If you were one of those lucky enough to get a ticket, director Kenneth Branagh’s massively over-subscribed RADA Hamlet starring Tom Hiddleston was all about the “intimacy and intensity” of acting craft at its finest, writes Maddy Fry

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Photos by Johan Persson

I’ve often found it comforting that most of Tom Hiddleston’s alter-egos seem incapable of making good choices. Whether it’s the PTSD-inspired alcoholism of Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea or the Shakespearean sibling angst of the Marvel villain Loki, most of his characters are dogged by despair and failure.

Even the nefarious Prince Hal of The Hollow Crown and the enigmatic Jonathan Pine at the centre of The Night Manager go through considerable travails before fulfilling their true purpose. It seemed apt that director Kenneth Branagh described the Prince of Denmark, that great monument to unfulfilled ambition, as “the role he was born to play.”

For any devotee of Hiddleston, the chance to see him as Hamlet in a tiny central London theatre, nestled within the walls of his old drama school, felt akin to seeing The Beatles at the Cavern Club – the sense of a colossal talent scaled down while losing none of its potency. The result was little short of magical.

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Up close and personal in RADA’s 160-seat auditorium, the play opened with Hamlet sitting in near-darkness at the piano, crooning out a low wolf-howl of defeat.

“And will he not come again?” our hero moaned, lamenting the absence of his father via the heart-wrenching cadence of “No, no he is dead. Go to thy deathbed…”

Hamlet’s alienation and sense of betrayal over his mother’s hasty remarriage was, particularly for those in the front row, frighteningly visceral, made manifest through kicking and screaming, spit, sweat and tears. In turn, Hiddleston masterfully depicted Hamlet’s inability to be what those around him needed – supportive, vengeful, loving, or even just consistent.

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Much has been made of how HiddleHamlet’s madness was undoubtedly feigned; yet the production’s great strength was the ease with which he switched to an all-too-real malice and vindictiveness. His brushing aside of Ophelia (Kathryn Wilder), triggering her fatal sense of abandonment, combined with his shrugging off the deaths of his informant friends, were shocking in their callousness.

Yet one couldn’t shake the feeling that the derangement and loss of control in Hamlet’s eyes after murdering Polonius (Sean Foley) was genuine. The final duel resulting in the Prince’s death, barely two feet from my seat, was no less agonising for its portrayal of one man imprisoned by grief, with its destructive effects spiralling outwards.

The threat of military conquest by Norway always hung in the foreground, but more than anything this Hamlet was about bereavement and family breakdown – the torment caused by our relatives moving on, even if we can’t, and robbing us of any space to heal. Proof, as though it were needed, that Shakespeare speaks to us for the moment we find ourselves in. Few plays have left me waking up sobbing the next day, but the rage, remorse and anguish on display still resonated, to the refrain throughout of “Go to thy deathbed…”

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Yet on the night, for those in attendance it was three hours of uncomplicated happiness. Watching Hiddleston seamlessly recite ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ right in front of me was enough to make me feel thankful for my pulse. As much as I loved Benedict Cumberbatch’s 2015 turn at the Barbican, it couldn’t rival RADA’s Hamlet for intimacy and intensity of craftsmanship.

This performance of Hamlet took place on 20 September 2017 at the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, London

Soul-searching with Scott: Irish actor Andrew Scott delivered an “exquisite, fragile” performance in Robert Icke’s “electrifying, heart-wrenching production” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, writes Clare Petre

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Director Robert Icke’s exceptional contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s most famous play has had plenty of time to sit. Indeed, London has seen two further Hamlets (Tom Hiddleston’s and Benet Brandreth’s) since this formidable piece of theatre closed, but Andrew Scott’s is the one that seems to haunt the capital. With its soundtrack of some of Bob Dylan’s most touching songs, this electrifying, heart-wrenching production has plunged a poisoned foil into the hearts of thousands.
Andrew Scott’s exquisite, fragile Hamlet was offset beautifully by Jessica Brown-Findlay’s graceful yet physically strong Ophelia (her dance background was evident throughout), whose weakness, ironically, lay in her attempting to convince herself and the court of her strength.

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I have seen criticism of the “monotony” of Angus Wright’s Claudius, as if his performance left something to be desired. I disagree – Wright is an accomplished actor and his Claudius was cunningly crafted. He left us in no doubt as to how Derbhle Crotty’s elegant and likeable Gertrude, in the midst of her confusion and grief, was attracted to his lupine, prowling figure but saw the error of her ways so quickly in the closet scene.
Peter Wight’s Polonius was apparently succumbing to the insidious effects of dementia, but his performance lost none of the character’s levity.

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Aided by a cast of such strength, the play felt so fresh that some of its most famous and often most laboured words became unfamiliar. Icke’s daring direction served to emphasise this by giving several of the play’s best known moments entirely new readings – Laertes’ plea to use another foil as the one he has chosen is “too heavy”, for example, became a sudden second thought – a desperate and urgent cry to avoid the inevitable and perhaps use a foil untainted with poison. He became a man torn between his loyalty to the court, and his desire to forgive Hamlet and begin to define a better future. For the duel scene itself Shakespeare’s words were all but abandoned, the fight performed as a dumb-show to Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet”. Emotionally manipulative? Perhaps. Facile? Possibly. Heart-breaking? Undeniably.

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This production’s outstanding competence lay in giving its audience the opportunity to share grief and express its own, usually muted, sorrows. Shared emotion equates to shared humanity. A fully paid-up member of Generation X, I cannot remember a more (over)dramatic outpouring of love and grief than that which we witnessed after the death of Princess Diana, which has been much discussed of late, it being the 20th anniversary of the Paris crash. There was, at the time, an extraordinary and tribal response to her carefully orchestrated funeral.
With Diana, we were not mourning the death of a princess so much as celebrating the opportunity to experience human communality. So with Hamlet, while we feel acutely his pain, Ophelia’s, Gertrude’s, we mourn our own tragedies as they are reflected upon the stage. When we weep for Hamlet and his fellow characters, we are weeping for our own grief and for the sense of loss which might permeate our own lives, but using Shakespeare’s writing as a conduit. To paraphrase Gertrude, this Elsinore turned our eyes into our very souls.

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I fell in love with Hamlet 30 years ago and in that time many interpretations have come and gone. But it is Andrew Scott’s that has remained with me above all others, and which will do until usurped. I suspect I am in for a long wait.

This performance of Hamlet took place on Monday 24 July 2017 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Hail to the Bard! The shiny new-look Shakespeare Magazine 11 is adorned with a simply stunning cover image of rising young stars Lily James and Richard Madden in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet

It’s here! Please, read, enjoy and share far & wide the completely free delight that is Shakespeare Magazine 11!

Issue 11 Cover

The shiny new-look Shakespeare Magazine 11 is adorned with a simply stunning cover image of rising young stars Lily James and Richard Madden in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet.

Head straight to page 6 to discover what our reviewer thought of the production. (Clue: she loved it)

Also in Issue 11, SK Moore tells us about his compelling new graphic novel of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, while broadcaster Samira Ahmed turns her magnificently mercurial mind to the subject of Shakespeare.

We have words with Pub Landlord comedian Al Murray about his recent brush with the Bard (and Judi Dench) at RSC Shakespeare Live.

And our Editor gorges himself on a 3-DVD box set of 1960s television Shakespeare classic The Wars of the Roses.

Check out our chat with the great Don Warrington, star of Talawa Theatre’s earth-shaking King Lear at Manchester’s Royal Exchange – youthful co-star Alfred Enoch joins in too.

Following up last issue’s cheeky Shakespeare/Star Wars feature we’ve dared to imagine what Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet would look like. (Looks pretty darn cool, actually)

We also take the opportunity to explore the life of Elizabeth Siddal, the model for Millais’ classic Victorian painting of Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

And last but very much not least, Bristol’s Insane Root Theatre take us very deep into a cave in order to scare the living daylights out of us with their Macbeth!

And remember, you can read all 11 issues of Shakespeare Magazine completely free here.

The tagline for her one-woman show To She Or Not To She is “Get stuffed, Will!”, but Emma Bentley is a lifelong Shakespeare fan with a fresh – and funny – feminist message

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Writer and actor Emma Bentley plays a parodic version of herself in one-woman show To She Or Not To She, beginning at 14 years old when it is announced that the year nine spring term play is going to be Hamlet.

Emma knows she is perfect for the lead role: she grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon, knows all about Shakespeare, and (not to boast or anything) she’s the best actor in the school. Her gender doesn’t occur to her as being a problem, until her drama teacher informs her post-audition that she “just couldn’t see Hamlet as a girl”.

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Bentley says: “I chose Shakespeare because before I went to drama school I thought I knew a lot about him, and then at LIPA [Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts] I realised how much more complex the plays are. So it was a process of finding out for me. I also am not that good at really serious, intense emotional scenes – I prefer comedy.”

Bentley brings her experience in mime and clowning to the excellent caricatures she presents – a particular highlight is Emma’s diva-ish classmate Jimmy Danish, a Cumberbatch wannabe with a swagger and a quiff, who tells her she should audition for Ophelia because “You’d look really cool drowned”.

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The show’s quirky style and close rapport with its audience are key to its appeal. Alongside the laughs, however, comedy proves a useful mechanism for making people think. Walking home from school in the rain, the young Emma mourns her Hamlet-that-might-have-been. Soaked to the skin, it is as if she becomes Ophelia – side-lined as mad for defying the status quo, and ultimately disposed of with very little fuss. The moment prompts us to wonder how many other young potential female Hamlets are turned into Ophelias as early as their first auditions.

To She Or Not To She is part of a recent upsurge in female actors playing male Shakespearean heroes, notably Harriet Walter’s Henry IV (at the Donmar Warehouse) and Maxine Peake’s Hamlet (at the Manchester Royal Exchange), alongside all-female companies like the Smooth-Faced Gentlemen. But for Bentley there is still a long way to go before female actors have access to the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

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“I did see Peake’s Hamlet in the cinema, and people’s reactions around me were, ‘I wasn’t even thinking about the fact she’s a woman!’” she says. “But female actors in leading Shakespearean roles are still really quite rare in this country and I don’t think they get the recognition they deserve. I feel like that’s quite a depressing answer [to your question]! I think things are changing, just not very quickly, which can be frustrating. I would love it if To She Or Not To She was part of a trend of productions that would get things moving faster.”

“Countries like France and Germany are great for taking Shakespeare and mixing things up. Maybe because there is not that sense of it being a traditional part of their culture in same way, so they’re happy to pull it apart and cut out whole scenes, or look at a character a different light. In the UK, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious thing, the weight of tradition can hold people back.”

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Bentley is certainly comfortable pulling Shakespeare apart – as To She Or Not To She follows Emma through drama school and her attempts to forge an acting career, lines from the plays compare her situation with those of male Shakespearean characters, making a convincing case for how relevant they are to her (female) experiences.

Particularly effective towards the end of the play are Bentley’s original lines written in iambic pentameter. She says, “It’s a generalisation, but I think girls can often be more confident in Shakespeare [than with other plays]”.

And it is through Shakespeare’s rhythms and language that Emma can express her desperation for female voices in theatre. What she wants is not just to be allowed to play male roles, but to find female roles that are crazy, drunk, passionate or brave.

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Although it is intrinsically honest, in places the show verges on didactic where it could allow its audience a little more space and time to draw conclusions for themselves, but Bentley is the first to admit that the show is a work in progress.

“The production is constantly changing – the ending especially has changed a lot. At one point it ended with my character getting a job at the Globe, but I felt like I was just making things up as I’ve never actually been lucky enough to work there, so it wasn’t… honest.

“I’ve also cut the jig at the end [a Globe-style song and dance], even though I love doing it, because people fed back that they felt I just needed to leave time for the final scene to resonate, rather than dancing around as if everything’s OK.”

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It might be the influence of the show, but Bentley seems oddly similar to popular conceptions of Shakespeare – humble, self-parodying and often witty. While To She Or Not To She is a serious reflection on sexism in the acting profession, it is also very comfortable exposing (and laughing at) the pretentiousness that often creeps into an actor’s life, with lines like “Did I play Hamlet? Or did Hamlet play me? That is the question”.

Asked which Shakespearean parts she would most like to play, Bentley muses: “I think I’d have to say Hamlet – I know it’s a cliché, but I feel like this is the right moment for me to take on that role. You hear older actors saying they wish they’d done Hamlet, and I feel like if it doesn’t happen for me in the next three years, it probably never will.

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“I’d also like to play Feste – I’ve played him at drama school but would love to do it again. Directors of Twelfth Night tend to see Feste’s as the lines to cut – he’s just talking nonsense, right? – but having played him and realised what he’s saying, I find there’s so much there that really resonates with life today.”

To She Or Not To She is produced by Joue Le Genre and is touring to Broadway Theatre Catford and Arts Theatre Leicester Square in the UK this month.

Go here for more information and tickets.

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.

Taking over 10 floors of the Library of Birmingham, director Daniel Tyler’s ‘Hamlets’ was a fully immersive Shakespeare experience that offered multiple interpretations of the Bard’s most iconic character

Exterior of Library of Birmingham

Exterior of Library of Birmingham

Walking towards the impressive Library of Birmingham I have no idea what to expect of Hamlets. Everyone has their favourite Hamlet, one that stays in their memory brighter than any other. But the aim of this production is to explore the many thousands of interpretations and incorporate them into one.

Upon arrival, we are greeted by The Archivists who will accompany us through our exploration of Hamlet. In reception there is a flutter of activity. People in white hazmat suits investigate a body on the floor. A chilling foresight of what is to come?

From the start, the audience is involved, answering questions about their relationship with Hamlet. Access granted, we are led by The Archivists to the beautiful Shakespeare Memorial Room on the top floor of the Library. Full of artefacts and books about Shakespeare, it’s the perfect place to be introduced to the world of Hamlet.

The Archivists lead the group through each scene via long corridors and dark stairwells; it’s almost as if we are exploring Elsinore ourselves. We find ourselves outside on the chilly night in the serene Secret Garden, high above the Birmingham life going on below us. The cold evening adds to the atmosphere of meeting the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

View of Birmingham from the Secret Garden. It added to the feeling of being behind the walls of a castle

View of Birmingham from the Secret Garden. It added to the feeling of being behind the walls of a castle

There are nine interpretations of Hamlet present, taking it in turns to shine before coming together to speak as one at particular points of the text. The absence of a stage and being able to interact with the Hamlets mean I feel connected to it all in a way I’ve never experienced before.

Exploring the Library’s vast floors, my highlight of the journey is being able to wander around the Hamlets, watching each one deal with their descents into madness in different ways. Seeing the Hamlets both alone and with members of the court shows a raw side to the play and the character. It really adds to Hamlet’s madness by seeing so many of them running around the room – a glimpse into what could have been going on in his mind.

Hamlet and Ophelia across the ages in the nunnery scene

Hamlet and Ophelia across the ages in the nunnery scene

We are led to a large room where we can take our time to walk around 18 different ‘To Be or Not To Be’ interpretations. As well as the nine Hamlets we’ve been following throughout the night, we can view pieces of art, text and visual interpretations – and also perform our own version. Walking from Hamlet to Hamlet feel I’m intruding on the most personal and private thoughts of the tortured prince. Each performance is powerful – it really feels as though you understand Hamlet’s pain.

As we continue throughout the Archives we are led down more dark stairwells by The Archivists, passing by the players performing The Mousetrap, Polonius’ death at the hand of Hamlet and Ophelia’s madness and eventual drowning. We find ourselves in the children’s room, confronted by a grave made out of books. There is even an archive box referring to Disney’s The Lion King, a reminder of Hamlet’s widespread influence.

We are ushered by The Archivists towards the final scene – a sword fight, with all nine Hamlets effortlessly changing places. For me, it highlights just how well rehearsed and in sync the individual players are. All nine have done a fantastic job, each one delivering a new take on an iconic role.

The Birmingham Young Rep and Hôtel Teatro Theatre groups have been superb, gelling as comfortably as if they had been acting together for years. Well-designed costumes enhance the sense of each character’s different era and culture. A special mention should go to Michael Barry for changing my perception of the character of Polonius. I’ve always imagined Polonius as an old fuddy duddy, but Michael portrays him as a mild mannered, loving father.

Michael Barry as a 19th Century Polonius

Michael Barry as a 19th Century Polonius

“My inspiration came from the fact that Shakespeare – and Hamlet – is adopted around the world and is re-interpreted in so many ways it can make you dizzy,” says director Daniel Tyler.

“Those of us who love and work with the Bard’s plays – especially the most famous ones – can often feel weighed down by production histories and ‘great’ or ‘landmark’ versions. Hamlets addresses this by making this history the very centre of the performance.

“Also, I’m hooked on the feeling I get when people who think Shakespeare ‘isn’t for them’ or ‘is too difficult’ or ‘irrelevant’ are having a great time engaging with a contemporary version of one of his plays.”

Hamlets ran at the Library of Birmingham from 17-21 March 2015

Images by Emma Wheatley