Hamlet, directed by Dominic Dromgoole for the Globe to Globe Hamlet On Tour, Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, Gdańsk, 20 September 2014, centre gallery, lower level, centre right.
Reviewed by Janice Valls-Russell
Flown in from Grenada, in the Caribbean, en route for Kazakhstan, the sixteen members of the Globe to Globe Hamlet dropped their trunks and musical instruments on the stage of Gdańsk’s Shakespeare Theatre, which had been inaugurated on the previous day. Wearing well-travelled, nondescript clothes, they created a reduced-format theatrical space on the vast, black, proscenium stage, erecting semi-rigid canvas screens on three sides, with a red curtain strung on a cord across the front. During the performance, a few planks variously served as castle walls, a cross before which Claudius attempted to pray and the grave.
The ‘English players’ were back in town, four centuries after their forebears played Shakespeare on the boards of a stage erected in a fencing school on the same site. The public that evening consisted mainly of le tout Gdansk, Poland’s cultural élite, with the film director Andrzej Wajda present, and a handful of international Shakespeare scholars. One or two academics sniffed after the show at this ‘unsophisticated Hamlet’. A few people regretted what they perceived as over-emphatic acting, with rather too much gesturing, pointing, stamping, shouting. Others suggested that this was perhaps in keeping with the street-theatre style of the show and appropriate for a travelling company playing to widely different audiences, not all of whom necessarily knew the play well or understood the English script – even when, as here, there are surtitles.
This was not an existentialist, Freudian, mind-warping or otherwise conceptual Hamlet. This was an engaging Hamlet, largely because of the group’s evident cohesion, as they welcomed the audience in a mixture of Polish, English, music and song, before swiftly shifting into the opening scene. Their generational and ethnic mix fostered the sense of a large, global family, whose members, as they tour the world over two years (2014-2016), share so much more than two hours’ traffic. This was apparent in the fluidity with which they moved in and out of their parts, picked up instruments for music and sound effects, or moved props with the two stagehands, whose costumes in the same nondescript style as the actors ensured that they were part of the ensemble. Cohesion is also ensured by the fact that members switch roles from one evening to the next, with the exceptions of the two Hamlets and the two Ophelias, who take turns while the other ‘sleeps, mostly’, as the Hamlet I saw that evening, Ladi Emeruwa (who shares the title role with Naeem Hayat), told me.
His was a likeable Hamlet, very youthful, like Ophelia, performed that evening by Phoebe Fildes. His physical bonding with the younger men (Horatio, then Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, initially, and even Laertes) suggested that he would have preferred to enjoy their company far from the deceitful world of Elsinore. Eager to be befriended and to trust, he found it difficult to make the transition from a carefree young man marked by grieving to personal decision-making. This Hamlet was reluctant to step into the world of adulthood, with its grey areas that obliged him to repress his spontaneity and ultimately destroyed Ophelia – and the actor similarly avoided the darker complexities of the role. In Act 2 Scene 2, he entered ‘madly attired’, having changed from dark shirt and trousers to white socks, shirt and trousers, with a red scarf and cap that suggested a fool’s apparel; and raising his voice to a shout at ‘Except my life, my life, my life’. His warm welcome of the senior player (Keith Bartlett, who doubled as Claudius) suggested that he found in him the role model and father figure he had lost: Bartlett’s low-keyed, motionless rendering of the Hecuba speech had a powerful impact on Hamlet (and the audience), as he marvelled ‘What’s Hecuba to him and he to Hecuba?’ Perhaps because this Hamlet was overall so likeable, too likeable, some members of the audience recoiled at the harsh way he treated Gertrude, engaging physically with her until interrupted by the Ghost, whose sudden appearance caused Emeruwa to lose his balance and slide backwards across the stage.
The only patch of colour in this drab world was the red stage curtain, which was hand-drawn by the actors – Hamlet during the Mousetrap Scene, where it superbly drew attention to the threefold layering of simultaneous action. The actors playing Claudius and Gertrude (Miranda Foster) doubled as the King and the Queen in the masque, swiftly changing roles, position and tempo as Hamlet drew the curtain and opened it again. While the curtain was drawn, he spoke front stage with Ophelia, who stood at the opposite end of the curtain.
Fildes was a discreet Ophelia, very much in love with Hamlet, convinced of his love, but constrained by the authority of her father and the king – this Polonius (Rawiri Paratene) was a choleric, autocratic character, shocking Gertrude when he roared at her, ‘Madam, stay awhile’ (2.2.115). Pushed to the ground by an enraged Hamlet who was kissing her when he realised that they were being spied upon, Ophelia remained alone on stage, kneeling and facing the audience, grieving very quietly, ‘… O woe is me / T‘have seen what I have seen, see what I see!’ (3.1.163-4). Later, wearing her father’s brown, red-lined cloak over a white slip, barefoot, carrying flowers, she stood on a chest centre-stage, sang, yelled and cried alternately, crouched on the ground, gave Hamlet a daisy and kissed him, as Gertrude held back Laertes. Her effective, haunting presence was extended in the whisper with which Laertes later learned of her death (‘Drowned… drowned… drowned’), and the powerful energy with which Hamlet leapt into the grave on realising that the funeral was Ophelia’s. Romeo and Juliet was not far away.
The final scene was made all the more intense by the relatively confined space in which it was played out. The duel took place front stage, with Gertrude centre stage, rejoicing in Hamlet’s apparent success and never suspecting foul play. The reconciliation between Hamlet and Laertes was followed by a final moment of camaraderie between Horatio and Hamlet in an ultimate triumph of the younger generation’s values over the manipulative cynicism of their elders – before the actors who were not lying dead moved from corpse to corpse, unwinding them back into life with an unravelling movement of their arms, Ophelia raising Hamlet as they all joined in for a final jig to enthusiastic applause.
Note: my heartfelt thanks to Boika Sokolova and Marta Gibińska, with whom I discussed the play over post-performance pierogi at the Boar’s Head…
Read more about Hamlet in Gdansk in Cahiers Élisabéthains 87 (spring 2015).