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

Back in 2014, an illuminating interview with Hollow Crown Fans kicked off the very first issue of Shakespeare Magazine. This month, we caught up with Rose from HCF for a timely update on her Shakespearean activities

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III

 
Your very own #ShakespeareSunday hashtag began in 2012, and is still reaching new Twitter heights.
Rose: “There have been great themes and theme pickers over the years, and it continues to show just how popular and global the Bard’s works are. The Bard’s birthday celebrations this year actually landed on a #ShakespeareSunday which was great timing, even Stan Lee and Chaka Khan joined in! It really is fun to see who discovers the tag each week, as well as enjoying the creativity of the regular tweeters on the tag.

“Since the interview with Shakespeare Magazine in 2014 we had the unexpected good news that Neal Street were going to make a second series of The Hollow Crown, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, which has come and gone. Now there are already rumours of a third series involving the Roman plays, so that is certainly an area I’ll be looking into further. It has been a popular theme on #ShakespeareSunday a few times, and Coriolanus a favourite to quote from since Tom Hiddleston starred in the leading role at the Donmar in 2013. The Roman plays seem to be very much the choice of the moment, and Hollow Crown fans are also excited at the prospect of Julius Caesar opening in London next year with Ben Whishaw and David Morrissey!”

Maxine Peake (left) as Doll Tearsheet in The Hollow Crown

Maxine Peake (left) as Doll Tearsheet in The Hollow Crown

 
Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?
“Going off from the Hollow Crown cast for this question, I’d say Doll Tearsheet… maybe. I can rock the English peasant look, for good or bad, even Neal Street thought that when they cast me as an extra for Henry V! Ha Ha.”

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?
“What relish is in this? How runs the stream? Or I am mad, or else this is a dream.” – Twelfth Night (Act IV, Scene 1)

You have the power to cast anyone in the world (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?
“Seth Numrich – Prince Hal / Henry V. I have become a fan of Seth’s via another love of mine, the AMC TV series TURN: Washington’s Spies. Fans of the Bard and history really need to check this show out if they have not done so already. Fantastic cast, gripping storyline and Shakespeare quotes dropped in at various points over the seasons. There is a wonderful YouTube video of Seth quoting from The Merchant of Venice (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d…”) that has not left my head since watching it many moons ago. To see him on stage doing Shakespeare would be a real treat!

Seth Numrich in TURN

Seth Numrich in TURN

 
“In his interview for Muse of Fire (which you can see on Globe Player, 47 minutes in) Seth mentions his desire to play the role of Prince Hal, and he would be perfect. One of my favourite characters from The Hollow Crown and Shakespeare’s plays as a whole. I watched this interview in 2015 and I’m still waiting. If I had the power I’d certainly make it happen! Whilst we all wait, do check out Seth with Matt Doyle in Private Romeo, an all-male cast set in a high-school military academy.”

Follow Hollow Crown Fans on Twitter, and join the #ShakespeareSunday festivities each weekend.

Read our Hollow Crown Fans interview in Shakespeare Magazine 01.

Read the Hollow Crown Fans interview with actor Edward Akrout in Shakespeare Magzazine 04.

We love the richly symbolic new 2016 Shakespeare coins from the Royal Mint – but are they actually committing an act of treason against the Queen?

Shakespeare fans who are also numismatists are giddy with glee at the 2016 William Shakespeare £2 coins issued by the Royal Mint.

The three coins celebrate Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies.
coins full set
The ‘Comedies’ coin is conventional enough, depicting a Shakespearean jester or Fool.
coins comedies
But the ‘Histories’ coin has rather more powerful imagery. It depicts Shakespeare’s “Hollow Crown” pierced by a short sword or dagger.
coins histories
As the coin’s other side features our present Queen, sharp-eyed commentators have wondered if this could be interpreted as being disrespectful – potentially even treasonous – towards the monarch?

My interpretation is that the Hollow Crown symbol accurately represents the overriding theme of Shakespeare’s Histories – the legitimacy of rulers and the fate of those who usurp the throne.

So, when we turn over the ‘Histories’ coin we find Queen Elizabeth II. The crown is no longer hollow – it’s worn by the longest-reigning monarch in English history, and the namesake of Shakespeare’s Queen (Elizabeth I) as well.

If possible, the ‘Tragedies’ coin is even more striking – disturbing, even. It features a very gothic-looking Skull-and-Rose motif.
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I’m intrigued to know if this is the first time a skull has appeared on a British coin?

The message of this coin is clear: it’s about death. And when we flip the coin over, we once again find the Queen’s head, and the inescapable thought that one day her reign will come to an end.

Reinforcing this notion, we’ve noticed that if you place the upper half of the ‘Histories’ coin upon the lower half of the ‘Tragedies’ coin, what results is a very sinister image of a skull apparently wearing a crown.
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In Shakespeare’s time it was considered treason to speculate about the death of the monarch – and we all know what the penalty was for treason.

But I think what the ‘Tragedies’ coin is saying is that, like Shakespeare himself, Queen Elizabeth II will live on – in artefacts like the coin itself, and in the memories of those who lived through her reign.

To quote the famous couplet from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

You can order the Shakespeare Coins direct from the Royal Mint.