[Andrew Scott is Hamlet: director, Robert Icke]
Forgive the delay in arriving at Part II: here’s an explanatory (and favourite) quotation from Stephen King by way of apology:
“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”
And don’t forget the health warning: you don’t read Shakespeare, he reads YOU.
Our screening of the second half of the play opened with yours truly utterly engaged, emotionally, with the person I believed Andrew Scott’s Hamlet to have been before the play opened. (You can read my review of the first half here) I expected to be most affected by Ophelia, and issued a coded warning to my students that it would all end in tears – not just on stage, but in the classroom.
Yet my reaction to Ophelia’s re-appearance – in a wheelchair – was a surprising and slightly disappointing shrug.
Don’t get me wrong. I understood the depths of Ophelia’s agony: that she had been disabled by the death of her father (who had inexcusably used her), and the rejection by her boyfriend (who in fairness had only used her once he believed she had betrayed his trust). Her brother was abent, and she had no-one to keep her on an even keel. Nevertheless, this interpretation of her grief felt forced, in a 2018, politically-correct way – and elective, because she did leave the chair when passion demanded it. It might not have helped that I’d had a spoiler from The Guardian – either way, in a very different production, I was surprisingly indifferent to Ophelia in the second half, and focussed on Gertrude. In some ways my emotional connection to Hamlet demanded some emotional connection to a female in his life. Students, consider my heterosexual bias: if I were gay, I might have really concentrated on Laertes and/or Horatio. This is what AO5 does to you – you view the play through particular-coloured glasses …
It helped, of course, that Juliet Stevenson brought such gravity to her role. Perhaps if I‘d been twenty years younger, I would have paid more attention to Ophelia, as you do? Now it was the mature woman, the widow with the questionable second marriage, who drew my gaze. Such is the attraction of Shakespeare at different moments in your life, right? AO5 again, people …
The whispers from my students had been scandalized prurience and also curiousity about whether Hamlet fancied his mother or not. As happened several times in the play, I was just about to think Icke had taken his own path and omitted this when Andrew Scott got all Oedipal and dry-humped his mother in her bedroom. My sixth-formers muttered, suitably gratified. I wondered to what extent this was just an extension of his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ fury at the sluttish nature of all women.
Anyway, back to Gertrude.
Early in the play, she SUSPECTED, citing ‘our o’er-hasty marriage’ as a mote to trouble the mind’s eye of her son.
She DOUBTED, briefly, when explicitly challenged by Hamlet, after the shooting of Polonius.
She DENIED what she’d heard, when she threw herself at her sleazy husband against her son’s entreaty. Finally, though …
She KNEW. And she made amends as only a loving parent can, in the end. It’s often discussed whether or not Gertrude commits suicide. This production left us in little doubt.
Suddenly, Robert Icke was inside my armour and thrusting directly at my heart, just as Hamlet and Laertes began fencing. Bob Dylan‘s ‘Not Dark Yet‘ dominated, drowning some of the dialogue – including Gertrude’s decision to drink the wine – her insistence that she would in the face of Claudius’s panic. And then it was done, and could not be undone. I was transported back in time, 25 years ago, to 1993 and the closing credits of Bryan de Palma‘s ‘Carlito’s Way’. Again, the last fireworks of the main character’s dying synapses were unbearably poignant, happy images, accompanied by a grizzled bittersweet voice that has seen it all.
Scott had twined his parents’ hands together when he berated Gertrude in her closet and his ghostly father appeared. He did so again during this sequence. I understood. This was all Hamlet wanted. Not to be king. Not to sleep with his mother. Not even to kill his uncle …
All Hamlet wanted was the happiness he had been blessed with as a child, with his parents doting on him, and on each other. Happiness that had deserted him as an adult. So I did cry, in the end, as unobtrusively as I could: but for the first time, it was for Hamlet.
It was easily the most cathartic end to a tragedy I’ve seen: I was glad Hamlet was finally at peace: ‘goodnight, sweet prince’, indeed …