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!”
Thirty is incredibly young for your dad to die! I’m thirty. In the first week I was mostly Doing Okay (people who were there: this may be a lie?) but there would be times when, like, specifically I remember lifting a slice of pizza to my mouth and part-biting down onto the crisp crust and tomato sauce and suddenly bursting into uncontrollable crying for about four minutes, and then just as suddenly not crying any more and going on with eating my pizza. It’s a hugely shocking thing that hits you over and over and over, you’ll be puttering along, and suddenly it’s like, HEY, REMEMBER YOUR DAD? WELL HE’S DEAD FOREVER AND ALTHOUGH HE PROBABLY KNEW HOW MUCH YOU LOVED HIM, IT WAS SUPER SUDDEN AND YOU NEVER GOT TO “SAY GOODBYE” SO WHO KNOWS, HUH? NOT YOU! Also, forever means right now, but forever also takes place next week, oh and when you finally graduate grad school, and also when you live the rest of your life and do so many things you know he’d be so proud to see, and will he be there to feel proud, and tell you he’s proud and loves you, and give you a hug? [announcer voice] NO HE WILL NOT, BECAUSE HE’S DEAD… [big stadium reverb] FORRRRREEEVER!
Hamlet doesn’t get to let it suck before BOOM BOOM party cannons, stop moping, Hamlet! He doesn’t even really have any friends to lean on during the hard parts, specifically the part where his family is smiley-shiny and his mum is wearing a brand new wedding dress (goodBYE, OLD DEAD HUSBAND/DAD, welcome NEW and IMPROVED FAMILY!) and everyone’s wafting through the fairy lights and Hamlet is stood in the back room with no one to talk to about how shit he feels, except the audience. Hamlet is in so much pain that he has to break the fourth wall to tell us about it.
We went to the pre-show talk with Robert Icke, the director, who talked a little bit about how the play is more about the act of putting on a play than any other one he’s worked on. I think this production was more than any other I’ve seen about the intersection of acting/playacting, and bursting boundaries: the boundaries of the stage, of ‘appropriate’ grief, of life and death, of ‘sanity’ and ‘madness’, of reality. In putting on plays we hope that we will cross boundaries, but I think this show also asks, well, why? And if it does, what does that do? Icke said something like, “there isn’t a little green light that goes on next to someone’s head when they Go Mad”, and also talked about how we make an agreement as audience that the people on stage are members of the Danish royal family and they’re killing each other and being sad, even though we know perfectly well that they’re named Andrew Scott and Juliet Stevenson and seem pretty cheery (if tired) in the bar after the show.
Maybe these ideas were planted in my head, or maybe I was just a bit Tired And Emotional TM, but this ambiguity about acting and reality kept brushing up against the edges of the story. The Almeida had video screens that showed King Hamlet’s funeral, CCTV of the Ghost wandering the castle, and a live feed of Claudius and Gertrude’s reaction to “The Mousetrap”. During the intervals, the screens showed white noise and the “PAUSE” sign; at the end, they showed “STOP”. Now obviously the play is fiction, but was this bounded fiction or unbounded fiction? Is all the space inside the Almeida fictional, not just the stage? Were we ourselves characters and not people for three hours and fifty-five minutes? Is “audience member” a fictional person?
This is all feeling very Freshman Psych (our hands are just, like, atoms, man! We’re just like…a quintessence of dust! Whoa!) but this Hamlet really did, in an incisive and silk-curtain way, ask what it means to put on a play at all, and also sort of what the meaning and point of reality is when death exists and sucks so much.
The corner of this was the Claudius confession/prayer scene, which, oh gosh, it’s great. There’s a lamp and an armchair onstage, and Claudius throws himself into the chair and the ice in his whisky clink-clinks very tangibly. Hamlet is also on stage, in the room, and they’re looking at each other. Hamlet has a gun, and points it at Claudius. Claudius starts to speak his monologue, where he says that he killed King Hamlet. The lighting sort of goes back and forth between them. Claudius’s tone is so neutral: he isn’t apologetic, AT ALL, but he isn’t taunting or smug either, Angus Wright is just sort of letting the words come out of him. Hamlet clicks the safety of his gun and points it right at Claudius’ forehead. Then Claudius stops talking, because it’s the end of his speech. Hamlet says that he’s not going to kill him. The scene finishes and they exeunt severally. Now: I don’t think that scene “happened” in “reality”, both of those in quote because of course it happened in one sense (real people really said those words to each other, when I was in the room with them) and of course it didn’t happen in the other sense (Hamlet and Claudius are fictional characters and this is a play and everyone knows that). But I don’t think it happened in the “reality” of the play-world; I think it is pointing us to ask what does the sentence “in the reality of the play-world” even mean. Also, this might be way reaching, but a friend we ran into in the bar pointed out that lamps are one of the pointers to what’s “real” and what’s “dream” in Mulholland Drive, and Robert Icke is a set dressing magpie. (It helped that I’d been thinking about that scene specifically, and how to make it ambiguous, a few weeks ago; but it wasn’t that Claudius didn’t kill King Hamlet, it’s that we don’t know – and Hamlet doesn’t know, and I think Hamlet even knows he doesn’t know. He goes over the tape of Claudius storming out of The Mousetrap over and over, but he can’t find the answer.)
Does Hamlet summon the Ghost? He’s the only one who sees it in person, touches it and hears it. The other characters only see it on the CCTV screen. When Hamlet shows up, alone, the Ghost steps on stage in person – and Hamlet gives him a huge weepy hug. You can’t touch ghosts, can you? But you can hug your dad. So is the Ghost real? Well, he’s a man called David Rintoul with the word ‘GHOST’ next to his name in the programme. Oh, you wanted more than that? Too bad! We don’t know anything! Death is senseless and reality is briefly meaningless!
It is so rich of Claudius to be preaching “thy father had a father”, blah blah blah everyone’s dad dies, when 1. thirty is so young to have a dead dad and 2. Claudius is aggressively carrying out this incredibly unnatural act of breaking ritual mourning to do ritual celebration – those party cannons! – and forcefully using language to supplant Hamlet’s father to his face. I think this is what Hamlet is doing when he makes fun of Claudius by calling him “my mother”: you can say you’re somebody and you can say you’re somebody’s something, but that doesn’t make any of it true. (Also true of: acting, plays, collaborative constructions of fictional reality, etc.)
About those cannons: it’s something about breaching, breaking through, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state”. Strange means “foreign”, and the eruption/disruptions that breach the Danish state come from several nations: from the undiscovered country of the past, and from the Norwegian army of Fortinbras – who is also heard but not seen by the sound of cannons, and who is also contained in the less-real world of the video screens.
What kept the show from being too pop psych metatheatrical wanky (I think) is its hugely strong grounding in emotional realism, and especially how much each actor was speaking in the moment, as if the words were only just coming to them.
Can I just say: it is fucking Hamlet.
I picture an afternoon in the rehearsal room and someone (probably Juliet Stevenson) going, “OK, stay with me here, what if we just say the words, like they were just, like, the words the characters happened to use, when they were trying to say what they wanted to say at that point in time? And we don’t do the play like it’s this whole thing with the full weight of The Canon behind it?” And someone else goes, “Oh my god, yes!” and “This is going to blow the roof off this text!” and everyone’s like “Seriously why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?!”
Especially how Andrew Scott makes “To be or not to be” sound like something that’s spontaneously coming out of his own head, thoughts bubbling up and going straight out to his mouth. The sleep/dream/rub idea isn’t thought out or meditated, it literally comes to him as he’s speaking out loud. How?!
Hamlet held Yorick’s skull upside down, which made me smile as I’m sure it was just to be contrary, and was possibly the most overt playing with Hamlet-as-a-famous-play-called-Hamlet.
For Gertrude, they brought in a few lines from the first Quarto, where she talks with Horatio about letters from Hamlet, which allow her to be an explicitly political actor in the last third of the play. Hey – why not use sixteen lines from Q1 that make your women better characters? Why doesn’t everyone do this? I’ve seen productions where Gertrude drinks the poison consciously, but I haven’t seen her do it as so active a political act, Salvador Allende in Kronborg.
Just so many lines resonated that I hadn’t clocked before, especially Hamlet’s coming to grips with his dad’s death and mortality. Each line about earth and death and especially the gravedigger scene is about his dad: the physical bodies of “imperious Caesar” and “that earth, which kept the world in awe” becoming, well, dirt, and being treated as dirt. By the end he seems almost pleased with his death (“Oh – I am dead!” How odd, how interesting, this is what it’s like!), not with the fact of being dead but that he knows what’s going on at last: “The readiness is all”.
I mean, if we could all get there.