I’ve now seen Hamlet five times in the last year, and three times in the last five weeks. Last year I saw Peter Sarsgaard in New York and Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican in London (my thoughts here and here). The last two were the RSC version with Paapa Essiedu, and one of the final performances of the Globe-to-Globe version – a touring production that was played in 197 countries over the last two years. And then last night I saw the ‘first Hamlet’ at The Cockpit.
The current RSC version is set in contemporary African present, with a majority black cast. Hamlet is shown graduating from Wittenberg university, which might be in the US, and then returning home. The ghost is a figure from a tribal history; the new King and Queen modern rulers. This works quite well for the ‘geopolitical’ aspects of the plot I’m most interested in for my own work.
The Globe version was with a small cast, lots of doubling of roles, minimal set and fast-paced – clearly all planned for the road. Much of the wider frame of the story was cut, though not all – Hamlet did encounter the Norwegian army, for example. It was a decent, though I thought unremarkable production – the special aspect was the global scope, and being part of it must have been an unforgettable journey. It would have been interesting to have seen an early London show, two years ago, and compare to the final ones. After those two, quite different, but both good productions, I wasn’t sure that I needed to see another for a while.
But then I chanced on a link to a very different version that was playing in The Cockpit, a small theatre near Marylebone station. This version uses the first Quarto text, a much shorter play that is variously understood to be a first version, a pirate edition constructed by actors with faulty memories, or a the script of a dramatically cut touring production (or a combination of these). It’s sometimes known as a ‘bad quarto’.
Most editions of the play use either the second Quarto or the version from the first Folio as their basis, or combine the texts; and most productions one or other, perhaps with the texts conflated. The second quarto has about 200 lines that are not in the Folio; the Folio about 70 lines which are not in the second Quarto. The first Quarto is much shorter – about 2000 lines compared to 3900 in the second Quarto. The Arden third series has two volumes – the second Quarto as the main one, and the first Quarto and first Folio in a companion volume. There is also a very useful triple-columned The Three-Text Hamlet, which I’ve used quite a bit for my work – it’s unfortunately out-of-print and second-hand copies are expensive.
The first Quarto is an interesting text, with a number of unique elements. Polonius is called Corambis and some of the other names are changed. Some of the famous speeches are different – ‘To be, or not to be, ay, there’s the point’, for example, which is also moved to earlier in the text. There are several important aspects. One of the best is the unique scene in which Horatio apprises Gertred of the King’s English plot against Hamlet, and fills in quite a bit of background detail (though, no pirates) before Hamlet’s return for the grave scene. Hamlet never meets the Norwegian army, and the soliloquy that follows (“O, from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!) is missing from the text, just as it is from the Folio. Laertes appears as a personally aggrieved son and brother, not at the head of a crowd with political intentions. Even if parts of the script are badly misremembered by one of the actors (probably the one who played Marcellus and other small roles) many of the cuts are likely the result of performance decisions, so it is an important historical document.
The most striking thing is the length – a 7.30pm start, and out before 10pm, even with an interval. It’s about the same length as Macbeth, and almost as fast-paced. I read somewhere – though can’t now recall where – that the RSC version from a few years ago with David Tennant was originally going to use the first Quarto text, but for some reason decided against it. (Gregory Doran’s diary of directing the play mentions that text, but not the choice of which one was used.)
Nicholas Limm was a good Hamlet, establishing a good contrast between the introspective and ‘antic disposition’ moods, although he hurried some lines. Maryam Grace was a strong but not especially mad Ofelia; Christopher Laishley one of the better Horatios I’ve seen. I thought Alex Scrivens was better as the Ghost than as his brother, the King, and I wasn’t convinced there was much passion between him and Gertred. Other parts were shared by the remaining cast – only 11 actors in total. I actually found it hard to concentrate on the performances alone, because I was so interested in the different script – it was like watching, if not quite a different play, a translation of an abridged version: some familiar, some strikingly different. (A fuller review of the performance, with some photographs, is at The Stage.)
Overall I enjoyed this very much, and it only runs for a few more days, but tickets are still available. While I’ve been working on Hamlet recently, and so was fascinated by the textual variations, I think this is a strong version on its own terms, and worth seeing.