If you thought last week’s alumni As You Like It was spectacular, The Show Must Go Online has gone one step further this week for Hamlet – introducing an alumni allstar special featuring a global cast of actors from the entire project so far.
I’ve seen quite the range of Hamlets, from the sublime (Andrew Scott-led Almeida production at the Harold Pinter Theatre) to the ridiculous (a 90-minute Brandreth family indulgence at the Park Theatre). As well as some in between, such as the well-performed but confusingly directed Cumberbatch vehicle at the Barbican, a comedy version in Edinburgh courtesy of Shit-faced Shakespeare, and a beautifully monochrome affair at the pop-up Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre last year. The only female Hamlet I’ve so far seen onstage is Michelle Terry, in her debut season as Globe AD; it was my first experience of the Globe with no amplification (which I’m still dead against) and it was a bit of a mish-mash, really. Basically, Andrew Scott was the one to beat.
Introducing this week’s play was Dr David Stirling Brown; Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University, and executive board member of the Race Before Race conference series – and dressed for the occasion in a ‘Straight Outta Elsinore’ t-shirt & impressive crown. As you might have anticipated after hearing about his role in the conference series, after a brief synopsis of this “tragic, psychologically engaging play” – which he also sees as “intellectually rich” – he posed a question to the audience: “How can we talk about race in Hamlet?” It’s not something that would necessarily come to mind, but Dr Brown provided an incredibly compelling insight (previewing his scholarship) in tying the increasing “unmanliness” in Hamlet‘s Denmark with blackness; a “social stain” that is triggered by Claudius poisoning his brother – traditionally considered a ‘feminine’ method of killing, it taints Elsinore and means that “ideal white masculinity is dead”. Indeed, references to Hamlet’s “inky cloak” and thoughts of King Hamlet’s decomposing body also bring us back to the same idea. “In Hamlet, black is king.”
Bernardo & Marcellus are convinced they’ve seen the ghost of the recently deceased King Hamlet, wandering the battlements of Elsinore; they bring Horatio (a friend of Prince Hamlet) to act as a witness in case he reappears – when he does, the trio decide they must inform Hamlet of what they’ve seen. As well as his father’s death, Hamlet has other things on his mind: his uncle Claudius ascending the throne and marrying his sister-in-law Gertrude. Unable to return to his schooling in Wittenberg, the news from Horatio comes as a fairly welcome distraction – although when he learns from the ghost that Claudius poisoned him and that he’ll be stuck in purgatory until Hamlet exacts revenge, he has yet more to contemplate. Meanwhile, Polonius’ son Laertes has been given permission to return to France, leaving his sister Ophelia at Elsinore under her father’s watchful eye, with explicit instructions to distance herself from Hamlet and ignore her feelings for him. Something that may actually prove welcome when the prince reappears with an “antic disposition”, apparently mad from grief – though in fact pretending. The appearance of student friends Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and later a group of travelling players, works in Hamlet’s favour, as he sets a trap to prove Claudius’ guilt…
Like an overplayed song, an overperformed play can turn you against it; familiarity breeds contempt, and all that. The overwhelming Hamlet stench that surrounded the exhibition at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon irritated me a bit – and not just because of the largely underwhelming productions I’d seen by that point. “So many of Shakespeare’s plays are just as quotable,” I thought. “What’s all the fuss about?” Only when I saw the Andrew Scott version (which married concept, performance & direction) did I truly get it. And the same might be said of this TSMGO version. Just as the prince himself directs the players (“suit the word to the action, the action to the word”), this extraordinary company delivered this thrilling play with aplomb – and nothing felt out of place.
The production’s modernity was not a tacky add-on, instead it worked with both the play and the available technology. Having Claudius & Polonius eavesdrop on Hamlet & Ophelia’s conversation through a mobile phone was ingenious, as it gave Hamlet some opportunity to try & communicate earnestly with Ophelia whilst letting his elders hear what they wanted to hear. Hamlet brandishing a Russell Brand book in the first show of his “antic disposition” brought some amusement – and the Día de los Muertos makeup was also a wonderful choice. Not only does it visibly suggest Hamlet is not in his right mind (a bit of cultural appropriation at a random time of year), but it also links up with Hamlet’s genuine & continued feelings of grief; in Mexico the Day of the Dead festival is a time of celebration, where family & friends remember loved ones who have died and see it as a chance to help their spiritual journey. Is that not what both King & Prince Hamlet want to achieve? It could also act as a sign that Hamlet hopes his father will pass on by less vengeful means, explaining some of his waiting around & contemplation about dealing directly with Claudius.
The lighter moments (vital in showing just how dark a tragedy can get) were timed perfectly, and provided even more amusement than anticipated. Stephen Leask brought us the most memorable gravedigger in the history of Hamlet, becoming musical as well as ad libbing to his heart’s content (“ZOMBIES!”). Rosencrantz & Guildenstern were a brilliant double act, with Robbie Capaldi & Maryam Grace on the same screen for nearly all of their scenes, making the most of this proximity for visual gags – and creating some truly excellent props (including an elaborate evidence board of Hamlet’s madness).
Using shadow puppetry for the dumbshow worked exceedingly well; the dumbshow isn’t a widely known concept anymore, for one thing, and it does feel more interesting to have variety in that you’re telling the same story twice. It was also interesting to see ‘inside’ Polonius’ murder later on, as he remained on screen throughout; incidentally Michael Bertenshaw put in a wonderful performance, combining the slightly bumbling & pompous aspects of the character with some misguided parental instincts – as he mentioned afterwards, a bit of an extension & development of his Old Capulet.
As was the case after Henry V, I could easily have dedicated an entire post to the title character. Kristin Atherton has been a real asset to the TSMGO project so far, and I’m now going to add Hamlet to Henry VI, part one‘s Talbot as a role I’d love to see her perform onstage. Her Hamlet was so full of humanity that you found yourself justifying even the most extreme courses of action he takes; the intensity of the situation in Elsinore was palpable in this Zoom theatre medium, and the extra intimacy it provided for Hamlet’s introspective soliloquies was a real boon. I also loved the innovation that showed real Hamlet contemplating Claudius’ murder, with him imagining going through with it below – this really made Hamlet’s task hit home, and helps you to understand why he takes so long to consider what he’s actually been asked to do.
I could wax lyrical over every single member of this allstar cast, as they were all at the top of their game, but one final mention has to go to Miguel Perez as Ghost Hamlet, Emily Carding as Claudius, Tanvi Virmani as Ophelia, and Gabriel Akamo as Laertes – pivotal and moving performances apiece. This was absolutely one of the best in the series so far, and continues to demonstrate how the medium is evolving as the weeks go by.
Next week: Twelfth Night
Hamlet was broadcast on 12 August 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page. The Show Must Go Online merchandise is available from Redbubble.