The central conceit of this production is that Johan Christensen and Ian McKellen slip symbiotically between being Hamlet’s inner voice and outer actor. The one is lithe and physically erratic, the other weary and more laboured: a juxtaposition which will appeal to anyone who has ever grappled with reconciling how a grieving thirty year old speaks with such sage eloquence yet behaves with such adolescent angst.
Thank the theatrical Gods that McKellen takes such an obvious and profound glee in engaging with dramatic variety
This Hamlet is essentially a ballet, masterminded by Peter Schaufuss, which is augmented with McKellen’s occasional soliloquies. It is a handsomely imagined and stylish piece, and the venue itself – the beautifully redesigned St Stephen’s Church in Stockbridge, now named for the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton – is an integral cast member in its own right. The high ceilings lend a Cathedralesque quality to the opening scenes of the Danish Court, which, coupled with McKellen’s miked nasal vowels creates an immediate grandeur and pomp often missing from less sensory interpretations. The rotunda walls and clever lighting add both atmosphere and a gallery of silent shadows who reflect and distort the action below; the chain cyclorama reminds us that however many civilising turrets or coats of arms are projected on to it, its foundations are nevertheless forged from the paraphernalia of war; whilst the highly polished floor mirrors the characters back at themselves, underpinning Hamlet’s overpowering sense of surveillance and suffocation.
There may well be those who think it edgy to naysay this as neither a definitive Hamlet nor a ground-breaking adaptation. But this is not so much missing the point as taking a bloody great and wilful detour to Wittenberg and back to avoid it. The only definitive Hamlet can ever be one’s own: chiselled from a commitment to reading, revisiting, reviewing. It is impertinent to suggest that a text of this sublime intricacy can ever be fully understood in one sitting and through the prism of just one set of creative choices. Not dissimilarly, the now surely somewhat dated proposition that theatrical currency lies solely in gimmicks seems particularly egregious as regards a playwright with whom even primary school workshops can find fresh nuance.
As McKellen himself says “there are many theatrical ways to tell a story”; and stripped of the aching linguistic dynamics of the original script, there is certainly scope for this piece to take its place in the pantheon of Hamlets as one which focuses on the more subtextual and visceral facets of character motivation. The compression of the text is brave and rather brilliant: the irksome Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are reduced to bouncing idiots, Polonius’ farting about with pastoral-historical is suggested by obsequious smirks, and there is no faffing around with the Norwegians. The ballet releases the text from the dusty academic purism which can defeat actual engagement and offers a psychologically rich intensity which is far freer to paint some of the more problematic elements. Gertrude’s angular physicality hints at her complicity, the heavy sexuality which haunts the source text is explored with an aggressive lyricism, and probably the most enduring and unconditional relationship – that of Hamlet and Horatio – is more consciously and deeply portrayed than in a more conventional interpretation.
As McKellen utters ‘the rest is silence’ at the end of seventy-five unbroken minutes of Ethan Lewis Maltby’s redolent score, the brief halting of the music leaves us with a starkly hushed contrast to the constant busyness of Hamlet’s mind. Unsure of which is more chilling, we have become so involved in the rottenness of court life that we are living ‘to be or not to be’ for ourselves.
This is the first Hamlet to make me cry. Unless you count that time I thought David Tennant was looking straight at me during the ‘country matters’ line at the RSC. It is likely that it works more successfully to those familiar with the original; but as a companion to the great textual Hamlets, this is an exquisite and beautifully-wrought imagining which thrills the senses and makes us thank the theatrical Gods once again that an actor as great as McKellen takes such an obvious and profound glee in continuing to explore and engage with dramatic variety.