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Keeping up the suspense in Hamlet

Drama, Second quarter 1981.


Michael Pennington’s virile yet affecting Hamlet, in John Barton’s production of the play at Stratford-upon-Avon, was widely praised and greatly enjoyed, not least by J.W. Lambert in the October 1980 issue of Drama. The production returns to Stratford season this summer; and by way of preface, here are the actor’s thoughts after playing the role for some months.



The external world is proceeding smoothly. The society is attractive, warm-hearted, congenial; they all understand one another. The really difficult thing is to stand apart from such a seductive world. Nevertheless one man, already grief-stricken and prey to morbid reflection, has a nightmare in which he receives a message, supposedly from the grave, which declares that the external world is in fact riddled with corruption, its leader a murderer and adulterer, and his wife guilty by implication. It is inconceivable. Vainly the benighted dreamer scans the external world for corroboration of his fantastic dream but finds none. The external world is the same as it was before. Nobody acknowledges even the possibility of guilt. Even a carefully prepared entertainment devised to expose the guilty is taken simply as a piece of social bad taste. The man must be mistaken, and his dream simply a nightmare. He persuades himself otherwise, his reason totters and he begins to despair. Events overtake him and he finds himself caught up in an adventure story that finally destroys him. Before dying he does in fact destroy his enemy, though still without having any conclusive proof of that man’s original guilt or the woman’s involvement. By the time he dies the man has killed three people and indirectly caused the death of several others. He still has not exposed the original crime to the eyes of the world. He has only trusted his instinct, in the form of a visitation from the other world that is most akin to a dream; and by an extraordinary and deep irony, his instinct was true


The only way, it often seemed in rehearsal, that I could cut out an angle for myself to view this formidably familiar play and role, was to write out for myself little riddles like the above. If I could keep telling myself the story as naively as possible, perhaps I could understand exactly what purpose say, the Closet Scene had in the action, free myself from its famousness, and therefore begin to approach the questions of Hamlet’s alienation, his struggle with himself and the others, and his particular bravery, through what lay in front of me on the page, with as little narrative hindsight, and as little seduction by my own favoured bits, as I possibly could. Sometimes the most useful way to think of this Scene did seem to be as an encounter in which Hamlet kills Polonius, quarrels with his mother, sees a Ghost and leaves. And so on: a scene in which Ophelia is strongly advised to take holy orders. A scene in which the King is not quite assassinated at prayer.


But then, in insecure moments, such faux-naivete seemed crazy. By now Shakespeare’s nail-biting narrative is near enough swamped in our preoccupation with motive, psychology, relationships; a whole miasma of interpretation; this director’s line and that actor’s forte. Would it be effrontery to ask the old story to do its own work? Should we not have a couple of tricks up our sleeves before presuming to confront critics and audience with yet another Hamlet? I should love to think it possible than an audience could forget that they know Claudius did the murder, and so share in Hamlet’s deep uncertainty about the Ghost and then (a confidence not granted to Hamlet) receive the full impact of Claudius’s devastating confession when alone – for a man never tells lies to the audience in Shakespeare.


We played a series of school matinees, performances which are sometimes feared by actors; flogging through an exhausting play for an audience whose attention you cannot finally hold can be a special form of punishment. Our audiences on these occasions, however, have been still and attentive, rapt by the peculiar force of the play. It made you feel responsible for the hundreds of first impressions that will lead, in any life in which the theatre plays some part, to a sort of accumulated Hamlet-Memory compounded of many different performances and many different reflections. My own first was Olivier’s film – a work which indeed fully embraced the narrative thrills and spills of the story – and I probably recall it more clearly than any since. The specialness of the play seems to strike a chord long after as well. A colleague of mine, a very experienced actor, happens to loathe living in Stratford (and so shall remain nameless). He regards a day spent in the town when he is not actually working as a wasted day, and for various reasons found he had to spend such a day before coming in the evening to see “Hamlet”. Uncharacteristically, he told me, he found himself on this day in a pleasantly nervous condition, walking through the town with an unexpected spring in his step. The reason was that he was on his way to see “that play” – not I think that actor or that production, but “that play”. Well, I know what he means, and I don’t think “Love’s Labour’s Lost” calls forth quite that response. How odd that, as far as I know, we have no particular evidence that Shakespeare’s company or audience felt they were dealing with anything that special when it came to “Hamlet” – presumably both Romantics and Freudians, as well as generations of barnstormers, are mainly responsible for the mythology; but so is the changing perspective of our own concerns, both public and deeply personal. Only fifteen years ago at Stratford the politically disaffected young felt that the play had been written for them; are we now instinctively presuming on an interest in our audience in reality and illusion, a range of nuances between self-dramatisation and emotion?


I have no answer to that, but I know that I like the story inordinately, and agree with my mother when she hopes against hope every time that Hamlet will turn down the challenge of Osric’s and live; and I also think for instance that if we didn’t know the damned thing so well, the inspiration in Shakespeare to write a comedy scene by an open grave that turns out to be that of the protagonist’s lover, immediately between the setting of the deadly plot and its unspringing, would be seen for the breathtaking audacity that it is.


All this expectation, in the new audience as well as the deeply habituated, could make the actor feel a little unnerved, and it is as well therefore for him no to feel too ‘umble. In all this interest and interpretation, the actor interest is qualified, by the experience of “Hamlet”, for nothing except to go out the next day and do it again; but hopefully the peculiar gift bestowed on him, as opposed to the director or critic or teacher, is the aptitude to take a nightly jump in the dark, knowing only the broadest topography of the jump, and little of the outcome. It would be nice to be able to persuade theatregoers, who I think sceptical of the point, of the extent to which they, entering the building from one end, share more they suppose with entering from the other: a real curiosity about the outcome of the evening, even in a relatively structured piece of work. Certainly in playing the part I am more aware than ever before of the narrowness of the margin between a given performance that is okay, or even good, and one that is special. Or what it depends on, which clearly goes beyond application and hard work into some speculative area too numinous for the moment to pursue. On some nights the part seems anarchically to be up and playing you; on others, you are labouring with an out of tune violin. Fortunately there are controls built into the event for the self-critical; on a night like the first someone will come round and tell you you did nothing for them, and even in the latter case somebody may have been thrilled. Either way it has always seemed to me to be important for the actor, given a base of understanding and discipline, to be prepared to be carried by the prevailing winds – or in another sense to counteract them, since a show which seems not to be biting its audience as it should may need to change gear towards, say, a narrative energy and away from excessive subtlety. These are rather choppy waters to enter; but to be sure, the actor responsible for such a role is likely to become involved in this sort of monitoring within a particular evening.


So in the end there is really only one performance of any production, and that is the one you are presently engaged in, which may be quite different from the one in which, for instance, public judgement is passed. Everybody wants it to be special: the actor waits for lightning to strike, the audience, who after all would not want to come so far for something just ordinary, ask to be persuaded that they don’t know the outcome.


A man with a sword comes upon his enemy, whom he has sworn to destroy, at prayer. The promised act of revenge can at this point be performed with relatively little difficulty – indeed with no greater fear of discovery than that if the praying man on an earlier occasion when he destroyed his enemy in an orchard. With exultation the armed man approaches his victim and raises his sword.


At this point we should stop and see where we are. There is no question in the mind of the spectator but that the sword will certainly come down on the neck of the praying man with all the fury with which it was raised. There is also no question in the mind of the armed man but that he will now do the deed – no question at all. Most oddly of all, in the mind of the actor personifying the man with the sword there is a momentary certainty that tonight will be different, and that his colleague on the floor is about to suffer a severe and unexpected injury.


The alarming question arises: who is actually in charge? If the actor himself is in doubt, then who is masterminding this event and guiding us towards the next action? Everyone waits, the spectators, the two men, the two actors playing the two men, all held for a moment on the same edge, holding the same breath.


Needless to say, things don’t always go so sweetly, and I do not mean to mystify. I am speaking of a night that would hold a sceptical audience of schoolchildren and also satisfy the demanding expectations of my Stratford-hating colleague. But perhaps it is on hinges such as this, when all is said and done, that the particular grip of “that play” depends. Without the sense of occasion that this implies, our audiences for “Hamlet” would drop off sharply; and I should find it difficult to justify all our work if it did not lead in the end to just such a small moment of suspense.



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