On Friday evening, still reeling from the UK election results, I went to see Classic Stage Company’s Hamlet just south-east of Union Square in the East Village. A small, modern theatre, with seats on three sides of a square stage. The set was dominated by a huge overhead flower arrangement, above a round dinner table with several open bottles of wine. A tiered wedding cake sat, untouched, at the back of the stage. We had come in towards the end of Gertrude and Claudius’s wedding reception. The guests, already somewhat the worse-for-wear, were beginning to get testy. It reminded me of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen.
When I’ve spoken about Hamlet for my Shakespearean Territories project I’ve discussed how the play is often presented as an insular family-drama, often quite claustrophobic, and that staging often makes this a requirement. In my reading of the play, which I keep returning to but has yet to reach a polished written stage, this is important but set within a wider, ‘geopolitical’ framing. This is the story of King Hamlet and King Fortinbras, the forfeit of land, and the battle of their sons in the present – Hamlet and Fortinbras – over the inheritance of titles and territory. It is vulnerable Denmark surrounded by two powerful neighbours in Norway and Poland. I’ve got used to this wider story being marginalized in stage productions, often for quite legitimate reasons. So with the set the way it was, and the opening battlement scenes being played on the periphery of the stage, with only a change in lighting, I expected much the same.
But the play wasn’t consistent in its cuts. Horatio and his colleagues encounter the ghost, who doesn’t appear in any physical manifestation, but Hamlet doesn’t. So we never hear why Hamlet thinks Claudius has killed his father – it appears to come from his own imagination. We don’t get the backstory of the King Hamlet-King Fortinbras duel, nor young Fortinbras’s mobilisation of forces, but we do hear Claudius dispatch his ambassadors Voltemand and Cornelius to Norway try to head off the problem. Hamlet doesn’t encounter Fortinbras’s army when on his way to England; but Fortinbras does appear right at the end of the play. But so many lines were cut from that last scene that there was genuine audience confusion as to when the play had actually finished. This was also a moment where the creative doubling of roles became a problem – Fortinbras was played by Daniel Morgan Shelley, who had also played Guidenstern, the Player King and some other small roles.
The doubling was due to there only being ten actors in total. The star attraction in the play was Peter Sarsgaard as Hamlet, who was occasionally great, but also swallowed some of the best lines or seemed in a hurry to get over the quotable bits. (His brother-in-law Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams were sitting behind me, cheering him on.) Stephen Spinella was the funniest Polonius I’ve seen – does he always speak like that? Penelope Allen was a tortured Gertrude, but Harris Yulin an unremarkable Claudius. Lisa Joyce’s Ophelia was interesting and quite forceful – along with other characters she remained on stage for scenes in which she did not speak, which lent a different perspective to her abandonment. Laertes was rightly angry but too hot-headed rather than calculating. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were excellent.
Despite the cuts, this was still over three hours, and felt that way. I quite like the idea of making the play an entirely domestic drama, cutting the supernatural and focusing on the family relations. But this production didn’t go quite far enough for that to work, and if you didn’t know the plot well would have been seriously confusing. Overall a disappointment, as many reviews have noted, and not nearly as cathartic as I’d hoped.
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