Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Hamlet played by Marc Culwick
Directed by Michael Croft
Surprisingly, the moment when I really began to understand what Shakespeare was trying to do wasn’t during Hamlet but Measure for Measure. I was watching the BBC television version from the eighties and it had reached the fourth scene of act two. Angelo, a hitherto emotionless logical character (think Star Trek’s Spock in his bearded mirror universe version) has fallen in lust with a nun, Isabella, whose brother he’s condemned to death for making a baby outside of wedlock. He gives a speech in which he slowly comes to terms with these feels and decides what he’s going to do about it.
A young Tim Piggot-Smith plays it impeccably in that production and for the first time I understood that Will was writing about real human emotions, something I’d missed during the remote classroom readings that I’d sat through beforehand. I wasn’t a fan yet, but I completely related to Angelo in this moment, especially since I was dealing with similar emotions myself during these post-puberty years, which were a history of unattainable girls who I could even conceive of approaching. Luckily I didn’t follow his lead because, y’know, that would have been bad.
The point I’m trying to make is that Shakespeare works best in performance and the best way to inspire kids to enjoy is work is to put a really good, really accessible production in front of them, literate, clear and filled with the kind of passion and emotion that they might find in the typical movie and soap opera. That version of Measure for Measure has bags of that (it won a few awards) as did Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. The problem is that you can’t really plan for it. You can certainly try, but if just one of the elements is missing or not quite right you’re wasting your time.
The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain in Michael Croft’s production of Hamlet (to give its full title) is one of these attempts. This is a video published in 1984 by Schofield and Sims video designed, according to the box, ‘for use in schools, educational institutions and privately at home’. What this means is that the viewer is presented with the bare bones of the plot, whole speeches curtailed to the minimum, and a narrative shrunk to fit into just eighty minutes. The guts of the story are narrated and explained by Martin Jarvis, who appears between scenes dressed in a brown corduroy jacket sitting on a dirty orange armchair.
The effect reminds me of the treatment the half finished Doctor Who story Shada got on video were Tom Baker featured to talk the viewer through the bits that went unfilmed because of industrial action. It’s pretty sympathetically done and Jarvis is an excellent presenter and there is wonderful moment at the opening when he remembers his own time with the youth theatre. It’s just a bit frustrating when he says things like ‘and then there’s a very famous speech from Fortinbras about this…’ you can tell the purpose is to force the viewer to go and actually pick up a copy of the play to fill in the gap.
It’s all very noble then but unfortunately it doesn’t really work. This whole enterprise has been produced under the impression that its audience simply can’t be bothered to sit through a complete production of the play and would much rather have this garroted version instead. It is literally Shakespeare without the apparent boring bits. They might as well have stuck a label on the front that says: ‘For people who don’t have a couple more hours to sit through the whole thing’. It might have helped if the cuts hadn’t been quite so peculiar, but what’s the point in dropping a classic such as Polonius’s advice to Laertes yet leaving in the unfunny business with Osric? The emotional heart of the play has been cut out.
The other problem is the production itself, which seems designed to fulfill all of the prejudices that potential students have of what it might look like. The costumes are all faux-Elizabethan for a start and all of the young actors affect RC accents that are just silly. Frankly if this had been my first introduction to the play or indeed Shakespeare, you wouldn’t be reading this blog as it does everything wrong that the BBC Shakespeare, Luhrmann and indeed the off the ground show I saw a couple of weeks ago did so right. If the tape was produced to try and make the thing accessible to the uninterested they’ll continue to be uninterested.
Marc Culwick’s central performance doesn’t help. He adopts a shouty mad gurning approach which divorces the viewer from the character. More often than not he seems to be reacting to vocal cues and never appears to be listening to the other characters – there’s little chemistry between them and him which amongst other things makes a nonsense of why Ophelia would ever fall for him. About the only time this understandable is during the Ghost scene when he’s obviously been filmed separately from the other actor who’s appearing via the magic of wizzo mid-Eighties video effects.
There are still some solid performances though. The standout is obviously Nathaniel (call me Nat) Parker as a devilish Claudius who steals all of his scenes and in hindsight obviously looks destined to have a great career. His stand out scene is when the new King seeks penitence, his magnetic eyes breaking the fourth wall as he seems to be asking the viewer for their forgiveness. You can only imagine how brilliant his Hamlet might have been. Rachel Bell’s Ophelia works too, injecting a darkness right from the beginning which rationalizes the decent into madness perfectly.
If the tape fails as an literature education tool it gains a novelty value because of the section that appears at the end of the production in which Ron Daniels (pictured), a director with the RSC, works the young actors through some of the scenes and situations redirecting their work. Obviously in hindsight its fun to see the kinds of fashions a young actor in the mid-Eighties might wear for these kinds of things (The The t-shirts and bright red leggings) and to see which of them are thesps ™ waiting for their career and which might be doing it for extra credit.
But, the real curiosity is seeing how some of these performances, so stilted during the main production suddenly gain nuances and depth. Daniels’s general message to them is to really think about their words and really understand their import. He interrupts, he asks them to repeat some things and slowly they all, Culwick in particular, begin to look and sound more like the characters they’re supposed to be rather than actors working through lines. For example, he has Culwick play Hamlet’s greetings with Horatio and Marcellus, then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in quick succession, teasing out that usually missed notion that he’s genuinely pleased to see the former, a confident, but suspicious of the latter two whom he should be question as to their motive. That often played as Hamlet teasing them, but Daniels’s idea is that they he should be putting them on the spot and that seems right too.
Watching that band of actors, their whole careers in front of them, I wondered what they did next. Nat Parker (Claudius) is easy; as well as turning up in the Zefrelli film as Laertes he’s had a steady career in character roles before hitting the prime time as Inspector Thomas Lynley, in the BBC television series based on the novels by Elizabeth George. I jotted down everyone else in the cast list and with the help of the wikipedia, found that only a handful went on to become the kind of people who have profiles on the wikipedia.
Marc Culwick (Hamlet) is ‘married with three children and currently works as a Theatre Studies teacher in Devon, England. As a teacher he is considered by his students to be truly inspirational, and has successfully directed several school musicals and co-directed several Shakespeare pieces.’ Good for him. I wonder if he’s ever shown his students this video and what they thought. It’s important to remember, should any of them be googling that all of the above is just an opinion – I could have simply misread what I saw.
Rachel Bell (Ophelia) ‘now works in theatre and as a teacher for an English boarding school. Previously appeared as Margaret Holmes in Grange Hill (1997-2002); Edith Pilchester in The Darling Buds of May (1991-1993); and Louise, the overbearing chair of the divorcee support group in Dear John (1986-1987). She also appeared in the Doctor Who story The Happiness Patrol (1988) and the Only Fools and Horses episode "To Hull and Back" (1985).’ She was in The Happiness Patrol with the pink hair and everything?
Lloyd Owen (Ghost) ‘is best known for playing Paul Bowman-MacDonald in the BBC television series Monarch of the Glen (2002-2005), and for his portrayal of Indiana's father Dr. Henry Jones Sr. in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1999). He recently played the role of solicitor William Heelis in the film Miss Potter (2006).’
Jonathan Cake (Lucianus) ‘has worked on various TV programs and series. His most notable roles include Oswald Mosley in Mosley, 'Tyrannus' in the TV epic Empire and Dr. Malcolm Bowers in the NBC TV series Inconceivable. In summer 2006, he played the title role in the Shakespeare's Globe Theater's production of ‘Coriolanus’. He is married to American actress Julianne Nicholson.’ Lucky sod – and not a bad career trajectory. I wondered what his reaction might have been if he’d learnt that his bit part in an NYT production would eventually lead to a title role in a re-created Globe Theatre.