Thanks to the social club at work, I got tickets for the family to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the RSC‘s The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon last night (one of a series of preview nights I think). The company included David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius amongst many other well known actors from stage and screen.
Theatre and Staging
This was my first visit to this theatre which opened only a couple of years ago. There is a virtual tour available on the link above. I love the way the stage projects fully into the audience and the actors can enter/exit essentially through the audience. We were located to the side and I had the last seat next to one of the stage exits (had to remember not to stretch my leg out or I would have tripped up the actors as they strode into the centre of the stage on scene changes). I had a great view. I doubt there are any bad seats in the theatre.
I have seen Hamlet many times over the years, it is one of my favourite plays and always makes me laugh. This was an absolutely superb production. Staging was kept very clean with very little furniture and the actors used the space extremely well (there were times I worried that they were going to spill over into the audience though). Text aside, the setting was modern so most of the characters were in contemporary clothing most of the time. They even used the sound of a helicopter and had someone abseil onto the stage at one point. The stage was backed by a set of revolvable semi-transparent mirrors and the stage itself was highly reflective (the actors made brilliant use of this in dark outside scenes by bouncing light from their modern torches off the stage surface to illuminate each other’s faces). In some scenes, chandeliers were lowered into view.
Not surprisingly, given Tennant’s popularity as the current incarnation of The Doctor in the BBC’s long running family sci-fi drama, Doctor Who there were a lot more younger people in the audience than one might normally expect. To my delight, they all seemed to genuinely enjoy the performance and did not disturb the players at all. The same was true of my own daughter and her close friend both of whom came to the performance with open minds and discovered that "Shakespeare could be funny" – that this was a surprise says a lot for our education system. It took them rather less than the twenty minutes I have advised them it would take to tune into the form of English used, which says a lot for the quality of the acting (the better the acting, the easier the tuning is even for those less familiar with the form).
I like Tennant as an actor a lot. Although he has been in the RSC for many years, I had never seen him on stage before but having seen him in a wide range of roles on film and TV, I had high hopes of his Hamlet and was delighted by what he delivered. His body language, facial expressions and of course, following the rhythm of the text, his voice were very different from what he does when playing the Doctor although he still used an English rather than a Scottish accent although again this was subtly different from the accent he uses for the Doctor – bit of a shame really as many people think the texts work better with the older-form accents rather than BBC English. The timbre and pacing were very different from Doctor Who most of the time. Obviously, as this was theatre, the projection of his voice was also very different from TV and film and appeared natural and effortless. (I am glad he did not get too close to me when he was in full rant as his voice was very strong and there was clearly a lot of spit involved.)
There were brief moments when you could see the same actor but then there are moments when the energy and madness shown by Hamlet are not that far from what the Doctor goes through. At times he roughed his hair up so much and wagged his head back and forth so violently that I was surprised he did not become bald and get neck strain.
He nailed the sometimes frantic pace of the text perfectly and walked the line between despair, madness and subtle irony brilliantly. The switches from moments of apparent insanity to the most cutting of remarks were enthralling and the occasions of deep sadness and even despair most moving.
The physicality he brought to the part was impressive and there were times when I feared for his well being (the casual way he dropped towards Ophelia’s grave as well as on and over the edges many times for example). The sword fight was dramatic. There is so much attention given to this by the audience that the usual stage distraction methods (to hide poor stage fighting skills) are not available to the director and the rapier work has to be pretty realistic for the average audience member to be convinced. This was done extremely well in my view with lots of energy and excellent use of space. Clearly both actors had practiced long and hard.
I believe that in some of the previews, he was largely barefoot but he did have footwear during some of this production. Trainers at one point in fact.
Patrick Stewart is of course also famous not just as a long standard Shakespearean actor but also for playing the part of Captain of the starship Enterprise, Jean Luke Piccard, in the TV series (and follow-up films) Star Trek: The Next Generation for seven or so years. If memory serves me correctly, the producers of that show when originally casting for it had had trouble filling the part of the Captain when the saw Stewart on stage and realised – if they could persuade him – that they had found their Captain. I would have to say that Stewart’s presence on stage was to me greater than that of Tennant’s but that could simply be a trick of the role (after all, Stewart is playing the King) and his age. It would be fascinating to see Tennant, when he is much older, in the role of King playing against the latest upstart of the next generation.
Oliver Ford Davies
I have to mention Oliver Ford Davies at this point as well. He played Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain and father of Ophelia. One the most difficult roles to bring off well given you have to portray someone who gets somewhat tied up in his own logistical knots loosing threads here and there, playing on words and overly complicating everything. Superb and hilarious.
In fact, the whole cast were exceptional in my view – a credit to them and the director. I especially love the quality of stillness these fine stage actors displayed from time-to-time. It resonates as strongly as well timed silences and provides a great counter-point to a lot of the action. It was clear to me that the whole cast understood the text well including the many word plays and double-entendres. The meanings of some of the words have inevitably changed over the years and actors knowing only the modern meanings may well have acted things differently. The setting and clothes may have been modern, but this company knew what Shakespeare was talking about.
The death scene at the end was especially well done – so refreshing to avoid a "Hollywood ending" and have the hero going on to a happy-ever-after life. I especially like Hamlet fading away in Horatio’s arms. (I forgive the "dead" actors breathing hard after their frantic fighting scene.)
Once we exited the theatre we found that there were large numbers of mostly young people gathered around the stage-door waiting to greet, presumably, Tennant and have him sign things. (It has since been on the news that the RSC, reasonably
in my view, have advised that he will only be signing things relating to his performance in Hamlet and not any Doctor Who material.)
One last thought for anyone who has tickets to see this play: buy the programme – it actually tells you something interesting including how they put the production together (gems such as everyone in the company reads all of the parts except their own at one point for example). It also has a good little biography of each of the players.
I think I should go and book tickets for Tennant’s next role now (as Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost).