Sunday, 23 August 2009

The play's the thing!

Before I disappear into a heady euphoria at England winning the Ashes (and after seven hours in a pub watching today, I would've have been slightly displeased had they lost, or gone onto a fifth day) I had better tell you about my day in London yesterday, when I went to see Jude Law in 'Hamlet'.

I know it's not a natural thought process - "Jude Law in 'Hamlet'" doesn't trip off the tongue like "Rufus Sewell in 'Hamlet'" might (ooh, now there's a thought), but it intrigued me enough to force me to buy tickets. I've been to see the entire Donmar West End season, which started with Kenneth Branagh in 'Ivanov', followed with Derek Jacobi in 'Twelfth Night', continued with Judi Dench in 'Madame de Sade' and concluded with 'Hamlet'. At £10 for the cheapest seats, it was well worth it, and I've had some real treats. With 'Hamlet', the biggest draw for me was the fact that Kenneth Branagh was supposed to be directing it, although he eventually pulled out to star in (and direct) 'Thor' .... odd choice.

Anyway, I persuaded my sister, Simon and a friend of his (Andrea) to come with me, and we all made our various ways to the theatre for the matinee, meeting out front about 15 minutes before curtain up. At it was the penultimate performance, there were scores of people queueing for returns (or standing seats - and yes, there were quite a few people doing that!).

I have never seen 'Hamlet' live - although I've seen plenty of film versions. I am ashamed to say I hate Laurence Olivier's performance; Mel Gibson was an odd choice (although Glenn Close as Gertrude is inspired); but of course my favourite is Kenneth Branagh's - and if you can find the four hour uncut version, it is well worth sitting in front of - if merely for the pleasure of John Gielgud and Judi Dench acting out the tragedy of Priam and Hecuba, with voice over of Charlton Heston as the Player King.

I digress. I think I have established that I had doubts about the logic of Jude Law's casting, and I have to confess that these were not entirely dispelled with his entrance. Of course, Hamlet doesn't get many lines in the first scene, and whilst talking to Claudius and Gertrude, he is too petulant to allow most actors to shine; but with the first soliloquy, I felt that this might just end up being a stellar performance. This was proved to be true when Hamlet meets the ghost of his father - that scene sent shivers down my spine. After that, the play simply flew. Those key scenes that are so important, and so familiar, were all done with impeccable timing, and helped along by the sparsity of the set.

Most of the visible stage was covered with black flagstones; about two thirds back, a great gate (like a front gate to a castle) was positioned on rollers, to be moved back and forth, so it could reveal or hide parts of the action. One door in the middle of the gate, and one either side, served to allow people from the 'outside' to enter. There were very few seats used throughout (five, I think in all, and those only in three scenes), and practically no backdrops. The beginning of Gertrude's confrontation scene with Hamlet was cleverly done, because instead of Polonius being hidden at the back of the stage, the arras was brought down front stage, so that Hamlet and Gertrude were hidden from view, and the audience had a clear view of Polonius listening in. When Hamlet stabbed him, he brought down the curtain in his death throes, and revealed the scene to the audience.

Now. This scene of Gertrude's is my favourite, because I love how it becomes the turning point for her, and her view of the whole situation, and in my view it's done best with little weeping. This wasn't the case here, and unfortunately (forgive me Simon) Penelope Wilton almost ruined it with an overly hysterical performance. However, when she got to the line 'Oh Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain', her whole manner dropped like a stone, and never was there a quieter and beautiful performance. Except perhaps for this one.

And again, I digress - it's getting late, sorry readers. So, they all died. And died very well in their various poisoned states; Fortinbras came in, claimed the kingdom, the curtain went down (stayed down for a while longer than usual, to give everyone time to get off the floor) and then rose to rapturous applause. Which went on and on, and there were lots of bows, although only two curtain calls (why, nowadays, are there only two curtain calls? What happens if there was a play, the best ever seen, and people were bowled over so much they just went on clapping, even after the lights were put up? Would there be more curtain calls, or just lonely people clapping? It's something that puzzles me).

So it ended, and an obvious trip to the stage door was agreed upon. Having got there, we found a crowd, in a neat (but expanding) semi circle. 'Is there a barrier?' my sister wondered. No - just good old fashioned British respect .... even though half the waiting people weren't English at all. Kevin McNally came out, as did Penelope Wilton; we were reliably informed that Jude Law never came out between shows (although I bet he sneaks out of a different entrance occasionally), Peter Eyre came out and hung around a while, and Fenella Fielding plus suitcase waited at the stage door for someone (and the person next to me said she is married to one of the actors, although I can't work out who!!!), and Anita Dobson went past on her way into the Noel Coward theatre, which is showing Calendar Girls. Starry eyes indeed!

So there we are - Jude Law's 'Hamlet', a success, methinks, even with its errors, and one worthy of being entered into the halls of fame. I'm always jealous of my father when he says he's seen something that was put on before I was born (Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith's 'Othello' being one of them). Perhaps people in years to come will be jealous of this!!!


One more thing, which I am slightly apprehensive of putting here, lest it be lost in my enthusiastic write up of 'Hamlet', and that is a piece of news about a book I loved, and which has been talked about all over the blogosphere. 'The Spare Room' by Helen Garner is to be adapted for the London stage by Eileen Atkins and will star Eileen herself and Vanessa Redgrave. Look out for it in 2010 - I know I'll be getting tickets!!!


sunflowerinrain said...

The Olivier-Smith Othello was filmed, so you could see it too, though nothing beats real live stage.

Studying Othello for A-level, we were taken on a school trip to a showing of the film. I thought Olivier spoke beautifully but over-acted; Maggie was Marvellous; but the main surprise was Frank Finlay's Iago, with perfect timing and subtle delivery and a real feel for the rhythms. The only distracting thing was, as agreed by all the girls during the loo-break, that Iago had no right to be so sexy!

oxford-reader said...

I have, in fact, managed to get hold of the Olivier/Smith DVD, so my jealousy has lessened somewhat! I have to say that I think it's my third favourite of Olivier's Shakespeares, following Richard III and Henry V.

Dad always tells the story of how he saw an early performance in Cardiff (before they transferred to the National), where in the first half Frank Finlay acted Olivier off the stage, and then in the second half was as wooden as they come. Mr O (dad thought) must've had a quiet word!

And somehow, Iago being sexy fits - his jealousy and maniplation perhaps steming from the fact he wasn't getting any from Emilia, when he knows he's such a dish!

sunflowerinrain said...

Ever since seeing the film I've been a fan of Frank. His subsequent career has been fair, but not as starry as I'd expect from his acting. Wonder if Sir had anything to do with that?

StuckInABook said...

Penelope Wilton can do no wrong!

I hadn't realise Glenn Close had played Gertrude... not very flattering for her, considering she's only nine years older than Mel Gibson...

Jenny said...

Oooh, you gave away the ending!

Just kidding. :) Thanks for the lovely review. Jealous of all your play-going...