Theatre Let's begin at the ending or indeed further than the ending into the credits which include the following statement: "The text of HAMLET was created for the 2009 production starring Jude Law and directed by Michael Grandage which played London and New York". Does this happen much? It's certainly the first time I remember seeing a production in which, rather than the director and possibly actors taking a view on the text of the play themselves, effectively pulling something prepared earlier from the shelf. To an extent, doesn't this mean that you're interpreting someone else's interpretation rather than Shakespeare's own words?
The statement appears on the Royal Exchange's own website and was presumably in the original programme, but deliberately ignoring such things before watching any production so as to preserve some surprises, I had spent the duration considering the bold textual choices of stage director Sarah Frankcom when in fact it's Michael Grandage's thought process which should be considered. It's certainly made me retrospectively rethink my opinion on the production and the role of the actors and director. Without having seen Grandage's production, how am I to know how much of what I've just seen, such as cutting Fortinbras, was down to the current director and how much is a simple replication of 2009? Yes, I could go glance at some reviews, but one shouldn't really need to.
So it's to Grandage we look for the choice to shift "To Be Or Not To Be" far later in the play to just after the closet scene, making it a meditation on that act as much as Hamlet's own mortality, though chilling emphasis given on the latter due to the Prince brandishing the revolver which did the deed, weakly pressing it to his temple. It's fine and I'd be interested to see how it fits in the original staging. But this textual purist is also bound to say it's not what Shakespeare wrote and unbalances our understanding of his psychology at that moment and the extent to which his feigning madness and shifted off into something else, which is something I'm not sure this production ever really takes a view on.
The one big textual decision which can be attributed to Frankcom is also wrapped in the casting which is to regender a large number of roles to female, most prominently Polonia, Marcella, Rosencrantz and the Gravediggers with pronouns necessarily edited to compensate. Sometimes a syllable is dropped so "gentleman" becomes "lady" and in one case an extra joke is added as Hamlet on first seeing the Gravedigger initially hails "Whose grave's this sirra?" without reaction before quickly changing it to "Whose grave's this madame?" For the most part it's invisible and only now and then does it disrupt the rhythm of the pentameter but not the extent of creating too much of an imbalance, an imperfect if necessary solution.
The dynamics do change. As with Julie Taymor's film of The Tempest, the connections between Polonia and her children reverse with Laertes becoming the favoured of the two, the relationship with Ophelia markedly resembling that between Lorelai and her mother in Gilmore Girls, especially during the embarkation scene which is set around a dinner table similar to the one which Rory's forced to eat at every Friday night. The style of Polonia actress Gillian Bevan's hair even resembles Emily Gilmore actress Kelly Bishop. Bevan's the standout of the production actually, dominating the stage, with the advise scene become a moment in which genuine wisdom is being imparted, albeit with Laertes forced to listen as a condition for receiving her credit card.
Although I've seen criticisms about the decision to not regender Hamlet too, but because Peake's blistering in the title role, suspension of disbelief is easy. Aspects of the performance are problematic, with moments in which Peake is working against the text, or parodying its more masculine aspects, but for the most part its a study in grief, how someone has to deal with so many changes in the house within this foreshortened timescale. There's a telling look from Peake when she's asked or more likely ordered to stay at Elsinore rather than return to college which shows that an escape plan has been snatched away, underscoring the notion that "Denmark's a prison". Hamlet's being held against his will.
Nevertheless there is a sense in places that some decisions were never quite worked out in rehearsal in favour of the grander set pieces. As well as whether Hamlet's actually mad or not, his relationship to Kate West's Ophelia's also poorly developed, the nunnery scene feeling very make-do and actually oddly rushed through. Similarly his friendship with Horatio, so rich in other productions never quite gels. This isn't a plea for some LGBT+ shading but the text calls for certain things and the performances don't quite rise to them. Although it's also true that in the film version, the editing always favours Peake and so it's possible elements of either of their performances have been lost. The full power of John Shrapnel's Claudius isn't demonstrated until he's alone and commanding the space, his motivations unspooling like Richard III.
More than most filmed production, it seems as though the reaction to seeing the piece in situ could have differed to on television (or indeed at the cinema which was where this recording was originally designed - it's even described in some publicity as "Hamlet The Film". Although recorded in front of an audience (and can't we, cough, here, cough, it, beep, beep) they're largely invisible within the darkness of the space, with lighting which keeps the illumination of the actors to the minimum required for a given scene. Like the television version of the RSC production of Macbeth with McKellen and Dench, the characters emerge and disappear into to the black, and there's rarely sense that anything exists beyond.
Some of the staging is beautiful and beautifully shot. When Hamlet meets the Ghost of his father (doubled by Shrapnel), lightbulbs are lowers from the ceiling creating an orange glow across the actors faces familiar to anyone who's seen the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (it's notable that light bulbs were also a feature of Adrian Noble's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream representing the Forest of Arden). A camera has also been mounted in the gods, so scenes often begin from above or punctuated by overhead shots to emphasise the action. When Hamlet rips up Ophelia's remembrances and throws them at her, it's in slow motion. The home viewer is in a privileged rather than audience position. During fishmonger, Polonia even breaks the fourth wall.
For all that, Yorick is a mess. The performances are fine, great even. Grandage's script privileges us with a rare viewing of both gravediggers and all their banter, both female with the key clown played with a very good scouse accent. One of the few occasions I laughed here was during the back and forth with Hamlet in relation to whose grave it is. But Frankcom has gone symbolic, with dirt or some such replaced with a jumble of clothing with Yorick's skull represented by a cardigan with knot in the middle (pictured). When Ophelia's funeral arrives, her body is represented by the blouse she was wearing during the madness scene and its lain on the ground, the whole business just looks silly, plus it feels wrong that Peake be denied the opportunity to play with an actual skull.
Ultimately not the best production I've seen but it thrums along to its own rhythm. It takes a special production for me to really become involved in the story any more having seen it so many times, and although there are too many Brechtian distancing effects on this occasion, the compensation of hearing the text performed well is its own reward. Having Peake play Hamlet doesn't feel controversial and she's more convincing than many of her male counterparts. Ideally in future there'll be much more gender neutral casting across all productions so long as there's enough leeway in the text and Hamlet's the most accessible of the lot. Now I'm imagining what Catherine Tate, Gugu Mbatha-Raw or even, yes, Romola Garai would do with the role.