Hamlet is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I had an opportunity to watch numerous adaptations of it through the last year both on screen and on-stage. Each performance seemed to offer something new and just added to my love for this play. So, when someone from my class suggested a production of Hamlet being performed by drama students in a pub (in London), I was all up for it. It would have been a great break from the tensions of the Reading Week (as a part of my Masters in Shakespeare Studies).
(Picture: Hamlet with Horatio, the gravedigger scene, 1839, Louvre, Eugène Delacroix)
I should say I had not expected a masterpiece, but what I got instead was a terrible, lackadaisical production of the play. The performance was supposed to be an “immersive” production which sees the characters becoming a part of the surroundings and often involves audience interaction. An interesting concept on page, but I have come to wonder how much of it works off stage.
As we entered the pub, the scene was set and chairs had been arranged. It was supposed to be a production of Hamlet set in the sixties—which in this case meant lava lamps and Rubik’s cube arranged on a table. And there were Hamlet and Ophelia lost in each other’s eyes, ignoring everyone else around. Also, there were characters around, engaging in conversations with the audience members. It seemed to be a stage set for an interesting play, if not a great one.
I think I started losing my optimism when the king did not arrive for almost fifteen minutes after his arrival had been announced. Then what followed was a performance that lacked direction. The actor playing Hamlet seemed to think that the impact of his powerful soliloquys could only come through burrowing his head into the floor. Then there was Ophelia who seemed to almost smile like a sociopath as she described the disheveled state of Hamlet. Instead of a figure who was increasingly distraught as the play moves on, she just seemed to instead become increasingly annoyed at the turn of events.
I had never thought of Hamlet as a play that I can hysterically laugh at, but this production defied my expectations. It might have been the over the top acting and scenes, or the replacement of Swords with darts (yes, actual dartboard darts), or maybe the “player actor” who sat at the bar wearing a cowboy hat and looking incredibly bored with the proceedings when it was not his scene (except that one time when he made disapproving noise when Hamlet knocked out Horatio).
Yet, I wonder how much can the actors be blamed. It was clear as the play went on that it was made by someone who had not put much thought into it. The bar setting and the sixties theme seemed to be a mere gimmick, and played no significant role. It was a production which could have been played in the exact same terrible way on any normal stage.
Even the script alterations seemed to be made by someone who did not completely understand the play or rather the implications of certain lines. One such alteration was the removal of the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These two characters were supposed to Hamlet’s friends hired by Claudius to spy on them. There is a significant moment of confrontation between these characters when Hamlet accuses them of playing him like a stringed instrument. Even as the production chose to cut out these two, they retained the lines and were instead delivered to Ophelia by Hamlet. The audience looked as baffled as Ophelia at this accusation which had no basis. Then there was the scene where Hamlet exclaims that he had not seen the person he had killed in his mother’s chambers, after chasing after the actor playing Polonius out the back door.
As for the immersive parts of the production, they were again reduced to mere gimmicks which included the player actress sitting on my classmate’s lap (or rather his books that he had on him) or pulling another onto the “stage” for a dance with Horatio. While it was hilarious for me, the ardent theatre lovers in my group were less than pleased by the proceedings.
It was one of the worst plays I had ever watched but it did serve its purpose of being an entertaining break from the Reading Week. I wonder if there is some catharsis involved in watching your favourite work ripped to shreds….