We are in the gym at a public school with the school motto, Mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), overhead. There’s a stage at one end and a border of black soil with skulls poking through it all round the acting area. A man in a black suit, wearing glasses, comes in, sits at the front and quietly says, ‘Who’s there?’ Welcome to Hamlet at the RSC.
This is Jonathan Slinger’s much anticipated interpretation of the role after his run of Richard II, Richard III, Prospero and Macbeth at the RSC. And with Greg Hicks doubling as the Ghost and Claudius, Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann, both terrific in Maria Aberg’s King John last year, as Ophelia and Horatio, and Charlotte Cornwell as Gertrude, it’s a strong line-up.
As with all Hamlets it’s interesting to see how much of, and which version of, Shakespeare’s five hour text the director uses. For this three and a half hour production David Farr goes with ‘too, too solid flesh’, not ‘sullied flesh’, which I approve of, but he sticks with the Folio and places ‘To be or not to be’ in Act III after the Players’ scene rather than the Quarto version which bringing it forward to Act II and which I must admit I prefer. Voltemand and Cornelius are in and Fortinbras arrives at the end although all his lines have ben cut.
There are various interesting textual modernisations and simplifications which might be director-inspired. The actors speak the verse with a natural, contemporary rhythm and inflection which makes it accessible and comprehensible; for example, Slinger says ‘I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records’, which is how most of us would say it, not ‘trivial fond records’ which, strictly speaking, the iambic pentameter requires.
So far, so good; this is a contemporary-ish Hamlet, with a Lindsay Anderson If… design indicating a last bastion of privilege in a changing world. But which world? For her first entrance, Ophelia hurries on and drops a pile of marking on the floor so this is a real school but if Ophelia is a teacher, who is everyone else? Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are all recognisably students, the Players are crusty, agit-prop experimental theatre types and the gravedigger is played realistically as a labourer, not the Clown the text describes, but who then is Claudius? He’s clearly the king of Denmark, not a headmaster, so why is he in a school? And at the party to celebrate Gertrude’s and Claudius’s wedding the guests dance in fencing masks so where are we and what are we doing here?
Switching ‘Who’s there?’ from Barnardo to Hamlet suggests a dreamlike, memory play quality, with scenes dissolving into and overlapping with each other so presumably the half-realistic, half-symbolic style is deliberate but it felt frustratingly incomplete. Hamlet is a domestic tragedy and a political drama but Farr ignores both and plays it as an existential crisis taking Hamlet’s ‘What is a man?’ speech from Act IV, scene IV as his keynote speech. There’s a fascinating interview with David Farr on the RSC website in which he reveals his disagreement with Jonathan Slinger over how to play it. Slinger felt Hamlet’s mental state is a result of grief at his father’s death while Farr constructed his interpretation around the Renaissance idea of the four humours which leads him to the conclusion that Hamlet is predisposed to melancholy.
Claudius’s reference to ‘Hamlet’s transformation’ in Act II, scene II and Ophelia’s ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown’ speech clearly support Slinger’s interpretation; Hamlet wasn’t a melancholy man before his father died and by the end of the play he has learned to accept his father’s death. Farr’s interpretation is academically interesting but dramatically inert; there’s no psychological progression and it illuminates neither the family tragedy nor the political drama. Pippa Nixon’s Ophelia is touchingly vulnerable but Slinger’s Hamlet is too remote and detached for their relationship to carry any emotional weight. Similarly, there’s no indication of whether Gertrude really loves Claudius or if this is a marriage of convenience and there’s no suggestion of how Elsinore under Claudius might differ from life under King Hamlet or whether Fortinbras is a liberator or an oppressor. Doubling the Ghost with Claudius creates all sorts of possibilities in the Hamlet/Claudius relationship, none of which gets much attention here.
The performances are good, and Charlotte Cornwell’s strong, clear, unforced delivery (as Gertrude) is delightful after hearing so many RSC newbies’ voices apparently strained within weeks by shouting into the vast space of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. So a thought-provoking production, well acted and handsome to look at but, for me at least, not one of the greats.