The RSC‘s new production of Hamlet made BBC1 News just now. Why? The same reason the local fish and chip shop has an enormous Dalek in the window: David Tennant’s in town, and playing the lead role. Tonight is opening night, and I was at yesterday’s final preview showing.
Warning: this post contains large spoilers for the plot of Hamlet, and minor spoilers for this particular production.
Abi and I picked up tickets last November, and even then we struggled to find an appropriate date. Friday / weekend shows were long gone, and we squeezed into an early Monday. It seemed way, way in the future, and if you’ll excuse the cliche, I am baffled that it can be August already. Despite everything that’s happened in the meantime, Abi and I are still very good friends, and it was nice to see her for the day. We wandered around the still see-through RST, then walked a few hundred metres up the river to the RSC’s temporary home, The Courtyard Theatre. I was a bit worried about being under-dressed, but thankfully the average visitor was smart-casual1, and the whole evening was fairly relaxed. We settled in and browsed the programme, trying to find actors who haven’t starred in The Bill and Casualty, as the ushers tried very hard to talk down the many people with cameras.
I like Hamlet. I studied it at A-level, although I’ve never seen it performed full length2. Which is a bit bonkers, in hindsight. But I knew it well enough not to have to read up beforehand, which meant I could concentrate on the production and performances.
I liked it. I thought it was modern and cool. This is in no small way due to Mr Tennant, who I thought was very good indeed.
I don’t know how anyone judges acting. I wrap myself in knots thinking about it. But I know Mr Tennant kept me entertained, which is all I can ask for. I thought he played a good young prince throughout, but he was at his best playing Bonkers Hamlet. He can do the quiet tension and earnest soul-searching, as well as being frighteningly unbalanced, but when he let rip with the sparkly eyed man-with-a-plan act it was a joy to watch. The scene in which he linguistically dances around the location of Polonius’ body was particularly great. It wasn’t especially Doctor-like, either – there was more menace to his gleeful pronouncements. And the accent was different.
None of which should diminish the cast around him. Patrick Stewart was convincingly dickish as Claudius, and Polonius wasn’t as annoying as you’d think, which must take some skill. And I thought Queen Gertrude was particularly impressive – she had a quiet grace and dignity even while doing nothing. Ophelia was as loop-de-loop flighty as ever, too. I really couldn’t fault the acting.
The production used contemporary costumes, as well as non-sword weapons. The stage itself and the rear ‘curtain’ were mirrored, and the latter hinged so actors could slip into hiding. The mirror would then occasionally become see-through glass, which was a nice touch (and pretty technically demanding, I think). The Courtyard Theatre stage juts out into the audience, and as such the actors can arrive/depart via various aisles through the seats. They made good use of this, with people appearing from all angles. It’s a neat stage layout – I think the new RST will be similar – and you certainly feel like the actors are playing for you, rather than being on-stage and removed.
I don’t have enough experience to say much about the script interpretation, but Abi tells me they played all the laughs very well. It certainly wasn’t a deathly-serious production, for which I’m grateful (I saw a grim Romeo and Juliet a couple of years ago) and I did find myself laughing a lot. It wasn’t overwrought, either – the emotional scenes were played straight, but there wasn’t the old-school wailing and histrionics – they all had a modern sensibility, which I liked. I noticed one scene which was cut a little, but the play certainly wasn’t the worse for it3.
We’re also pretty sure there was a slightly-too-long pause after Hamlet’s line “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space”. Abi picked up on this immediately and started me laughing, but I didn’t hear anyone else react. So that might just be us reading too much into it. I was similarly amused by Patrick Stewart boldly saying “then it shall be so”, which is just wrong.
As mentioned, the in-the-audience stage meant the actors were continually disappearing into the crowd. I happened to be on the aisle of one of two main pathways, and both Mr Tennant and Mr Stewart walked within centimetres of me various times. This obviously means nothing at all – it’s not like I met them or anything – but is still worthy of a minor geekgasm.
The play ended and there was loud applause until David Tennant walked on, at which point there was VERY LOUD applause. Justifiably, I’d say. Abi was keen to hang around the stage door for a while, and I can’t pretend I was particularly reticent. At first we stood by the wrong door, then we walked around the corner to find the Very Large Crowd. It was quite the throng, and it seemed unlikely there would possibly be time to sign something for everyone, but we waited around anyway.
It did occur to me – just briefly – that there is no better place than that stage door for me to meet women, given what people are always telling me. Then I felt like a dick for having the thought. And then I thought I should get my hair done and trot down at 2300 every evening, just to see what happens. Then I felt worse, and started thinking about soup.
As luck would have it, they announced that neither would be signing anything that evening. Which was a slight relief, if I’m honest – goodness knows how long it would have taken.
Great evening, all round. Abi’s way more up on Shakespeare than I am, and she loved it (and not just because of Mr Tennant). Excellent entertainment.
Update: Anna was there the same night as me, and has a very nicely-written review.
- I live at smart-casual – can’t do anything to either side, but smart-casual I can handle [↩]
- The closest I came was ‘Hamlet: The Panto’, which was great. They were excellent at reframing meanings and drawing attention to the more overlooked parts of the play, but when I mentioned this to my English Lit. teacher she sniffily replied that we wouldn’t be taking a class outing any time soon. And thus, the problem with English Lit.. [↩]
- sadly, they didn’t cut the part where he jumps into Ophelia’s grave. I hate that bit [↩]