41: Michelle Terry.



Theatre  During his interview for Playing The Dane, the BBC documentary which sparked this project, Richard Briers when asked what was perhaps most memorable about his performance says, he "was a very fast Hamlet". That's equally applicable to Michelle Terry and indeed much of this 2018 production from Shakespeare's Globe which she also directed. At two and a half hours plus interval, pretty much the whole of the text is covered which on the one hand allows for the inclusion Reynaldo and almost full strength Fortinbras but also less time for moments to breath.

Which looks like this is going to a negative survey of the production, that couldn't be further from the truth.  I loved this production for all of its faults, not least because it seems so unlikely that I've seen it at all.  With operation lockdown having caused so many playhouses to go dark, many of them have taken their work online, streaming old productions for a fee, free or a donation and Shakespeare's Globe is no exception, streaming some old recordings onto YouTube every fortnight for the forseable starting with this Hamlet.  Here it is to watch online for the next twelve days.

The production received mixed reviews at the time which looks to be a function of what Terry was trying to achieve with her first few productions as artistic director.  After a few rocky years under Emma Rice who some loved for her experimental artiface and disruption of the Globe's founding principles, notably spotlights, artificial sound and elaborate staging which others hated for much the same reason, Terry must have felt the pressure to present the work in a diametrically opposite style with a return to the fundamentals of shared light and natural speech projection across a bare stage.

For some that would have been a retrograde step, for others, in other words, me, it is an expression of why the Globe originally existed, to somewhat presents them in a way which would be familiar to audiences four hundred years ago.  The somewhat in that sentence is important.  This is a Hamlet of inclusiveness and gender fluidity, which is still experimental on its own terms and makes simplicity a strength, foregrounding performance and chemistry over concentrating where the actors are standing ready for cues, or at least offering the appearance of such.  

Those aesthetic choices then.  Bare stage.  Costumes which for the most part look like they've been pulled out of the Globe's stores offering a kind of history of the place, with the odd ensemble entirely familiar for those of us who've followed their work over the years, clashing styles and eras in the same scene and across characters.  In the same scene we find an actor in t-shirt and jeans interacting with another wearing what looks like Falstaff's armour from the Dromgoole production of Henry IV with another in a dress from the candlelit Duchess of Malfi.

Which should jar, except perhaps because we're now steeped in post-modernity we somehow accept it just as we do for the most part the casting choices in which the key male parts and Ophelia are all gender flipped.  As with the costuming that looks back into theatre history contrasting today's blindcasting approach with the stringent Elizabethan patriarchy, especially since initially Shubham Saraf wears period corsetry which on occasion seems to work against his performance especially since he's not playing it in an overtly feminine manner.

Female Hamlets usually have to decide whether to attempt to deny their gender or embrace it and although the text retains the original pronouns, Terry brings her entire self to the table in one of the most complex performence I've seen her give so far.  She's a force of nature wringing the full comedy from the text on the one hand and embracing the tragedy of the mission which has been placed on her shoulders by one of the most naturalistic Hamlet Snr's I've seen, a rare occasion when we're able to see how close father and son were.

Which isn't to say Terry isn't above choosing overt ways in which to express the Prince's well being.  For much of the play she's dressed as clown, visually demonstrating how the character is using madness as a mask for hide his true intentions, the face paint smearing, the costume raggedy as it becomes less and less apparent whether this has become a pose or embodiment until in the last movements of the play.  When the "readiness is all" they disappear completely, replaced by a more familiar black coat, embodying the traditional Hamlet silloette.

Such nuance also extends to attitude.  Deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah plays Guildenstern and signs her role with Rosencrantz and in their earlier scenes together Hamlet providing a necessary translation for some parts of the audience.  Hamlet signs his replies, with  "I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth" becoming a magnificent gestural dance as he makes sure his friend heres every word contrasting with the attitudes of Polonius and Claudius with their haphazard and ignorant approaches.

As the veil of suspicion decends on Hamlet's relationship with his friends, so does his tollerance for Guildenstern's disability.  Although they're able to communicate still when Rosencrantz is still in the room, in their short scene together just before the closet scene, when Hamlet is railing at what he sees as a traiterous entity, Guildenstern is persistently signing perhaps unable to understand what the Dane is saying to him.  A small piece of stage business becomes a key moment in our understanding of how Hamlet's psychology is changing.

As ever with filmed Globe productions, the crowd are often as distractingly visible as the actors, a mix of rapture and boredom.  Terry chooses to address "To Be" at a groundling which, as any interaction with the audience often does, leads to some laughter which undercuts the mood and feels like one of the weaker performance choices not least because whilst holding the punters hands, Terry still looks up and address the rest of the crowd robbing it of the intimacy which must surely have been initially intended.

This Hamlet does not wallow in the text's ornamentation.  The pentameter feels all over the place, with a free attitude to punctuation and line reading.  But a more traditional approach often puts too much emphasis on lines which Shakespeare clearly meant to be thrown away as an after thought although a solution isn't found for Polonius's asides during the fishmonger.  At least the actor is able to logically address them to the audience rather than himself or the sky as often happens in shows which pretend that the spectators don't exist.

A multi-faceted production which would no doubt repay repeated viewings, hopefully it'll be made available commercially soon.  If this production is anything to go by, Terry really has brought the Globe back to being the institution I recognise from the Dromgoole days and even (grudgingly he says) before.  For that reason amongst many, I was happy to drop them a donation, a fiver, the groundlings rate, to help them through these challenging times.  I know there are more existential causes right now but this Hamlet was well worth the money.

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