Sunday, 25 September 2011

Review of Hamlet at the 2010 Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. (Published in A Groats Worth of Wit, Vol. 21 No. 3)

I should begin with full disclosure: I love the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival; it’s my favourite seasonal venue by far. They stage six plays simultaneously in various college gardens. Evelyn Waugh described the gardens of P. G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle as: ‘that original garden from which we are all exiled.’ I always get a sense of his meaning as I wander before the seating call in a bucolic daze through Trinity or Robinson. The plays are intimate too. The players are generally few, the audience relatively small. Unlike many small troops, the Cambridge actors are professionals. This intimacy, combined (usually) with professional clarity, means that you can hear Shakespeare’s words – all of them! So, disclosure complete, it’s time for specifics.
Hamlet this year was directed by Festival veteran Simon Bell and performed in Robinson College gardens. The play begins at Act I Scene ii. Now, I know that any criticism of this will sound unfair. After all, uncut, Hamlet runs to about four and a half hours. But in a play of sublime lines one of my favourites lost is uttered in Act I Scene i by a minor character, Francisco: 'For this relief much thanks: ‘tis bitter cold / And I am sick at heart.' As well as foreshadowing the ‘rank’ sense of a malady in Denmark, this also exemplifies Shakespeare’s economic genius. As a youngster in the Royal Navy, I sometimes kept watch alone in the bitter cold. Delivered well, Francisco's line never fails to send a shudder of recognition along my spine. But choices have to be made. Bell chooses to cut Scene i. So be it. We move on.
Hamlet, played by Philip Labey, naturally adopts a dark and melancholy demeanour as Claudius (Keith Chanter), Gertrude (Tessa Hatts), Laertes (Gavin Kerr) and Polonius (Alex Gordon Wood) take to the stage. There are, of course, at least two ways of playing Claudius: we might call them acerbic and anodyne. Chanter’s Claudius is of the anodyne persuasion and his courtiers seem content, Gertrude happy. This contrasts well with Hamlet’s melancholy. I’ll skip past Hamlet’s first soliloquy because I’ll examine Labey’s performance later. For now, I have to discuss Riccy Unwin’s Horatio.
I once read the assertion that we, the audience, are Horatio. (You'll have to forgive my poor scholarship; I can't remember where.) I hadn’t completely understood this till last night. Who is Horatio? He is a witness, as we are, to Hamlet’s tragedy. He is the conduit between us and Hamlet. Before the silence at the play’s end, Hamlet begs Horatio ‘To tell my story.’ How Horatio reacts to Hamlet, then, can influence how we the audience react. I hadn’t realised this until Unwin. His Horatio is not the standard, passive bulwark for Hamlet’s machinations and musings. He is playful, world-weary and somehow overly familiar, almost bored with the Prince. During the graveyard scene, as Hamlet is contemplating mortality with his breathtaking precision, Horatio raises his eyebrow, Hardy-esque almost, and responds wearily, playing for laughs, as though Hamlet’s musings were nothing more than the tedious and oft-regurgitated trivialities of an intellectual bore. As Hamlet considers:
To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
Horatio’s raised eyebrow and a caustically delivered ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so’ renders Hamlet’s profundity inane – the audience titters. To my mind, it should be Hamlet who makes us laugh in this scene; not Horatio. But it was Unwin’s performance that made me realise this. So I’m grateful. I’ll skip back a bit now and discuss this production’s shining star.
Charlotte Hunter’s Ophelia is fantastic. I'm convinced that an actor in Shakespeare has one task above all others – to make us hear the words. Hunter is brilliant at this. She has mastered the trick of always facing the audience during a speech, without making it seem contrived. Now, I’m going to be honest, I tend to become restless in the middle of the play, when Hamlet sets sail and disappears for a half an Act. I’m usually waiting for Hamlet to return. I just want to hear Hamlet discourse about the world forever really. But Hunter took me by surprise. The Ophelia madness scene tends to be played with a skip and a dance and perhaps a little roll of the eyes – nothing too demanding, and certainly nothing Lear-like in intensity. Hunter has changed all that for me. She has taken it about as far as it can go, I reckon. And she gets away with it. Not only because she performs it with a painful honesty, but because the intensity of her emotion never, ever distorts the words. Shakespeare’s language is often enough, in my view, to convey the emotion without an extreme, naturalistic performance from the actor. Hunter dared to go too far – and it was sublime. It's also worth mentioning Ophelia’s descent into madness, which is chronicled with perfect pace following her mistreatment at the hand (literally) of Hamlet. This leads me to the play's eponym and Philip Labey’s performance.
When I first ‘did’ Hamlet – and by ‘did’ I mean read, really read – I used the BBC production starring Derek Jacobi as a study aid. This has had something of a formative effect and, whilst many of the BBC Shakespeare productions are for me a miss, theirHamlet sets the standard. Horatio and Hamlet’s early dialogue, for instance:
HAMLET And fix'd his eyes upon you?
HORATIO Most constantly.
HAMLET I would I had been there.
HORATIO It would have much amazed you.
HAMLET Very like, very like. Stay'd it long?
According to John Barton, 99 percent of short lines should be delivered quickly. Hamlet and Horatio take up these lines snappily in the BBC version. Labey and Unwin decide upon a slower discourse. Each short line is followed by a pause as the character considers his response. I wanted to scream – think quicker; pick up the line! Indeed, this lack of quick thought, this internal contemplation, dominates Labey’s performance at first. Some might argue that this is naturalistically correct for playing Hamlet. After all, he is the most internalised and thoughtful character in all literature, is he not? But I would argue that his thoughts should be articulated for us instantaneously, as he thinks them. After all, we are being asked by Shakespeare to connect with an individual who is nothing like us. Hamlet is a genius. I wasn’t connecting at first with Labey’s Hamlet. All that changed during the Mousetrap. I’m not sure what happened. Perhaps Hamlet’s sudden clarity juxtaposed with Labey’s performance. In any case, Labey instantly inhabited the role. His madness became what it should be: a knife-edge between precision and mania; his intelligence became somehow more acute – it filled Labey’s eyes for the first time; he began to dominate, as Hamlet must. In short, Labey became Hamlet, and I settled back to enjoy a fantastic evening of Shakespeare.
To finish, I must mention Tessa Hatts’s Gertrude. As I’ve confessed, I generally drift off a little during the middle scenes, when Hamlet is off stage. But I’ve just been reading a fantastic book by A. D. Nuttall, called Shakespeare The Thinker, in which Nutall considers Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death. I’ll reproduce Gertrude's speech in full, because it is beautiful (it inspired Rembrandt doncha know?):
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Nutall’s dissection of this passage, and its relevance to Shakespeare's own life, made me sit up and listen as I never had before. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. Hatts was pitch perfect, and I’m sure she managed a nuance in there that paid dividends in the following scene, when the question of Ophelia’s ‘doubtful’ death, or suspected suicide, is raised. There were other gems – the sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet is amazing (Simon Bell, the director, is an expert at stage combat) – and I could probably rattle on and on, much to your dismay. So to finish then, if you fancy a thought-provoking and often wonderful production of Hamlet, in a venue of staggering beauty (and who wouldn’t) get thee to Cambridge before the end of July.

Response to the reporting of my interview with the Guardian

George Orwell noticed early in life that ‘no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper’.

Is that a churlish opening? Riazat Butt doesn’t completely misrepresent me (read her interpretation of our interview here), but her abridged account has rendered me, in some forum quarters at least, the humanist with a fascist face.
I did say and do believe that combating the subjugation of women and suppression of human flourishing might be a humanist reason for war – and I can’t be alone. Western governments have used humanist language to justify military adventures since the Second Punic War, and they are obviously manipulating some kind of moral consensus or they simply wouldn’t have bothered.
But I don’t believe that humanist altruism is the primary reason for this war any more than I believe that Roman conquests were always defensive. In my experience, war in the Middle East is about controlling land and resources. I was very clear to Riazat on that point. Capitalism is the dominant ideology on the side that covets the resources; the theocratic ‘Other’ prizes the land. This is reductionist, I know. The casus beli spectrum is no doubt as diverse as colours in a rainbow. At the end of it though, one is sure to find a pot of black gold.
In his requisite study, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2005), Robert Pape concludes that suicide bombing is a response to the presence of foreign troops in lands prized by the bomber. On 11 September 2001, we saw the most appalling suicide attack in history, and a direct causal link from the Twin Towers to my own presence in Helmand is axiomatic, but Pape adds a plausible piece to the puzzle of why the attacks happened at all.
Many people reject that. They want conflicts to resonate exclusively with words like ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘emancipation’. Those who plan our wars understand this and no doubt believe it, but it is disingenuous to deny the more pernicious aspects of our dominant ideology. To understand this and lament it without yielding an inch to the synthetic rectitude of totalitarian systems is not cognitive dissonance.
Most secular humanists, unless they have been reading Aristotle recently, are probably consequentialists. Before choosing to oppose the war in Afghanistan, intellectually honest consequentialists (and that’s not an oxymoron) should examine accounts of life under the intrusive laws of brutal regimes, add a clear-sighted assessment of the threat of a Jihadist ideology and then calculate with care. That’s not to say that a default opposition to war is irrational, of course it isn’t, but pacifism does not have an immutable right to the moral high ground – it just requires a powerfully rational reason to shift it.