After indulging in NT Live’s One Man Two Guvnors a few weeks ago, in true theatre enthusiast fashion, I wrote a list of every live production that is currently available to stream. Third on the list: Hamlet, starring The Globe’s Artistic Director Michelle Terry in the title role. Directed by As You Like It’s Federay Holmes and Elle While (also part of The Globe’s 2018 Summer Season with the same 12 actors), the experience promises to be a “mythic and timeless journey”, according to the programme. It doesn’t live up to this expectation, but this is no bad thing, as its simplicity and modernisation make it more accessible.
The production is packed with bold directorial choices, of which the gender fluid casting is most striking. As a kind of accidental aficionado of gender-swapping-Shakespeare myself (amateur theatre is sorely lacking in male actors…), I know it can go one of two ways: sophisticated and exciting or awkward and confusing. Luckily, this performance tends towards the former. Terry’s portrayal of the eponymous character is insightful and refreshing, combining juvenile vulnerability with vengeful obsession. However, it occasionally lacks light and shade, especially in Hamlet’s mad phase, during which the emotion quickly grows monotonous. Her real strength is her chemistry with Catrin Aaron’s Horatio, which brings a touching sisterly facet to one of Shakespeare’s more famous ‘bromances’. Conversely, her relationship with Shubham Saraf’s Ophelia is not so convincing. Despite a strong performance from Saraf, a male actor playing Ophelia in the modern day just doesn’t fully capture the important themes of patriarchal pressure, domestic abuse and female sexuality. Saying that, it’s certainly fun to watch this character portrayed as she would have been in Elizabethan times.
Of the cast who stay within their genders, a compelling performance can be seen from James Garnon as the corrupt and conniving Claudius. He is deceptively amicable as he seamlessly blends the iambic pentameter – in which the majority of the play is written – with a modern, naturalistic rhythm in his dialogue which really brings the words to life. Oftentimes, actors get carried away with the grandeur of Shakespeare and forget that the characters are actually thinking and speaking rather than just orating, so it’s nice to hear a Shakespearean villain speak like a real person. In a minor role as a Player, Jack Laskey commands the stage in jeans and trainers when he performs a section of Virgil’s Aeneid. Helen Schlesinger’s Gertrude is suitably maternal and guilt-stricken, and when she acts as messenger for Ophelia’s drowning her speech is beautiful and heart-breaking.
When it comes to design, the absence of a set encourages the audience to rely on the strength of the acting. The costume design is daring, with a bizarre amalgamation of modern-day dress and traditional Elizabethan clothing. Designer Ellan Parry explains that this choice was a nod to the “anachronistic eclecticism” of Elizabethan theatre, with companies often having to recycle second-hand garments or use props from prior productions. She also highlights the importance of seeing people on stage who look and dress just like those in the audience. Although the desired effect is increased intimacy, the mish-mash of costumes is discordant, and a little distracting. Nonetheless, various commenters on YouTube have debated the significance of the costume differences in portraying contrasts in loyalties between Claudius’ and Young Hamlet’s followers, indicating a generational divide, or simply in suggesting the ageless nature of the play. The fact that this design choice prompts such a variety of interpretations from its spectators is an achievement in itself – what is the point in theatre if not to make you ponder?
A notably inspiring part of this show was the casting of deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah in the role of Guildenstern. In the programme, Nadarajah recounts the rehearsal process, during which she contemplated the possibility of a British Sign Language equivalent of Shakespearean iambic pentameter. She gives a fascinating insight into the translation process and how she brought Shakespearean BSL to life. As someone who does not understand BSL, I did not find her performance to be at all lacking. In fact, the BSL interpretations provided to her by Rosencranz (Pearce Quigley) establish a rather special chemistry between them, which is a delight to watch.
Above all, this production must be noted for its accessibility. For most people, watching a Shakespeare play that you haven’t previously studied is daunting, as there is always the worry of not having a clue what’s going on. In this version, though, Holmes and While ensure that the narrative is clear and comprehensible; a decent chunk of lengthy, tautological passages are unapologetically cut. This not only allows audiences to focus on the main storyline and its themes of deception and mortality, but makes the entire experience far more palatable with a pleasant run-time of 2 hours 30. The comedy – an element of early modern theatre that is often lost on contemporary audiences – is also presented in a way that guarantees everyone is in on the joke; I was impressed at the actors’ ability to have myself and my fellow audience members in The Globe laughing out loud on multiple occasions.
With over 400,000 views to date since its YouTube premiere on 6th April, this production is giving the masses a chance to approach Hamlet with an open-mind (and a pause button). What better time to make ‘accessible Shakespeare’ accessible for all?