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