Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Hamlet without tears

The Globe Theatre’s touring production of Hamlet, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, stopped in Alexandria for one night. Nehad Selaiha was there.

Hamlet1
Hamlet1
Al-Ahram Weekly

Globe to Globe Hamlet, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 12 January, 2014.


Shakespeare’s Hamlet is probably the most over inscribed play ever. Over the years it has acquired layers upon layers of directorial interpretations, critical analyses, impressionistic musings, philosophical ponderings, reviews, memoirs and records of countless productions, not to mention a plethora of reworkings and adaptations in several languages and dozens of film and television versions, so much so that it has become quite difficult to see the play underneath. This critical/artistic heritage has grown and thickened over the years, spreading the play’s reputation far and wide, but at the same time building an impervious wall around it. Indeed, the reputation of the play is such that most people know about it by hearsay without having ever seen it, so that if and when they do, they come to it burdened with hazy ideas as to what to look for and expect. If they find it incomprehensible, confusing, tediously long or boring, they are loathe to admit it for fear of appearing absolute dullards. For the initiated, on the other hand, the main interest in any new production will have to do with which interpretation the director has opted for – the religious, political, philosophical, psychological, tragical-historical, or comical-tragical, etc. (pace Polonius); with what s/he made of the ghost, of the question of madness, or of Hamlet’s feelings about Gertrude, or Gertrude’s complicity or otherwise in the murder of her husband; and with which scenes or lines s/he omitted or foregrounded in the interest of her reading.

To free Hamlet of its ‘fulsome’ reputation, of its excessive, unwieldy, awesome critical packaging, and recover for modern audiences a whiff of the freshness it once had for Shakespeare’s contemporaries when it was first performed was the prime object of Dominic Dromgoole’s production of the play which visited Egypt last week. Indeed, as he told Christopher Wallenberg in a telephone conversation, his policy as artistic director of the Globe is to ‘try to make everything we do … as fresh as possible and to escape the straitjacket of preconceptions for whatever play we’re doing.’ In the case of Hamlet, the job was immensely harder in view of the play’s long history and popularity. Wanting to stage it ‘with the freshness and enthusiasm’ that he imagines ‘it was first done’ meant throwing out the ‘colossal juggernaut of baggage’ that has built up around it over 400 years. (see: http: //www.bostonglobe.com/arts/theater-art/2012/10/06/from-shakespeare-globe-theatre-shorter-evening-with-hamlet/6pgoe4aljOBx7eAdDEsVWL/story.html)

To realize this, Dromgoole (with the help of co-director Bill Buckhurst) reverted to Elizabethan theatrical practices, particularly to the small-scale touring format used in Shakespeare’s time and revived by the Globe in recent years. ‘It was a way of being able to do Hamlet without all of the pomp and the seriousness and the rather excessive faux gravity that it usually carries around beside it,’ he told Wallenberg in the same telephone conversation. Indeed the idea of touring with the play seems to have been the production’s guiding spirit and main inspiration. In a press statement, Dromgoole draws attention to the touring history of the play. ‘In 1608,’ he says, ‘only five years after it was written, Hamlet was performed on a boat – the Red Dragon – off the coast of Yemen. Just ten years later it was being toured extensively all over Northern Europe. The spirit of touring, and of communicating stories to fresh ears, was always central to Shakespeare’s work. We couldn’t be happier to be extending that mission even further.’ In deciding how to ‘communicate’ the story of Hamlet, Dromgoole followed the example of Shakespeare’s actors when on tour, particularly in countries that did not speak English. On these tours, he said in an interview, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men ‘did a shortened version … with an emphasis on physicality …, a slightly coarser, cruder, bolder version in sort of primary colours.  We’re not going that coarse or crude, but we certainly are aware that these plays were written to tour as well as to play for the globe. And so, you know, we want to reflect some of that spirit’ (see: http://www.npr.org/2014/04/23/305897405/as-shakespeare-turns-450-hamlet-tour-makes-the-world-a-stage). And reflect it they did in the Alexandria performance.  

The Hamlet we saw there on 12 January was an astutely shortened version executed in bold, primary colours. It seemed to communicate the story in quick, bold strokes with minimal psychological shading. The cuts that reduced the running time to nearly three hours, including one short interval, were well judged and calculated not remove anything of crucial significance. The characters were all there, with all their famous lines and stormy confrontations; the soliloquies were all there, with all the meditations on life and death and the rottenness that infects life, but delivered directly to the audience in a confidential manner rather than as internal thoughts spoken out loud; the witty dialogue was there, with its vivid imagery, mordant humour, salacious double entendre and many embedded jokes and ironies, and so were the funny antics of the hero, performed with zest and relish.

The difference was in the mode of delivery and the style of acting. Dromgoole’s abridged version of the text (in which the cuts, we are told, were guided by the earliest, crudest version of the play, found in The First Quarto) was delivered with clarity, speed and energy, accurately communicating the obvious sense of the uttered words without attempting to delve underneath the surface in search of hidden meanings, or to impress upon the audience a particular interpretation of the pageant in progress, thus allowing them the freedom to make of it what they like. The style of acting adopted here predates Freudian psychology and Brecht’s epic theatre; it is neither the style of the emotionally engaged performer of method acting which requires building a character in all its psychological complexity and social history, nor that of the knowing subject of Brechtian theatre which requires a critical distance from the role and an ideological assessment of it in the process of playing it. Rather, it is a mode of ‘outward’ acting that harks back to older times when actors performed in broad daylight, wore masks and ‘carried’ roles rather than identified with characters, as in the case of ancient Greek drama, or when they had to take on multiple roles in quick succession in the same play, as in the case of the touring companies in Shakespeare’s time.  

Indeed, this style of acting is part and parcel of the small-scale touring format chosen by the directors. With only eight actors taking on all the parts, slipping in and out of roles and changing costumes at a moment’s notice, and doing it all on a bare stage, with no scenery, in strong, neutral lighting, not to mention their having to double as musicians and provide all the sound effects as well as move and arrange the few props (basically the suitcases that the whole show travels around in plus a rug and a red curtain), it is impossible to strive for psychological complexity or emotional depth and quite unreasonable to expect either. It was not surprising that Naeem Hayat, as Hamlet, even though he did not double in other parts, had no time to exhibit the notorious Hamletian hesitation and agonized indecision. Looking a goofy teenager given to smacking his head and biting his forefinger, he seemed completely engrossed with the business in hand, wondering what to do next and how to vex, trick and foil his opponents, and thoroughly unaware of the philosophical depths, or the political, or moral implications of his voiced reflections. Like the rest of the cast in this performance, he seemed to act more to the audience than to the other characters sharing the scene and more anxious to get on with the story and keep the audience interested and amused than to cultivate a character with a credible interior life.

Indeed, psychological complexity and emotional depth would seem completely out of tune with the innately theatrical mode of representation adopted in this production – a mode that strives to show, not a finished fictional illusion, but the process of creating such an illusion – a process that demands the cooperation and active participation of the audience. The performance began in a jovial vein with the actors facing the audience, greeting them in Arabic, introducing the play and performing a song and dance while playing their instruments and ended with a jubilant finale in which the slain rose to perform a lively jig, as if in celebration of the art of acting. Throughout the performance, they changed their costumes in full view of the audience and when not performing, sat around the scene waiting for their cues or providing music and sound effects. Moreover, as the actors warned at the beginning of the show, the houselights were kept on throughout, heightening the dynamic interaction and exchange of energy between audience and performers. This is of course a harking back to the Elizabethan theatrical practice of performing in broad daylight – a practice faithfully followed at the London Globe’s open-air theatre.

The innate theatricality of this Hamlet, which resulted in strongly highlighting the often overlooked comic element in the play, reached an apex in the play-within-the-play, or ‘Mousetrap’ sequence. Here Miranda Foster, Keith Bartlett and Beruce Khan displayed amazing versatility, first performing a brief, hilariously farcical version of the ‘Mousetrap’ in mime, then delivering it in a declamatory, melodramatic way, with intermittent shifts to straight acting in between, all the while switching roles and styles with stunning alacrity and smoothness. This sequence was indeed the highlight of the whole performance and firmly shifted the focus from the play to the players, the story of Hamlet to the artistry and arduous work of storyteller. It was the genius of the actors rather than genius of the play that captivated the audience at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, most of whom were students and young artists. In general, those who went expecting a heart-rending, soul-stirring, awesome tragedy were naturally disappointed; but the ones who went with an open mind, with no constricting preconceptions, ready to accept the show on its own terms, had a delightful experience and appreciated it for what it was first and foremost: an exuberant celebration of theatre-making and the art of the performer.

The performance seen at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on Monday, 12 January was part of a planned two-year world tour of the production, dubbed as the ‘Globe to Globe Hamlet’ in press materials.  The tour began on 23 April 2014, marking the 450th anniversary of the birth of the Bard, and will end on 23 April 2016 with a final performance at Elsinore Castle in Denmark to commemorate his death 400 years ago. The tour comes as a follow-up to the 2012 Globe to Globe Festival, which invited overseas companies to the UK to perform works of Shakespeare in their native languages.

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