Hedda Gabler poster, National Theatre

“Hamlet”, Almeida Theatre (Andrew Scott/dir. Robert Icke)

We had tickets to Hamlet for the evening of 20 March, and early on 18 March my father died, after a heart attack six days before that he never woke up from. So I’m not really sure how much of the show felt raw and fresh because it was a really good production, although everyone says it is, so it must be at least partially that, and how much of it is because, you know, my dad had died forty hours before, pretty suddenly, and Hamlet isn’t exactly a show lacking in “sudden dead dad” emotions.

A surprisingly helpful thing about grieving in my tradition is how prescribed the activities and times are. There is an extensive framework that walks you through things: what you do (and don’t do) the first week, the first month, the first year. Each period of grieving eases you into the next one, and they don’t exactly taper off but there’s a feeling of being able to let each emotion inhabit fully in the space, giving you room to breathe it in and experience it properly, and knowing that it’s okay to do it fully because it has an end time and it’s not going to be this big forever.

Hamlet hasn’t had a proper mourning space: he’s barely processed the fact of it before his mother’s wedding celebration breaks into the space of family grief, and suddenly everyone’s going “cheer up Hamlet!” and “get over it!” and “come on, it’s only natural, everything dies! get a move on and grab a glass of champagne already!”

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Hedda Gabler poster, National Theatre

“The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” (BBC Two, 2016)

Note: I wrote a first draft of this last summer with the idea of shopping it to an American outlet before the new Hollow Crown series aired there in December 2016, but whenever I tried to revise it for publication, I kept getting madder and adding more wordcount, and, well, here it is.   

BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown (2012), a starry adaption of Shakespeare’s history plays Richard II, Henry IV Part One and Part Two, and Henry V, was successful enough to easily justify a second series, adapting the next four history plays: the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. But the announcement and production were a long time coming, and the second series, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses only aired in 2016. I suspect the problem was hesitation over the source material, specifically the three parts of Henry VI.

The Henry VI plays, according to common wisdom, are just not very good. Shakespeare’s earliest work, and not even all by him, a tangled mess that needs trimming and rewriting for audiences to understand. In the 20th century, major British theatres usually cut the trilogy down to two plays, most famously as The Wars of the Roses at the RSC in 1963, extensively rewritten by John Barton. The cuts usually fall heavily on Henry VI Part One, which was written as a standalone prequel, after the other two: while Part Two and Part Three focus on the civil war between York and Lancaster in England, Part One tracks the rise and fall of Joan of Arc and the English wars in France. In most of the 20th-century British productions, the abbreviated pair of Henry VI plays were followed by a Richard III – a more popular history play that is considered good enough to stand by itself. This is the tack The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses took, cutting most of Part One and rewriting the other two parts heavily, much more than any of the other plays in The Hollow Crown series.

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Hedda Gabler poster, National Theatre

Hamlet: “the Devil made them do it” version

Ten years ago, my flatmates and I had an ongoing conversation about doing a horror production of Hamlet where the Ghost really was a devil. In Act Two, Hamlet wonders if the Ghost is an evil spirit preying on his depression:

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape: yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.

and we thought it could be fun to see what would happen if he was right to wonder that.

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Hedda Gabler poster, National Theatre

“THANKS, EUROSTAR”

I went to Paris for New Year’s Eve (yeah, get me) and it was really impressive how nice Eurostar is to take, and how weirdly helpful the staff always are. Even more impressive right now, because a lot of things are making their jobs harder and none of it is really their fault.

Eurostar is the international high-speed train service that runs from London (UK) through the Channel Tunnel directly to France, Belgium and soon the Netherlands (an Amsterdam service starts this year). For now, all these countries are in the European Union, which has free movement for all citizens. Until something changes – like one of those countries officially leaving the EU – any citizen of a country with a Eurostar station has the right to travel freely to any other country with a Eurostar station. (This is different than the Schengen zone, which has free movement for all people, citizens or not; the UK is not part of Schengen, and may stop non-EU citizens from entering the UK via the EU if it wants to.)

One of Eurostar’s biggest selling points over low-cost airlines, its main rival, is shorter overall journey times. For example, their Flying vs Eurostar infographic, which shows “city centre to city centre” times: they argue that looking at just the flight time disguises the time and expense of getting to and from the airport, and having to get to the airport much earlier than the advertised flight time. Eurostar, which runs to city centre stations like the Gare du Nord and Brussels Midi, wants to give passengers a “turn up and board” arrival time as close to the scheduled departure time as possible, so that Eurostar feels as much as possible like a ‘normal’ train, where you can run and jump on basically right up until the doors close. For its highest spending passengers, Business Premier and Carte Blanche, Eurostar promotes a pre-departure time of just 10 minutes.

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Hedda Gabler poster, National Theatre

All the theatre I saw in 2016, ranked

(nb: most of this was written on the train on New Year’s Eve, so “last night” = Dec 30th.)

In 2016 I saw 41 plays (and three staged readings, which were interesting but it feels unfair to put in with the rest because they’re not supposed to be fully realised pieces of theatre). Drunk Theatre stalwart Louisa and I tried to clear out the bottle-ends in the booze cabinet before the New Year, and carried out the immense task of force-ranking all our 2016 plays with Post-It notes. (for the record if you are also looking to clear out your drinks bottles, the “Monkey Gland”, a 1920s? cocktail involving grenadine and absinthe, was surprisingly all right.)

Bottom to top:

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Hedda Gabler poster, National Theatre

“Hedda Gabler”, the National Theatre

Oh IVO, it was all going so well.

I’m always up for a Hedda Gabler, it’s just such a fun and well put together play. “Didn’t they just do one?” a coworker said when I mentioned it. “At the Old Vic? Sheridan Smith?” Yes they did and it was great so shut up. This one at the National Theatre stars Ruth Wilson (off the TV apparently, I haven’t seen her shows but she was great and sharp as Hedda) and is directed by Ivo van Hove, the so-hot-right-now avant-garde director who’s been packing out all the London theatres: the National, the Young Vic, the Barbican, even sharing the big box out the back of King’s Cross with the Donmar. As far as I can tell from production photos and reviews, this Hedda is a straight revival of his 2004 production at the New York Theatre Workshop – the same set and staging, down to the placement of the piano, and the same ‘shock moments’ (of which more later).

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