This Bank Holiday weekend marks a significant date in my memory – seven years ago, on the Saturday in 2008, I returned to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see a very special theatre production. I hadn’t been back to the home of Shakespeare since a school trip in 2000, during which we watched their production of Romeo & Juliet (from some fairly high up seat from memory) starring David Tennant. As someone who’d enjoyed the theatre for the occasional trip over the years, I’d been keen to see Mr. Tennant on stage as Hamlet and yes I admit, it was his more recent television work – Casanova and Doctor Who, which had added to my interest in him. I hadn’t expected to go – tickets were sold out by the time I was able to look in to going (yes, I was that naïve then!).
Yet, on Saturday 30th August 2008, thanks to a lovely lady on EBay and after surviving a frantic bidding war to acquire the ticket in the first place, I was there in The Courtyard Theatre, ready to see my first Hamlet! I still remember the view from my seat (Stalls D20), central to the black, mirrored stage and the bubbling feeling of excitement and anticipation. I could never have imagined how much of an impact the evening would have on me.
Since then, I’ve seen a few Hamlets, but this production is still yet to be beaten. Where to start? With such a talented director as Greg Doran behind it, the show already had an invaluable advantage – having seen other Shakespeare plays directed by him and some by others, Mr. Doran is one of the few directors who, for me, seems to know instinctively how to bring Shakespeare’s words to life for today’s audiences. It may have a reputation for being dry and complex, but Greg Doran effortlessly cuts through that, bringing clear, accessible and engaging productions to the stage. Not everyone can achieve this and certainly a production can seem weaker without a lack of ease of understanding, which he also proves never requires a dumbing down of the text.
This Hamlet was brilliantly conceived by Greg. It brought the hyper-surveillance atmosphere, secrecy and mistrust of Elsinore alive and with the production’s designer Robert Jones, they created a set that didn’t need a great amount of props or scenery to have an impact. A mirrored wall and floor enhanced the idea that everywhere Hamlet the other characters went they were being surveilled, even if sometimes the only person watching them was their own reflection. The costumes were fantastic – elegant simplicity for Gertrude, tailored suits for Claudius and modern casual for Hamlet. In fact the grandest costume was reserved for the Player Queen, so opulent in comparison that it fitted perfectly with the sense during the play scene that Hamlet is pushing this in front of his uncle and he will notice it and be unable to ignore what is in front of him.
Crucially too, one of the strongest elements was the quality of the company. The RSC assembled a superb ensemble, which didn’t just support the lead actor, but who ensured the production had a depth and strength that kept the audience engaged for every scene, whether the main man was on stage or not (a point proven when Mr. Tennant was out of action for 3 weeks due to back surgery).
I think this is vital for any production. Every other Hamlet I’ve seen has included some weak or disappointing performances, whether through a lack of chemistry, a lack of projection on the stage or a lack of ability to make the words come to life. Hamlet may be a play that revolves around the actions (or inactions) of the title character, but in order to be drawn in to his story you have to engage with everyone on stage, otherwise why would you even care about Hamlet at all?
Oliver Ford-Davies will it seems be my Polonius for the foreseeable future. It’s potentially such a dull part, which I’ve come to realise requires a special kind of actor to see the gems of unrealized humour and mine them for full effect. His Polonius may have been a somewhat muddled man, but you couldn’t help but like him. His meanderings of thought and seeming exasperation with Hamlet were endearing and it was genuinely sad when he died. This is an actor who truly understands Shakespeare and makes it so easy for the audience to grasp it too.
The ruling King and Queen were also both excellent and crucially had a very real and palpable chemistry. It seemed quite possible that they had already been having an affair before Hamlet’s father died. Penny Downie brought a stylish elegance to Gertrude, but also played her as a strong-willed woman. She never felt incidental, despite her lack of input in the earlier Acts. Also, you felt a genuine bond between her and her son, with the closet scene remaining one of my favourites of the production and one I would look forward to on every visit. She and David Tennant put so much emotion and power in to it that by the end you felt almost as exhausted as they must have been!
At the time I don’t think I truly appreciated how good Patrick Stewart was as Claudius. It is only on reflection and with comparisons to others that I admire his interpretation more and more. I’ve always felt you need to have some unease around him. It doesn’t have to be terror, but I always think for the plot to work, you need to believe that Hamlet is putting himself at risk by challenging Claudius – especially the play within a play scene. Without that you never really worry that Hamlet could be in danger. Claudius isn’t an obvious villain on first meeting him; his is a more subtle, calculating evil, but too subtle a portrayal and he seems too decent a man, despite the deeds he has committed, making Hamlet appear more petulant and weak in character. Patrick’s Claudius was every inch the statesman – the way he walked, the way he held himself and the way he controlled his emotions. Yet, he still managed to convey the menace behind the man. As he holds the lamp light in Hamlet’s face and shakes his head, you truly understand that Hamlet is now in very real danger. I also always loved his choice to willingly drink the cup – a shrug and he drinks – until the end the man not losing his control.
As for the other key characters, each actor brought something special to the role. Edward Bennett’s Laertes had a lovely, affectionate, genuine relationship with Mariah Gale’s Ophelia and his rage on hearing of her death still echoes in my head at every Hamlet I see. He may ultimately kill Hamlet, but through Ed’s performance you never blame him. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia was playful, affectionate and in her madness a whirling Catherine wheel of anger, pain and sorrow. The image of her holding her flowers and grasses was so striking that I immediately thought of John Everett Millais’s painting “Ophelia” and could imagine her in the brook, being pulled under. You also genuinely felt that, although perhaps faded, there had been a very real and affectionate relationship between her and Hamlet at one time.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the potential to be so incidental that you can forget they were ever on stage. Not so when played by the wonderful duo of Sam Alexander and Tom Davey. They truly breathed life in to their characters and their comic touches added humour and richness to the production. You could imagine them as young boys playing with Hamlet and the fact they are intimidated by Claudius seems understandable. I always wonder whether the choice to remove the text explaining their deaths and Hamlet’s role in it was a choice made before or during rehearsal as their performances started to form. In tis production they are likeable and seem to be victims of circumstances and therefore hearing about Hamlet’s role in their deaths would have possibly reflected much worse on him, at a time when you need to be rooting for him.
As Oliver Ford-Davies is my Polonius, Peter De Jersey is my Horatio. He is perhaps my favourite in the production other than David Tennant. Although clearly an outsider from a different background, you can understand why Hamlet has chosen him as his friend while at university. He has a kindness and a loyalty that all of us would be lucky to find in our friends and his and David’s chemistry seemed to weight this connection in reality.
I loved how he book ends this production – it starts with his arrival on the battlements and ends with his as the final line. He also seemed to have a much stronger and visible presence on the stage as although an observer, he was often right by Hamlet’s side, whether during the wonderful recorder scene, the preparation for the play (where Hamlet affectionately tidies up his bow tie for him) and during Hamlet’s return from exile. They feel bonded, which is vital if you are to truly feel the sadness at Hamlet’s death. Yes, you need a strong Hamlet, who you have invested in, but it’s Horatio for whom you feel such sadness. I believed every time that he would willingly have died alongside his friend rather than be left behind. In choosing to dispense with Fortinbras’s arrival (a good choice in my view), the emotional weight of “Goodnight sweet prince” had to leave the audience with that strong, heartbreaking emotion. I admit I shed a tear every time.
Everyone else added to the ensemble, whether Mark Hadfield’s Gravedigger or Ryan Gage’s Osric or the group of players and courtiers.
As for David Tenant, I may be a little biased, but I honestly haven’t (yet) seen a better Hamlet. He is certainly that last Hamlet pre-Cumberbatch to be put so firmly under the spotlight before even uttering one line in public in the role (not to mention the constant commentary once he had to have back surgery and miss some of the London run). I remember the mocking articles about Doctor Who fans turning up in costume with their sonic screwdrivers and of course Jonathan Miller’s ill-conceived sound bite about stunt TV casting (never mind his previous two seasons with the RSC and vast stage CV). This time the nastiness towards Benedict Cumberbatch and his fans in particular seems worse than in 2008 (all this talk of failing Hamlet quizzes and an eagerness by certain media to see him fail has been quite ridiculous), but it’s certainly not new unfortunately.
As for his performance, David successfully silenced the critics when the play opened in [July] 2008 and after finally getting to see it, it wasn’t hard to understand why. He effortlessly drew the audience to the character, more so in the intimate Courtyard setting and his opening soliloquy seemed to be directed to you personally, while still not giving a sense of an actor simply delivering a speech. His anger at both his mother and uncle was evident from the start, as was his obvious disdain for the sycophantic manner of those of the Court (whether Polonius agreeing with him about cloud shapes that he was clearly making up for amusement or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). He feels trapped and restless, a person who no doubt was more himself outside the confines of this place. Yes, he was comic at times, but it never felt forced or out of place. This production remains the funniest I have seen due primarily to his and Oliver Ford-Davies’ comic touches. That’s not to say it wasn’t equally powerful and moving, but it had a sparkle from the incredible cleverness and humour the actors found in the text (something I’m sure the RSC’s rehearsal process would have fostered).
Tennant’s Hamlet was full of emotions, all expressed beautifully, whether rage, frustration, amusement, deep sadness or fear as to what he should do and his interpretation of To Be or Not to Be was stunning. Shuffling on to the stage, head down, and arms crossed over his chest, bare feet and in that evocative red T-shirt, as if glimpsing his every heart and soul, you felt every word and understood the dilemma he was facing so clearly. David remains one of the few actors of his generation who makes Shakespeare’s words feel relevant and contemporary, something Greg Doran often says about working with him. I was captivated from the first moment of that first performance I saw seven years ago, to the final moments of the last performance the following January in London.
As was the case seven years ago, this Bank Holiday also includes a visit to see Hamlet. This time it’s my first visit to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet post press night. I will be curious to compare it to my previous visits and over the weekend I will post how I think it has developed over three weeks of previews. It certainly had lots of potential.
For now though, I look back fondly on a theatre trip which became so much more. This wasn’t just a theatre production – it became the catalyst for a renewed interest in Shakespeare, a growing passion for theatre in general and the reason for me forming some of the most meaningful and precious friendships I imagine I will ever have. All because of David Tennant!
Regardless of the reviews and petty, snide jibes at fans in the media, if the current Barbican Hamlet has the ability to have the same effect on even just a handful of its rapt audience, that for me will be its greatest achievement.
Hamlet starring David Tennant and the rest of the superb ensemble can be bought on DVD after a film version was made, directed by Greg Doran. It’s available from all the usual stockists. I’d also recommend the book chronicling the life of the production from the perspective of ensemble member Keith Osborn in his book: Something Written in The State of Denmark (pictured) for those wanting to learn or relive the production.