Timothée Chalamet in The King: England’s legendary warrior prince is reinvented as a petulant and introverted man-child in this ponderous revision of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V plays

p3d3c9u7f

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

There’s never any Shakespeare on Netflix, the online streaming channel which seems to specialise in teenage shows about Satanism and suicide. Still, we’ve held off cancelling our subscription in order to see The King.

The film is the brainchild of Joel Edgerton, who co-writes, produces and plays Falstaff. His fellow Australian David Michôd (who made the excellent Animal Kingdom) directs and co-writes. The project first came to our attention a couple of years ago when Edgerton made some comments about cutting the “long-winded” Shakespeare speeches and adding some Game of Thrones spirit to proceedings. I tweeted scathingly about this at the time, but to be fair to Edgerton, he has played Prince Hal and Henry V on the Australian stage, and he seems like a pretty open and honest (not to mention talented) bloke, so his vision for The King might just work…

The film has a pretty striking opening with young northern noble Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) sending an unfortunate Scottish spear-carrier the way of all flesh. Then we see Hotspur in conference with King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), where he refuses to hand over his prisoners, and spits out a selection of scathing and treasonous insults in his monarch’s direction.

We then relocate to the tavern where Henry’s elder son Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) is misbehaving. We quickly learn that Hal really hates his Dad. In fact, his bad-mouthing of the old man is almost as treasonous as Hotspur’s.

By now we’ve been introduced to Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). Now, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is infamous for being exceedingly old and humongously fat, but Joel Edgerton is neither. His Falstaff has a bluff rugby player physique and his character is full of bluff ‘wisdom’ to match. His accent sounds Yorkshire to me, but at different points in the film will veer from Mancunian to Scouse to Scots. Initially, he seems more Hal’s Kindly guardian than the gleeful corrupting influence of Shakespeare’s version.

The film does have some nicely framed interiors – there, put that on the DVD sleeve! But storytelling cliches abound – so of course we have to have the hero refusing his quest in the form of Hal refusing to go and see his dying dad (and later refusing to go to war with France) and so on.

Hal surprisingly bests the rebel Hotspur in a bout of single combat rather early in the film, which of course robs the confrontation of the revelatory power it has in Henry IV Part 1. At this point my impression of Hal is that he’s a somewhat sulky, slightly slimy, sexually ambiguous vampire who seems unable to make eye contact, treats people like dirt, and is no friend of the square meal. The traits of Shakespeare’s Hal, which have fascinated audiences and readers for 400 years are clumsily smelted into an uneasy mixture of narcissism and self-hatred. Well, I suppose that’s very 2019. The problem is that he seems too languid to ever have truly been a hell raiser. This Hal is less Bullingdon boy and more lonesome emo.

Anyway, the events of the Henry IV plays are raced through in 30 minutes as Henry senior dies and Hal becomes King Henry V. Then there’s an interesting scene where Henry receives congratulatory gifts from the rulers of places mentioned in other Shakespeare plays. This scene also reveals Henry’s court to be surprisingly small and rather parochial. From France, he receives the insulting gift of a ball (in the play, of course, it’s a box of tennis balls), which he bounces off a wall in a manner reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Stripped of Shakespeare’s poetry and wit, this script can feel ponderous and banal. Chalamet certainly isn’t helped by clunksome lines like “I appreciate your umbrage, William”, but compared to Saoirse Ronan in this year’s Mary Queen of Scots he’s almost likeable. And at least we haven’t had a gender studies lecture yet. Oh, hang on though – there’s still one hour and 40 minutes left to go.

As a new king, Henry’s approach is to pardon all his dead dad’s enemies. Although when his Chief Justice (Sean Harris) says “Great reforms are best enacted with regime change” it sounds like it’s come straight off the autocue at a White House press briefing.

I may have dreamed it, but I think there’s a bizarre moment where Henry’s kid sister (Thomasin McKenzie) strokes a camel. She’s the Princess of Denmark and wise beyond her years, so she gives him sage advice (presumably before boarding a private jet to go and combat climate change). Henry reiterates how “all the unrest in the kingdom” was his father’s fault. His anti-dad hatred really is deeply unappealing, especially since the old man seemed pretty cool, from what we saw of him. At this point, I feel my attention waning. The film seems headed for the valley of sanctimony.

And I feel bad for saying it, but the longer Timothée Chalamet is on screen, the more the film’s vitality seems to ebb away. At times I find myself wondering ‘why are we wasting time with this fella?’ as he just seems like a minor character. We want Henry the bloody Fifth, not some twitchy man-child.

“You wish to be a king for the people” says the Sean Harris advisor guy a bit later. Then he mentions “the mood of the people”. I get the impression he used to work for Tony Blair. After having played a severely constipated Macduff in Kurzel’s Macbeth, Harris’s approach here seems to be to recite every line as if he has a hedgehog in his throat.

After a French assassin is caught, Henry decides to send some tough words back to Charles of France. But will he ever stand up straight, that’s what I want to know? That stoop is really starting to grate. Also, there’s 86 minutes left, and I’m beginning to wonder if anything will ever happen. For a film that set out to cut all the “long-winded” Shakespeare, there is an awful lot of talk. Yes, Shakespeare can be slow-moving, but the pace of The King is positively glacial.

Some traitors are caught, but when Henry says “Tomorrow you will have your heads cut off”, the timing of the line is so odd that I burst out laughing. His next line, “I have chosen you as an advance party to Hell”, sounds like something out of The Expendables. We are nudging into ‘so bad it’s bad’ territory.

At this point I’m wondering how can Chalamet be such an uncompelling lead. He’s got good hair, great cheekbones, he’s quite beautiful in an early-’80s English pop star way, but where’s the vitality? It makes me appreciate how bone-crunchingly brilliant Tom Hiddleston was in this role. The Hollow Crown was historical pageant, bawdy comedy and medieval action movie, but still Shakespeare through and through. I can understand the need for a radically different approach (if, indeed, the makers of The King are even aware of The Hollow Crown), but why so dull?

The subsequent execution scene is well done, and properly horrible. My prayers have been answered and Henry is finally sitting up straight. An absurd twist promptly follows – Henry returns to the tavern to recruit Jack Falstaff because there’s no-one else he can trust.

This is the point at which Falstaff’s accent veers into Scottish, while Henry’s dialogue is now so cumbersome it’s like he’s gargling marbles.

By now I’ve pinpointed what bothers me about Chalamet’s performance: it’s like he’s heavily medicated. And the mumblecore performance simply doesn’t work in the medieval context. Okay, I can appreciate you don’t want to be bellowing like Olivier, but how’s this going to work in the upcoming battle scenes? Are you going to whisper to the troops? Use sign language?

And so it is that Falstaff – Shakespeare’s legendary coward, wastrel and bullshit artist – is here introduced to Henry’s captains as a heroic battle veteran who’s going to lead them. I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is surely the apotheosis of Hollywood/Globalist Entertainment Corp idiocy.

It’s like those Stallone films where Rocky and Rambo make a creaky comeback, except Joel Edgerton doesn’t really look old enough to be making a comeback. And how weird that Falstaff, who famously wasn’t in Henry V, now seems to have become the main character.

So we get to France, where there’s some good siege engine action, and Chalamet seems more charismatic when speaking French. It’s a fugly film, though – the English are just a succession of interchangeable dour men with pinched faces and slightly overcooked regional accents. Falstaff has now overtaken Henry as the most annoying character, but Henry seems to be in love with him. And then the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) turns up to chat in the middle of the night.

This is an eccentric performance by Robert Pattinson. Well known for playing a vampire in The Twilight Saga, he threatens to drain Henry’s body of blood. He’s like a Monty Python character, but he does capture some of the prideful idiocy of Shakespeare’s Dauphin. However, R-Patz quickly reveals a predilection for decapitating little English boys, so it’s clear he needs a serious talking-to.

There is some semi-interesting stuff about methods of waging war, but Falstaff is becoming such a pompous bastard and it’s all terribly heavy handed. Maybe if the whole thing was in French it would fool me into thinking it was good.

The subsequent Henry-Falstaff face-off seems to imply sexual intimacy, as did the scene at the beginning where Hal performed impromptu surgery on Falstaff – yes, really.

There are so many lulls in the action that even the lulls have lulls. Which makes me ponder that whenever people set out to make Shakespeare “less long winded” they always follow the same approach: 1. They take out all the good stuff. 2. They replace it with a bunch of new stuff which paradoxically has the effect of slowing everything down and bumping up the run time, and 3. They just generally make it incomprehensible. Ergo: The King.

There is so much that could be cut here: a scene where a messenger is called for and issued instructions like it’s going to be significant but then nothing much happens as a result of it. And the other problem is that it’s so static. Too many scenes of people sitting and talking, or standing and talking, or walking slowly and talking. The very things that stage versions of Henry V try to avoid, this film can’t get enough of them.

Well, it’s the eve of the battle and surly Falstaff has revealed himself to be a master tactician and all-round dispenser of earthy wisdom. Henry, however, hopes to avoid battle, and challenges the Dauphin to single combat – well, it worked with Hotspur.

The Dauphin responds with gross sexual insults, so Henry finally gets really riled and gives a stirring speech to his troops. Okay, it’s not Shakespeare, but at least he puts some much-needed vim and vigour into it.

The battle (Agincourt) is well done, especially when Henry enters the fray and we follow him from one crashing life-or-death martial encounter to another. It’s literally hand-to-hand combat, often dispensing with weapons altogether. We don’t even see Henry wield a sword until a satisfying encounter with the Dauphin, which I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say, it’s a rare occasion where a major change to Shakespeare (and to actual historical events) works really well.

We bid adieu to Falstaff, but now Henry goes to meet the French king – another windbag – who proposes that Henry marry his daughter Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp), or Princess Stony McStoneface, to give her full title.

(Is it deliberate that Timothée Chalamet is so un-kingly in this? On the voyage back to England he looks like a little orphan boy in one of the Titanic’s lifeboats.)

A bit of romance would be nice at this point, but Princess Stony has other ideas. “I will not submit to you,” she announces in a drab monotone. “You must earn my respect”. A minor point, but Princess Stony has just told us that she doesn’t speak English, but then proceeds to inform Henry at great length what a worthless little toerag he is – in English. At any rate, it feels like the aforementioned gender studies lecture has arrived. Or maybe it’s a job interview. “Do you feel a sense of achievement?” she asks icily. I’m half expecting her to follow up with “Why do you want to work in Human Resources?”

Admittedly, the acting styles are fairly complementary here – in that he’s a blob of jelly and she’s a plank of wood. In Shakespeare, of course, this scene is played for bilingual laughs – although recent stage productions have done everything in their power to remedy that. And so she sneers while he squirms, but once again it’s a scene with two people talking while seated. It’s not exactly a rollercoaster thrill-ride.

“All monarchy is illegitimate,” Princess Stony opines. Which is great, as I was just thinking that what this film needs is an injection of Neo-Marxist theory.

“It would seem that you have no explanation for what you have done,” she continues, with all the moral authority you’d expect from someone whose brother liked to chop children’s heads off. Clearly rattled, Henry then turns detective to uncover the true motives of his shifty war enthusiast of a Chief Justice. So now we’ve had three awkward scenes of static conversation in a row. This time, however, Timothée Chalamet sits while Sean Harris is commanded to stand precariously on a stool. I can’t help thinking it must be a metaphor for something.

Finally the film ends. So what have we learned? I dunno, maybe ‘Don’t send a man-child to do a warrior king’s job’? We are a couple of hours older, not a lot wiser, and there’s still no Shakespeare on Netflix. Ah well, at least we can cancel our subscription now.

The King was released on Netflix on 1 November 2019.

Attention! Leading experimental theatre company Forced Entertainment are calling on everyone to help them – by sharing a livestream of their unique Table Top presentation of all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, performed with the aid of household objects…

Terry O'Connor
Beginning this Friday 26 October and running until Saturday 3 November, Forced Entertainment are to livestream Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare - each of Shakespeare’s 36 plays condensed and presented on a table top over nine days, using a cast of ordinary household objects.
The durational production by the internationally recognised experimental theatre group, features objects such as pepper pots, knives and forks and cheese graters in place of Shakespeare’s characters.
Jerry Killick in action
Originally devised and performed in 2015, Complete Works will be presented at and livestreamed from SPILL Ipswich, between 26 October and 3 November, giving those who aren’t able to make it to the Festival the opportunity to see all of the hour-long pieces.
For the first time ever, the livestream of Complete Works will include 12 subtiled performances: Coriolanus, King John, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, Richard II, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, Henry IV Part 1, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, Timon of Athens and Hamlet.
Forced Entertainment is working with SPILL Festival of Performance, and the livestream will appear on both the festival’s website and Forced Entertainment’s. The livestream will also be shared on Facebook and cross-posted to BBC Arts Online and BBC Shakespeare. The livestream has been commissioned by The Space.
Puppetry
The livestream will appear on Forced Entertainent’s website and Facebook page. Please tag @ForcedEnts when sharing the event on Twitter and Instagram and use the hashtag #CompleteWorksLive to join in the conversation.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gregory Doran completes his ambitious ‘King and Country’ tetralogy with rising star Alex Hassell in the title role of Henry V

[Images by Keith Pattison for the RSC]

Henry V_c_ RSC_RsC.HenryV.4110
With the 600th anniversary of Agincourt on 25 October, Doran’s production of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a standout tribute to both Shakespeare and the battle that helped define British history.

Returning to the role he so effortlessly made his own (opposite Antony Sher’s Falstaff) in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Alex Hassell is undoubtedly the star of the show.

Henry V_c_ RSC_RsC.HenryV.2880
By the time he’s reciting the legendary St Crispin’s Day speech, Hassell deploys Shakespeare’s words so powerfully that the audience is ready to leap up and follow him into battle.

Hassell also brings some comedy to role of the English king who has left his notoriously misspent youth behind him.

Henry V_c_ RSC_RsC.HenryV.4263
A particular highlight is the meeting of Henry and the French princess, Katherine, played by Jennifer Kirby. Hassell plays the scene as a Hugh Grant-type character as he petitions his prospective wife to love him whilst overcoming a language barrier.

Alex Hassell is definitely an actor to keep a close eye on as he progresses through his Shakespearean career.

Henry V_c_ RSC_RsC.HenryV.3427
Other performances that stand out include Oliver Ford Davies as the cardigan-wearing Chorus, Antony Byrne as the fiery Pistol and Jane Lapotaire as Queen Isobel.

Despite Lapotaire only appearing in Act V, her presence is spellbinding and it’s a pleasure to witness her commanding the stage.

Henry V_c_ RSC_RsC.HenryV.2760_1
The entire production was captivating from start to finish, and certainly a strong ending to the RSC’s run of history plays over the last couple of years.

Henry V will transfer to London’s Barbican Theatre in November before moving the New York in April 2016.

Henry V_c_ RSC_RsC.HenryV.3516
Go here to book tickets for Henry V at the Barbican.

“Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point…” Teacher and Hour-Long Shakespeare author Matthew Jenkinson offers his tips on approaching Shakespeare with young people

“All’s Well That Ends Well is funny – if you’re fluent in Shakespearean English!” protested one GCSE English pupil to me recently. It is not an uncommon complaint, along with assertions that Shakespeare’s plays are too complicated or difficult for many school children. Well, quite rightly Shakespeare is not going to go away; quite the opposite, as the new National Curriculum puts even greater emphasis on his works.

So how can parents or teachers aid in the understanding of Shakespeare among their pupils or children? The most empowering thing you can say, at first, is “Do not worry about understanding all (or any) of the words”. It is amazing how quickly a pupil’s brain can shut down because they are panicking about ‘getting’ everything the first time around. Understanding comes with time, re-reading, and patient explanation.

CS9B6725
It is also enhanced by watching Shakespeare on the stage. But parents and teachers need to be judicious about this. Watching a poor stage production will have pupils running a mile in the opposite direction, and they certainly won’t feel inclined to explore the text in any greater depth. Watching a great stage production can have the opposite effect.

There is no need to traipse long distances to Stratford or London these days either. The Globe Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, respectively, have released some excellent DVDs of their recent stage productions. So you can now break up three-hour-long productions in the classroom or at home, pausing to discuss what is happening or to go to the loo.

Attending a live production can be exhilarating, but I would wait until the children have gained some traction. Making them stand in the rain at The Globe for three hours, as a first experience of Shakespeare, probably won’t have them begging for more.

CS9B7508
Watching a live performance enables pupils to work out plots by seeing the interaction between characters and hearing the tone employed by expert actors. I have used Roger Allam’s Falstaff scenes, performed at The Globe in 2010, to convey to pupils what happens in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I have been amazed at how much laughter has come from individuals who just would not have understood the text if we had merely read it from the page.

The other way to get children engaged with Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, acting out parts. Again, a sensitive and judicious approach is necessary here. First of all, the choice of play is vital. Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point. Parents and teachers also need to be understanding of the fact that many pupils, especially as they stumble through adolescence, will be quite reticent about standing up and delivering elaborate metaphors.

CS9B6704
There are two powerful ways to counter this. The first is to create a culture in school and at home where drama is an everyday feature – it is not nerdy or distant. The second – obviously – is to ‘differentiate’ the casting, ensuring that the allocation of parts reflects the confidence and ability of the pupils. Giving a reticent child the part of Macbeth will put them off Shakespeare for life, as will giving a confident actor the part of First Servingman. One of the joys of Shakespeare’s history plays, in particular, is the number of roles available, with differing levels of intensity; every pupil can find their niche.

There are very few schools out there that will be able to stage a full three-hour Shakespeare play, which is why I have been editing a new series of abridged versions in the Hour-Long Shakespeare series. As the title suggests, each play lasts about an hour when performed, with central characters and the overall narrative arcs preserved. This is by no means a novel project – the plays have been abridged since Shakespeare’s day, as evidenced by the discovery in 2014 of a First Folio in St Omer, France, in which Jesuits made cuts to suit their pupils.

CS9B7559
What is new about the Hour-Long series, aside from some original scene shifting (don’t use these texts in exams!), is the use of a Chorus in all of the plays. Shakespeare himself famously used a Chorus in Henry V, for example, but adopting this device in other plays enables any number of pupils to get involved as narrators, offering summaries of excised sections of plot, or acting as Roman citizens in Julius Caesar, the tyrant’s conscience in Richard III, or the witches in Macbeth – all with the text still in front of them.

Removing the pressures of learning vast amounts of lines, or spending too long on the stage, enables usually reticent pupils to engage with Shakespeare in performance. Maintaining juicy title roles with headline speeches attracts those keen actors who are ready for something more challenging. In sum, Shakespeare hopefully becomes more manageable for those who would normally be scared off.

Matthew Jenkinson is director of studies at New College School in Oxford. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Henry IV (Part 1), Henry V and Richard III is available now, priced £10. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Cesar will be published in September.

Even people who aren’t sure what a soliloquy is know that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is the most famous soliloquy in theatre history. There’s just one problem. It’s not actually a soliloquy.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

 

“To be or not to be…”

Spoken by the title character of Hamlet, the most famous speech in the history of theatre is 34 lines and 271 words long. Apart from providing titles for (or being quoted in) countless other plays, poems, novels, TV shows and movies, it has also appeared on posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and keyrings. It’s even been translated into Klingon (“taH pagh taHbe”). There are at least 379,000 hits on the internet for the first line alone.

This speech is many, many things. One thing it is not, however, is a soliloquy.

Maxine Peake's Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

The image of the ‘lone prince’, so endemic on the stage, duly made the transition to TV and motion pictures. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version placed Hamlet alone on a windswept tower of Elsinore. Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 version is another lone Hamlet, this time walking along the Danish shore. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film sees Hamlet alone in his father’s sepulchre. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film places Hamlet in a mirrored hall, practically alone but for Ophelia hiding out of sight. Peter Wellington’s 2003 adaptation of the speech for the series Slings & Arrows features a seated, lone Hamlet. Gregory Doran’s 2009 TV adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet has David Tennant’s Hamlet all alone, with Ophelia scurrying off immediately before the speech and tromping back on just as he finishes saying “Soft you now.”

New play 'Women Playing Hamlet' offers a fresh take on "To be or not to be" in 2015.

New play ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ offers a fresh take on “To be or not to be” in 2015.

Despite the entrenchment of the lone Hamlet on our cultural understanding of Hamlet, when we study the six quarto and three folio printings that comprise the original texts, we find the following: one, that the famous speech cannot be a soliloquy; two, that the entering Hamlet should know he is being spied upon; three, that Ophelia’s presence must be addressed; and, fourth and lastly, that Hamlet may be reading as he enters the scene.
My methodology does need some explanation. I believe in the primacy of the text: dramatic texts are the most important factor in creating a production. The words of a text are the skeleton of a play, and basing one’s interpretation on elements not in the text is problematic at best. Now, I’m not trying to say there is only one way of doing any play or moment from a play. I only distinguish between two kinds of performances – those that agree with the text and those that do not.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2007 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2007 Hamlet.

Soliloquies feature lone speakers, but all nine original Hamlet printings agree that Hamlet is not alone, as Ophelia is also onstage throughout the speech. Therefore, the classical understanding of “soliloquy” does not apply.
Further, the “To be or not to be” speech features none of the characteristics of Hamlet’s actual soliloquies. In those speeches, he follows a pattern – he speaks about Claudius, the late King Hamlet, and, usually, Gertrude. Hamlet does discuss his family with some other characters, but when he knows he is accompanied by potential spies, he stays away from the topic of his family. The “What a piece of work is a man” speech, delivered just after Hamlet discovers he cannot trust Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, is an elaborate deception. When Hamlet delivers his speech to appease his friends-turned-spies, he does not mention the circumstances of his father’s murder. He only mentions the King and Queen as the people to whom Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must report.
“I will tell you why, so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather.”

Gamut Theatre's 2015 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2015 Hamlet.

Since “To be or not to be” takes place with others on stage, and since it deviates from the patterns Shakespeare established in Hamlet’s actual soliloquies, it cannot be a soliloquy. Since the speech is not a soliloquy, it cannot be staged as a soliloquy and still be faithful to the text. Text-based stagings focus on what is written. For instance, Hamlet, entering into the scene, knows he is being observed. The original printings agree that, by this moment in the play, Hamlet has discovered that his schoolmates have been dispatched by the King to spy on him. Further, all but one of the printings agree that Hamlet enters into the scene because he has been sent for by the King. The remaining printing, the First Quarto, does not mention this at all. What happens next is a strange division; all folio printings agree that the King and Polonius hide before Hamlet enters, while all quartos state they exit after Hamlet enters.

Peter O'Toole's legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

Peter O’Toole’s legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

The quarto texts allow Hamlet to see the King and his crony hide; Hamlet would clearly know he is being spied upon. In all three folio printings, the King and Polonius exit before Hamlet enters the scene. Even if a director chooses the folio option, it is still reasonable that Hamlet knows he is being spied upon. Hamlet already suspects Claudius on some level before the action of the play, as evidenced by his response to the Ghost’s news that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father: “O my prophetic soul! / Mine uncle?”
The King has just sent for Hamlet. If, as in the folios, Hamlet enters not seeing the King and Polonius, he still has another reason to be suspicious: the King is absent, but Ophelia is directly in his path.
Brooke Hamlet Scarf
Let’s talk about Ophelia and the issue of the silent actor. In order to stage the scene, we must have a better understanding of Ophelia and her relationship with Hamlet. She has only appeared twice before, in scenes revolving around her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia speaks on this subject with her father, Polonius, saying her relationship with Hamlet is an honorable and affectionate one that has included every promise, save that of matrimony. Polonius dismisses this as Hamlet merely wanting to master her chaste treasure and commands her to never see Hamlet again.
When Ophelia is placed in Hamlet’s way, she is being used to provoke her boyfriend into showing why he is behaving so strangely. This is part of Polonius’ plan to discover if Hamlet is mad for his daughter’s love. Claudius accedes to the plan and, immediately before Hamlet’s entrance, describes his plan to Gertrude, that Hamlet should “affront” Ophelia.
The meaning of the word “affront” is crucial: “to put oneself in the way of so as to meet; to accost, address.” By strategically placing Ophelia onstage, Polonius and Claudius mean for her to come face to face with Hamlet so they can hear what follows between them. As a result, Ophelia could be Hamlet’s audience, either in part or in whole.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2001 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2001 Hamlet.

Before this passionate meeting, there is one more discovery to address: what Hamlet is doing as he enters the scene. The First Quarto offers a fascinating option. In it, before Hamlet enters for “To be or not to be”, the King says, “see where he comes poring upon a book.” This is similar to Gertrude’s statement in an earlier scene, “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading,” which appears in all other printings of the story. It may be the First Quarto misplaces Hamlet’s entrance, but this anomaly bears study. Hamlet does have a book in other scenes, so a Hamlet who enters reading can be textually valid. In fact, the book he reads may still exist.
Douce in 1839 and Hunter in 1845 noted that Girolamo Cardano’s 1576 book Comfort includes passages very similar to a portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“…saying, that [death] did not only remove sickness and all other griefs but… what should we accompt of death to be resembled to anything better then sleep… and to die is said to sleep.”
Compare all this talk of death, the easing of griefs, and sleeping to this famous portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”

Gamut Theatre's 2011 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2011 Hamlet.

A reading Hamlet opens up a new possibility to the speech. If Hamlet is reading about death, his speech might refer to the book. Shakespeare gives us a similar situation in Henry IV, Part One, where, examining a letter from a confederate, Hotspur reads a phrase and then makes a scathing response. If this formula were applied to Hamlet’s speech, “the question” may refer to ideas raised in the book itself. A staging using this reading can allow the prop to help explain why Hamlet is in this frame of mind.
Studying the original texts with a respect for their primacy reveals that the cherished long-established vision of Hamlet simply does not agree with the text. The options revealed by the text and its established circumstances are many and must be explored in a production. After studying the evidence, I staged the scene two different ways. In the first, Hamlet entered reading, responded to the book like Hotspur in Henry IV, and discussed the contents with Ophelia. In the second staging, I took Hamlet’s book away, allowed him to see Claudius and Polonius exit, and had him confess his dark thoughts to Ophelia.
The first staging was greatly intellectual. Hamlet mused about the ideas of death, sharing them on that level with Ophelia. This Hamlet is the consummate philosopher, matching wits with Ophelia and even referring to the book she is carrying. The concepts of death and release are explored with great cerebral impact, so much so that, in directing a full production, I can easily see Hamlet reading voraciously through the early stages of the play.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

The second staging focused upon the circumstances of the characters. Hamlet, knowing he is spied upon, takes refuge in the arms of his forbidden love but is unable to tell her the whole truth of his problems. Ophelia, torn by duty to her father, her King, and her love, must react to Hamlet’s considering death and suicide. This staging speaks to the troubles as written by Shakespeare and had great emotional and visceral impact. Similar to the first staging, I can see a full production of this sort of Hamlet.
These are two very different interpretations of the “To be or not to be” speech, but it is vital to remember they are both based on Shakespeare’s texts.
“So what?” you may be thinking. “Why is this important?” Well, for hundreds of years the theatre world has embraced a version of Hamlet that does not agree with the words Shakespeare wrote. Elsewhere in Hamlet, Shakespeare commands “suit the action to the word”, charging us to base our versions of his work on the words he left behind. He did the job of a playwright well, creating the skeleton of his plays. It falls to us to give that skeleton a heart, a soul, and scars.

This article originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.

The Prince and the Passion: in this exclusive interview, actor Matthew Amendt talks about playing Prince Hal in Washington DC with the Shakespeare Theatre Company

Matthew Amendt displays a unique passion when talking about his performance as Prince Hal in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent dual presentation of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, his longstanding relationship with Prince Hal and Shakespeare being the cause. Amendt first encountered Hal when he was seven years old, and then again in 2009 when, as part of Guthrie Theatre, he performed the title role in their touring production of Henry V. Now, he takes some time to reflect on the great king’s younger persona.

HENRYIVPT2_208

You started performing Shakespeare at a very young age…
“Well, my mom was an English teacher and needed a prop infant when she was directing shows. I think I played the changeling in A Midsummer’s Night Dream when I was just a wee tot. Ever since then it has just been really present for me and made a lot of sense. I was too young to know any better – that I wasn’t supposed to like it. It wasn’t a popular thing to like Shakespeare.”

What appealed to you about Shakespeare?
“I loved the sweeping grandness of the story and the beauty of the poetry and the power of the verse. All those things really meant a lot to me. I was very young and I just grew into it as I got older. Then I trained at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where I was fortunate enough to be taken into the acting company there and worked for ten years on all the great Shakespeare plays.”

Why did you particularly identify with the Hal/Henry character?
“To be honest with you, I am as befuddled about it as anybody. I had some health stuff when I was young and my mom gave me these plays when I was frightened, when I was a frightened sick kid. I think every little kid loves to think that there is a story out there about them, particularly princes and princess and kings and kingdoms, monsters and dragons. I think that the journey that Prince Hal takes to become Henry V and the choices he makes as that king meant a lot to me. That you could make mistakes and come back from them, that you could change, that you weren’t out of the game.

“He just sort of felt like a big brother to me, somebody to take care of me and keep me on the straight and narrow. Of course, as I got older the ambiguity of the plays and the cruelty of all the characters – Hal certainly can be very cruel – came through, and it became more challenging for me. It’s a great story to grow up with and grow into because it’s so deep and broad, and complex. There is something for everybody at every point in their life.”

How did audiences react to this production?
“Well, you know, what’s fascinating about these plays is they exist on such different ends of the spectrum depending on the viewer. I have had people in the audience come up to me and say they have never been able to connect with Hal and how much they admire or enjoyed the work we did in this production with him sort of being a child growing into a man. And I have had audience members come up to me and say ‘That’s not the play for me, you are not my Hal, and I didn’t get any of that.’

Shakespeare Theatre Co.

“It’s such a subjective thing. These two poles of honour versus the reality of political machinations – how we move through the world as political animals – anyone who comes in contact with the plays develops their own perspective on that. Maybe that is why it’s popular – not because it is one thing, but because it can be so many for people.

“I think that is really the strength of Michael’s direction in the show that he has been very specific about the acting and the tension and the characters – and been brave enough to let the plays breathe and let people feel the way they feel. I’ve been accosted on the street by people saying I’m their Hal or I am absolutely not their Hal. That’s a really fascinating experience to have lived through. It’s very interesting the way we do battle with each other about what these plays mean to a contemporary audience.”

What, for you, are these plays about?
“They are all about different things, which I think is the beautiful thing. Henry IV, Part 1 is such a coming-of-age story and it’s such a broad sort of summer blockbuster of Shakespeare plays – so much life and vitality and a real struggle for what kind of community we want to be. And Henry IV, Part 2, it’s sort of humble, forlorn. That’s one of the incredible things about these plays – they don’t really exist independently of each other in terms of the plot, but in terms of themes and character they are very different plays. One of these things that is fun to work on is I think you can really feel the playwright wrestling with these questions himself.”

Why is this specific part of history so popular right now?
“I always hate that they are called history plays because it’s not really history. Most of the character relationships are completely fictional. He was certainly inspired by what he read in the Holinshed about the history of England, but Hotspur and Hal never fought. Hotspur was a much older man and Hal was a little more than a child at the Battle of Shrewsbury. I think he was 16. There is an element of them that is a mythic play and I think that’s what audiences are drawn to today.”

What are some of your favourite moments in the plays?
“There are so many. The play-within-a-play with Falstaff in the tavern scene, the rejection and the foreshadowing of that. I love doing that with Stacy [Keach]. Stacy’s delightful to play with in that scene when everybody’s on stage together and you can really feel a live, thrilling sense of danger happening in that bar. Then rejecting Falstaff – ‘I know thee not, old man’ is one of the great scenes in Shakespeare. Two people coming to this impasse in their relationship where what they want or what they would desire if they were free is impossible. It comes to this awful conclusion and I think in our performance that that’s as difficult for Hal as it is for Falstaff. The writing in that bit is beautiful, the shifting of the pronouns from the royal pronoun to the personal pronoun. It’s a much more complicated speech than I gave it credit for.

“And then of course the bedroom scenes with Ed Gero, an incredible actor who is playing an incredible King Henry. When Henry is leaving and the two of them are sort of negotiating everything, it is certainly a contemporary father-son relationship. The ideas of ‘What am I passing on?’ and ‘What have you given me?’ Those scenes are delightful in the way that fathers and sons misunderstand each other.”

Read the full feature on this production of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 in Issue 3 of Shakespeare Magazine.

Revolution Shakespeare performs Orson Welles’ Five Kings in Philadelphia Museum of Art

rev shakes 1 rev shakes 2
To continue the US celebrations of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, Revolution Shakespeare is staging Orson Welles’ Five Kings - a five-hour adaptation of Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V – in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

When Welles first staged (and starred in) Five Kings in 1938, the massive length hindered the production, forcing it to close amidst negative reviews before it finished its tour.

The original vision for the production entailed a second part to cover Henry VI and Richard III. However, after the negative reception of the first part, Welles never finished the second.

To make it more manageable, Revolution has divided the play into five one-hour performances and is presenting one portion of the play each week.

Rather than taking place on a stage, each performance is in a different gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The locations range from the rotunda - featuring Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – as the stage for Hal’s carousing, to the French Chapel for Henry V’s wooing of the French princess.

Taking place every Wednesday in July, performances start at 6pm. All performances are “Pay What You Wish”, and will feature a brief recap of the previous instalment for those who might have missed it.

Go here for more information.

Follow Revolution Shakespeare on Facebook.