It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads about my theatre trips that, until Tuesday night, I had never seen Hamlet live and only got to know the story last month, when preparing The Celestial One (TCO), aged 9, to join me at Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory Theatre’s version of England’s best known author’s best known tragedy. After reading a hugely abridged children’s book and watching a 22 minute animated film, it’s fair to say that we were hanging onto the bare bones of Shakespeare’s longest play.
We understood this as a tale of revenge in which almost everyone dies. After a visitation by the ghost of his recently deceased father, Prince Hamlet feigns madness as a trick that he hopes will help avenge his father’s death, assured now that he was, in fact, poisoned by his uncle, Claudius, who has married in haste Hamlet’s widowed mother, Queen Gertrude, thus usurping the throne and claiming parentage of the unfortunate boy. A tragic case of mistaken identity leads Hamlet to kill Polonius, Chief Counsellor to the King, a weight too heavy to bare for Polonius’ daughter, the heartbroken and jilted (by a still secretly loved-up Hamlet) Ophelia, who is driven to madness and despair enough to drown herself. Laertes, Polonius’ son, returns from France at the news of his father’s death and agrees to a plot hatched by Claudius to kill Hamlet in a sword fight that backfires, poison meant for the Prince killing not only the original target but also his mother, Claudius and the belatedly repentant Laertes. No spoilers there, it’s the very least you should be equipped with if you, like me, don’t know your Shakespeare. And, hopefully, you’ll join the rest of the audience with plenty more knowledge besides.
So would it be enough?
Director Andrew Hilton has opted for stripped bare: Max Johns’ set is minimal, sparse of furniture and played out almost entirely within Elsinore, the royal Danish castle, the world outside only visible through the light of well-placed and effective high windows. Johns’ costumes reek of the Tudor era and, apart from a slight flourish of indulgence that Claudius would, of course, allow himself, they are suitably drab in colour. All of this works very well for a tale seeped in treachery and terrible mistrust. Inescapable that Hamlet should feel so perpetually watched as to hold him trapped of both body and mind.
Alan Mahon plays a youthful and self-assured Hamlet, a character who surely has the bulk of the 4,000 lines? My ignorance of the fuller story doesn’t inform me if I should be sick-tired of his voice well before the final death scene. A lack of high-culture gives me no clue as to whether or not I should be happy that Laertes will cut and kill him with his poisoned rapier. But I am. Mahon, like every single actor on stage, tells the tale with clarity of diction, a huge bonus in a linguistically difficult to digest play, relayed to us 400 years after (and in commemoration of) the author’s death. My skeletal reading beforehand hasn’t prepared me for the ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ syndrome, whereby Hamlet’s donning madness as a cloak actually leads to a bonafide unsoundness of mind. It’s subtle. Is it there? And by gosh, I’ve met, known, loved this man, which makes me think that the paranoia witnessed in the real lives of others actually does have more than a sprinkling of foundation.
Madness! It affects no-one as deeply as it does poor Ophelia and Isabelle Marshall plays her beautifully. She’s classy, understated and rather lovely. In fact, other than he being the rightful heir to the throne of Denmark (which, admittedly, is a biggie), I see no reason why she should be drawn to the handsome yet bolshy Hamlet. Too much boy, not enough man. Right to the end. My daughter disagrees, preferring the eponymous hero of all the characters because “he’s strong and never gives up.” Hamlet, attempting to convince the watchers of his insanity, treats her abominably, pushing her towards her own demons and, when she finally lets them all in, her breakdown has you reaching out to her. Marshall, lipstick a la Baby Jane Hudson, ultimately escapes the oppression with glorious believability, as she shakes off all the years of restriction, loved too much by her brother and father and nowhere near enough by her chosen suitor. If drowning be the most peaceful way to die, Ophelia, darling, you really are well out of it.
Paul Currier’s Claudius is a curious chap. This new King is a cunning politician, a clever man, not charming but definitely winning. Likeable even. So that, at times, we are left unsure whether Hamlet is being paranoid after all. No, none of it, look we have proof! Claudius wants him dead. This uncertainty, the blurring of sanity and madness may have been one of the most powerful aspects of Hilton’s production. What really does it mean to be of sound mind? Who, in truth, can determine this? Your reality is not mine. And, probably, nor is your interpretation of this great play.
Great, yes, if not completely understood. But just fine for a first timer. Thank you Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory because, yet again, you’ve taken me one more step along this arduous but slowly rewarding journey.
For kids? Unless they’re well versed, probably not.
Hamlet plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 30th April