Monday, 14 October 2013

Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Company 2013

Whilst there's something curious and gratifying about approaching a show with few presumptions, my preconceptions about 'Hamlet' were auspiciously preserved, and surmounted in David Farr's 2013 production. I like 'Hamlet' and, after months spent studying it, I understand 'Hamlet'. I was intrigued as to just what Johnathan Slinger, "one of the RSC's great discoveries in recent years", had to offer. Aided by Farr's scrupulosity and Bausor's creativity and innovation, Slinger's portrayal of one of Shakespeare's most complex and disordered protagonists is absolutely commendable.

At a first glance, Bausor's set design is nothing more than an eclectic mix of Shakespeare's exploitation of the tragic genre: saturated by scattered skulls and cold lighting; an ethereal 1960s aesthetic, located somewhere between a working-men's club and a public school gym. However, it is perhaps through David Farr's infatuation with fencing equipment that the set becomes a microcosm or, indeed, a metaphor for the inner-workings of Hamlet's mind. Is the fencing motif simply a route into introducing swords into a modern society, or does it reflect Hamlet's paradoxical powerlessness? Presented with "the motive and cue for passion", Hamlet is not limited by his overriding fear; thus, perhaps the use of the foil reinforces Hamlet's untimely prevarication.

Similarly, the emptiness of the set, mingled with Bausor's meticulous attention to detail, may become a metaphor for Hamlet's inner psyche - a method of staging not unknown in the RSC. Despite a compelling stage presence, Slinger's Hamlet is physically and psychologically confined in his environment. The single wedding balloon, wound up in the metal rafters, leaves a bitter taste in the audience's mouths.

Interestingly, the set is free of any resplendent idiosyncrasies. Whether this reveals Hamlet's detachment from his family as a notion of royalty, or it is simply perceived as undesirably cliché, the audience is left unaware. Thus, Bausor creates a judiciously limiting space; one from which Hamlet can not, and does not, escape: that which is simultaneously claustrophobic and isolating. 

I went into this production with an incredibly defined image of who, and what, Hamlet was. Slinger played exactly my Hamlet. He is demonstrative and mesmerising as the grief-stricken Price; a premeditating, impetuous son; and an audacious and abusive lover. Slinger embraces the multi-faceted nature of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and utilizes this opportunity, arguably, to the point of excess. Slinger's portrayal is notable in its brutality towards Ophelia (Pippa Nixon): forcing her to undress, and smearing mud in her face. Whilst criticized by many, I was enamored by this interpretation since it emerged from a broader psychological exploration of Hamlet; these crazed junctures transformed Slinger's Hamlet into a wholly rounded and plausible character - a victim not only of jealousy, greed and lechery, but also of ineludible mental instability. 

Jonathan Slinger is surrounded by a good cast - though perhaps only a good one. Greg Hicks impresses as a convincing Claudius: impeccable stage presence, and the consistent nature of his character seems to root an, otherwise, capricious production. Claudius and the Ghost are doubled: Hicks is a brilliant ghost - compelling without being imposing; stirring an extraordinary moral, spiritual and physical presence. This doubling of characters further emphasises the complexity of the play; Hicks' Ghost reveals the merging of healthy minds with unhealthy bodies and, equally, Claudius' healthy body and corrupted mind. 

Nixon's portrayal of Ophelia is contemporary and innovative; she is concurrently intensely vulnerable and deceptively self-determining: all of which synthesizes into a confusing mix of madness, grief and deficiency. She is characterised visually by flowers, emphasising her fragility relative to the assurance demonstrated by contrasting military props. Nixon and Slinger establish a memorable stage exchange; their individual susceptibility complementing and exaggerating each other's, and creating a complex and tormenting relationship. 

The dialogue between Hamlet and Gertrude (Charlotte Cornwell) however, was not nearly as authoritative. The mother-son relationship was somewhat understated, if not lacking. Whether this was a case of Slinger's character being too overbearing, stifling the potential for response; inadequacy and superficiality in Cornwell's Gertrude; or simply poor direction, I am unsure. 

Slinger's Hamlet was exactly what I'd hoped for; Farr's direction wasn't. That doesn't mean to say that I wasn't impressed, I was, but I couldn't have anticipated the originality with which he approached this production. He does justice to the intricacy and diversity of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', mastering a provocative set, an accomplished cast, and successfully fostering a thrilling interpretation of the play. 


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