation. No wonder they wanted to produce it, and no wonder its sold out.

Strangely, and as is oft mentioned and criticised, Harry Potter is the metaphor we jump to in order to understand the current political landscape. Trump = Voldemort is a familiar trend in political commentary. It is a language generally understood; even those not overly familiar with Potter, such is the depth of its cultural penetration. We cannot shake it, it is ingrained, much to some people’s annoyance. It is the vocabulary we reach for automatically; this story of a boy wizard and his amazing school. It’s childlike. It’s simplistic. But it makes perfect sense.

Which is interesting, because this generational conflict is exactly what Harry Potter and the Cursed Child takes as its starting point. The generation of Albus Severus Potter and his contemporaries Rose Granger-Weasley and Scorpius Malfoy never knew the wizarding wars, they never saw the cost and as such take their peace for granted. Their parents’ generation, veterans, fought for it. They are battle scarred, traumatised, even nineteen years later. Harry in particular seems to be dealing with some form of PTSD, or at least chronic guilt. Hermione is Minister for Magic (quite right too,) Ginny the editor of the Daily Prophet’s sports pages. Ron is still determined to lighten the mood, having in parttaken over Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. They’ve had to get on with it, no matter how many times Ginny is woken in the night by Harry’s nightmares.

The new generation is clueless. Time is theirs to mess with, prophecy is malleable. They completely lack understanding, are naïve, arguably ungrateful and arrogant. Simultaneously, Harry and Draco are desperately trying (and failing) to understand their sons, so different and unknowable to them. They force them into roles that they cannot fit in, berating them for being other than they seem. The whole thing is a mess, and more importantly, it’s not exactly anyone’s fault. There’s no apparent solution, so eventually something has to give.

Harry Potter himself, is what gives. When he says the unforgivable to Albus, and essentially forces Albus’ hand, who runs away. The play revolves around an incident in the fourth Harry Potter book, Goblet of Fire, incited by Albus and Scorpius. The plot definitely requires several imaginative leaps, some things don’t totally make sense, but the cast is good enough that you can buy it. The writing is perhaps not as well-wrought as it could be.

The production’s masterstroke is in its theatricality. Insightful, right? What I mean, is that this could have been a splashy, tech driven show with no regard for the form or the content. John Tiffany rejects this outright, and while the magic and the effects are striking, much of the play unfolds through rough theatre, with everything seemingly taking place within King’s Cross Station. But the line between the theatrical and the magic is left blurred; some wires are hidden, others are not. The floo network is realised, as is polyjuice potion (audible gasps from the audience,) a Dementor flies up to the balcony, but a train chase is brought to life with the help of a lot of suitcases, there’s trapdoors, and sleight of hand, actors carrying frames play portraits, the forbidden forest is represented with railway arches. Laid over the top of this is Neil Austin’s gorgeous lighting and Finn Ross’ video, often unnoticeable, never attention drawing, bar the occasional coup. The production itself is wrestling between the ancient and the modern, the generation gaps.

And it is very much a play. I was reminded of the structure of King Lear, the same basic story twice: the A plot with the powerful people (Lear and his daughters,) and the B plot with the less powerful people (Gloucester and his sons.) It is so in this: the A plot is Harry/Ron/Hermione and the B plot is Albus/Scorpius, both unable to deal with the past. And as happens in Shakespeare, the strands collide, the powerful invading the space of the less-so. The play is in this tradition, and embraces it.

One of the great delights of the play is being reminded who the characters are exactly, particularly as I haven’t read the novels in quite some time. A fault of the movies is the subjugation of the wackier characterisations from the novels, with everything being filtered through a sort of bored-teenager acting. With this play you are in no doubt as to why Harry fell in love with Ginny and why Hermione and Ron are so brilliant as a couple, in a way the movies did not or were not capable of conveying. These aspects also give the actors chance to run a bit wild (Anthony Boyle’s neurotic Scorpius is hilariously excessive,) proving again why the theatrical medium is so crucial to this story in particular.

One of the things I had taken for granted, is that although it has been years since I read the whole novel series, I still care deeply about the characters. There is a moment in the second play when someone shouts “Shame on you Hermione Granger,” and I had a visceral response. I actually got angry. Which is ridiculous, I admit, but I couldn’t help myself. Time stretches on and yet characters like this, that seemed so real when I was younger, have stuck somewhere at the back of my head. Seeing them at human scale, in the same room as me, was a very strange experience.

When I went in, I didn’t expect high art – whatever that is. I wanted to be enthralled and absorbed back into the world I knew so well when I was younger, and that clearly had got stuck somewhere. If you’re willing to make the leaps, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is more than willing to catch you.

 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.