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Review (****): Hamlet at The Globe with Michelle Terry

To The Globe on Sunday, 29th April for the matinee performance (a preview) of their new production of Hamlet.

 

Michelle Terry has been artistic director of The Globe for a few months now, and her first productions are now coming into production, and hence this review.

 

She has promised to introduce an ensemble form of production with a group of 12 or so actors taking on a number of productions. The first two productions, As You Like It, and Hamlet are now in performance, if still in preview.

 

The first question was who would be playing Hamlet, and more broadly, what commitment would there be to a gender-blind production. As I hoped, Michelle Terry took on the role of Hamlet, and this reflected a broader commitment to a gender-blind production. Horatio, Laertes, Guildenstern we’re played by females, as well as Hamlet; Ophelia by a male; wider still, Guildenstern’s role was ‘signed’; leading to signing from Hamlet and others in their scenes shared with Rosencranz and Guildenstern.

 

Did this gender-reversal affect the production? Not really. After the initial excitement of discovering who was playing whom, the audience quickly settled into the story. As the two young boys (10 and 13, and both serious classical musicians) who were part of our party said: “The sex of the player is irrelevant – males can play females, and females, males.”

 

Perhaps the only remaining casting prejudice I have is one of sizism. I found it disconcerting that Ophelia was so much taller than Hamlet, and Laertes was so much smaller. It made the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene and the sword fight in At Five Scene Two far less believable.

 

But enough about the casting, how was the performance? I think you all probably know the plot of Hamlet, so rather than run through the plot, I’m going to talk about the different aspects of the productions.

 

First, the Globe. It was the first time our two young boys had been to The Globe, and they were very impressed with the Elizabethan building, the full audience pretty well surrounding the stage in a wooden ‘O’. It gave them some strange assumptions. They were disturbed by a mix of costume styles, particularly the modern costumes (grave-digger in construction worker’s jacket) mixed with Elizabethan costumes. They also expected the music to be Elizabethan and were surprised by the jazz-like quality of some of it.

 

What upset all our party most was the helicopters flying overhead. I have no idea if there was a security alert or something, but I have never before experienced regular helicopter flights right over the Globe. It must be very frustrating for the actors when, during a key scene, or soliloquy, your words are drowned out by helicopter noises.

 

The company is an ensemble of 12 actors. There’s usually around 30 roles in a Shakespeare play, so taking an ensemble approach means there’s going to be quite a bit of doubling. In this production there was some interesting doubling: Polonius and the Priest; Ophelia and Osric; the Ghost, the Grave-digger, the Player.

 

When characters are doubled like this, the audience has to be given a clear steer as to which character a player is playing at any particular time. You can do this through costume; through some emblem;  through accent; through characterization. For the most part, the ensemble managed this fairly effectively, but note ‘for the most part’. Ophelia and Fortinbras is fairly easy – one is female, one is male. But other characters were not so clearly distinguished and our two boys (and I) sometimes got confused as to which characters were on stage. This needs to be sorted out.

 

In ensemble acting, where all the actors contribute to the overall design of the show, it can be difficult to achieve a coherent design and theme to the show. These difficulties were apparent in Movement, which was a bit of a curate’s egg – good in parts. Focusing on the positive, there were some superb moments:

  • We have already mentioned that Guildenstern’s role was ‘signed’ rather than spoken. Hamlet took up this signing and we had some most beautiful hand movements between the three (Hamlet, Guildenstern, and Rosencranz). Hamlet in particular managed some most graceful hand movements as he spoke his lines. (I have no idea whether the signs reflected the words – I don’t speak signing). Hamlet even signed (and spoke) one of the soliloquies.
  • In the Gertrude / Hamlet scene after the murder of Polonius, I was just beginning to miss the presence of a bed for the two actors to wrestle on, when there arose a deeply moving tableau – the Ghost pushed Hamlet down to the ground, (as he had also done in Act One Scene  Five) whilst on the other side of Hamlet, Gertrude came to support her obviously distressed son. Suddenly, we weren’t in the court of Denmark with the Prince and Queen, but in the presence of a disturbed son being supported by his mother and father.
  • At the end of the play, with four dead bodies on the stage, there is, what could be a rather awkward moment, when the dead bodies arise for the traditional dance (which again seemed to incorporate signing). This was turned into one of the most moving moments of the play when the four dead bodies, in synchronised slow motion, arose from the floor to join in the dance.

 

So those were the movement highlights. What were the less effective elements?:

  • Most of the movements of the actors on stage were, frankly, um…, pedestrian. There seemed to be an obsession with sending one actor upstage right; another actor walking towards them; and a return to the centre. Some of the shaping of scenes was pretty static, the actors making a curve onstage worthy of many an amateur dramatics production.
  • The fight in Act Five Scene Two was boring. Of course we go to a Shakespeare play mostly for the language, but the fight in Act Five Scene Two is the climax of the play Hamlet,  and it should be exciting. The fight we were presented with was like a rather boring fencing match. Of course Hamlet and Laertes are fencing, but they are fighting for their lives, and after three hours of watching Hamlet agonising over whether to kill Claudius or no, we need, as a climax, an exciting fight. We didn’t get it.

 

So, in this ensemble production, who were the actors / roles who stood out?:

  • Hamlet (Michelle Terry): The visual key to Michelle Terry’s performance occurred very early, in Act One Scene Two. For most of the scene, Hamlet was positioned backstage, next to the central exit, only coming forward for the soliloquy at the end of the scene: “Oh that this too, too, solid flesh…” Similarly, Terry downplayed many of her scenes and soliloquies to make sure that when the highlights came (e.g. in Act Two Scene Two, the “Oh what a Rogue and Peasant slave am I!”) it was delivered at full power and was dramatically very effective. We were moved. There was another visual cue. To begin with Hamlet is dressed in black but soon changes, shockingly, for those of us stuck in the conventions of previous productions, into a white clown’s costume. Terry’s performance was that of someone so obsessed with revenge that they became driven to the edge of madness, playing the fool. (Thanks, Harry, for this summary of the play.)
  • Ophelia (Shubham Serif) also stood out. We were all moved by her(?) performance, particularly her songs in Act Four Scene Five. We are so used to the convention of the fragile, mad, girl distributing flowers and singing her mad songs, that it was fresh and moving to hear this Ophelia’s strong voice singing of madness. As we’ve already said, her scene with Hamlet “Get thee to a nunnery” was less convincing, because she was so much bigger than Hamlet.
  • Claudius (James Gamon) was less convincing. One had no impression of the powerful politician driven to evil.

So, not a perfect production, but there are a couple of ameliorating factors. First, this was a preview, and there is still time for parts of the production to be changed. Secondly, The Globe is embarking an an ensemble approach to production. This is new for them, and it takes time for the team to bond together and produce high-quality productions. There is sufficient promise in this production to hope that the team will grow and produce the high-quality productions one expects of The Globe.

Making Shakespeare Accessible:

One of our objectives at Players-Shakespeare.com is to make Shakespeare accessible – to children and to adults. In my view, The Globe has a responsibility for this, too. The Globe is the place where many young (and old) people may see their first production of Shakespeare, either live at The Globe, or on TV via one of their stream-able / downloadable productions.

The acid test for me as to whether a Shakespeare production is ‘accessible’ is whether the audience member wants to see another Shakespeare production afterwards.

So it was interesting for me to see how the two youngsters (Albert, 10, and Harry, 13) responded to the play. Perhaps I should explain a bit more. We have a friend – a classical pianist – who frequently stays with us in Edinburgh, so when we planned our trip to London we asked if we could stay with them.

Our friend and his wife (a classical cello player), and their two sons, decided to come to the play with us. So Albert (cello) and Harry (violin) are the sons of two classical musicians, and also play classical music themselves. The family had visited us in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival, and had seen a Fringe production of “The Dream” on bicycles. So they have a rather special profile. Nevertheless, it was interesting to “interview” them to see their reactions to the play, and there follows a summary of what they thought:

 

Albert (10):

Albert thought that the theatre was very atmospheric. He was upset by the helicopters, but he could follow the play. At first the language was a bit difficult, but as the play progressed he found he could understand more and more of the language.

Albert saw no difficulty in a woman playing a man’s role or a man playing a woman’s role. “They’re all actors on stage playing other characters, and it doesn’t matter what sex those characters are.” His only reservation was about hair. A man was playing Ophelia, but with short hair. Wouldn’t it be more sensible for him to wear a wig?

He did have some reservations about the production:

  • Claudius was not convincingly acted.
  • The ghost was good
  • The music was strange – jazz in an Elizabethan theatre.
  • The funeral didn’t take enough time.

To sum up, his favourite character was Hamlet and he wants to see another Shakespeare play.

So Hamlet was accessible enough for Albert for him to want to go again. Job done.

 

 

Harry (13):

Harry summed up what happened in the play as being about “someone so obsessed with revenge that they became driven to the edge of madness, playing the fool.”  I’ve used Harry’s summary as my summary, earlier on in this review.

Harry thought the acting was mixed. Hamlet was very good, but Claudius was not so good. Polonius needed to act differently in different characters so that we knew who he was playing on stage. He liked the signing done by Guildenstern.

Harry was moved by:

  • Ophelia singing the mad songs
  • Hamlet’s death and Horatio’s lamenting of his death.

He was surprised by:

  • modern music (jazz) being used instead of Elizabethan music in the Elizabethan setting.
  • the grave-digger wearing a high-vis construction worker’s jacket, when most of the costumes were period.

Harry would like to go to more Shakespeare productions.

So again, job done. The production was accessible to Harry.

 

Conclusions:

So this was not the definitive production of Hamlet, and yet I am not discouraged. The Globe is moving to Ensemble playing, and some of the results of this production were outstanding. In particular, I will remember Hamlet on his knees in agony being offered support by his ghostly father, and his still-alive mother; Ophelia’s mad songs; and also the dead bodies at the end of the playing rising in synchronisation and slow-mo.

 

But it’s a new ensemble, and they need to find their way of putting on a production. I remember thinking somewhere in the play, that there’s an awful lot of words, and that’s not a good thing to think during a Shakespeare production. I can’t help thinking that they need something like an Aileen Gonsalves to make the words come alive in a searing production.

 

Given time, I am sure this ensemble will get there.

 

Let’s Play!!!

 

 

Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

 

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