Hamlet

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To be or not to be… on a train heading to Stratford-upon-Avon to see some Shakespeare the same weekend as the dance music festival Global Gathering. We wondered why the train was so packed with people with rucksacks and tents, defying the no-smoking ban (but who knows what they were smoking) and generally being young and loud and annoying. Myself and m’companion-in-the-Arts were not thus to be distracted. I read the Guardian, she knitted. Defiantly middle class and middle aged. Ha! And then we were appalled-of-Tunbridge-Wells when we realised all exits from the station were blocked, forcing everyone to queue up to be sniffed at by the drugs squad. What a liberty! We wanted to brandish our RSC tickets and shout “We are connoisseurs of the Arts! We refuse to possess glowsticks and whistles! Despite carrying these small rucksacks and wearing flip flops we are not going to this blasted festival and we rage at being detained in such a fashion!”

We actually saw Hamlet last Friday, but… well. It’s taken until now to pull together a suitably sensible collection of words that will sit apart from the ‘OMG!!1! David Tennant! He, like, totally signed my programme!’ squeeing that’s happening across the blogosphere. Would I have gone all the way up to Stratford if David Tennant (and Patrick Stewart – let’s not forget the Captain) weren’t in it? Probably not. But dammit, I’m a cultured woman and I appreciate my Shakespeare. (Just not Coriolanus, which is shite and I will never forgive the NEAB for inflicting that on us at A Level.) I even got myself a copy of the play and read it beforehand. And you know what? Hamlet’s funny. Not the play itself which, of course, is a general corpse-fest, but the character. In popular culture he’s considered the poster-boy for all angst-ridden, melancholy young men – but he’s funny. After Hamlet’s killed Polonius (of which more later), the King demands to know what Hamlet’s done with the body:

HAMLET

    In heaven; send hither to see: if your messenger
    find him not there, seek him i’ the other place
    yourself. But indeed, if you find him not within
    this month, you shall nose him as you go up the
    stairs into the lobby.

See? See?! He’s in the cupboard under the stairs! That’s hilarious! You can imagine the final line being delivered with a shrug and a wrinkle of the nose, a throwaway punchline. And that’s exactly how David Tennant played it.

Obviously, when you cast David Tennant, who spends nine months of the year running around manically for Doctor Who, you know you’re getting an energetic Hamlet as opposed to a tight, controlled, unreadable one. Watch Kenneth Branagh doing the “To be or not to be” soliliquy and try not to fall asleep:

It was the complete opposite at the current RSC production. Not just because the theatre was full of hormonal women and SF nerds, but because he performed it with spirit where Branagh is cold. It’s clearly a directorial choice to fill the character with life, possibly cos that’s what DT’s strengths are (and, when you have a sparse stage set, you need to fill it with something). His performance is also extremely good at delineating the three ‘stages’ of Hamlet – the initial whiny, almost adolescent stage; the antic stage of his feigned madness; the final steely stage where he’s determined upon action. For me, those three stages leapt out of the text – and it’s always nice to have your interpretation verified.

The lighting’s incredible (a lovely gimmick with torches at the opening, and imitation fireworks later), Oliver Ford Davies nearly steals the show as Polonius and of course Patrick Stewart has the stage presence of a mighty lion. Hear him roar! I don’t think it’s going to go down as a classic production though. They’ve edited it heavily to make it bearable for the audience but in doing so, they’ve cut virtually everything about Fortinbras, so when he makes his (in this production, silent and brief) entrance at the end, if you don’t know the play you’re thinking “wuh?” And Hamlet’s long explanation – about how he switched the letters carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern so they no longer order Hamlet’s execution but the deaths of the pair themselves, and then Hamlet’s escape onto a pirate ship and subsequent ditching back in Denmark – is cut entirely, leaving Horatio with a line of Tom Stoppard’s, yet the tomfoolery with Osrick and bloody his hat stays in. I can’t quite understand that bit of editorial switchery. We’ve only got two scenes to realise that Hamlet genuinely has got his nerve up and become a man of action and his adventures really show that. I think you need to hear what he’s been doing, particularly since he goes back to his old tricks at Ophelia’s funeral (leaping into her grave, fighting with Laertes). I dunno. Maybe they decided that such a long speech was a bit much for one actor, coming in the middle of the gravedigger scene and Ophelia’s funeral, and the fencing match.

Gertrude’s character is also still a mystery, and I’ve never been entirely happy with how she and Hamlet virtually ignore the body of Polonius while they carry on bickering through the closet scene – but both these things are faults of the text, I suppose. And it’s not a perfectly realised play by any means – too much doesn’t make sense when you think about it – but this production at least manages what I thought was impossible: they make Hamlet fun.

That’s not to say, of course, that it isn’t an emotional whinger for the actors, particularly DT himself. Which is why I’m getting so mad at the stories of what’s happening at the stage door. The RSC had to ban people from asking DT or Patrick Stewart (“Pat” to one of my parents’ friends, who was at school with him; having Yorkshire roots occasionally has its benefits) to sign Doctor Who or Star Trek merchandise but it doesn’t seem to have stopped the scrum. Seriously – take a look at some of these pictures. The director’s quoted in the Torygraph as saying Tennant can’t go to a local cafe because it “turns into a sci-fi convention”. And read the end of this review (‘no, dear, he wasn’t – stage lights and all that’).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a good squee. Lord knows, I indulge myself often enough in the privacy of my own home. But let’s draw a line here – not when the object of said squee has just poured his soul out for three hours in the name of your entertainment. Not when he’s trying to chill out with some friends, as recounted by Marie (that photo there is a very squee-able photo. But keep it low-key, people!). Not when he just wants to go the fuck home. david-tennant.com actually felt the need to publish a guide to theatre etiquette, which included “Although the performance tends to be exciting and enjoyable, noise from the audience can be very distracting for the performers, so the audience will be expected to sit quietly in their seats during the performance”. I thought that was going a bit far until I saw some of the stuff that’s hitting the internet.

You can only hope that it calms down a bit for the guy’s sanity, but also for the play – it’s too good, and too unfair on the other actors, for it to be overshadowed by crazy fans. M’companion-in-the-Arts got within a door’s width of being introduced
the following day (contacts, it’s all about contacts) but was actually
quite relieved when it didn’t happen. Which is worse: never being
introduced to David Tennant, or being introduced and turning scarlet,
mumbling and coming across as THAT girl?

I shall never refer to myself as a stalker again.

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