With the start of the Shakespeare anniversary celebrations there are opportunities to shine a searchlight on the familiar as much as to explore the obscurer aspects of the canon. Ilissos, a new historically-informed theatre company, has made an imaginative foray into this territory through their production at the Cockpit of the First Quarto edition of Hamlet, first published in 1603.

It is a shorter text than the complete version with which we are familiar, and that, as we shall see, has advantages and disadvantages. It purports to be the play as performed in London, Oxford and Cambridge, but is most likely the play as remembered and set down by one of the early actors. The lines are at their closest to the text of the final version when Marcellus/Voltemar/Lucianus is on stage, and so it is reasonable to attribute the role of scribe to him. The greatest losses are in the soliloquies which are attenuated or garbled or missing. Instead the focus is on rapid-moving action and story which takes the play much closer to the ‘revenge tragedy’ tradition which is the core of its origins and which would have been familiar territory for the actor/editor.

Inevitably this priority is reflected in the production which moves past very swiftly and urgently so that one hardly felt the need for an interval. Another consequence is the flattening out of other characters. Gertrude, for example, has very little to do – though there is a new scene in which Horatio makes her fully aware of the plot to kill Hamlet in England; and the king, who is unnamed as Claudius in the play, also is much more lightly sketched in. In fact it all feels quite close to the crisp, direct, stripped-down production of the play with gender-blind casting that I reviewed here a year ago.

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For a play where there is a priority on action the Cockpit is an excellent venue. With the audience seated around all four sides of the square stage and four entrances/exits at the corners, a swift pace can rapidly be whipped up and sustained, and director Charles Ward sets out to do that. The set is minimalist – just three pieces of platform-decking, which are moved around in inventive combinations by the cast, often with bluesy musical interludes between scenes. Some of these set manoeuvres seemed more relevant than others, and the significance of the choice of music largely escaped me. Costumes were a half-way house between modern dress and breeches and stockings – they neither provided a distraction nor made a particular impression.

The acting was of variable quality, but always basically competent. As the prince Nicholas Limm had many of the right qualities. He enjoyed the intellectual playfulness with words and was physically lithe and hyper-active, without needing to be showily athletic. The sword-fight with Laertes was plausibly staged (Ronin Traynor), his baiting of Ophelia and Polonius well contrived, and the crucial scene in which he confronts his mother was played well by both, despite its reduced format. However, there were a number of points at which the characterisation remained under-powered.

It would be easy to say that the play text was to blame for not allowing enough scope for Limm to go deeper; but that would be insufficient. For long sections of the action his delivery, though impressively accurate, was simply too fast and undifferentiated in tone. Even this text has scope for introspection, and one has to hope that as the run progresses, he will find the light and shade and varied pacing that the role demands. It is significant that at present his best work is with the players of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ or in the teasing of Rossencraft and Gilderstone (sic.) with a real set of bagpipes – both scenes where the rhetorical fun, satirical wit and physical range of the role are fully explored.

In contrast to the rapid-fire delivery in the key role, John Hyatt’s portrayal of Corambis (i.e. Polonius) was too ponderous and genial, even in a part where those qualities do need to register part of the time. One never got a sense of a Machiavellian courtier separated from the King in ruthlessness only by age. However, the other members of his family were well portrayed. Laertes is a fairly thankless role, whose main contributions come late in the action when the audience is yearning for closure not more rhetorical effusion. However, Sam Jenkins-Shaw did a fine job making him a credible figure by – for once – downplaying the ready sense of outraged honour.

000Hlet3As his sister, Maryam Grace was a more characterful Ophelia than usual. Often this role seems disjointed so that the passive victim of the early scenes cannot be connected with the unrestrained reason-in-madness of her subsequent appearances. Here there was no difficulty. The strain of her impossible position early on was visibly portrayed with real dignity and disdain so that the strident and plangent delivery of the songs and the pointed presentation of the herbs and flowers (here doodled on paper… a nice touch) worked well later.

Gertrude and the king were well matched. Pauline Monro has little to do for much of the production but, like many of the older actors, she has the training to do justice to the verse-speaking, and her elegy for Ophelia was beautifully done. Alex Scrivens did little to distinguish between the king and the ghost, but this was an interesting and nuanced rendition of both parts, where understatement was a benefit in both cases.

There are many minor roles in this play and several of them were doubled up in this production, to no overall loss. Robert Blackwood had a lot to do, in playing the roles that probably fell to the putative adaptor of the play, and he did a lot with them both physically and verbally. Christopher Laishley played Horatio with great sensitivity and was always acting off-the-speech with sympathetic delicacy. Blake Kubena invested five different roles with authority and diversity, and John Hyatt was much more at home with a skull in his hand in the role of First Clown than with Corambis.

While I am glad to have seen a performance of this version of the play, I cannot say that I would want to see it again with any urgency. The textual losses are simply too great. But where this production really does score a palpable hit is in reminding us of two things – firstly, that Hamlet need not be an interminably long evening, and secondly that there is no such thing as a standard or definitive text of this play. Most performances of the conventional version are and should be cut to some extent, because if done complete, momentum sags, wherever you decide to place the interval. Moreover, Shakespeare himself clearly staged different versions for different occasions, just as Handel chopped and changed the numbers of Messiah according to performance circumstances and the resources available.

This intriguing production is thus a timely reminder that at a basic level the play needs to be a fast-moving action drama and can never properly succeed in the theatre if it is treated as a sacred and definitive text to be read.

 

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…