Some theatre each day keeps the doctor away…

Critique: Hamlet

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It’s always a pleasure reviewing a program from the National Theatre.  It’s a bit like returning from a long charity mission to some remote African village – sure, you can survive there, and you feel like you’re doing some good work (though nothing really changes), but good grief is it a welcome change to come back home to a hot shower and a comfortable bed.  Back to civilisation, as it were.  And for the purposes of this analogy, Sydney is the remote African village.

Indeed, NTLive could broadcast a show that dealt purely with women’s issues – the various treatments for thrush, perhaps – and I’d still buy a ticket, just so I’d have an excuse to purchase the program.  Hot showers can be very addictive.  And it is rather wonderful to have a booklet which you don’t have to reread during the interval to entertain yourself, or to fend off the old lady next to you who looks like she’s ready to burst into a conversation with you the moment you look up from your program and seem unoccupied.  “Are you enjoying yourself?”  “It’s okay.”  “My thrush is really acting up at the moment.”  “Well, that’s…you’ve come to the right play then, I suppose…”

Anyway.  Let’s open it up, shall we?

KPMG Advertisement

I’ve no idea who KPMG are.  For all I know they’re the Kevin Pietersen Management Group, in which case one must wonder what they’re doing in a theatre program.  But whoever they are, they’ve made a statement that, I think, has gone unexamined for far too long.  ‘Standing out from the crowd’ can be terrible advice if given in the wrong situation.  What of the nervous first-time theatregoer, who expects that they have to make some sort of mark upon the rest of the audience during an interval?  One can imagine what inconceivably stupid activities they might get up to if they heed this advice.  And what about suicide bombers?  Blending in is what they’re meant to do!  Horrible, horrible advice for them.  Think of the shame that would be brought on their families – “Oh, so you are Muhammed, father of Abdul, the suicide bomber tackled midway through a rendition of New York, New York in Trafalgar Square?  Shame on you!  Your son didn’t even manage to kill a pigeon!”

Not only that – even the advertisement itself is rejecting the adage.  Look at the old man – tired, overworked, stressed, and here comes this actor, with I don’t-even-know-what over his shoes…


ACTOR (inspecting his fingernails): Ramses the three hundred and forty seventh.

CP: Are you related?

ACTOR: Spiritually, yes.

CP: Oh, so you’re his reincarnation.

ACTOR (now the other hand): It’s more complicated than I imagine your feeble mind can handle, but it’s something along those lines.

CP: So why is it that you want to come and study at RADA, Ramses?

ACTOR: My name…is Ramses the three hundred and forty seventh.

CP: Right.  So why is it that you want to study here?


CP: …Ramses the three hundred and forty seventh.

ACTOR: I think it is rather I who should be asking you why RADA wants me, wouldn’t you say?

CP: I see…

CP writes ‘eccentric’ on his notepad and vigorously underlines it.

CP: So what piece will you be performing for us today?

ACTOR: A moment from a scene of great significance in one of my favourite plays – you shall not fail to recognise it at once, feeble as your mind is.  I shall begin.

CP: If you—

ACTOR starts stumbling around the stage as if he is blind.

ACTOR; Flores.  Flores.  Flores para los muertos.  Flores.  Flores.

He stumbles some more.

ACTOR: Flores.  Flores para los muertos.  Corones para los muertos.  Corones…  Flores para los muertos, flores – flores…

More stumbling, then holds out one hand towards CP, looking cross-eyed at him..

ACTOR (softly): Corones…

ACTOR holds his position.  Pause.



CP (finally speaking up): Well, that was certainly different.  I’m not quite sure where it was from, however, so if you could just tell me again for our records, I’d be—

ACTOR: And scene.

CP: Oh!

ACTOR: I hope your premature interruption won’t affect my chances.  I was told to expect a higher level of competence from RADA employees.  I would have thought a minimum knowledge of such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire was compulsory.  Apparently not.

CP: Now just wait a—

ACTOR: I am done.

ACTOR strides off.

CP (tired): Next…

Stand out from the crowd indeed!  Hmph!

Well, that’s page one done.  Moving on.

Boring…boring…  (You have to imagine me flipping the pages.)  Boring…

The Pearson Playwrights' Scheme Article

I’m not entirely sure what a “Playwrights’ Scheme” is, because we don’t seem to have anything like it in Australia, our plays delivered into theatre companies’ mailboxes by storks, last time I checked.  Okay, so I’m exaggerating a tad, but it feels like that some days.  Anyway, the reason I point this article out (all four pages of it) is that it’s more interesting than half the stuff in Sydney programs, and it’s not even about the play.  It’s in the advertiser/NT-announcement section of the program.  Sigh.  Moving on.

Now here’s something that annoys me (“What, something that annoys you, Adam?  I didn’t think such a thing existed!” you say.  Shut up.):

Wicked Advertisement

I have a really angry bee in my bonnet about this.  Though given this is a review of a Shakespeare play, perhaps it’s a bee in my sonnet.  Get it?  ‘Cause it’s…oh, nevermind.

What annoys me is that they give awards for Most Popular Show.  Well, that’s not entirely what irks me.  Let me give you another example.  I was watching the ARIAs a while ago, and they came to “Most Popular Album”.  This was bad enough.  Then they proceeded to list the nominees. How can you have nominees for “Most Popular”? Did nobody think to check the song charts beforehand to see who had sold the most?  What is the point of nominating five albums when the four runner-ups have no chance of winning, by definition of the award?

Okay Adam.  Be calm.  Be still.  Take your sedatives…

This program review is bigger than I wanted it to be.  No more ads, then.  Let us get to the substance of things.  Of note, a four page article entitled “Hamlet: a play of mirrors”:

Hamlet: a play of mirrors

Rather interesting.  Then, five pages on “Hamlet and the pressure of the times”:

Hamlet and the pressure of the times

Rather interesting as well.  Then, “Rory Kinnear and Nicholas Hytner talk to NT Associate Director Ben Power” for another five pages:

Rory Kinnear and Nicholas Hytner talk to NT Associate Director Ben Power

Yet again, rather interesting.  Then, fifteen pages of biographies and rehearsal photos:

Rehearsal photographs & biographies

Fifteen pages of brilliance marred by the fact that the biography of the writer is missing.  I don’t care that the writer in question is Shakespeare.

I shall award the coveted Longest Column Award nevertheless.  And it goes to…James Laurenson, the actor who plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father and the Player King!  Congratulations, James, you win a king-size white bedsheet!

After all this are more advertisements, more boring stuff, and then we come to the end.

So, the score.

0 for the biographies because there wasn’t one for the writer.  2 for the rehearsal photos.  2 for “Hamlet: a play of mirrors”.  2 for “Hamlet and the pressure of the times”.  2 for “Rory Kinnear and Nicholas Hytner talk to NT Associate Director Ben Power”.  1 for the article about the Pearson Playwrights’ Scheme, even though it’s not part of the official program (I’m feeling generous).  Which gives us a grand total of…


Digital Program

But wait – there’s more!

Hamlet Digital Program Title Page

Oh my word, oh my lord, oh my sweet Cocker Spaniels – it’s a digital program!

Can you…can you hear that rapping noise?  It’s like a…who’s that knocking at the door?  Why, it’s technology!

You can buy this technological marvel for the same price as the normal program.  Yes I bought both versions.  As if you didn’t know I was obsessed with programs already.  But I’m somewhat wary of the digital manifestation, however – I am, though young, not one to buy my books electronically.  I like the feel of a book.  I like to wrap my fingers around it.  Firm.  Thick.  Hard.

Not in a gay way.

But there is something about having the program with you, especially in the theatre – no one wants to get the laptop out at interval.  It’s far too much of a conversation starter.  (“Hello, young man – would you mind looking up the Wikipedia entry for thrush?”)  Plus if there’s an electronic apocalypse – such as the massive solar flares that I read were predicted to come sometime in the next few years (though I’ve no idea whether that’s true or not) – then at least you have the hard copy still available.  And it’s very hard to impress people with your collection of books/programs when your entire library fits on a USB stick.  (“So, Jessica, I had a great time tonight…”  “I did, too…”  (Awkward pause.)  “I can show you my library if you want.”  “Sure!”  “Okay, let me just get my stick out of my pants.”  (Loud slap.)  “Stay away, freak!”)

That may or may not have happened to me before.

Luddite tendencies aside, it is a goodly program.  Apart from having everything the paper program has (though most of the ads were missing, which was somewhat disappointing – what I am supposed to make fun of?), it also has three extras.

First, a four and a half minute video entitled “Creating Elsinore”:

Creating Elsinore

It was…well, boring, pretty much.  Let me set the, well, film set, as it were.  You’ve just bought the program, and you know there is a video in it, but you’re not expecting it to be an hour long documentary – no, you’re expecting a short clip.  You press play, and start watching various people talking about the design of the set and the design of previous Hamlet‘s sets and so on, and every now and then the music in the background – not exactly the most lively of scores to begin with – seems to be dying away, accompanied on screen by a still shot of a set or a slowly zooming out picture of the same.  So you’re zooming out, the music seems to be finishing, and then…oh!  We’re not finished yet – suddenly more people are talking, more pictures are being shown, then we’re zooming out again…the music is slowing down…and again we’re hearing more people!

The effect of watching this film was, for me, like sitting next to an elderly, hospitalised relative, listening to them having trouble breathing while they sleep.  You’re talking quietly to the other relations there, when you begin to notice that granddad hasn’t breathed in for the last ten seconds or so.  You start to think, “could he be…?”, then, just when you’re about to say something, his lungs spring into action and produce this horrible sucking/flapping noise as he takes a deep gulp of air.  And so the cycle starts again.

Not a very restful experience.

Let’s try not to replicate it next time, okay?

The second extra is an audio extract from a ‘live platform event’, whatever that is (an interview on top of a diving board, one suspects):

Hamlet Audio Extract

It goes for 13 minutes.  It’s rather interesting.  But it’s an extract.  I’m not sure why they couldn’t have the entire conversation.  I would’ve like to have heard the entire conversation.  Next time make it the entire conversation.

(A note to the software people – the time bar is somewhat buggy, showing the percentage completed of what has been downloaded, rather than the percentage completed of the entirety of the audio clip, so the little orange button jumps all around the place.)

And finally, the last extra – production photos:

Production Photographs

11 of them.

The production photos are nice, but they’re nothing spectacular – they’re not something that need a digital program to be experienced.  One could have them in the normal program (assuming you could get it to the printers in time).  The video and the audio, on the other hand – that is where the digital program shines.  Different forms of art express different things in different ways, after all.  So – more videos and whatnot.  (The digital program for the next play in the NTLive series, Fela!, seems to have taken this advice before I had had a chance to give it, so obviously I’m psychic.)

And that’s it.  My first digital program review.  So, the score?  We start at 8 (9 – the Pearson Playwrights’ scheme article which didn’t appear in the digital program).  2 for the production photos.  2 for the “Creating Elsinore” video.  2 for the audio extract.  Which in total is the first program I’ve reviewed to go over 10 – though there was one in Sydney that I never got around to reviewing the play of.  The score?



Hamlet (Rory Kinnear)

Hamlet has the perhaps dubious honour of being the first play that I’ve reviewed twice.  It’s also the play that I’ve seen the most – at least five times, I think.

I’m sick of it.

If I could wave a magic wand and stop all productions worldwide of Hamlet for the next five, ten years, then I would.  Of course, if I had a magic wand, I’d be doing other things with it as well, such as magicking up a robotic personal chef, a large mansion, an infinite library, a whiff of talent…

The apathy I have towards writing this review is astounding – but I’m forcing myself to do it, if only to get it out of my system.  I’m gathering myself over the toilet bowl of criticism for one final diarrhoeatic purge of everything that is Hamlet.  I’m not entirely sure that that metaphor makes sense.  I’m not entirely sure that that metaphor was even worthwhile saying.

It’s not my fault, though, this apathy.  I blame English.  Not the English, but the subject.  In school.

I blame the educational system that thinks that the best way to study a Shakespearean play is to read a synopsis first – like a nymphomaniac who doesn’t remember losing their virginity, I have never had a chance to see/read Hamlet without knowing what was going to happen beforehand.  It came prespoiled.  (There’s a pun in there if you know where to look.)

Yes, the unravelling of the tragic plot is not the only pleasure that can be derived from the play – indeed, if that were the case then Shakespeare wouldn’t have survived – but good god it might have made a difference the first time around.  And what was the first time around (apart from reading the blasted thing)?  Kenneth Branagh.  We watched that in high school.  I can’t remember anything about it.

Then there was the Bell Shakespeare production with Leon Ford as Hamlet.  Don’t ask me what year it was.  But what was special about this production?  Video screens at the top of the stage, showing the comings and goings of the various characters throughout the corridors of the palace.  Interesting take – emphasising the ‘surveillance’ aspect of the play.

Then there was the Schaubuhne version last year at the Sydney Festival.  That had a live video camera in it, which Hamlet poked in the various characters’ faces.  Interesting take – emphasising the ‘surveillance’ aspect of the play.

Then there was the RSC production with David Tennant, or rather the movie version.  That had surveillance cameras in it, as well as a handheld camera that Hamlet used during the play-within-a-play scene.  Interesting take – emphasising the ‘surveillance’ aspect of the play.

Then there was the National Theatre production that I’m reviewing now, with Rory Kinnear in the title role.  What was special about it?  The stage was littered with security guards that watched all the proceedings, plus various characters occasionally talked to a camera that was, presumably, broadcasting their message to the populace of Denmark.  Interesting take – emphasising the ‘surveillance’ aspect of the play.

Do we detect a pattern emerging?

Gertrude (Clare Higgins) and Claudius (Patrick Malahide)

The reason that ‘duck, duck, goose’ is a popular game is because at some point, someone has to say ‘goose’.  I can’t be completely sure, but I’d imagine that ‘duck, duck, duck, duck, duck, duck, duck…’ mightn’t have quite the same effect, though as a tool for prepubescent hypnosis en-masse, it could be rather effective.

So not only have I not seen the play with fresh, innocent, pure, untainted, from-a-place-better-than-yours-and-don’t-you-forget-it eyes, I also haven’t seen it in the last five years (at least) without some type of camerawork involved.  I can’t understand this.  What director looks at the play, wonders what he can do with it, thinks, “I’ll emphasise the surveillance aspect!”, and expects it to be original?

Not that director Nicholas Hytner’s version of the play is bad, however – but it borders on the stale.  And when you’ve seen something five times in the last six or seven years (and that, one suspects, is a paltry number of Hamlets for any serious critic)…  There’s already nowhere near enough new plays put on in this city – so if I can’t see new plays then I’d at least like to see new interpretations.

Of course I realise that I’m talking about two English, one German, and one Australian production of the same play, so, on a local scale, the surveillance-interpretation may seem fresh, but internationally…

On a tangent for a moment, I note that I’m using a lot of ‘…’s – I suspect this menstrual flush (think about it) is due to my aforementioned apathy…  See?  Moving on.

I saw Uncle Vanya twice in a month when it was on at the STC last year, and enjoyed it immensely both times.  I saw August: Osage County twice last year – a fortnight between the two visits, and enjoyed the first time round quite a bit (though not as much as Uncle Vanya), though my second experience of it lagged somewhat.  I remember in high school we were taken to see The Comedy of Errors, and I, upon enjoying it so much, cajoled my parents into taking me to see it again, on which occasion I took pleasure in the play once more.  I saw King Lear for the first time last year in an average production, and while I didn’t find it particularly good, I was moved by the final scene, where Lear drags his daughter onto the stage – knowing virtually nothing about the plot of King Lear, I suspect Shakespeare’s plot twist had the desired effect on me.  I thoroughly enjoyed All’s Well That Ends Well, broadcast by NTLive (like this Hamlet) last year.  I marvelled at Measure for Measure last year as well (which, curiously, had the most cameras in any play I’ve ever seen – and I didn’t mind them).  I saw The Tempest in high school in the grounds of a theatre (outside), and liked that.  I saw R & J (I think that’s the name) – a version of Romeo and Juliet, the characters all played by four boys in a boarding school, and thought that was quite good at the time.  I saw Twelfth Night last year and had a rollicking good time.

I’m sure there’s more but I’d rather not send you to sleep.  The point is that (a) I’ve enjoyed many Shakespeare plays, (b) I’ve enjoyed some productions multiple times, and (c) I’ve even enjoyed Shakespeare productions multiple times.

Hamlet (Rory Kinnear) and Polonius (David Calder)

This being said, and with the knowledge that what I’m about to say is most likely a form of suicide for a critic – I’m slowly coming to the opinion that, all things taken into account, I might not like Hamlet.  I can’t remember ever feeling anything while watching a production of it – the closest I could come to an emotional response being shivers down my spine when the ghost, offstage, makes Hamlet and his friends swear to keep his secret.  That’s just plain spooky.  But as for everything else – nothing.  Ophelia going mad?  Nothing.  Hamlet mentally torn about the things he must do and has done?  Not a sausage.  Everyone dying at the end?  Bugger all.

Out of all the characters in Shakespeare (though I must admit that I have a somewhat limited experience of them), I identify with Hamlet the most – the philosophical soul forced into action, tormented by excess thought – and I suspect that most writers probably do (assuming that one should probably spend a lot of time in one’s own head if they expect to be a good writer).  But do I feel for his plight as I’m watching the play?  No.

And yet I enjoy Shakespeare’s words – obviously the soliloquies of Hamlet are something that most people would relish, as well as Polonius’ ramblings.  And I have to say that Rory Kinnear makes the soliloquies, and indeed the rest of Hamlet’s lines, the most understandable I’ve ever heard.  I’ve recently been watching a series of workshops on Shakespeare by John Barton (apparently most actors will know what I’m talking about – it’s called Playing Shakespeare), and in it he describes how an actor must grab the audience and hold their attention, that to just say the lines is not enough in Shakespeare, that one must make clear each thought that is being spoken, and help the audience to understand the logic behind the words, and so on.  This seems obvious not just for Shakespeare but for the majority of plays, I’m guessing, but whatever it was that John Barton was describing in that series is what Rory Kinnear is doing, and it makes quite a difference.  This Hamlet was indeed the clearest one that I have seen.

Still didn’t feel anything, though.

Maybe I haven’t seen a production worthy of the play.  Maybe my lack of an emotional response – leaving just a slightly morbid fascination with how events unfold – is the norm, is what everybody else experiences.  I doubt that.

My response to the play is a mass of contradictions.  Every other play that I have seen that I thought was great (and indeed, some plays that I merely thought quite good), has made me want to go home after seeing it and write a play just like it, or at least heavily influenced by it.  Travesties, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Waiting for Godot, Our Town, Uncle Vanya, Phedre, etc.  That is my test, as it were – or at least one of them.  If the play has a strong enough influence on me that I want to imitate it, then I know it’s the real thing.  All of the plays I’ve just mentioned have made me feel something, often to an extreme.  The plays I didn’t mention – that is, the bad plays – have made me feel much, much less, or even nothing at all (assuming that one excludes ‘boredom’ as a feeling).

Ophelia (Ruth Negga) and Hamlet (Rory Kinnear)

Hamlet, on the other hand, makes me feel nothing, as I’ve said, but at the same time its influence over me is immense.  As is all of Shakespeare, but especially so for Hamlet.  I want to write something like Hamlet.  It’s the only play that passes that test of greatness that I’ve felt nothing for.

I’ve no idea why.  Rather annoying.

I have theories, though.  Perhaps I feel nothing because I identify with Hamlet so much that when tragic things start to happen I emotionally shut down.  One of the reasons that tragedies are popular (even though they make us feel sad) is because they make us feel emotions in a safe environment – if things were to get too much, for instance, you could leave the theatre.  But it doesn’t even come to that – you’re feeling things in a community, you’re not directly in the situation – it’s emotion through empathy, obviously.  Perhaps because Hamlet is so close to me these distancing effects are nullified, and so some sort of psychological self-defence mechanism kicks in to keep myself from being too affected by what I’m seeing.

Another theory is that the play is in verse, in poetic language.  But I doubt that is the reason – I’ve felt things in other Shakespearean tragedies, after all.  Laughter, shock, melancholy, sadness, the wandering hands of the pervert next to me…


(I put “joking” in because, if I ever become famous (shut up), and biographers decide to trawl through all my works, they’ll see this very minor review (and it is – even I can feel how bad it is, so I don’t know why you’re still reading – I myself stopped thinking at least five paragraphs ago), and see that line and think that I was abused as a teenager and use it to…well, you can extrapolate it yourselves.)

All of this disturbs me, this not liking Hamlet.  It reminds me of Tolstoy.  A quote that I read a while back:

“I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium… Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” “The Tempest”, “Cymbeline”, and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.”  – Tolstoy on Shakespeare

Well, well, well!  I don’t think my not liking Hamlet extends to such levels as Tolstoy not liking Shakespeare, besides which I do like pretty much all the components of the play…

I like eggs.  I like cheese.  I like butter, flour, salt, pepper, ham, and bacon.  I like them all.


Put them together and you get the culinary catastrophe known as quiche.

Horatio (Giles Terera)

Hamlet is like a quiche for me.  (I wager you wouldn’t get this kind of keen insight in other reviews, nosiree – comparing the masterpieces of the theatrical canon to types of food.  Why, just the other week I was pointing out to a friend the similarities between Blanche DuBois and an aubergine, and I remember not a month earlier I was involved in a series of lectures at Harvard where I presented my most recent paper, Euripides and Larousse Gastronomique: An Intertextual Foray – rather well received, I must say, a particular highlight being the premature standing ovation that had my audience rushing out of the auditorium to the foyer to discuss my groundbreaking work.  Some may ask where I get the inspiration for these striking comparisons, what was it that influenced me and gave me food for thought – and all I would say is that genius requires no explanation.)

Aye, there’s the marinade – it would seem that my theatrical taste makes each Hamlet I see unpalatable.

But I wasn’t bored in this latest recipe, wasn’t driven to contemplation of a time-wasting tedium.  And so I sit here typing, typing, still typing, hoping that with each keystroke I might unlock the explanation for my contrarian tastebuds.  And so you sit there reading, reading, wondering when I’ll get to something interesting, when I’ll bother to talk about the production rather than the play, though maybe I don’t want to.  Many a time has a production stood in the way of a good review, though this being an unmitigated ramble, I can’t appeal to an aphorism as ambiguous as that.

But how does one talk about Hamlet?  What is the point, for instance, of describing the plot – it is known to everyone.  One does not need to describe what the taste of water is to another human being, after all, for if we ever did find a taste in water, it has long ago been evolved out of, been adapted to.  It is neutrality itself.  Yes, one can add a twist of lemon and introduce a taste, but it doesn’t mean the water tastes different – rather, it merely introduces a flavour separate to the water, the liquid becoming the delivery system for the additional flavours.

No, we can never understand what water tastes like.  But if we were to stop drinking, to not let a single drop of that pure lifeflow touch our lips…  What joy it is when you, parched beyond recognition, dehydrated to near delirium, take a gulp of cool refreshment, feel it trickling down your throat, feel the icy tentacles spread across your chest.  There’s still no taste, of course, but the ecstasy is real, the overwhelming release from the drought of death – what other foodstuff can make a claim like this?  Show me the chocolate, show me the dessert, show me the roasted meat that can vie with nature’s ambrosia.

Perhaps I do like Hamlet.  Perhaps I have unintentionally soaked myself in its words, in its characters.  Perhaps abundancy is the best disguise for quality.

Nicholas Hytner’s production insinuated that Ophelia was murdered.  That is the twist of lemon, and that is all you need to know.

Hamlet (Rory Kinnear), Gertrude (Clare Higgins), and Laertes (Alex Lanipekun)

And so we continue on this voyage of self-discovery, this auto-essay, like Montaigne without the erudition and Tynan without the wit.  You – you are still reading, still waiting for some fleck of critical gold to be flicked in your direction.  You’ve seen the last few paragraphs, you’ve noticed the few extra big words that have crept into the prose, but do not be deceived – this boost in vocabulary like the day of health before an aged death, the last rasps before life deflates for good.

Kenneth Tynan is a better critic than I am.  Or was.  That is the encyclopaedic view of death, at least – the changing of ‘is’ to ‘was’.  Wikipedia’s obituarial rites, as it were.  But he was, and will always be, I suspect, better.  He had the observation of a stalker and the prose of an eccentric clockmaker.  Whereas I – all that I do is sit myself down and type.  The second draft is a dirty word around these parts.  I put on one song in particular that I’m fond of at the moment, set it on loop, and wait for my consciousness to fall drowsy, then let my muse move my fingers across the keyboard for as long as possible.  A clockmaker’s movements are purposeful, precise – mine are no more than the twitches of subconscious ephemeralities.  A clockmaker follows to the second a set-down design for his timepiece, whereas I, I take a laissez-faire approach to structure – what is written will be.  For me, structure can sometimes – indeed, quite often – introduce hesitation into a writing process.  One must stop and think, halt and make decisions, make permanencies from abstract playthings.  Nothing sets faster than an opinion, whereas thoughts stay malleable.  The flux is structureless – to fly is to be free, to land is to choose.

So I identify with Hamlet, hovering in eternal torment, levitating in the anteroom of concrete damnation, of decided action.  For a writer, each word uttered is a risk.  How better it is to just imagine, to daydream about things gloriously done.  We are all great in front of an empty sheet of paper – it is the ink that does us in.

How better it is for me to fantasise about having finished this review, how better it is to be content that I could write it, how annoying it is to have to sit down and do the work and have the font of my supposed wisdom transformed into the font of banal text.  I’m repeating myself.

Still reading?  What patience you have, for I’m not entirely sure that I’ll be mentioning Hamlet again.  It seems, at the moment, to be superfluous.  It is the title of the piece – “Critique: Hamlet” – that would seem to enforce the rule that I must talk about the play, but I’ve mentioned it already – do I have to refer to it again?  If criticism is a record of the soul, how much soul can one put into the work?  I seem to be pushing the boundaries in this review.

But you can sense it now, can’t you?  You can feel that I have nothing more to say, that I probably never had anything to say about the production.  But you can’t be sure, of course, though all evidence points to it.  But perhaps I’m just not interested in saying those things, perhaps that is not what drove me to write this review – so many things that one ought to mention feel awfully petty when compared to eternity. I didn’t want to write it in the first place, and I suspect your diagnosis may be right.  How perceptive you are.

Ophelia (Ruth Negga)

I’ve yet to determine whether it is easier to write a review of something you love as opposed to something you hate.  On the one hand you have the opportunity to relive and revel in the experience, to let others know just what it was that sent your soul soaring, and yet on the other hand you have the opportunity to have some fun, to point out the flaws, to get your money’s worth, if not from the play, then at least from schadenfreude.  Either way you want to exert some sort of influence.  A critic that isn’t looking to shape the theatrical landscape to his whims is a critic not worth reading.  There is a depth that all great plays have, a feeling that inside the text lies a beating heart.  A critic without a mission is a critic without depth.  Depth is the roots that withstand the winds of time.  So my confusion with my response to Hamlet further complicates the matter – how can you write about something that you don’t know if you like?  I know what score I will be giving the production at the end, but that doesn’t help tell me if I liked the play or not – though it has been an infallible guide up until now.  One suspects that the score will be a grading of the flavour rather than the water.

I know what influence I want to exert over the interpretation of the play – for there to be no more productions that emphasise the surveillance aspect for a long, long time – but I’m unsure of what I want to happen to the play itself.  I know that if I was to eliminate Hamlet then the theatrical landscape would be worse for it, and yet if I keep it in, I doubt it will be any better.  Of course I realise the pointlessness in saying these things – nothing I do will ever dislodge Hamlet‘s position in our society, but I need to come to some decision, for my own peace of thoughts, at least.

And you’re still reading.  What gratitude for you I have right now, to have come this far with me.  Sometimes it feels that the business of writing – at least in essay form – is mainly to do with the writer wanting to whine to only those who are interested.  Which reminds me of the opening of Montaigne’s Essays:

You have here, Reader, a book whose faith can be trusted, a book which warns you from the start that I have set myself no other end but a private family one.  I have not been concerned to serve you nor my reputation: my powers are inadequate for such a design.  I have dedicated this book to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen so that, having lost me (as they must do soon) they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours.  They will thus keep their knowledge of me more full, more alive.  If my design had been to seek the favour of the world I would have decked myself out better and presented myself in a studied gait.  Here I want to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday fashion, without striving or artifice: for it is my own self that I am painting.  Here, drawn from life, you will read of my defects and my native form so far as respect for social convention allows: for had I found myself among those peoples who are said still to live under the sweet liberty of Nature’s primal laws, I can assure you that I would most willingly have portrayed myself whole, and wholly naked.

And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain.

Therefore, Farewell:

From Montaigne;
this first of March, One thousand, five hundred and eighty.

Probably should have put something like that at the start, yes?  Oh well.

And so we come to the end.  Do I like Hamlet?

No fucking idea.

Therefore, Farewell.

8/10.  Hamlet by William Shakespeare at the National Theatre, The Motherland, broadcast via NTLive, and finished.  Directed by Nicholas Hytner.  With Matthew Barker, David Calder, Marcus Cunningham, Jake Fairbrother, Clare Higgins, Ferdinand Kinglsey, Rory Kinnear, Alex Lanipekun, James Laurenson, Patrick Malahide, Ruth Negga, James Pearse, Michael Peavoy, Saskia Portway, Victor Power, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Nick Sampson, Micahel Sheldon, Leo Staar, Zara Tempest-Walters, Giles Terera, and Ellie Turner.  Designed by Vicki Mortimer.  Lighting by Jon Clark.  Music by Alex Baranowski.  Sound by Paul Groothuis.  Fights by Kate Waters.  Production photos by Johan Persson.


Written by epistemysics

January 27, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Posted in Theatre Reviews

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