Hamlet: Drama of Vengeance @ Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, 2015Tragedy

  • SarahOlive

Hamlet: Drama of Vengeance – directed by Sven Gade, Heinz Schall for Silents Now at the York International Shakespeare Festival at Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York. 9 May 2015

Reviewed by Sarah Olive, University of York


This is the first instalment in a series of around ten reviews which I’ll be writing to celebrate the inaugural York International Shakespeare Festival (YorkShakes) running from 8–17 May 2015, comprised of twenty events in total and representing a partnership between York Theatre Royal, the University of York and Parrabola. Inspired by Pete Kirwan’s The Bardathon and the Year of Shakespeare project (led by Erin Sullivan, Paul Prescott and Paul Edmondson during the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012), I have set myself the challenge of turning my reviews in to Reviewing Shakespeare’s editors within 12 hours of viewing, and spending only an hour drafting them (in order to fit writing in to an otherwise ordinary work and life schedule). The reviews will foreground a sense of event, experience and eclectic interest rather than concentrating narrowly on evaluating productions or attempting to be comprehensive.

You might assume that watching a digitized version of a restored Hamlet film might not be the most interactive of Shakespearean experiences. The Silents Now gala screening tackled this from the outset. While settling into the hall, ticket holders were given a quiz sheet on which to identify actors from a slideshow of images of unidentified Hamlets. If they needed an incentive to engage (which judging by the almost compulsive whispering of ‘Mel Gibson’ and audible brain-racking, ‘I can’t remember her name’, they didn’t), there was a glossy catalogue raisonné of YorkShakes’ A Party for Will exhibition up for grabs. I managed a good handful of names, was stumped by Ethan Hawke and Christopher Eccleston, then thwarted any chance I might have had of winning by leaving my name off the sheet amid the excitement.

One of the Festival’s Directors, and Silents Now project chief, Professor Judith Buchanan took to the stage to introduce the project and the film, giving us a potted history of silent Shakespeare films, silent Hamlets (which demonstrated the long tradition of female actors in the role), and Silents Now’s mission to rebut perceptions that Shakespeare without ‘words, words, words’ is necessarily inferior Shakespeare. She also offered us her interpretation of Asta Nielsen’s success and nuance in the lead role, combining wry humour and high pathos, as thrown into relief by the ‘one-note’ performances of the other actors.

The composer of a new score for the film – here performed for only the second time and making its UK debut – Robin Harris and his fellow performer Laura Anstee, seated themselves at the piano and ‘cello respectively, as the lights went down, adding a wonderful sense of liveness, occasion and populatedness to a stage otherwise dominated by a large projection screen. Both performers managed a panoply of other instruments throughout including accordion, African finger piano, cymbal stroked with bow. They often played two simultaneously leading to spectacular bodily contortions that rivalled the grand dame (grand Dane?) on screen.

This Hamlet commences with a prologue made up of short sequences of film spliced with text summarising an unusual backstory, inspired by the now-obscure criticism of the American scholar Edward Vining (available for perusal in York’s university library). Believing her husband (old Hamlet) to have died in battle, Gertrude decides to take radical action to secure the royal family’s rule: she resolves to conceal the female sex of the heir she has just delivered, publicly announcing the birth of a prince instead. Old Hamlet returns, to Gertrude’s great surprise, is somewhat baffled and shocked by the deceit, but decides to go along with his wife’s Lady-Macbeth-like scheming to secure his dynasty. This was not the only time another Shakespearean play was invoked by the film, Hamlet’s writhing on a bed, dreaming of her father, put me in mind of Richard III’s pre-Bosworth nightmare. Having dropped this bombshell of a fatal flaw (Gertrude’s over-reaching ambition? Hamlet’s forced suppression of her true sex?), and marked its difference from other female Hamlet’s (in which women play a male character, rather than a a female character disguised as a man) the film begins in earnest, structured into six acts or parts.

The features of the film’s characterisation that impressed themselves most on me were the villainy of Gertrude, who (despite looking like a young Queen Mother) secures the kingdom at the cost of her daughter’s freedom to express her sexual desire for her fellow student at Wittenberg and fast friend Horatio. When Hamlet sets fire to part of the palace (with spectacular use of flares, giving off bright streams of smoke), killing Claudius and his drinking companions, Gertrude conspires with Laertes to ensure Hamlet dies in the duel. In this twisted, almost-Electra-complex, mother-daughter relationship, there was more than a smack of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a foreshadowing of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (released only three years later, the resonance for me may be explained by the fact that it’s the only other newly-scored silent film I’ve seen). Gertrude engaged in clinches with Claudius while Hamlets young and old chatted, bent over a table at the wedding banquet, and was glimpsed by her daughter through an arras almost copulating with her new husband. Surveillance and voyeurism were foregrounded in this production as in many others, with characters positioned in or looking out of windows and doorways. Claudius was a more hirsute Uncle Fester, only slightly less comical, but vastly more sinister, sourcing his poison from a pit of writhing snakes in Elsinore’s dungeon and nailing the stereotype of drumstick-crunching, beer-swilling Medieval glutton.

Hamlet was dying inside throughout, being slowly killed by the secret of her sex, her desire for Horatio, and jealousy at his blossoming love for Ophelia and subsequent grief at her death – perhaps more than by unassuageable grief for her father. Her sense of ‘lack’ included the absence of her father, the unattainability of Horatio, but not strength or courage. It was non-too-subtly symbolised in this Freudian-inflected example of German expressionism by her frequent knife-play as well as fondling and wringing of decorative furniture knobs. Unlike Viola’s Cesario, however, she never flinched at a sword-fight, although the film avoided placing her in choreography where her victory might look ridiculously, physically improbable e.g. forcing Claudius to drink form a poisoned chalice (instead she encouraged him to get so drunk that he was in capable of fleeing her firetrap).

Her clearly female body was frequently eroticised, most obviously when Horatio discovered her true sex while caressing her corpse (a boob-grab that squeezed a laugh from an otherwise studiously quiet audience) and arranged her draped over some steps, throat exposed and head tilted fully back. Her feigned madness, rendered through clowning rather than word play, was mixed with erotic appeal in a burlesque sequence where she beckoned Polonius and the doctor (who might have wandered in from the sleepwalking scene in Macbeth) towards her with her huge come-hither eyes, teased them as to the contents of a drawn-closed purse, before she opened it to reveal a bag of childish paper cut-outs, which she distributed to them (invoking, for me, the mad Ophelia’s symbolic giving of flowers – not fully performed in this film). But, as Buchanan had highlighted for us, erotic languor was not Nielsen’s only skill in this outing: she was brilliantly mischievous in her having the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters executed, emending Claudius’ written command to Fortinbras to have Hamlet executed to ‘Hamlet’s two companions’, her mock horror at their arrests was similarly deft. She was flamboyantly dismissive of Ophelia – flicking the latter’s plaits only to yawn with extravagant boredom rather than pursue flirtation.

As the camera closed in on dead Hamlet’s face and the lights came up, the audience applauded – unusual in the cinema today, if not in 1917 – showing their appreciation for the film, but especially for the musicians who had reimagined, even revivified, it. Harris gestured, like a conductor thanking their first violin, at the screen. These two striking occurrences demonstrated the way in which Silents Now plays with and blurs the boundaries of media and liveness. The rest of YorkShakes may not be Silents Now, but it is likely to be full of meaningful sound and fury.

Author: SarahOlive

Sarah Olive is a Senior Lecturer in English in Education at the University of York. She also supervises MA students at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, having previously led the Shakespeare and Pedagogy module there. Her research interests include Shakespeare’s afterlives, particularly in popular culture and education. Follow her on Twitter @DrSarahOlive.