Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0198.  Friday, 10 March 1995.
From:           Christine Mack Gordon <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Thursday, 9 Mar 95 10:59:43 -0500
Subject:        Fiennes's *Hamlet* (continued)
This is a full version of the Sunday Times review that was summarized in the
earlier post. --Chris Gordon
HEADLINE: Steep and thorny way to heaven; Drama
BY: John Peter
Ralph Fiennes is powerfully effective as Hamlet in a production packed full of
savagery and pain, says John Peter.
 Jonathan Kent's new production of Hamlet breaks like a winter storm: harsh,
bleak, unromantic, pitiless. If you have ever wondered what the first
performance at the Elizabethan Globe might have been like, this production at
the Hackney Empire could be as near as the modern theatre can come to it
without becoming an exercise in cultural anthropology. The costumes (James
Acheson) are sort of Edwardian, and Peter J Davison's set, dark grey and
cavernous, suggests a weather-beaten, unfriendly old edifice where
eavesdropping is easy and yet a place where you could easily feel exposed and
 From its first moment, the production unleashes a ferocious, irresistible
energy. The Globe almost certainly held more than 3,000 people, standing and
sitting tightly packed; whoever did what the Elizabethans meant by directing
would have known that he had to grab their attention at once and hold it to the
end. The result, hopefully, might have been the kind of stormy, violent drama
you get at the Empire: a piece of thrilling, implacable action that overwhelms
both its characters and its audience.
 Elsinore is clearly a relaxed, confident establishment: there is no suggestion
that there might ever have been an interregnum. The court is not surprised by
Claudius's announcement of his marriage: this is obviously the formal, public
sealing of a contract that had been settled in private. To Claudius (James
Laurenson) the marriage is a necessary component of a general political
settlement: his real pre-occupation now is the looming conflict with Norway. He
kisses Gertrude with what you might call a formal passion: it suggests not so
much erotic happiness as the triumph of possession. Gertrude may be no longer
young, but she is regally glamorous: a royal trophy wife. Francesca Annis plays
her as a hard, elegant, self-possessed woman with the touch of the frivolous.
Socially, she is like a superbly organised dinner-party hostess who is
intolerant of anything disorganised; psychologically, she is the kind of
majestically self-absorbed woman who does not like problems and gets impatient
with anybody who has any. As far as she is concerned, her son has been moping
and mourning quite long enough: the whole thing is clearly becoming a nuisance
and getting in the way of the efficient public domesticity to which she likes
to be accustomed.
 Not surprisingly, her relationship to Hamlet is distant, watchful and slightly
uneasy. Brooding is not something she understands, and her first speech to her
son is edgy with weariness, almost with annoyance. When she is shown Hamlet's
love letter to Ophelia, any jealousy she might feel is clearly entirely
subconscious: her broody look suggests that the whole thing is an unwelcome
complication that could get out of control. There is no suggestion that she has
ever shared Hamlet's grief, just as the burden of Hamlet's complaint is not so
much that she has deserted him for a stepfather, but that she had been disloyal
to his father.
 Ralph Fiennes's Hamlet is that paradoxical creature, a lonely loner: a man who
feels safest behind some sort of protective wall and yet feels the need for the
kind of close companionship he knows he is hardly fitted for. His anger and
frustration are those of a natural misfit: his father's death and his mother's
remarriage only aggravate them, and the encounter with the Ghost (Terence
Rigby) simply removes the restraints of discipline that have held them under
control. He is a nightwatchman of the spirit, always on the alert for disaster.
He is certainly not a sweet prince. This is a harsh, unlyrical reading, savage
and ruthless, giving no hostages to affection or romantic admiration: Fiennes
reminds you how often Shakespeare arouses your feelings and awakens your moral
sensibilities by engaging you with characters who are difficult, unwelcoming,
sometimes even repellent. Morality through sympathy is easy. In Shakespeare, as
in all great drama, moral values are discovered the hard way.
 Like all highly individual Hamlets, this one has its contradictions.
Technically, Fiennes is hugely accomplished. The cascading, tumultuous passion
of the production presents no problems to him: the verse is released at an
immense speed, but with almost complete clarity. One difficulty with that is
that you actually become aware of Fiennes's virtuosity: the technical wizardry
draws attention to itself, and simply listening to this reckless outpouring of
the text comes between you and the character you want to get to know. The sheer
speed of the delivery also tears at the intellectual fabric of the play. It is
difficult to think of these lava-like outpourings as the result of any kind of
thought process. The ``To be or not to be'' soliloquy sounds, not like thought
moulding itself into speech, a subtle intelligence grappling with a problem,
but like an obsession that has already been rehearsed more than once: the
spiritual equivalent of probing and probing an open wound. A little slowing
down would make all the difference. It would bring out more of the play's
lyricism and intellectual passion, adding no more than 10 minutes' playing
 This need not contradict the notion that this production might be like that
first one with Shakespeare and Burbage. The Globe company is unlikely to have
had a rehearsal period of several weeks. A play as rich and as densely layered
as this one is unlikely to have yielded up all its secrets at the first
attempt, even with the author in charge. Where Fiennes's performance and Kent's
production most probably resemble their originals is in their grasp of the
play's essential theatricality as a work of swift, irresistible tragic action
in which character and circumstance combine in destruction.
 This, too, is where Fiennes's performance is so eloquent and truthful: it is a
portrayal of pain that cannot be shared. In this sense, this is a deeply
modern, contemporary Hamlet. He is, ultimately, entirely alone. There is no
family or community to support him. This is not the loneliness of princes, but
the loneliness of personal suffering, partly caused by a harsh, uncaring world
and partly rooted in a deep spiritual maladjustment that nobody can understand,
let alone alleviate. To us, Hamlet's suffering speaks of moral priorities, of
the nature of purity, clarity, self-knowledge and action; but to Hamlet himself
it is merely a waste of his soul. Fiennes's performance is a shattering
portrayal of this loss and this waste. He is, to quote Sartre, a useless
 This is the Almeida Theatre's production, sponsored by AT&T, and it recalls
the Shakespearian theatre in yet another way. A few years after Hamlet was
written, his company took a lease on the Blackfriars, an intimate indoor
theatre seating about 500. Here the King's Men, as they were by then called,
presented exactly the same plays to a smaller, more refined, perhaps more
discriminating public than they did at the Globe to a mass audience. In this
sense, for Shakespeare and his audiences, there was only one theatre. The
Almeida company usually plays to an audience of at most 300; here at the
Empire, in the urban jungle of Hackney, it plays classical drama at the same
high standard of artistry, but to an audience of 900 to 1,000. Perhaps Kent and
his actors will prove that today, too, there is only one theatre, and that
great plays speak to everybody.

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