(I know this is not exactly the most original title for a review of a production of Hamlet; this is somewhat ironic given that the production this review is about was a highly original production. And it's rather late.)
But, first, some background; every year, the Reading University Drama Society puts on a Shakespeare play or two in the open air. This year, one of the plays was Hamlet. However, this was a Hamlet with a twist. Shakespeare with a twist is not an unusual thing, there are all sorts of contemporarily set plays, or transposed locations, or even naked Shakespeare... but I can’t think of another time when Hamlet has been mashed up with The Catcher in the Rye...
Now you may think this is a crazy notion as the two source texts are so very different from each other, but think about it; for example, one of things Holden rallies against are phonies. What could be more phony than the “grief” of Claudius for his brother’s death; murdered at his own hands? Hamlet sees this phoniness, and endeavours to expose it. And once you start looking, you can find all sorts of little examples.
So. Hamlet, with Catcher in the Rye stylings. Does it work? Well. There’s really only one answer, and it’s a three-lettered one beginning with a “y”.
Now, I’m sure it’s not escaped your knowledge, but I am somewhat of a fan of The Catcher in the Rye. It’s my favourite book. I have no idea how many times I have read it. Often when I finish reading it, I’ll flip straight back to the start and begin again. If I’m carrying a bag there’s about a 97.8% chance there’s one of my four copies of Catcher in there. Look to the top right of this blog to see where its title comes from. I’m sure you’re getting the picture, yes? But then there is also something I’m quite militant about and that’s my loathing of the idea of adapting The Catcher in the Rye in to any other medium. Take a look at the post “...don’t ever tell anybody anything...” dated March 9th 2010 for more on why a Catcher movie would be a bad idea; the same really applies to any other medium. Including the theatre. Now. The thing this production got right was that the Hamlet here is still clearly Hamlet. Although there are stylings of The Catcher in the Rye, and influences, at no point did it feel Hamlet was trying to be Holden. It was enough that the world this Hamlet inhabits is a similar one to Holden. It didn’t need Hamlet to actually become Holden.
And the Catcher touches were all over the place. From the Little Shirley Beans record that Ophelia gives back to Hamlet, to the red hunting hat Hamlet wears occasionally, to the fencing, to the whole prep school look of several of the characters, to the game of chequers that Hamlet and Horatio play; with Horatio even shedding a tear on to the board. Although I did actually miss her doing that...
...yes. You did read that bit right. In this version, Horatio was female; she was the Jane Gallagher to Holden’s Hamlet. You remember; in the book, she’s the one who keeps all her kings in the back row. Actually, this led to one of the few prop errors in the production; when they were playing chequers, the kings were facing Horatio, when they should have been facing Hamlet. Having said that, though, chances are I was the only one in the audience that noticed this.
Having Horatio as a female changed the dynamic of the play a little; especially heightening the way how Ophelia acts. Her desire for Hamlet, and his rejection of her (“Get thee to a nunnery” etc) makes her gradual decline looks as if jealousy of Hamlet’s relationship with Horatio plays a part in it. Does this Ophelia see Horatio as a rival, perhaps?
Both roles were brilliantly played. The brilliantly cast. Katie Gunning’s performance as the reliable Horatio (one of the few truly honest, and stable, characters in the characters in the play) was spot on; I remember seeing her in a production of Closer (the Patrick Marber play) last year playing the Natalie Portman role, and in the intervening months she’s clearly improved her acting skillls. It’s not that she was bad in Closer, she was okay; but in Hamlet she shifted up a couple of gears to give a compelling performance, both when acting and reacting.
In any case, Marber is no Shakespeare; the only way his play scores over Hamlet is the gratuitous lapdancing scene. As far as I am aware, no production of Hamlet has yet found a a way to work a lapdancing in to the narrative... but I digress...
The flip side of the coin was the unstable Ophelia. It’s always a tricky thing to get Ophelia’s descent in to madness correct; it’s very easy to go a little too over the top, so that it seems hammy. This was not the case here; the performance was a believable one.
But at the core of every performance of Hamlet is one performance that will make or break the entire production. Clearly, I should not need to tell you which role this is... and luckily the titular role here was cast perfectly. The sheer energy of Ant Henson's performance just left you breathless. When Hamlet staggered, drunk, on stage, bottle in hand, splurging out “to be or not to be...” shivers went up the spine. It was that good. It felt fresh.
Now, I’ve seen three productions of Hamlet, and if you were to ask me about Rosencratz and Guildestern in the first two... well, I’d have to Google them to find out who played them, and really I can’t remember a thing about their performances. That’s not something that will happen with this performance; Matthew Clark and Lee Anderson came close to stealing the show every time they were on stage with their performances as the toadying little pair. The sheer physicality of their performance oozed lackiness to such a degree that Waylon Smithers would have felt confident in bossing them around. They were just brilliant. Even now, as I type this, I’m chuckling at the memory of their performances.
Ah... I could mention so many other performances... from one of the gravediggers and his Matt-Smith-esque attire (at one point he pinged his bow tie as if saying “It’s a bow tie. I wear a bow tie now. Bow ties are cool.”), to Alexander Wilson’s Stradlater styled performance as Claudius, and Fiona McIntyre’s very regal Gertrude... so much to praise.
There was some real talent on that stage. I don’t know how many of them will end up pursuing acting as a career option, or just dabbling with amateur theatre occasionally, but there are certainly a handful up there who really should think about doing a lot more acting, as they were so damn good; and were I to hear that they have not acted further, I'll track them down and slap them round the chops with a wet fish. Maybe a bream, or a brill.
In closing, I’ll just leave you with this one comment; I went to see the last of the three performances of this production. In hindsight, this was a mistake. I should have gone to the first. Then I could have seen it twice more...