Tuesday, May 29, 2007
I don't have many pet hates. There's people who get on buses and stand next to the door when the rest of the vehicle is empty. There's the fact that BBC Breakfast never leads with anything that you could actually call news. And there's when Hamlet is referred to as a good book or a great read. It’s really not - it’s a good, sorry, a great play. When it sits statically on the page, the poetry of some sections really sing, but as drama it simply doesn’t work. Although Shakespeare includes description and the soliloquies offer moments of introspection it’s difficult to reconcile as drama. Only performed does the magic hopefully occur and is the genius of the writing really expressed.
Cambridge University Press’s Shakespeare In Production series attempts to cope with that problem by presenting the play on page but within the context of performance, so that students and researchers (and fans) can get a sense of how various sections were played theatrically, comparing and contrasting the various approaches. So their version of the text is augmented across the bottom of each side by footnotes pertaining to each line describing what happened during various productions; we’re told for example, that at the top of Act IV, scene 2 when Hamlet has hidden the body of Polonius and says ‘Safely stowed’ that Richard Burton ‘briskly rubs his hands together. Stephen Dillane played the scene for its black comedy’.
With information compiled by the editor Robert Hapgood from his own observations and contemporary accounts, it’s an approach that generally works very well. Understandably, ‘to be or not to be’ provokes a mini-essay which includes musical notation to demonstrate the intonation that various actors brought to the line. For the purposes of this blog though it’s replete with spoilers - I don’t really want to know how the like of Burton and Jacobi played the prince before I’ve seen them. In addition you could imagine that an actor venturing into these pages before attacking the role for themselves would feel the ghosts of those you’ve gone before weighted down on their shoulders. The only consolation is that Hapgood isn’t afraid to include criticism were it's due, emphasizing that some previous actors have grasped their parts better than other.
The introduction perhaps provides Hapgood's best work as he provides a more chronological history of Hamlet in performance tracing a through line of Danes from Burbage through Betterton, Garrick, Kemble, Kean, Booth, Irving, Gielgood, Olivier and into Barrymore, Burton and Branagh. In meticulous detail the writer attempts to reconstruct how each of the historic actors might have played the role in these productions and how that reflected on those who came later. The most fascinating passages are those which consider the effect that playing the role had on the actor; that the best actors and those for whom it was their signature character exhaustedly put themselves into the dane to such an extent that they never got over it, Hamlet’s doubts becoming their own.
Hapgood is also keen to emphasize the shifts in emphasis and how the play has developed across the centuries from being about one lead character and a range of subordinates into much more of an ensemble, from the likes of Ophelia and Gertrude being portrayed as projections of Hamlet’s impression of them into being full fledged, psychologically distinct individuals. Such shifts seem index linked with the attitudes of the time - of course in the past century Ophelia has become a much more forthright and less submissive role and Gertrude has developed into more of a femme fatale often aware of her new husband callous tendencies instead of the mumsier figure married for her political position that may have appeared in the past.
Also threading throughout the book is some commentary on how the text has been treated through history. As Hapgood lucidly describes there have in general been five different versions of the play in the production, Quarto I (Q1), Quarto II(Q2), First Folio (F), a restoration edit and the more contemporary approach of amalgamating them all, chopped about to emphasize the interpretation and thematic interests of the director. I’ve finally understood that its in Q1 that Gertrude becomes complicit in Hamlet’s ‘madness’ wheras in the other two the change in loyalty doesn’t occur. That in Q1, ‘to be or not to be’ occurs much earlier with the implication being that Hamlet is aware that he’s being watched and play acting to give the impression that his malady is far deeper than it actually is at that point.
Overall the book confirms everything that I love about the play, it’s flexibility, that no two versions are quite the same and that its impossible to find the perfect production. Hapgood unearths a wonderful verse that expresses my feelings exactly. It’s from W. S. Gilbert’s book Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (1874):
Alike for no two seasons at a time.
Sometimes he’s tall - sometimes he’s very shory -
Now with black hair - now with a flaxen wig -
Sometimes and English accent - then a French -
Then English with a strong provincial ‘burr’.
Once an American, and once a Jew -
But Danish never, take him how you will!