Hamlets; directed by Daniel Tyler for The Young REP at the Birmingham Library, Birmingham, UK. 21 March 2015, [the only] matinee.
Reviewed by Thea Buckley and Sara Marie Westh
Hamlet and Hamlet is the singular traditional pinnacle of theatrical achievement, the measuring stick held up to the actor’s self and the world. But with great heritage and expectation comes great prejudice, and Hamlet is every bit as daunting as Hamlet. For a play and role widely considered the height of theatre art, how do you cast it, cut it, stage it? No matter how you do your Hamlet, you will be participating in a sprawling tradition, and for your work to have meaning, your production will have to relate to that or risk being forgettable.
Hamlets faced this challenge by putting the issue of the play’s vast afterlife at its core. In turn alive and haunting, the show interrogated our perceptions of the play and of ourselves as participants. Billed as ‘promenade, vast, refreshing’, Hamlets was performed from 17-21 March by the Birmingham REP. Their show also proved immersive, provocative, and electrifying, with the action unfolding across all nine floors of the neighbouring Library of Birmingham. The title’s plurality referenced its multiple Hamlets and Ophelias, played by ‘a cast of Young REP members’, students supported by older, professional actors. Drawing inspiration from the play’s many iconic productions, Hamlets playfully experimented with nine simultaneous sweet princes. These were styled distinctly as Laurence Olivier, Sarah Bernhardt, Asta Nielsen, Shahid Kapoor from Haider, ‘Johnny’ Hamlet from the 1968 spaghetti western, a military man, a female goth, a 1950s ‘ in lacy white salwarkameez, and a postmodern Hamlet in Chinese jacket and trainers.
This plurality may seem like a recipe for disaster; one melancholy black-garbed Dane is normally more than enough. Yet this was a most thought-provoking, engaging production. Entering the hushed Library after hours felt like going down the rabbit hole, into a secret world of books and whispers. Our anticipation was visibly shared by the diverse and fulsome audience of 75-odd, who gathered equally excited in the lobby in front of a roped-off ‘display’ featuring two thrones on a raised platform. This was guarded by several guides labelled ‘archivists’, distinctively costumed in grey sterile suits. They established the theme of archives and afterlives at the outset, questioning us as to our expectations and experience of the play and recording responses on clipboards. On completion of our surveys we received our own label, which was a group tour sticker featuring skulls against a multicoloured background, individual yet uniform in mortality.
A different Hamlet rode in the lift with each group, up to the Library roglass-walled top floor where we passed a fairytale rooftop vista of the city, along a corridor jarringly strewn with mock archive-tagged bags of ‘bodies’, to reach the wood-panelled Shakespeare Memorial Room. As an opulent memorial to a revivified author, it was a perfect opening setting for a play that highlighted afterlives. We found ourselves in the presence of Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Laertes, duly labelled in period costume, while piped-in, peppy music kept us grounded in the present. The actors stood by, immobile among shelved Shakespeare tat, like museum exhibits set to come to life after lights out. Around us, a number of labelled shoe boxes displayed Hamlet props or bore tantalising tags of ‘Goblets’, ‘Poisons’, and (the textual scholar’s favourite) ‘Always Cut [lines] 1605-2015’. Boxes tagged with character names were later carried between rooms by their owners, bearing their identities in memorial scrapboxes.
Into our midst slowly appeared the young Hamlets, diverse in gender, ethnicity and costume; anticipation built with each group entry, and our accompanying archivist’s nervous ‘Who’s there?’ was answered with ‘A friend!’ Once the room was full, the play began with the ‘…must I remember?’ monologue spoken by the Hamlets both singly and in unison, immersing us in their collective grief. We moved to the rooftops for the ghost scene, appropriately surreal with Hamlet Senior dressed Darth Vader-like in cloak, armour, and helmet-mask. Nine Hamlets knelt at his feet, a scene that was stunningly eerie against the chilly, sunset city ramparts. A hint came of the theme of individuality in multiple perspectives, as we split into three groups to see one of three Ophelias, all wearing maroon dresses, as s/he each met Hamlet, Laertes, or Polonius. Our room held the only male Ophelia, distraught over destroyed mementoes, in a moving performance and throwback to an all-male Elizabethan tradition.
Hamlet’s multiple afterlives, both textual and digital, continued to dominate. The librarians became living resources embedded in the play, and we encountered them mock grumbling in the corridors, holding the doors for us, or announcing a scene over the tannoy; harassed, they fended off nine Hamlets going mad nine different ways in the computer cluster. To better observe these, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern went mobile, wheeled about together on a re-shelving trolley, while we were now invited to individually explore the eighteen different ‘To be or not to be’ speeches taking place around us. Hamlets spoke to us in Punjabi, Klingon, Ndebele, and even collectively in a recorded digital mashup of audience voices across the globe.
The nine Hamlets were shockingly transgressive of texts and their surroundings – throwing books off trolleys, jabbering to no-one on an unplugged lobster phone behind the reception desk, lurking amongst the lockers, or spinning around in computer chairs clearly marked ‘do not remove’. Some stood, sat, or lay underneath their filmic identities, beamed onto the wall or playing on computers, in an extraordinary immersive and interactive mashup of past and present, spatial and virtual, textual and digital. We were given a chance to fill in the gaps in Hamlet’s soliloquy, or even record our own speech while wearing one of Osric’s hats. This ‘Yo-Ur Hamlet’ was everyman’s Hamlet, contemporary and transitory, mediated by both audience and performers. The soliloquies were set in the multi-level heart of the library, against glowing neon paths of escalators linking the central cutaway core, snakes and ladders of choices leading towards afterlife of either hell or heaven. This theme of individual personality intertwined with a collective human destiny became especially powerful when three Hamlets rejected three Ophelias, all portrayed as same-sex mirror couples, blurring gender boundaries while inviting introspection on human equality.
Descending to the middle level for the Mousetrap, the Hamlets individually diverged from Shakespeare’s text in response to ‘What do you read, my lord?’ – Lord of the Rings, Fire and Ice, and The Mousetrap were among their replies. Along our promenade, texts turned into props; Ophelia ripped out pages of Hamlet’s poetry, first offering them to us as flowers, then showering them down the stairs after us, as the ‘2015 Ophelia’ in her lace party dress beat at us through glass staircase walls like a trapped butterfly and the mournful Hindi song of ‘Indian Ophelia’ followed us, as she lamented her torn book and mind. Her memorial display next greeted us on entry to the Children’s section, as we moved past illustrations of the drowned maid to see the Ophelia-labelled shoebox laid to rest in a grave of ‘book walls’ built by Librarians turned gravediggers. They brandished a copy of The Lion King while singing ‘Hakuna Matata’, offering an intertextual interlude as Hamlet reminisced about his boyhood and Yorick; as the jester grotesquely gamboled in the background, in a comic commentary, the Librarians held up another book from the pile, opened to the picture of a skull. Their carefully constructed book piles were soon destroyed by a tussling Hamlet and Laertes, in another truly shocking physical and metaphorical desecration of the ‘sacred text’. Texts became not only graves but also afterlives; as characters died we spotted them pottering in resurrection amongst the bookshelves. In the final promenades, the numbers of the dead outgrew the living and walked with us along the way.
The ghosts watched with us while the Hamlets played solo (the nunnery, closet and grave scenes; dying in Horatio’s arms) or in ensemble (the death scene, with each taking a turn at the sword and all collapsing at the end). The effect in either case was extraordinarily moving, creating a collective experience in which spectators mixed with characters and pluribus merged into unum. At play’s end, set full circle against the lobby throne ‘exhibit’, no Norway appeared to cross the crime scene and break the illusion of suspended afterlife. All corpses finally arose together, reanimated by our appreciative applause. We were left with the feeling that Shakespeare’s most famous play had not been done to death just yet, and that his vaunted Prince actually deserves to haunt our collective memory.