Hamlet (directed by Lars Romann Engel for the 2017 Shakespeare Festival at Hamlet’s Castle, Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, Denmark. Seen: 3 August, 2017.
The review also makes brief reference to Ophelia – Noh (idea and script: Ujin Sakurama), performed by the Tokyo-based Koh Lo Sha Noh company at the 2017 Shakespeare Festival at Hamlet’s Castle, Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, Denmark. Seen: 22 August, 2017.
On a rainy August afternoon, Elsinore Castle looks like a Turner painting from the Swedish ferry. It is surrounded by clouds that are neither like camels, weasels or whales, but very like the skies of thunder, lightning and rain summoned by the three witches in the Scottish play (the other two are meeting me on the Danish side, by the way). We three have not met to mess with Macbeth’s head, though; our appointment is with Hamlet. Still, some powerful magic does seem to be at play: a little before eight, the skies suddenly clear and a brilliant, golden sunset ensues, allowing us an enchanted evening with the Great Dane, only occasionally disrupted by soaring baby seagulls vying with the actors for airtime.
This Hamlet is the pièce de résistance of the 2017 Shakespeare Festival at Hamlet’s Castle – a festival of live theatre, open-air cinema and puppetry. The production is in English (with Danish surtitles), with a mixed Danish-British cast: Hamlet himself, Cyron Melville (The Killing, The Borgias), is Danish with Scottish ancestry. The stage, which used to sit, a little cramped, in the courtyard of the castle, has been moved to the outside, with the far more dramatic backdrop of the moat, the ramparts and the walls and turrets of the illuminated castle. On the stage, there is an irregular, elevated platform or promontory, constructed from granite slabs that look like leftovers from when the castle was built; more slabs and huge blocks are piled all over the stage, and there is a pile of smallish rocks and pebbles on a table – these are occasionally used as props by the actors.
Coming in at under two and a half hours (including a twenty-minute interval), and with only nine actors, this is a production that practises thrift. There are no soldiers or sentries on the ramparts (then again, it might be argued that when you have those very ramparts as a backdrop, you do not actually need the soldiers to situate the play or provide verisimilitude); no ghost, no grave-diggers, no actors coming hither: instead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (gentle, fun-loving and inquisitive – more Merry and Pippin than Beavis and Butthead, thankfully) are called upon to provide an improvised piece of nimble, commedia dell’arte-inspired student theatre. In addition to the reallocating of lines, there is further evidence of the director as editor, in the shape of almost cinematic intercutting of some soliloquies (Claudius’s ‘O, my offence is rank’ with Hamlet’s ‘Now might I do it pat’, for instance); other soliloquies are given on-stage addressees, as when Ophelia speaks her lament for Hamlet’s lost mind in stark accusation straight to Claudius and Polonius. As a result, the production is one of robust action and interaction rather than existential contemplation – a stance eminently suitable for open-air theatre, we find.
In connection with a Shakespeare symposium at Lund University earlier in the summer, the director Lars Romann Engel generously allowed us access to his rehearsal-room, and spoke of his Hamlet as caught up in ‘the colossal paradigm shift that Martin Luther set in motion in Wittenberg in 1517’; he explained that his Hamlet, on his forced return from Wittenberg – a place of learning, enlightenment, humanism – starts out as a modern prince, filled with new ideas, set on rebelling against the old ways and those customs more honoured in the breach than the observance. Back in the Danish court, however, he is soon caught in a net of intrigue and revenge, ultimately reverting to ancient savagery. At the European Shakespeare Research Association conference in Gdansk the week before I saw the Elsinore production, the Polish director Jan Klata said that staging his first Hamlet (famously set in the old, derelict shipbuilding yard of Gdansk, redolent of recent history), he had felt an absolute loyalty to Hamlet and to his struggle against the establishment, represented by Claudius. However, directing the play again some ten years later, Klata had come to an entirely different conclusion: ‘Hamlet is a selfish p***k’, he said; he focuses on himself, hurting everyone else, acting irresponsibly. Cyron Melville’s Hamlet is neither of Klata’s extremes – not a selfish sinner, but not a selfless saint either. He is simply a clean slate; a boy who begins the play by happily horsing around with his best mate and his girlfriend, yet ends it by savagely embracing the atavistic credo of an eye for an eye. In this sense, Ophelia’s line ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!’ becomes a lament for mankind itself – noble in reason, infinite in faculty, yet so easily transformed from idealist to avenger. Horatio (low-key, intensely sympathetic and, dare I say it, something of the thinking woman’s crumpet) becomes the audience focaliser, watching in horror as his friend changes, speaking his ‘So Guildenstern and Rosencranz go to’t’…‘Why, what a king is this!’ in utter dismay.
While the initial affection between Ophelia and Hamlet, and between Horatio and Hamlet, is obvious, there is one relationship that is curiously conspicuous by its absence: that between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude. He seems mostly irritated by her, as she perfunctorily fusses about him every now and then before returning to her husband, of whom she seems far more fond. This is a Gertrude who makes no bones about believing Claudius, not Hamlet, obviously preferring being the wife of the former to being the mother of the latter. She seems determinedly oblivious to the mood of others, forever busy glossing over life’s little unpleasantnesses. I was repeatedly reminded of Big Mama in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – another wife and mother who at one point seems almost comically naïve and uncomprehending, in stubborn denial about the real, rotten state of things; unlike Big Mama, however, this Gertrude never gains the depth that would make her truly moving. It is not so much that the mask never slips; rather, one is given the impression that there is no mask, that this is all there is to her: she remains just a good-looking, rather silly woman (aptly, she is given Osric’s lines in 5.2), conventional, intent on preserving an impeccable surface – even to the point of protecting her exquisite dress by carefully spreading her shawl on the ground before lying down to die.
Ophelia, on the other hand, is deeply moving. Like Titus Andronicus, she recounts her sorrows to the stones (these take the place of the flowers in the ‘rosemary for remembrance’ scene). Later, the same stones, piled on her flimsy dress, become weights to drag her down as she quietly drowns herself, lying on her back in shallow water.
A footnote, just to indicate the scope and breadth of productions brought together within the framework of the Shakespeare Festival at Hamlet’s Castle: a week or two later, I saw a Japanese Noh play based on Ophelia’s story (in Japanese, with Danish and English surtitles). It was mesmerising and very, very beautiful, but also bewildering; a salutary experience, this, finding oneself so completely on the outside, entirely devoid of the cultural capital required for full access to what went on on that stage (for a Shakespeare fan, it is very easy to forget that despite the timelessness and universality of his plays, there are those who feel that they are on the outside of that club, too). But the emotion conveyed by this ghostly Noh Ophelia, and by Horatio, coming back to tell all, Tiresias-like, remained the same, poignant and haunting.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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