Anthony Sher dazzles in the RSC’s King Lear

Anthony Sher dazzles in the RSC’s <em>King Lear</em>

For the first time, we overcame scepticism and joined a packed house at FACT, our local Picturehouse to watch the RSC production of King Lear streamed live from Stratford. It was a revelation; we were completely blown away by the experience, which was not at all like watching TV but instead felt totally immersive, like being there in the audience and on stage at the same time. I particularly appreciated being able to hear every word spoken and see details of costumes and facial expressions of the actors.

All of which is merely a preamble to praise for the production itself: Anthony Sher was outstanding as Lear, while the entire cast burned just as bright. Directed by Gregory Doran, the staging and costumes were magnificent, making this a truly memorable production of the Shakespeare play I have seen more times than any other. Continue reading “Anthony Sher dazzles in the RSC’s King Lear

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona: steal and attempt to rape my girl, but what the hell, we can still be friends

<em>The Two Gentlemen of Verona</em>: steal and attempt to rape my girl, but what the hell, we can still be friends

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, written between 1589 and 1593, is believed to have been Shakespeare’s first play – and, boy, does it show. It didn’t make much of an impression when first performed, and rare revivals in recent times have generally not been very well-received.

Last week we saw the Liverpool Everyman and Shakespeare’s Globe co-production which did a decent job of creating an entertaining and thought-provoking evening’s entertainment – but only by setting the action in 1966, hacking the text, and subverting Shakespeare’s happy-ever-after ending which leaves a modern audience feeling decidedly nauseous. It’s certainly the first time that I have come away from a Shakespeare production feeling that my main criticism of the play would be the text! Continue reading The Two Gentlemen of Verona: steal and attempt to rape my girl, but what the hell, we can still be friends”

As You Like It in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: magical despite the rain

<em>As You Like It</em> in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: magical despite the rain

And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it.

There are reasons, I guess, why I am so bewitched by Shakespeare’s pastoral dramas, notably the great good fortune of an untrammelled fifties childhood in rural Cheshire, and then coming of age amidst the swirl of hippie values in the sixties – waving the flag for peace and love, rejecting materialism, and yearning to get back to nature.

The pastoral vision of a lost world of innocence and the simpler life of the countryside, with its potential for love and renewal, flowered in this year’s production of As You Like It at Chester’s open air Grosvenor Park Theatre. In the last few years it’s become a summer Shakespeare ritual for me and my daughter to chance the English weather and take our seats in the terraces (some covered, others not) of this theatre in the round. Continue reading As You Like It in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: magical despite the rain”

Filter Theatre’s riotous Twelfth Night

Filter Theatre’s riotous <em>Twelfth Night</em>

Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, seen on Saturday at Theatre Clwyd, is like no other production of Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy you have ever seen. Purists might hate it, but Filter’s radically-cut, fast-paced version of the play is hugely enjoyable, and every word is the Bard’s. At little more than 90 minutes this is a distilled essence of Twelfth Night. The audience in Mold loved it. Continue reading “Filter Theatre’s riotous Twelfth Night

A stripped-back Winter’s Tale from Northern Broadsides

A stripped-back Winter’s Tale from Northern Broadsides

Conrad Nelson’s production of The Winter’s Tale for Northern Broadsides is the most stripped-back production I’ve seen. We saw it performed in the round at the New Victoria Theatre in Stoke where the stage was bare, but for an occasional  bench or something similar.

The result is to focus attention on Shakespeare’s words and symbolism – and on the quality of the acting which, as always with Northern Broadsides, was very high indeed with notable performances by Conrad Nelson himself in the role of Leontes, Ruth Alexander as Paulina, Mike Hugo as Autolycus, and Jessica Dyas and Lauryn Redding as the sparring peasant girls Mopsa and Dorcas. Continue reading “A stripped-back Winter’s Tale from Northern Broadsides”

Henry IV in two parts on Salford Quays

Henry IV in two parts on Salford Quays

Antony Sher as Falstaff

Antony Sher as Falstaff

Youth and age, the passing of time, are among the themes in explored by Shakespeare in Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and watching Gregory Doran’s production for the RSC at the Lowry last week the decades slid away and I was a youth again, turning the pages of the play we studied for A-level, never imagining I could ever be as old as Falstaff or Justice Shallow.

Now freed from the chains of toil at desk or workbench, we can join the silver-haired throngs and spend an afternoon watching Part 1, and then see Part 2 in the evening. Seeing the plays back to back like this showed how much Shakespeare was on a roll: having kicked off his series about the rise of the House of Lancaster with Richard II in 1595, a year or so later, in Henry IV Part 1, he produced one of his most popular plays, introducing comic characters who reappeared in the equally successful sequels that followed in quick succession – Henry IV, Part 2 (1598) and Henry V (1599).

Both of the Henry IV plays mix  serious history and politics with riotous comedy in a way that has probably never been done so seamlessly and so successfully.  In fact, for most of us what lingers  after seeing these plays is the memory of the comedy scenes – and of the character of Falstaff in particular. Ever since their first performance, it has been the boisterous rowdiness of the tavern scenes presided over by that ‘ squire of the night’, that ‘sweet creature of bombast’ Falstaff that have won the hearts of audiences.

In this production Falstaff is played by Antony Sher – not a man of great stature – who is bulked up and padded out in a fat suit and enormous wig of white flowing locks. Sher’s movements are not only those of a fat man (there’s an hilarious moment on the battlefield when, legs waving in the air like a beetle, he struggles to get off his back), but also those of a gouty, arthritic old man.  Sher’s Falstaff enunciates his words with an educated precision and a throatiness that often sounded as if he was gargling. Sher delivers Falstaff’s lines in a manner that eliminates any sense that the fat man is at all lovable. Quite the opposite: Sher’s performance makes it abundantly clear that he is a schemer and a rapacious deceiver, every riposte and criticism answered with a sharp and deliberative wiliness. Not so ‘fat-witted’, then, but the ‘villainous abominable misleader of youth’ and ‘old white-bearded Satan’ that Prince Henry calls him.  This means that any sympathy you might feel for Falstaff when he delivers this speech is eliminated:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Falstaff is also quite clearly an alcoholic.  While there’s obviously a great deal of sack quaffed in Shakespeare’s text, Antony Sher gives us a Falstaff whose hand shakes with delirium tremens as he pours yet another glass. One of the highlights of Sher’s performance is his delivery of Falstaff’s celebration of good sherry, and assertion that if he had sons the first humane principle he would teach them should be ‘to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack’:

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain;
dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy
vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and
delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes
excellent wit. The second property of your
excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood;
which, before cold and settled, left the liver
white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity
and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extreme:
it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives
warning to all the rest of this little kingdom,
man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and
inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain,
the heart, who, great and puffed up with this
retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour
comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is
nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and
learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till
sack commences it and sets it in act and use.
Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for
the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his
father, he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land,
manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent
endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile
sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If
I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I
would teach them should be, to forswear thin
potations and to addict themselves to sack.

As always, the Falstaff scenes are great entertainment.  But I also particularly enjoyed the long scene in Part Two between Silence and Justice Shallow (a soulful Oliver Ford Davies) in which they reminisce about the days that used to be. Shallow is wonderfully eloquent about the loss of youth and the rewards of friendship:

By the mass, I was called any thing; and I would
have done any thing indeed too, and roundly too.
There was I, and little John Doit of Staffordshire,
and black George Barnes, and Francis Pickbone, and
Will Squele, a Cotswold man; you had not four such
swinge-bucklers in all the inns o’ court again: and
I may say to you, we knew where the bona-robas were
and had the best of them all at commandment.

(‘Bona-robas’, by the way, were prostitutes.) At times I thought their exchanges sounded almost as if they might have been written by Beckett:

SHALLOW:
Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I
have spent! and to see how many of my old
acquaintance are dead!
SILENCE:
We shall all follow, cousin.
SHADOW:
Certain, ’tis certain; very sure, very sure: death,
as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall
die. How a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford fair?
SILENCE:
By my troth, I was not there.
SHALLOW:
Death is certain. Is old Double of your town living
yet?
SILENCE:
Dead, sir.

Another scene of dissoluteness and debauchery in Part Two that caught my attention was the one in which Mistress Quickly – in a stream of consciousness torrent of words that might have come from the pen of James Joyce – rages about all Falstaff’s unpaid bills:

I am undone by his going; I warrant you, he’s an
infinitive thing upon my score. Good Master Fang,
hold him sure: good Master Snare, let him not
‘scape. A’ comes continuantly to Pie-corner – saving
your manhoods–to buy a saddle; and he is indited to
dinner to the Lubber’s-head in Lumbert street, to
Master Smooth’s the silkman: I pray ye, since my
exion is entered and my case so openly known to the
world, let him be brought in to his answer. A
hundred mark is a long one for a poor lone woman to
bear: and I have borne, and borne, and borne, and
have been fubbed off, and fubbed off, and fubbed
off, from this day to that day, that it is a shame
to be thought on. There is no honesty in such
dealing; unless a woman should be made an ass and a
beast, to bear every knave’s wrong. Yonder he
comes; and that errant malmsey-nose knave, Bardolph,
with him. Do your offices, do your offices: Master
Fang and Master Snare, do me, do me, do me your offices.

Time passing, and old age creeping on. With maturity comes responsibility, atheme explored by Shakespeare in his depiction of the central relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) as he frequents the taverns of Eastcheap.  In some productions, Hal is portrayed as a dissolute youth Lacking any sense of his future kingly role, but here Gregory Doran has JHassell play Hal as much more self-aware: a young man who knows he’s not being particularly princely, but fully intends to change his behaviour when the moment comes.

The most surprising feature of Doran’s production of Part One is the treatment of Hotspur. Though Henry IV rebukes his son for haunting taverns and playing truant from honour while Hotspur is valiant and battle-hardened, Trevor White’s unusual performance presents him as a near-autistic hothead, impatient to the point of derangement, who continually prances around in anger, unable to listen to other people. He is far from being the dutiful son King Henry wishes Hal would be: rather than embodiment of chivalry and valour, he is more like a violent overgrown child.

RSC Henry IV part I

Henry IV part I: tavern scene

What is so remarkable about these plays is the way in which Shakespeare weaves together low-life scenes with serious themes of politics and kingship. What makes a ruler legitimate? Which qualities are desirable in a ruler? When it is acceptable to usurp a ruler’s authority?  In the programme, there’s an interesting essay in which the historian Ian Mortimer notes how Shakespeare had to be very careful in how he approached that last question. Henry’s seizure of the throne from Richard II might have removed a tyrannous ruler, but he had been the rightful king of England:

Henry had saved England from tyranny by removing Richard from the throne but such a strategy was anathema to ElizabethI, who locked up one historian in the Tower of London simply for writing a book about Henry IV. To portray such usurpation as not only succesful but blessed by God was far too dangerous. So Shakespeare downplayed the role of Henry IV.  He focussed on the people around the king. There was no danger in celebrating the king’s son, Henry V, the hero who led the English to victory at Agincourt.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. We might add that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry IV (played here by Jasper Britton) is of a man wracked by guilt, determined – as soon as the rebel alliance of Percy, Mortimer, Glendower and Douglas has been put down – to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (he only gets as far as the Jerusalem chamber in the palace of Westminster).  In the dramatically-staged opening scene, with a candlelit background of chanting monks, Henry IV is a tormented usurper, seen beneath the figure of Christ prostrate  in self-abasing prayer. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set design was sombre throughout, the stage lined on all sides with wooden slats, like unplastered lath walls, though perhaps not best suited to bringing out the rambunctiousness of the tavern scenes.

With recent political events in Scotland and the growing restiveness in places far-flung from London fresh in mind, I found myself tuning into Shakespeare’s portrayal of a kingdom not only disunited but also one of great diversity. The presentation of the accents, culture and traditions of the North, and of Wales and Scotland forms a key element of Part One. Shakespeare incorporates into the play many different languages, dialects and manners of expression, from Welsh and Scots dialect to the rough language Hal encounters in the taverns of Eastcheap.  Gregory Doran emphasises this beautifully in the scene from Part One in which the Welsh leader Owen Glendower is present with Lord Mortimer and his Welsh wife, Glendower’s daughter. She can speak only Welsh, her husband only English. Shakespeare’s stage directions read: ‘Glendower speaks to her in Welsh, and she answers him in the same’. Doran treats us to an extended interchange between the the three characters, with Glendower’s daughter speaking expansively in Welsh.  This was a captioned performance and it was lovely to be able to see, as well as hear, the Welsh words.

Shakespeare was obviously fascinated with the accents, traditions, and legends of the various nations of the British Isle, though his portrayal of the Welsh Glendower and the Scottish Douglas does also obtain laughs from what would have been for his audience recognisable stereotypes – Glendower the magician (looking like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf complete with staff) and Douglas as the hotheaded warrior:

GLENDOWER:
I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
HOTSPUR:
Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

Nevertheless, the range of language and forms of expression in these plays is astonishing: in addition to high speech and low speech, there is poetry and prose, as well as various regional accents.

In the first play there is a running debate about the nature of honour. For the quick-tempered Hotspur, honour means glory on the battlefield and the defence of his reputation and good name against perceived insults:

By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honour by the locks;

For the troubled king, on the other hand, honour is bound up with the well-being of the nation and his legitimacy as ruler. It lies at the root of his anxiety about how usurpation of Richard II, which won him the crown, might be seen as be a dishonourable act:

And is not this an honourable spoil?
A gallant prize?

Then there is the matter of a son bringing honour to his father, when the king speaks of ‘Hotspur, Mars in swathling clothes’ :

My Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry.

The Prince attempts to calm his father’s fears in a speech that reveals his certainty that he can regain his honour at will:

In the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it:
And that shall be the day, whene’er it lights,
That this same child of honour and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! for the time will come,
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.

The best speech on the subject is given to the man who has no honour, the amoral rogue Falstaff, for whom the idea is nothing but hot air:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

RSC Henry IV part II

Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, trying on the crown in Henry IV part two

In the afternoon, in Part One, we saw the king preparing for war against the insurrectionists and Prince Hal coming to terms with his responsibilities as heir to the throne.  In the evening, in Part Two, the King’s health is fading and Hal finally chooses between duty to his country and loyalty to an old friend: ‘I know you not, old man’.  While Henry IV Part II lacks the power of Part One, this production contained some wonderful moments and was as entertaining as the earlier play, especially in the comic scenes featuring Falstaff as well as the red-nosed Bardolph (Joshua Richards), Mistress Quickly (younger than I had imagined her to be, energetically played by a spikyPaola Dionisotti), the wild, anarchic, incomprehensible Pistol (Antony Byrne), and Justice Shallow.

Another scene that played well was when the dying king wakes to find Hal has taken the crown. Angry at first, he is reconciled with his son before he dies. A new, mature Hal accepts the crown as King Henry V and turns his attention to war with France, having been urged by his father ‘to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’. It’s a line that never seems to lose its pertinence.

The moment when Prince Hal, in procession to his coronation, finally denies Falstaff is quite shocking in the severity of Alex Hassell’s delivery of the line ‘I know you not, old man’ and the cursoriness of his manner. Doran dispenses with Shakespeare’s ending – an ‘epilogue spoken by a dancer’ – which reveals that the sequel was already planned:

One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for
any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat,
unless already a’ be killed with your hard
opinions.

Instead, after Prince John has uttered the promise of foreign wars –

I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I beard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
Come, will you hence?

– Doran has the stage darken, a single shaft of light illuminating the figure of a small boy.

After nearly six hours of drama we emerged into the unusual warmth of a Salford October night well satisfied with a production that had brought out the richness of Shakespeare’s plays and his remarkable ability to present audiences with the full range of human experience.

Hamlet at the RSC: an antic disposition

Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet
Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet

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.

Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet in suit and glasses
Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet in suit and glasses

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.

Pippa Nixon as Ophelia
Pippa Nixon as Ophelia

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…’

It’s shocking – but not just because of the violence; it’s a shock because the force of the violence seems to come out of nowhere.  There were other ways in which motivation was hard to comprehend in this production. Greg Hicks played Claudius with swaggering arrogance, but with to suggest why he might have been motivated to murder in order to bed the decidedly frumpy-looking Gertrude (played by Charlotte Cornwall). I never believed, either, in the idea that she was sufficiently driven by sexual desire to have gone along with the plan.

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
Christian burial.

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’
Christian burial.

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.

Why?

‘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

Trailer

Two more Hamlet productions: