[Andrew Scott is Hamlet: director, Robert Icke]
Part One: a six-period day (out of a maximum of six); full of allergies, and C5 full of pupils I sometimes I wonder if I am allergic to; then the first half of this, in my classroom, accompanied by some of my lovely sixth-formers. By the way: if you didn’t come along, that doesn’t mean you’re unlovely – it means I missed having you along for the ride.
We had fun. And you can too, if you come on Monday to see the final half …
Nowadays, I look on Shakespeare performances as ‘cover versions‘ of classic songs. Before we discuss this one, I need to talk about two things:
Firstly this is my fourth ‘cover version’ of Hamlet (I am not showing off at all – relatively speaking, I am probably a ‘Hamlet Virgin’. As were, incidentally, all the students I watched this with. But I had something to compare it to): in reverse order, chronologically-speaking:
- Benedict Cumberbatch (live in preview at the Barbican, then national cinema screening) **/*** ( that rating both times, despite the changes in where the ‘to be‘ speech occurs: Michael Billington of the Guardian also gives it a 2 measly stars [a], so I am in reasonable company)
- David Tennant (DVD) ****/* Tennant channels the manic as, probably, only he can. Patrick Stewart owns Claudius.
- Rory Thersby, live at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival (2013) ****/* (pic below) measured, played the superstition very eerily, and Thersby was suitably tortured
… my ratings may have undoubtedly been influenced by my peripheral involvement with the CSF, and my love of outdoor theatre, but I have tried to address that bias.
Secondly, let’s talk about Roger Hargreave‘s Mr. Men …
On the one hand, Kate Kellaway cuts Scott some slack in his imitation of Mr. Tickle.
He warns the players against overstatement yet allows his own hands comic freedom. Scott ranges from natural distraction in his aspect to theatrical flamboyance, his fingers in SOS mode – animated starfish. [b]
I spotted, and enjoyed the irony in the line:
Nor do / not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all / gently (III.ii) [c]
But – by that stage the humour was incidental. I’d already written:
“does he think he’s effing Mr Tickle? Or is he doing BSL at the same time?”
in my notes (BSL being British Sign Language). I want to give Scott some leeway, so I need to acknowledge this as part of the dissonance between the different needs of the theatre and TV audience. But, speaking to (smart) people who had the chance to see this at the Almeida, it was noticable from the Circle there, too.
Those two points dealt with, this was great: matching, often exceeding other ‘covers’ I’ve enjoyed. How can I justify this [AO5, students] in 1,000-ish words?
The main thing, the main thing I got from Robert Icke’s production, was a sense of Hamlet before it went horribly wrong. Too often, too easy, to view Hamlet as the perpetual emo-type, sitting in his bedroom and listening to Radiohead ad infinitum. In which case, I’d suggest, this is a boring play about an ’emo’ becoming more ’emo’, and bringing everyone down with him. Where’s the tragic hero’s opening nobility? How poignant to have flashes of the man Hamlet could have been: in playful, loving horseplay with Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia) – suddenly Hamlet’s distress over her grave makes perfect sense, and the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ dialogue HURTS; in Hamlet knowing and really liking Laertes, played by Luke Thompson – adding real bite to the antipathy of the shameful funeral scuffle and final duel. When Hamlet says:
I have shot my arrow o’er the house / And hurt my brother. [c]
This time, for once, I am going to BELIEVE the word ‘brother’ … Similarly, Scott’s welcomes to Horatio, Rozencrantz & Guildenstern, and, especially, the players, provides glimpses of a man we could have liked, even loved, before it all went horribly wrong for him. Otherwise, how can we understand Horatio’s devotion? How can we feel the empathy that’s necessary to produce that complicated catharsis at the end of the play?
We finished almost exactly half way through the play, timewise – at the end of the ‘dumb show’. I was thankful for the darkened room, and my allergies as an excuse, because I was moved (that’s a euphemism for ‘tearful’, people). Before the ‘lady protested too much’ about finding another husband, I had another taste of our tortured prince before his father died – of the blissful childhood; the solid foundation of a rock-steady parental relationship. I wondered, and welled up, at how such a beautiful start in life does NOT prepare you for the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ that life launches at you …
I’m running out of words, so it’s a good thing I’ll be watching this in two parts. Two last points to prioritise, amongst the dozens I’d like to make:
We need to talk about Gertude, not least because so much Hamlet criticism explores that uncomfortable Oedipal relationship with her son (I often wonder if critics are channeling their own nasty desires, but this theory of fantasy fulfilment is a thought for another time). Juliet Stevenson is lavish with her physical contact – she reminded me of Browning‘s brilliant ‘My Last Duchess‘ in this. When your mother will hug and kiss almost anyone, you may very well get uncomfortable. After all, the chaste attention is rightfully yours, and the sexual should be your father’s, right? The camera often, and rightly, lingered on her: her facial expressions, sure, but also her body language … it became easier to see how Hamlet might feel uncomfortable and jealous when her touches as well as her looks, ‘went everywhere’ (including Laertes, by the way). My fellow audience members were suitably appalled by her cavorting with the ultra-slick Claudius (Angus Wright). He is the sleazy step-dad, a second-hand car salesman perving over Hamlet’s mum, lacking only the sheepskin coat and dodgy cockduster moustache …
Finally: surveillance. If ‘Denmark is a prison’, it is a dystopian one where Jeremy Bentham‘s panopticism is the norm [d]. We’ve seen this before in the ‘Tennant’ version, but I think it is exploited more usefully here. The ‘Hawthorne Effect’ suggests that if you are aware you are being watched, you change your behaviour, and Icke utilises this to make sense of what is often a problematic scene. I enjoyed the idea that Hamlet was – this time, hiding at the end of a sofa – eavesdropping the advice given to Ophelia by her brother and father about Hamlet being out of her league (please don’t tell Gayle Rubin); laughed my head off at Hamlet mimicking Polonius’s ‘covert’ remarks to Claudius; but sat up and paid notice at the new dimension this gave to the dreadfully sad exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia (act III, scene i).
It was obvious from early on in the scene that Scott’s Hamlet had twigged what was happening. Suddenly, the lines ‘Are you honest?’ and ‘Where’s your father?’ had real bite, showing the wound he felt at the deception, and simultaneously wounding the frightened and unwilling Ophelia. Hamlet could have played along, but already stung by the notion that ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’ he lost control and channeled every ounce of misogynist vitriol in his soul towards Ophelia. She’d been well prepared by her father and Claudius, in full make-up and a fetching party dress of heart’s-blood red, but was simply a pitiable victim in a larger game played by the men in the play. If Hamlet had been unaware of the eavesdropping, and not assumed Ophelia’s complicity in the subterfuge, things might have ended differently. But Andrew Scott is utterly in contol: knowing the men are listening, he callously disregards his love in the bigger game his father’s ghost has encouraged him to play. And when Ophelia is destroyed by his fury, callous Claudius did not even register her distress.
We watch the rest of the play on Monday, just before the BBC iPlayer License expires. I predict tears, because that’s who I am. With any luck, my students will be too focused on the play to notice. That said, if they’re not, who cares?
[a] Michael Billington, Benedict Cumberbatch – Imprisoned Prince, The Guardian, 25 August 2015
[b] Kate Kellaway, ‘Hamlet Review – An all-consuming Marvel’, The Guardian, 25 June 2017
[d] Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings, (Verso Books: London, 1995)