Thursday, April 26, 2007

10 Natalie Quatermass

Hamlet played by Natalie Quatermass.
Directed by Dan Meigh & Iona Farley.
Fights by Eleanor Stephens.

Twice in the past couple of days in relation to this weblog and well, I suppose you could call it 'the project', people have asked me, 'Why Hamlet?' In answering I repeated some of what I wrote in the introduction about the man who'd seen sixty-eight of them, remembering something about each of them and me wondering if I could beat that - which I still do even if with all the audio and video and film and television I could possibly be cheating.

But I also said something new. That it was like listening to your favourite album. I love watching Hamlet. I love the language, the story, the fact that it has a range of facets that it's an investigation into what it is to be human and about what could potentially lead us to lose our sanity. Like the your favourite album I can quote whole sections of it, but never as well as the best performances. And I also don't want to listen or watch it so much that it eventually becomes a chore (which is why the posting rate here is fairly irregular).

It's also as I mentioned in that introduction the most flexible of plays; with the acreage of text it can be cut and interpreted, as this blog has already demonstrated in a whole vast range of different ways, the directors and actors bringing to it quite rightly their own biases and interests in ways that I'm not sure you can with that many other of Shakespeare's plays. You can play it funny and serious for example, reduce it to being a chamber piece about family or project it out to a much wider military canvas.

Last night I saw my first live Hamlet in years, at the Crypt Concert Hall at Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral. It was the work of 'Off The Ground', a youth theatre company celebrating its tenth season with this as its finale. Chatting to a family beforehand I discovered it was to be a female Hamlet, the group were really good and that I was in for a treat. And I was.

The Crypt Concert Hall is an amazing space. It's built into a section of the structure constructed from the designs by the Cathedral's original architect Sir Edwin Lutyen (the story of whose grand design can be read here) and works almost as a worship space in and of itself with ceilings patterned out in red brick in concentric circles and tiny domes. Although man made it seems deceptively organic, a classic place for this piece to appear, a long chamber with a stage constructed at the end.

After some first night hiccups with the lighting and background noise and when to begin the performance what developed was one of the most passionate and engrossing readings of the play I've seen in a while, thematically focused and wonderfully staged. If the sound of foot traffic on the stage and the acoustics of the hall sometimes got in the way of the verse (now and then voices would be lost in the back of those domes) the sheer belief in the text and the quality of the performances from the young cast more than made up for it.

Natalie Quatermass's Hamlet was inspired, initially emphasised the bitterness of the character before (I think) feigning madness in order to throw her (his?) antagonists off the scent of his (her?) real intent. There was freshness and fearlessness to her, changing emotion on a dime, the stage almost darkening when she wasn't around. Still fitting perfectly into the ensemble, she was an electric presence and compulsive to watch.

The intelligence of her choices could be enjoyed in the fishmonger scene when you could see the moment, just before she gave Ryan Radley-Lawley's prating Polonius his new job title, when she decided that rational discourse was simply not going to get her where she (he?) needed to be. The biggest belly laughs from the audience happened during this scene, the comic timing between the two of them absolutely catching the humour of the scene.

Perhaps selecting Quatermass to play the Dane wasn't a stunt or to particularly bring new thematic tone within the play. It's simply that, like Frances De La Torre before her, she had the emotional range for the part so why let femininity be a barrier? Her costume was gender neutral - black shirt and trousers before the trip to England, khakis afterwards (half of the cast appeared in military uniform) contrasting perfectly against Ophelia's dresses.

Which isn't to say that there weren't one or two moments which didn't resonated differently with a feminine energy from that part of the stage particularly in relation to the characters relationships with Ophelia and Gertrude. But in this reading she still manage to dominate both, noticeably with the latter. Frances Robinson portraying the character almost as a trophy wife, won by Claudius from Hamlet Snr upon his demise, lacking her usual forthrightness only finally rebelling against Claudius in her final moments, her independence drowned in the poisoned cup.

That said, with the exception of an introductory dance routine and military costuming, Dan Meigh & Iona Farley offered a fairly traditional approach to the play with perhaps slightly more stress given to the plot. It was noticeable that despite presenting a cut text, that the material often left out of some presentations was left in here, with Fortinbras in particular being well served and The Mousetrap appearing in its entirety, the play within a play's language given the space to breath. I particularly loved the initial appearance of the players on stage, looking for all the world like the cast of Hair in their studenty fashions.

Maria Welsh's Rosencrantz and Joseph Crawford's Gildenstern in particular were given so much stage time that they seemed like much more rounded characters in their own right, the eyes and ears of Bill Pasterfield's suitably villainous Claudius. Welsh and Crawford double teamed throughout, playing off one another in their reactions to the events surrounding them developing into very sympathetic figures right up to their demise, presented actually on stage during Hamlet's description of their termination to Jake Dodd's loyal Horatio enunciated by the crack of a gunshot.

That same gunshot could be heard ringing out as Hamlet murdered Polonius. Something highlighted in this production was the swiftness of the murder of Ophelia's father after Hamlet is unable to do this same to his own father, almost as though the frustration of not being able to go through with the first act is carried over into the second. Quatermass's Hamlet showed genuine remorse but rightly left Polonius to rot as she (he?) underlined to Gertrude, his (her?) mother, a water drink of a woman exactly what her husband was capable of.

Another striking moment was inevitably Ophelia's decent into madness, rendered here with an unseen cast providing a chorus. Really touching and effective and helped immeasurably by Sarah Banks's Ophelia finally given a chance to shine. Regular readers will know that one of my few criticisms of the play is that Ophelia material always seems slightly insubstantial. I always wish she had more to do, more stage time to give the actress (actor?) a fairer crack of the whip.

Here that was partially solved by having Banks on stage during 'To Be Or Not To Be' reacting to the words and the ensuing remembrances scene underscored once more the real key to the production, the chemistry between the actors - despite everything, you could really believe these two have had such a relationship. See also the Polonius advice scene when she and James Marshall's Laertes reacted wittily to their father's advice.

All of which reminded me why I love Hamlet and why I'm conducting this project. Partly it's an impossible search for the perfect production but it's also an opportunity to observe the fact that even after four hundred odd years it still has new mysteries to reveal and can still be presented in dozens of ways. It's also a thumping good revenge thriller, a ghost story and as this production also demonstrated a thematic exploration of fatherhood. The fact that I'm only fitting in that observation at the end of the review just underscores how rich this interpretation was.

Friday, April 20, 2007

09 Merfyn Cave

Hamlet played by Merfyn Cave
Directed by Mr Gleave

It's become apparent that if I'm going to reach my target I'm going to have to include Hamlets that I've already met, no matter how hazy my memory of them. The first time I saw the play produced was at my secondary school, the Blue Coat in Liverpool. The programme which sits before me (illustrated above) doesn't say what date this was although I'm guessing it would be in 1992/1993 the year I left school. The production was cast from students who were in the first year of their A-Levels and I was one year older than them you see.

My school was lucky enough to have a main school hall that featured exactly the kind of stage that you might find in a theatre or every school-based film you care to mention. Remember the scene in Love Actually with the Nativity with the lobster? We had one of those. I think it might even have been extended forward whilst I was there. Oh and there was also a churchy pipe organ which was never utilized during these sporadic Shakespeare performances, which is a shame.

I remember it being a very lengthy production - I don't think the whole text was included but I imagine it must have stretched on for at least three hours and it was pretty grueling sitting on the typical wooden chairs usually used for assemblies. Fortinbras is listed in the Dramatis Personae so you never know. The programme suggests that there was a interval of ten minutes which in retrospect doesn't seem long enough. I went with my Dad and I know that he fell asleep.

I think the most remarkable thing was the production design. The set designer, Stephen Simpson, who worked on most, if not all of the school productions tended to create something that filled the stage in our main school hall. In the previous year, for Macbeth, that was a giant green set with steps and small caves and hillocks.

For Hamlet he created a giant white space covered in a black grid - imagine a negative version of Star Trek's holodeck and within this the scenes would proceed with thrones and table and whatever was needed ushered in and out. The reason for this design became obvious at the death of Polonius - when Hamlet thrust his blade into the man, the white walls suddenly flashed blood red underlining the point of no return. Amazingly effective.

Inevitably I also remember most vividly Merfyn Cave who played Hamlet. I think he must have lived the role. I don't mean that he murdered his girlfriend's father and his mother married his uncle, I mean that when we were in the Art Room together he would approach me sometimes and fix me in the eye and quote speeches and snatches of dialogue at me. It must have been his way of remembering, but it was downright eerie particularly since he had these very serious eyes, which on reflection he could have been borrowing from a young Al Pacino.

I'd love to say that this was when I fell in love with the play and Shakespeare but it really wasn't. Even though I was studying Othello and Measure for Measure for A-Level which is what prompted this viewing I hadn't yet attuned to the pentameter or even begun to understand the implications of the story. It's a difficult play and I was still trying to work out the motivations of Angelo and Iago without throwing the likes of Claudio into the mix.

It's still fun to look through the programme though and be reminded of people I haven't seen in nearly sixteen years and to wonder what they're doing now and to wish that I'd paid better attention so that I could tell you whether Zoe Johnson was a good Ophelia or if Pete Bouvier really was as wasted as I suspect he must have been as Fortinbras given his charismatic appearance as Ebinarza in that year's pantomime. Two of the other teachers, Mr Preston and Mr Crighton were the grave diggers. That must have been a laugh.

Update! I've found this rather good article from the school magazine that fills in some of the gaps.

Monday, April 16, 2007

"Seeking the bubble reputation"

I'm always just slightly behind in reading weekend newspapers -- there's always many more words than can possibly be covered in those forty-eight hours even after skipping through articles about relationships, travel and property and everything else which is currently irrelevant. Now that I'm actually working at the weekend, that's going to become even more accute. I won't know what's happened in the world until at least Monday afternoon.

Today, I was actually reading Saturday's Guardian from the 14th April (Grand National Day) and fittingly that meant this rather wonderful piece by Jonathan Bate which illuminates William Shakespeare's passage over the years into become a legend and being tagged with the description 'genius' taking in his veneration by actors and academics alike.

If asked I will say that I'm a Shakespeare fan, in much the same way as I might describe myself as a Doctor Who fan or that I like films. A bit. I've as many different Shakespeare productions as anything else and like those other 'interests'. And like those other loves, I can't always quite put my finger on why I'm addicted. I do agree with the reasons usually trotted out by talking heads in television documentaries -- 'They're such great stories', 'The language is amazing' and 'He's a genius'.

But along with those forty odd works, there's also four hundred years of history to enjoy. As Bate somewhat describes, you can understand British history through the changes in attitudes to the plays, how they've been performed and the audiences that saw them. Charles I's decree that women should be allowed to take up the acting profession demonstrates a change in society and frankly its amazing that it took so long for you to get the vote after that. As Shakespeare is oft to demonstrate, nearly all men are pigs, especially the ones who make laws about things.

I think though that it's more to do with the fact that even though the words and the plot are the same, every production is different and more than any other writer its possible for a director and his actors to put their own personal stamp on them. I've seen dozens of Hamlets and each and every time, although the text is the same they're all different, they all resonate in different ways. It's simply fascinating intellectually to compare and contrast the interpretations to see who thought what was important.

Plus, in the media age, as this blog demonstrates, it attracts the collector in me. Even though I've eight complete works already, some bought, some presents, I'm gathering the Arden editions of the plays because of the notes and appendixes which often include the original texts such as the Ur-Hamlet that Shakespeare used as his sources. Then there are the collections of criticism, the biographies. On top of that there are the many hundred audio and visual recordings of the plays from the BBC Shakespeare (radio and television) through Argo to ArkAngel. Some people collect vinyl or music boxes or badges. I collect Shakespeare productions.

You would expect on hearing all of this, that I'd seen or at least read all of the plays in the canon. Not a bit of it. I'm working my way through my BBC Shakespeare boxset (in production order minus the histories -- oh yes) and greeting many of them for the first time. Just as I've not seen or heard all of the television Doctor Who (let alone the spin-offs), I think I've only actually come in contacted with about half of the bard's work.

Some of this is simply because the same twenty-odd plays tend to be in production at the expense of others. But also its through avoidance, because I can't imagine that the likes of As You Like It can be as good as the version I have in my head through years of reading about them. Of course they can -- they're by Shakespeare, but there's also the matter of seeing them for the first time in a decent production. Thankfully my first As You Like It, from the BBC, featured the sexy Helen Mirren in a silly hat and David Prowse whose performance was strangely moving for all the wrong reasons.

There's a lovely moment at the end when Mirren delivers to camera the closing speech which features the line 'If I were, that is, a woman' and she pauses slightly highlighting the irony of a line that Shakespeare wrote that would originally have been played by a boy, being read now by, well, Helen Mirren. The viewer is sharing a joke with Mirren at text's expense. That's another reason I love Shakespeare, watching actors and directors cope with moments when attitudes have raced ahead of what's been written.

So Happy Birthday Mr Shakespeare, whether it was yesterday or today or whenever you were actually born. Thank you for over a decade of entertainment and intellectual stimulation and for inspiring one of the biggest laughs I had in an English class when the teacher decided to show us Roman Polanski's mad as cheese film version of Macbeth. For the amazingly intimate Measure for Measure I saw at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998 when I once again inapropriately fell in love with the actress playing Isabella for the umpteenth time (see also Kate Nelligan in the BBC Shakespeare). And for Hamlet. All four hours of it.