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, Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, was first performed around 1600. It has remained a fixture in repertoire for 400 years because it is ripping yarn, full of passion and extremely well-told. However, it has been a rare visitor to school stages, especially those in mixed schools, for it is male dominated, has few ensemble opportunities and depends on its figurehead. The role of Hamlet is immense, not only in length , but also in psychological complexity. It calls for an old head on young shoulders. TOUR DE FORCE ! At the outset, I have to state categorically that this production was a triumph for RLS because of a tour de force from Hamlet ( Patric Lemagnen). Looking like RLS’s answer to Simon Rattle – all head, hair and piercing eyes, Patric’s interpretation was stunning: hunted, haunted, hunched and hirsute. Every phrase was delivered with clarity and purpose, with an intensity that bordered on frightening and full use of the vast acting area. Would Kenneth Branagh have done as well when still at school? BOTTOMS AND PREGNANT PAUSES Curiously, I came to the play as a near Hamlet-virgin, having not seen a performance for forty years. Clearly, this is highly-wrought Shakespeare with characters as complex as fractal images and a twisting, turning plot that demands full attention for over three hours whilst perched on chairs designed to torture posteriors. The flat staging advantaged those in anterior seats, whilst us back-row boys frequently had to imagine what was happening outside our field of view. All that is a cumbersome way of saying that this production could have made the labyrinthine plot clearer. Stopping the onward flow of words , giving a play a pregnant pause to explore a moment, or mood, through mime, action and dance has become a hallmark of RLS productions in the last ten years. It says this unique product is brought to you through the inimitable creativity that is Mr Boileau’s mind. These prismatic moments allow ensembles to join in and explode the minds of the principals. It’s a marvellous way of creating tableaux vivants and involving multitudes. CUTTING THE SINEWS THAT UNITE But… it does take time and one felt, I felt, that the knife used on the text had not only removed florid fat, but the very sinews that hold plot together, introduce characters and give them “back-stories”. I was left admiring vivid depictions of madness and revenge, sex and love, politics and treachery, and ghosts both real and those that inhabit psychotic brains. What I lacked was knowing why these tensions were welling up and understanding clearly family relationships. One important character did not appear on stage until he arrived in a convincing paddy at 21.50 and another strode on after 10pm. That is not to decry the technique or to damn it with faint praise. The best of the “Boileau Method” was seen as soon as a redundant Prologue ended. Elgar’s “Nimrod” welled up – a piece associated with solemn moments in 20th century Britain. It set the beat for a funeral procession that was both slow and stately and
acted with a unanimity that any professional troupe would love to achieve. Straightaway, we knew that great affairs of Kingdom of Denmark were being portrayed in front of our eyes. Soon, we were in thraldom. MUSIC THAT WASN’T INCIDENTAL Grief and loss abounded, underpinned by a music track improvised with panache and punch by the supremely confident Alan Lewis. Pedal notes and open fifths abounded, but when the mood changed, Alan made Handel turn in his grave through his reminiscences of the Queen of Sheba, and he was just as adept on the black keys giving us pseudo-Chinese temple music to fit an on-stage Japanese “Noh” playlet. CHUCKLE AND CRY Domination of Black. By golly was I in need of a quick draught of humour. Fortunately, this Hamlet made us chuckle and cry. The first moment of relief came in the aged figure of Polonius, played for laughs in a breezy style by the talented Tom Richardson. He used his stick as a crutch, but there was no mistaking that stick was not supporting a lame actor, that stick was an amplification of character. The audience loved Tom, and if he’s too young to remember Frankie Howard in “Up Pompei”, all the more credit for having brought that impish wit back to life for this old codger. DESCENT INTO MADNESS Hamlet (Lemagnen)), a young Prince of Denmark many centuries ago, is mourning the death of his beloved, unseen father; if that were not bad enough, his widowed mother Gertrude (played with superbly, controlled intensity by Claire Bunyan), has a shot-gun wedding to Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius (the handsome Cai Brigden who unites David Beckham’s diffidence to Paddy Ashdown’s beetle brows). Hamlet feels that his father’s memory and majesty have been betrayed. He is pushed to, or beyond, the brink by an apparition (nicely done by Imran Momen) who claims to embody the late king . The Ghost insinuates that the King did not die a natural death, but was poisoned by Claudius. Hamlet becomes consumed by revenge and his utterances betray a deeply disturbed psyche. The way in which Lemagnen portrayed the long, agonising descent into madness was astonishingly varied and effective. MINOR CHARACTERS GET THE AXE I have suggested that peripheral issues got the axe in this production, so when minor characters did appear they were hard pushed to make us appreciate them as rounded people. Horatio ( Nick Chrzanowski) did spend a deal of time on stage as Hamlet’s loyal friend, but his loyalty was tinged with bland admiration, allowing no hint of doubt or criticism. OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS Opportunities were missed. The production was, as it said on the “tin”, a product of the Expressive Arts Faculty. More could have been made of computer projection if the power of the school’s “Geeks” had been unleashed. And again, the staging would have been lifted to another level had the technology department raised Elsinore’s
skirts. But, the prime focus was not the audience, but the pupils and their learning, and that can’t be a bad thing. We, the audience were incidental, there to validate, and certify that pupils had learned, had grown wiser, and were more ready to face the world and its wonderful ways. In this, we were willing accomplices. The programme could have aided character identification both my announcing that the cast list is “in order of appearance” and by giving us a handle on primary relationships: “Laertes, brother of Ophelia…”. JAPANESE SHAKESPEARE Ophelia (the delectable Katie Mack), Hamlet' girl-friend, is forbidden to have any s further consort with him. A group of youthful travelling actors come to the Royal Palace. Their “play within a play” affords opportunity to introduce another generation of RLS youngsters to World Drama, and at the same time its tale is a warning to Claudius that his dastardly deed has been detected. But, not to worry, Cai Claudius doesn’t flinch, he’s too superficial to “read” anything into the story. THE DEATH OF OPHELIA When they meet, Ophelia cannot cope with Hamlet’s manic moodiness and she, too, starts to dissolve into madness that leads to her suicide by drowning in a very wellstaged episode that unites lighting, mood, gliding-tone music and well-known words… There is a willow grows aslant a brook, That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream; There with fantastic garlands did she come Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them: There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke; When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. The Queen’s world, too, is dissolving before her eyes and Claire Bunyan’s desolation expressed through a wracked body, is raw, and uncomfortable to watch. By now, the old fool, Polonius, is dead , knifed by Hamlet. I think he thought Polonius was wicked Uncle Claudius. I must admit that I hoped Polonius would be born again as a second Ghost for Tom’s depiction of him had been so engaging. Time, again, for some real humour to avoid the audience being plunged into despair. This time, it was provided by two great yokels, two grave-diggers, the tall “rake” Harry (Eric) Winterbottom and his short, side-kick “shovel” Michael (Ernie) Watson. They were gloriously funny. Shafts of black, gallows, cemetery humour were leavened with physical clowning and strong interplay with the audience. Suddenly, the cherubic face of audience-member, Andy Cooper, Deputy Head, member of the school’s establishment, who teaches in God’s slot on the RLS curriculum, was singled
out by the rake as a source of evil. The bravado and fantasy of the moment made the audience guffaw. THE END Off with the motley and on… to HELL with the drama. As the body count grew, so did the tension. We knew Hamlet must get his come-uppance, but we wanted him to foil the assassins. No way out, so a blood bath ensued, and frankly the play ended bathetically with just peripheral characters left to establish the new kingdom on earth. That didn’t matter for the audience had seen some great drama acted out for them by youngsters old beyond the years. In fifty years of watching school productions, I’ve never seen so unanimous a standing ovation, or one so richly merited. Well Done actors, managers and those behind the scenes.
Postscript : Before you think of putting Midsummer Night’s Dream and Bottom on stage, please, please thinks of bottoms off-stage. After all generations of RLS parents have been sitting on the present seats ever since the Queen Mother opened the school during 1963.
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