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Hamlet (1994)

Mail on Sunday 13th November 1994, Louise Doughty

I have decided what it is that makes Peter Hall one of the great theatre directors of the 20th Century. He actually likes his audiences. Not all directors do. Michael Bogdanov, for instance, always gives me the impression of lofty unconcern. Even the current brood of wonderful young directors, such as Sean Mathias and Katie Mitchell, are still understandably absorbed in the creation of their own vision and style. Hall has reached the apotheosis of any director’s career; supreme confidence in his own technical ability combined with a passionate desire to reach out to his paying customers, grab them by the throat and convert them to good theatre on the spot. Or else.

His production of Hamlet at the newly renamed Gielgud Theatre (formerly The Globe) is a bold undertaking aimed at pulling in a West end audience who might never go to the National or the RSC. If anyone can do it, Hall can. He has assembled a superb group of principals including Donald Sinden as Polonius – a piece of casting so hilariously accurate it makes you marvel that nobody has thought of it before.

Michael Pennington gives the wretched villain Claudius brilliant psychological depth in a performance so detailed and complex that it almost overshadows Stephen Dillane’s confused, skittish Hamlet. Dillane plays him with utter conviction, as an intelligent but self-deceptive boy who is desperate to be grown-up and revenge his father’s death but too spoiled to take responsibility for either his actions or inactions. Visually, it is stunning. A blue-grey back wall with painted clouds creates a vast canopy disappearing skywards. A curve of thick red ropes descends for the interior scenes, giving us a royal household where even the chairs are imprisoned in tight wrappings of lush crushed velvet. It is a setting sick with sexuality but breathlessly bound up by convention. Gina Bellman’s Ophelia is driven mad not just by Hamlet but the confines of being a courtier.

If this Hamlet is not a commercial success it will be for one reason only – the length.  Hall has left in everything. It runs to over four hours, including a very long first half. Let us hope that West End audiences will realise that it is well worth it.

Sunday Times 13th November 1994, John Peter

This is an unforgettable event, a historic occasion, thrilling and moving and majestic: a classical tragedy and a modern whodunit, a philosophical mystery, and a cunning and purposeful drama of helpless self-destruction.

Peter Hall’s tense, nervy production of Hamlet at the newly named Gielgud Theatre is superbly detailed but also authentic and agile. Hall knows, as Shakespeare knew, that you must seize your audience’s attention at once. This searching, quicksilver production reminds you that 400 years ago this play was what we now solemnly call New Writing, and that it had to pay its way in a large commercial theatre engaged in cutthroat competition with other large commercial theatres.

If you had taken Shakespeare on one side and started talking to him about the classics, he’s have probably thought you meant Seneca and Platus being dusted off for performance, in their original languages, at the great universities; but in the context of his own work he would not have known what you were on about. He knew that plays were both art and artefact, inspiration and skill. Behind Hamlet, the play of grief, darkness, self-searching and dreams, there is a Hamlet the political thriller and commercial crowd puller flexing its muscles.

Hall begins as Shakespeare would have wanted him to: he grabs the play by the throat. The guards on the Elsinore battlements are tense and wary. In the very first few lines you learn that the place is haunted, and that the tension is one of fear and apprehension. But there are no solemn atmospherics, no hanging about. The exchanges are swift and to the point. In any case, everybody is cold. Almost at once, in the misty silvery light, Michael Pennington’s grizzled Ghost appears.

Time and familiarity may have blunted the superb effectiveness and economy of Shakespeare’s opening scenes: here they come across fresh and newly minted, with all the energy of an utterly original playwright at the peak of his powers.

Hall keeps a watchful eye on the play’s politics. In the first Council scene, Hamlet usually stands apart, a solitary brooder. Here, however, unwillingly, he is at the centre of the scene, sitting with Claudius and Gertrude, which is precisely as it should be. This is a prearranged, formal meeting. The deal over the succession and the royal marriage has already been stitched up behind closed doors. Hamlet is declared heir apparent, which both puts him on the sidelines and keeps him within the fold. His desire to go back to university is swiftly disposed of: Claudius does not want a disapproving presence lurking abroad. Hamlet’s political entrapment seems complete.

Polonius, too, is a key figure in the statecraft of the play. Donald Sinden presents a massive, powerful operator full of habitual authority which is beginning to fray and frazzle at the edges. His short, white beard, curling up into a point, gives his face an air of ruthless but unsubtle pugnacity. And yet it is clearly too soon to write him off. Sinden shows that, politically, Polonius is still completely alert: observe his swift and warily disapproving reaction when the ambassadors confirm that Fortinbras will march across Danish territory with his Norwegian army.

This is a shrewd, elegant and magisterial performance. Sinden knows Polonius is a politician to his fingertip: and one of his and Hall’s most subtle touches is to show how Polonius’s authority is slowly whittled away as the play goes on. He clearly dislikes Hamlet, for the prince is discontented, subversive and unpredictable. These are dangerous qualities in a close-knit autocratic political establishment. What is even worse, Hamlet has a sense of humour which to Polonius is entirely incomprehensible and therefore deeply sinister. He wants Ophelia to have nothing to do with Hamlet, partly because he does not want to seem ambitious, but also, and more importantly, because the prince is a loose cannon, a disruptive element, and to be associated with him could undermine Polonius’s position.

By the way, I like Lucy Hall’s costumes, but I dislike the courtiers’ tall, shiny top hats, which make the Council look like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. What’s more, they keep them on in the king’s presence, which is preposterous.

Another important thing about Polonius: he loves his daughter. He, Ophelia and Tom Beard’s open, manly Laertes are clearly bound together by a deep-rooted family affection; and Hall’s production shows how Hamlet’s progress, both hesitant and headlong, through the play, destroys first these loving relationships and then the people themselves. Yet Polonius himself is to blame, too. Gina Bellman’s Ophelia is a simple, thoughtful, generous girl, retiring and a little prim; it is not her fault that Polonius uses her, with all the insensitivity of a loving, but bigoted father, as a political bait. First she is forbidden to see Hamlet, then she is virtually blamed for his madness, then he kills her father: Ophelia’s fait is sealed. Bellman’s voice needs a little more strength and colour; but this is a strong and moving Shakespearian debut.

Pennington, who also plays the king, is simply the best, the most subtly corrupt, the most consummately political Claudius I have ever seen. His sensuality is understated, but strongly felt: for him, Gertrude is both a political and a sexual prize. Like Hamlet, he is precariously balanced between guilt, terror and self-control. It is the tension between these that makes him dangerous. Gwen Taylor is his Gertrude: a sensuous, generous woman who adores her new husband, glories and basks in everything he says and does, and is entirely innocent of dark motives, her own or anyone else’s. As the play progresses, she loses her glow and even her relaxed sensuality. She becomes a troubled matron, fretted and fearful. Pennington’s face, too, takes on a battered look, with deeper pouches under the eyes, a furtive, desperate glance, and a body which makes visible efforts to remain resilient. His reactions to the play scene are brilliantly played. When his end looms, he knows it before anyone else, and does not give Hamlet the pleasure or resistance.

In this sense, Hamlet’s victory is bleak. The reason why his character appeals so endlessly to the post-classical imagination is that he is justified in his existence by his very failures, his shortcomings, his catastrophic misjudgements.  He is a fool partly because he is fooled by others to the top of his bent. He thinks too precisely on the event, but events are beyond his control. Nothing is, or feels preordained. Man’s will is free, but action is undermined by circumstance. This is the modern predicament. There are no rules or dispensations. Is there special providence in the fall of a sparrow? Whose providence? Shakespeare has given the play a hauntingly Christian framework, but the presence of God is mostly felt through references to His most shocking invention, the threat of everlasting Hell.

Hence, Hamlet is thrown on to his own inner resources. Self-knowledge becomes less a moral virtue than an aid to survival. Stephen Dillane makes utterly clear that Hamlet knows he is teetering at the edge of breakdown. His “madness” is both sublimation and pretence: it uses up the energy of his grief and stokes it up again, and gives him time to breathe, observe and despair.

I think Dillane is one of the great Hamlets, but not for the usual sense of lonely Romantic agony. No, it is the private and public politics of the play that shape this tense, edgy, thrilling performance. He is ironically and bitterly self-critical, as well as intensely alert to others, and his quicksilver reactions suggest s restless intelligence. You can almost see him think. His intelligence sets him apart, but it also traps him among people whom he needs to watch and forestall. Thinking and private feelings are the natural mode if being for Dillane’s Hamlet: life disrupts this and destroys him.

Usually, when Hamlet returns to Denmark. He is played as sombrely calm, facing his fate. Why should he be? He was shaken and shamed by his encounter with Fortinbras’s army; he discovered that he had been being sent to his death; he saw Ophelia being buried; and Denmark is still the same prison as before. No, Dillane’s Hamlet has learnt nothing because there is nothing more to learn.

To say that “the readiness is all” is a sign of confidence, or of sanity bordering on madness; and Hamlet goes to an elaborately planned accidental death, while offstage you can hear the waves of the sea, and a slow, intermittent sound effect like the unforgiving music of the spheres.

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