Another opening, another Hamlet !
I must say, with regrets, that I found the Royal National Theatre production of
Hamlet a very poor one, indeed. It
shall henceforth be known as “The Suitcase Hamlet .”
The motif of John Caird’s long, literal, murky production-the bewilderingly
lame idea behind his entire conception of the play-is a suitcase.
The set is dominated by suitcases and trunks of various
shapes and sizes that are moved about like building blocks in the Stygian
gloom. Eyes, and therefore souls, are not deceived. They are strained. Why a
suitcase? That is the question. Why are we looking at a castle of suitcases all
night long? I ask you in all candor: When we think of Hamlet , when we try to grapple anew with its tragic vastness and
meaning, does the image of a suitcase spring to mind? And if sprung, does it
I can only assume the director, Mr. Caird, and his set
designer, Tim Hatley, were agonizing one day over a brave new concept best
suited to the most produced great play in history, and they thought, and they
thought, and they cried out to the heavens: “Got it! Let’s do suitcases!”
And so it was. I’m afraid there was time enough to ponder
their meaning. The evening began at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 11:15. Why a
suitcase? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-and Hamlet, too-wouldn’t need 20 of them
for their fateful journey to England. They are not Elizabeth Taylor. Besides,
the suitcases are in every scene. Could they, by any chance, be a symbol ?
Voilà! We have it!
Hamlet is a young man who must travel from adolescence to manhood, from thinker
to assassin. He’s on a journey . Hence
the suitcases! Whether that’s an illuminating new concept of Hamlet , I leave to you. If it were left
to me, I’d leave on the next train. Except that Mr. Caird’s suitcases aren’t
going anywhere. We’re stuck with them all night, squinting at them through the
near-permanent darkness of the stage. Suitcase = travel; darkness = tragic
Mr. Caird recently adapted and co-directed Jane Eyre , the musical, which also takes
place in darkness. (Tragic foreboding = Jane Eyre; clippety-clop = sound of
horses.) And we’ve seen those blessed suitcases before! They were piled up all
those years ago in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Nicholas Nickleby , which Mr. Caird
co-directed with Trevor Nunn.
There’s nothing particularly fresh or startling about the
big, conventional production. It meanders in its rhythm and length; the choices
are simple-minded (Gertrude fondling her wedding dress in her bedchamber) or
they’re peculiar(anunkingly Claudius with earring and pony tail; a bimbette
Ophelia). The churchy background music milks the cosmos, providing a
faux-celestial “otherness” and “mystery.” From the opening, most unthrilling
ghost scene to the last, hackneyed image of a cross, all is not well. The
political aspects of the drama have been cut (no loss), but the production as a
whole remains an average one, in spite of the lauded performance of Simon Russell
Mr. Beale is a fine actor, though a portly prince. It’s been
said that his short, pudgy physique is of no consequence. But it’s been said
too often, including by a defensive Mr. Beale. Acting is acting who you aren’t;
acting itself is a glorious illusion. No, it isn’t that Mr. Beale looks
mournfully as if he’d like to console himself occasionally with a bag of sticky
buns. It’s more that as a mature 40-year-old actor-his beard flecked with gray,
his grief worn like a shroud of long suffering-his markedly adolescent Hamlet
is a stretch. I never acutely sensed the tragic youth, more an acted version of
It is director Caird’s notion that Hamlet is about goodness compromised or gone rotten. Maybe so, but
too goody-goody: Is Claudius a good man who lapsed, as he seems to be here?
After all, he usurped the throne, murdered the King, married the Queen two
months later and would have Hamlet assassinated. A good guy? And what of
Hamlet? Was Hamlet born good? Mr.
Beale suggests he was born nice ,
which is less than good. The fire of inner rage and madness doesn’t burn in his
performance. There’s little or no sense of frightening bitterness or vengeance
thwarted. He’s a sweet prince. The readiness is all. But one fears that Mr.
Beale’s good-natured Hamlet will never be ready.
He is too much the confused student, too little the would-be
assassin. He delivers the soliloquies tenderly and beautifully, an innate
intelligence in support. Elsewhere, his voice as fine-tuned musical instrument
surprisingly forgets itself, lacking range. His performance is characterized by
a soft romanticism rather than the tragic greatness that has been thrust upon
it. Violent emotion isn’t in Mr. Beale here; tears are. They encourage the
sentimental sense of a wounded Everyman, and the star isn’t above milking it
the old-fashioned way. As the curtain descended slowly at the end of Act I as
if we were attending a grand opera, the theatrical sobs coming from Mr. Beale’s
weepy Hamlet were loud enough to awaken Yorick.
Then again, the ghost was a good old declamatory
19th-century ghost, emoting to the rooftops. Polonius was a bore, as usual; the
gravedigger scene is clownishly so-so, as usual. We had an Ophelia without
poetry (and a pro forma singsong
madness scene). The cowardly, goading Claudius, and the ferocious, compelling
Gertrude who could have eaten him alive for breakfast, were played by the
veteran Shakespeareans Peter McEnery and Sara Kestelmen, and it was good to see
these veteran Shakespeareans again.
I’ve avoided mentioning the Peter Brook Hamlet that was in Brooklyn only a month ago. If I have a bias in
favor of Mr. Brook’s imaginative simplicity, don’t forgive me. It’s a bias I’m
happy to have. The point I would like to make is only to observe that the two Hamlet productions are found on two
different planets. The Royal National Theatre production is big state theater
on display in the Opera House in Brooklyn. Save for just one of its actors, the
cast is all white. The Brook production is innovatory theater with a multicultural
cast of eight that played in B.A.M.’s intimate second theater. The one
continues a Shakespearean tradition, now grown predictable, growing weaker,
slowly dying. The other reexplores Shakespeare in order to invigorate the
classical theater and renew it. Which of them is truly alive? Which is the way?
I know the road I would sooner follow. The one without the
baggage of the past, the one without the suitcase.