Though this be madness there should be method in it

Hamlet – English Repertory Theatre @ Cockpit Theatre, until 15 March 2015 (tickets)

I would like to open this review by mentioning that Civilian Theatre does not see itself as one of those critics that takes a perverse pleasure in lacerating poor productions with a damning review; chuckling to oneself with each stab of the keyboard. In the four years of reviewing plays, Civilian Theatre has only really laid into two productions (Babel and Peter & Alice) and both were big B02J4494-210enough to make it unlikely that my chiding remarks would have any real impact on the sensitivities of those involved.

With smaller-scale, or up and coming, companies it usually preferable to take a more modulated tone; criticism can serve two purposes, on one hand a review is written so that a potential ticket buyer can draw something meaningful about a play whilst a theatre company may also use it to draw insight from what a person distanced from the production process took away from the evening.

So in a roundabout way, and with the previous two paragraphs forming a mea culpa for what is to follow, we reach Hamlet, usually by William Shakespeare but here pared-down to 90 minutes and subject to reworking by the English Repertory Theatre.

Now I have been a stalwart defender of the right to adapt Shakespeare in order to draw in new audiences or to cast fresh perspectives on the action. I loved both of Phyllidia Lloyd’s productions at the Donmar (Julius Caesar and Henry IV), and felt that cutting close to four hours from Henry IV Part I & Part II was entirely validated due to the way it thrillingly reinterpreting the relationship dynamics between the lead roles.

However it is a high risk approach and one has to be sure that every snip from the text is dramatically justified and lends to the clarity and purpose of the production. So in this version it is understandable that you would excise much of the political intrigue that swirls around Elsinore, cutting Fortinbras and Hamlet’s trip to England completely and narrowing the action to Hamlet’s coterie in order to fit it to the school setting.

What is less understandable is why you would then reallocate dialogue so that Horatio delivers Fortinbras’ final lines in a cod-Norwegian accent. It is a terribly misjudged comic coda for what is ostensibly a tragedy, and also acts as a strangely out-of-place addendum at odds with the key themes that have been drawn out in the cut-down text.

This is just one example of the confusion that mars a production that reeks of being cannily targeted at the school syllabus; the stripped down running time and the schoolyard setting feel  little more than a lure to entice the financially powerful student trip market. The use of a school as a framing device is never justified, and leads to far more questions than answers, so that in the end it becomes a performance that lacks narrative coherence.

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You don’t have to be mad to extemporise here but it helps

Hamlet – Young Vic, Running until 21 January 2012

Ian Rickson’s production of Hamlet at the Young Vic begins with an elaborate entrance through the backstage area, which has been transformed into a passage through a mental hospital. As you wind through narrow corridors, you catch glimpses of action through windows and the pervading sense from the TV screens and telephones on display that we are entering the 1970s.

To be honest all this effort feels a little laboured although it does help to immediately ground the play in its overarching theme: is Hamlet mad?  It is a question that has been raked over many times, be it in productions, literary criticism or psychological analysis. However through Ian Rickson’s radical interpretative staging, it is a question that delivers a revelatory redefinition of how the play can be understood.

The play begins with a striking image; Michael Sheen’s Hamlet appears out of nowhere in long shot, trapped in a solitary light shining upstage. Rickson’s exquisite framing is a feature that runs throughout the play but this first image, with a clear allusion to Carol Reed’s The Third Man is particularly notable. It is a potent reference point, immediately conjuring up thoughts of Vienna; the spiritual home of Freud and the psychology movement. The Third Man itself is indebted to German expressionists of early cinema, such as  Fritz Lang and FW Murnau, who were fascinated by madness and its effect on the human condition.

References abound in this play; the 1970’s institutional setting brings to mind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, compared to the recent Hamlets of David Tennant and John Simm, Sheen has an alpha-male muscularity that is redolent of Jack Nicholson without, thankfully, adopting any more of Nicholson’s mannerisms.

The other crucial reference point is the work of RD Laing. In a play that has at its heart the discussion and understanding of madness, Laing’s work has a relevance that underpins the perspective that Rickson takes to the play. At the centre of Laing’s theories is the idea that psychosis is not a biological or psychic response but something that can develop out of socio-cultural situations. This has a direct relevance to the understanding of Hamlet. Hamlet is not ‘mad’ per se but he may have become mad due to the conditions that he has found himself within and the drama of the play may be an attempt to break him of that psychosis.

This reading is reinforced through Laing’s idea that ‘going crazy’ can be the sane response to an insane situation. In this, as in so many other cases, we can infer that Shakespeare touched on the principle a few hundred years before the development of psychology as a science. This may be a stretch but it does appear to reflect Hamlet’s understanding of himself; he wishes to assert his own identity, ‘to thine own self be true’, through his understanding and response to his father’s death. However Hamlet’s ideas conflicts with the response demanded by his ‘uncle-father’ Claudius; Laing would argue that Hamlet is stuck between the persona he has created, the avenger of his father, and the one demanded by parental authority and it is in this bind that the context for Hamlet’s ‘madness’ should be understood.

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