Over the weekend we stayed with our friends in Uttoxeter who drove us over to Stratford to see the current RSC production of Hamlet that has Jonathan Slinger in the title role. It’s an unusual, even rather strange envisioning, with Slinger presenting Hamlet in a quite idiosyncratic manner in places – for example, entering the stage before the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy singing Ken Dodd’s ‘Happiness’.
David Farr’s direction came in for a lot of criticism when the play opened; for example, in the Telegraph, Charles Spencer wrote:
His production is annoying, too. Farr is the kind of director who has 20 bright ideas before breakfast and bungs them all on stage to prove how clever he is. Sometimes it works but a show-offy approach to Hamlet strikes me as verging on the obscene.
I certainly wouldn’t go that far – overall the production was an enjoyable one, with interesting staging in certain scenes and some fine acting. But there was an oddness about it. The first thing that discomfited me was Hamlet’s appearance in the opening scenes: balding, glasses, suit, he seemed too old. As Charles Spencer observed:
With his piscine features, thinning hair and ill-fitting suit he looks more like an embittered low-rank civil servant than a prince.
Or a recent student one might add (though, following the encounter with the ghost, Slinger removed the glasses he had worn in the opening scenes, and began to look – and behave – more like a freshly-minted graduate).
This production (and two essays in the worst RSC programme I’ve ever seen) focusses on depression – for most of western history, as Erin Sullivan notes in her essay, known to doctors and sufferers as melancholy.
How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on
Hamlet is presented as mad from the start, and whereas most productions more or less go along with his claim that his madness is feigned, this one doesn’t. Even before he claims that he will ‘put an antic disposition on, he looks haunted and is prone to hide in a corner and howl.
The play has been set in some indeterminate modern period (some critics thought the sixties, and it is true that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern share a spliff with Hamlet). The set places us in a large hall, with a stage at one end – perhaps a community centre or school assembly hall. It’s somewhere that probably doubles as a gym: there are wallbars and racks along the side for fencing foils (fencing is this production’s other big theme: swords line the hall, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in full fencing gear, his face covered by a fencing mask, and the duel between Hamlet and Laertes takes place as part of a fencing contest).
It’s all a bit muddled, with lots of ideas thrown into the pot. So, since we’re in Denmark, Ophelia wears a Sarah Lund jumper, and – as if also referencing The Killing – powerful electric torches are used to probe the shadows, while fluorescent strip lights coldly illuminate palace rooms.
Above the stage at the far end of the hall are written the Latin words mens sana in corpore sano, ‘a sound mind in a healthy body’, seeming to suggest that if Hamlet would only buck up and get over it, he’d be fine. The big bonus of this stage comes with the play-within-a-play scene: both the dumb-show and the play itself were done brilliantly.
Other than these elements, the set is simple: later in the play the wooden flooring is lifted to reveal earth, from which skulls are disinterred and into which Ophelia is laid to rest. In another example of the magpie references, Ophelia lies there looking every inch like the Millais painting. Curiously, Pippa Nixon is left lying in this pose at the front of the stage for the rest of the play.
The scenes in which Ophelia appears seemed to reflect the confusion at the heart of this production: she is presented as a shy schoolmistress hefting a pile of exercise books to mark, while Jonathan Slinger’s portrayal of Hamlet’s relationship with her is odd. In the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene his Hamlet attacks Opelia with great violence, stripping off her clothes and holding a knife to her throat as he screams, ‘Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow … Get thee to a nunnery…’
Maybe because this summer an old friend of ours took her life, I found myself attuned to the way in which Shakespeare probes the morality of suicide in this play, allowing the attitudes of his day to be expressed in differing voices – that of Hamlet, the intellectual, and the grave diggers, representing the down-to-earth (sorry!) views of the common man.
Our friend was Catholic, but while Catholic teaching still regards suicide as a grave sin, one of the most moving aspects of the day of her funeral for me (an atheist) was the non-judgemental and compassionate response of the priest and deacon in celebrating Mass for her at the church she had attended.
Things were very different, of course, in Elizabethan society, which dealt harshly with suicide. The extreme reaction against suicide is described in Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy’s book, Sleepless Souls (I’m indebted to the website Hamlet Conundrums for the following quotation):
Suicide was a terrible crime in Tudor and early Stuart England. Self-killing was a species of murder, a felony in criminal law and a desperate sin in the eyes of the church. ‘For the heinousness thereof’, observed Michael Dalton, ‘it is an offense against God, against the king, and against Nature.’ Suicides were tried posthumously by a coroner’s jury, and if they were convicted as self-murderers, they and their heirs were savagely punished. Their moveable goods, including tools, household items, money, debts owed to them, and even leases on the land that they had worked were forfeited to the crown or to the holder of a royal patent who possessed the right to such windfalls in a particular place. Self-murderers were denied Christian burials; their bodies were interred profanely, with a macabre ceremony prescribed by popular custom. The night following the inquest, officials of the parish, the churchwardens and their helpers, carried the corpse to a crossroads and threw it naked into a pit. A wooden stake was hammered through the body, pinioning it in the grave, and the hole was filled in. No prayers for the dead were repeated; the minister did not attend.
Bearing all this in mind, we can see how Shakespeare would have challenged audiences in his time (it also set me wondering whether something had happened in Shakespeare’s circle that caused him to introduce this theme into a revenge tragedy).
Hamlet’s thoughts about suicide are contained, of course, in the famous soliloquy that begins:
To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.
Hamlet contemplates suicide, but thinks about the question in the broader context of humanity as a whole. He speculates that a many people would kill themselves ‘but that the dread of something after death’ dissuades them from performing an act that anyone can do – ‘with a bare bodkin’. Death may seem like an easy way to escape problems that beset us, except that nobody can know beforehand what death might mean: it is ‘the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns’:
‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep –
To sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns …
The gravediggers preparing for Ophelia’s burial contemplate the legal issues at stake. Since suicide is a mortal sin, she should not receive a Christian burial. Were it not for her royal status, Ophelia would have been buried in unsanctified ground. But the coroner has ruled for a Christian burial, and the gravediggers chew over the fevidence of one law for the rich and another for the poor:
Is she to be buried in Christian burial that
wilfully seeks her own salvation?
I tell thee she is: and therefore make her grave
straight: the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it
But is this law?
Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.
Will you ha’ the truth on’t? If this had not been
a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’
Why, there thou say’st: and the more pity that
great folk should have countenance in this world to
drown or hang themselves
Turning to lighter matters: there was a fine attention to comedy in this production, and this was seen at its best in the grave-digging scene, with great performances by David Fielder and Rosie Hilal. They gave comic sparkle to the lines concerning Hamlet – ‘he that is mad’ – being sent to England.
Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?
Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.
‘Twill, a not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he.
How came he mad?
Very strangely, they say.
That scene closes with one grave-digger asking the other how long a man must lie in the earth before he rots.
I’ faith, if he be not rotten before he die – as we have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in–he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year. … his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.
Thinking about it now, I see that the line about water being a ‘sore decayer’ of a dead body may be a clue to understanding one of the real oddities of this production: ending with a fire alarm sounding as sprinklers soaked the stage.
Jonathan Slinger performs Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet
Two more Hamlet productions:
- Rory Kinnear: a magnificent Hamlet
- Hamlet by Lodestar
- Suicide=Murder: discussion of Elizabethan attitudes to suicide at Hamlet Conundrums